Mid-century modernism in music largely flowed in two streams. One was the austere, hermetic music of composers such as Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Their “serialist” music was built from refined, logical, even mathematical systems, but listeners often experience it as the opposite: haphazard, frustrating, incomprehensible. Akin to the flat, polished surfaces of mid-century architecture, such music offers few graspable sonic hooks by way of melody, harmony, or rhythmic pulse.
For years, I have asked students in my modern and contemporary literature survey to compare the passages in E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) (the latter a clear homage to the former) in which the narrator and characters perform parallel exegeses of a classical masterpiece. In Chapter 5 of Howards End the main characters attend a live performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.
The collaboratively produced 1980 no wave opera John Gavanti is loosely based on Mozart’s 1787 Don Giovanni, itself a telling of the Don Juan legend that was adapted by the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The two works are quite different. Whereas Mozart’s original is magisterial, punctuated by moments of comedy and the macabre, the modern update is cacophonous and irreverent.
In a 1907 letter to Stefi Geyer (the young violinist for whom he wrote the First Violin Concerto), Bartók writes: “It’s not the body that’s mortal and the soul that’s immortal, but the other way around. The soul is transitory and the body (that is, matter) is everlasting! . . . The body, as matter, is ‘immortal’ indeed, for matter in this world is never lost; it only changes its form” (Béla Bartók Letters, 76, emphasis in the original). Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918; first version, 1911) can be read as an attempt to give expression to the idea of “immortal,” as well as agential, matter, beginning with the castle itself. The drama of the opera revolves around the opening of the castle’s seven doors by the light-bringing human characters, Judith and Bluebeard, leading to the inner chamber. Here Judith becomes absorbed into the object world of the castle as Bluebeard simultaneously becomes swallowed by the closing “night forever” of the opera’s final curtain. The sweating, weeping, sighing, bleeding, and shrieking castle was originally conceived by librettist Béla Balázs as the third character of the opera: it is both a noisy environment into which the characters are thrust and a sonic agent in itself, its “voice” (and the discordant voices of its objects) as central to the opera as those of its human characters.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote “Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo.” His were to be read slowly. We literary critics who are slow readers may find a compensatory gift, a certain quality of attention, well suited to closely reading poetry. For musicians, the analog, poor sight-reading, could be considered a boon: cautiously stumbling through an unfamiliar score yields a hard-won understanding of the contours of melodic and harmonic lines and details in phrasing and a physical sense of a piece’s range. Along the twin paths of ancient Greek’s lyric into modern poetry and music, meter remains a key common term, with all the dangers of a false cognate. However, another musical measure of time, tempo, is more useful for accounting for the varying paces at which text and music are experienced, and for the gifts that slow, belabored encounters offer scholars. The premise of this essay is that when set to music for the voice, the elasticity of a poem’s time scale surfaces, and that there are valuable critical insights to be gained there.[2
Morton Feldman became a full-time composer at the age of forty. He had worked in the family business—a children’s coat factory near LaGuardia Airport in New York City—since his early twenties and been disparaged by Pierre Boulez as a dilettante because of it. In the spring of 1966, Feldman wrote to John Cage that the business “went kaput, and now I’m blessed with total insecurity.” His insecurity was hardly total. Through a chance meeting that year following a performance of Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace
Is listening the constitutive act of modernity? It seems so. Thanks to a flood of scholarship on aural culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity (2002), Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past (2003), and a 2011 special issue of American Quarterly (edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun) being just three examples—the act of listening has worked its way into the texture of cultural studies generally and modernist studies specifically.