Turning Back the Clock

Using an innocent language innocently—using tonality “in one’s own way”—is no longer even an option. The choice is bleak: either renounce expression altogether or borrow a voice.  — V, 435

The tumultuous late 20th century presented composers with a number of perhaps irreconcilable aesthetic challenges. Modernists like Carter and Babbitt pressed on with the historicist mission of musical progress, even though they had to rely on the largesse of universities and institutions to pay their bills. Minimalists opted out of the complexity arms race by radically scaling back their musical means, often under the influence of Eastern spirituality and popular music. But what about turning back the clock entirely to write music, unironically, in the “innocent” idioms of classical music’s hallowed past?

This is what George Rochberg attempted to accomplish in his string quartets no. 3-6. A university-trained modernist, Rochberg began turning his back on “progress” in the 1970s by adopting a purely tonal, Romantic idiom. His 3rd quartet, for example, is pointy and modernistic in all save the central Adagio movement, which jarringly pushes the listener into the Delorean and sets the gauge for 1820. This is music that Beethoven never got around to writing. But as RT (not to mention the composer) makes clear, there is no irony behind this gesture, no dark, sly, distancing maneuver a la Stravinsky’s neoclassicism (which never, of course, sounded remotely “classical”). Rather, what we have is a composer reclaiming a lost past of expressive possibility, and showing in the process that the very notion of stylistic obsolescence is bunk. Why not write a Beethovenian string quartet in 1972? Rochberg writes: “… I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with reactivated powers…” (V, 433).

There’s a lot of “re-” happening here. All this brings to mind Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” wherein a 20th century Frenchman decides that instead of translating Cervantes’s work, he needed to completely immerse himself in Cervantes’s world in order to recreate the book, word by word. To write Don Quixote, in other words, one had to become Cervantes, to hit reset and do it over again. There is something deeply charming about Rochberg’s expressive sincerity and lack of aesthetic “distancing” typically associated with postmodernism. But there is also something deeply sad and more than a little utopian. His embrace of the musical successes of the past, indeed, is all-too-uncomfortable evidence of today’s failures.

(I can’t find a clip of this Adagio on YouTube, but here’s something from the 6th quartet. Here, he takes perhaps the most canonical [and, by many modernists, despised, though don’t tell the bride] piece of music and sets it to a very pretty set of variations. Not entirely historically accurate, perhaps, but definitely not a ironic poke either.)

Historicism in Rock

In the midst of the cultural turmoil of the sixties, popular musicians began drawing on the prestige (and dysfunctions) of the classical world. Thus in the middle of the decade we get some of the first rock albums that can be heard and respected as “art,” exemplified in Ch.7 (predictably) by Sgt. Pepper, an album filled with enough riddles, eclectic variety, and avant-garde dabblings to keep even a musicology grad student intellectually satiated. Stockhausen shows up on the cover, and to top it off, a few years later The Fab Four (or really, Lennon and his Fluxus-connected wife) were making their own Darmstadt-style tape pieces (“Revolution 9”). It’s a moment of giddy cross-fertilization, a rare episode in 20th-century music history when the masses willingly expose themselves to difficult “art” (or at least suffer through it to get to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”).

RT does his vast book a great service by showing how 60s popular music wrested cultural authority from the classical world, paradoxically by adopting art music techniques, ambitions, and pretensions. (Some critics argue he could have devoted more space to this vital issue.) I find it fascinating as well that rock criticism, which similarly experienced a boom in the 60s, likewise adopted a “classical” approach to its topic. Just as The Beatles borrowed tape techniques from the European avant-garde, writers and critics borrowed historicism from European (specifically, German) musical thought. The same criteria for historical value that was applied to music since the time of New German School—innovation, experimentation, and complexity—could now be applied wholesale to rock. Even though the sound and culture of rock often diverged significantly from art music, it could be aesthetically judged along the same lines as its classical forebears. Thus The Beatles trump The Beach Boys (at least until Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s bid for history).

This mode of historicist rock criticism is alive and well. To kick off the new year, Jon Caramanica of the NYT recently published a rant declaring 2011 “the most numbing year for mainstream rock music in history.” Why? Among other reasons, because rock is becoming “a graveyard of aesthetic innovation and creativity”… “hiding out in a few comfortable modes” instead of playing the risky game of progress. He damns modern bands for “walking blindly in the footprints laid out years, even decades, earlier.”

Caramanica might benefit from reading RT’s history. Indeed, all of this could have been written by Brendel in the middle of the 19th century; it is virulently historicist in orientation, linking value with progressive tendencies. (This sort of perspective is why, according to Elijah Wald, pop music writers tend to elevate artists that weren’t very popular.) It’s a fun little irony that rock criticism, a genre born of the counter-cultural, defiant tendencies of the sixties, would come to reimpose the same aesthetic hierarchies of its stodgy older brother.

To close, I leave you with a tune by the band Sublime With Rome, a group singled out for vituperative dismissal in Caramanica’s piece. As epigones of the 90s band Sublime, they stand accused of the cardinal crime of derivativeness.