What, you may ask is Modernism? And why should anyone say that it is good for you? Is it like being vaccinated or wearing your seatbelt while driving (and therefore beneficial) or is this writer just trying to impress his aesthetic tastes onto other people because he hasn’t grown up enough? In truth it’s probably a bit of both but in a small way I genuinely believe Modernism is helpful to ordinary people who may not consider themselves Modernists.
None of us can avoid the time or place of our birth. We live in the ‘modern’ world whether we like it or not. But by very dint of being an ‘ism’ Modernism suggests there is more to living in the here and now than simply occupying a particular point in time and space. It suggests a kind of awareness of one’s place and time as somehow distinct.
Modernism remains a contentious term. Some art theorists have suggested that Modernism was a period of cultural and artistic history that began in the middle of the 19th Century and finished somewhere around World War 2. I have to confess I’m not happy with this view at all as it tends towards saying that Modernism is no longer modern, and this makes things complicated. Following a slightly different school of thought I think it makes more sense to say Modernism is best identified as a set of characteristics: artistic and cultural attitudes that are not necessarily time-bound or place-bound. Given the difficulties encountered by virtually every writer on the subject this definition has the advantage of admitting from the outset that Modernism is not finished and that to a greater or lesser extent it will always be an evolving concept. Modernism must always be modern.
One of my favourite writers on the subject, Peter Childs, has argued that Modernists sought to move “towards the abstract or the introspective, and to express the new sensibilities of their time: in a compressed, condensed, complex literature of the city, of industry and technology, war, machinery and speed, mass markets and communication”1.
Notwithstanding the past tense, I find the idea that modernism is in some way about technology very pleasing. Technology is a very open term and may just as easily apply to, say, Freudian subject matter in a libretto as to innovations in intonation, new instruments, a 12-note row, stochastics, or midi samples. In themselves these things do not determine one’s aesthetic choices, but they colour them and gently shape one’s outlook.
Crucially, by taking technical developments (whether musical or not) as a defining feature of Modernism we can anchor the term in a recognisable, and recognisably shifting point in time and space. In this way we can call ourselves Modernists because our work is, in part, the product of Modernity; of things and ideas that, yesterday didn’t exist. It enables the poetry of our ideas to possess a kind of distinction that is unique to their time and place, but at the same time touch something of the perpetual novelty of technical progress. In another sense it is also good for us. We live in a time when technology plays a very important role in life, whether it is the internet, vaccines, printers, type-setting software or electronic recordings. Our artistic outlooks would be strange indeed if they were really unaffected by all of these things and to claim that modern technology has no impact on our poetic understanding of the world is, in my opinion, naive.
Modernism, as I want to define it, is a way of escaping such complacency. For me, ultimately, musical modernism is the seamless integration of modern technology into the poetic framework of the concert hall and that is why, because we live in the modern world, I think it is good for me and for you.