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Modern Music and After Paperback – 16 Feb 2011
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continues usefully to draw attention to a wide range of works and concepts (BBC Music Magazine)
About the Author
Paul Griffiths is an acclaimed writer on contemporary and classical music whose books include A Concise History of Western Music and The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. He is also known as a librettist (Elliott Carter's What Next? ) and novelist. In 2002, Griffiths was honored by the French government as a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
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Griffiths imbues the story of the serialist avant-garde with high drama. The hero of his story is Pierre Boulez. Messiaen is the mentor, and Stockhausen the brother, a source of friendly but intense rivalry. Schoenberg is the father figure who Boulez "kills" even as he carries on his tradition, but of course crediting Webern. The history gives a palpable sense of the excitement of this avant-garde circle, which came together at Darmstadt. Cage and his zen anarchism presents a radical challenge to the integral serialist Project, and begins to explode it.
This takes us through the 1950s. The second part of the book is equally good, as the linear sense of progress unravels in the 1960s and '70s and fragmentation sets in. A fascinating development which Griffiths documents, but does not comment on, is the resurgence of sacred music as the secular avant-garde disintegrates. The Estonian composer Arvo Part is but one example of this trend, what might be called the reassertion of the pre-modern in the context of the post-modern. The third section is not as good, and resembles other similar books in being more an encyclopedia of entries on various composers and trends. There doesn't seem to be much alternative to this for now, but it's interesting to imagine how the present period may be reconstructed in light of future developments...
In his introduction Griffiths laments the loss of a sense of shared criteria for evaluating the diverse music of the moment. But of course books like this contribute to the construction of those criteria! Peter J. Martin's SOUNDS AND SOCIETY (see my review) is an excellent analysis of how music evaluation is socially constructed -- there are no objective, inherent qualities, and so something like writing a book or even posting reviews to a website serves to shape the reception of the art. An interesting topic to pursue would be the divergent paths of Boulez and Stockhausen, with the former becoming an esteemed conductor and not only championing the avant-garde, but also turning back to the once scorned romantic tradition, while Stockhausen followed an increasingly idiosyncratic path and became a revered figure for the 90s electronica movement, a "Father of Electronic Music"!
MODERN MUSIC AND AFTER is indispensable for anyone trying to understand the rich complexities of contemporary composition. I recommend Morgan's TWENTIETH-CENTURY MUSIC (see my review) for the pre-WWII period, and Gann's AMERICAN MUSIC IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (see my review) for greater detail on the postwar U.S.