Measuring musical modernism

Dr Eduardo de la Fuente
Dr Eduardo de la Fuente

Like thousands of others, sociologist Dr Eduardo de la Fuente (pictured) recently queued to buy tickets and waited patiently to be admitted to the blockbuster Picasso exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The experience, he said, underscored the contrast between “popular” visual artists and “invisible” composers of the 20th century in contemporary culture.

“Why is it that, compared with figures from painting and architecture such as Picasso and Le Corbusier, there is such little recognition of the names or masterpieces of 20th century music?” asked Dr de la Fuente, who joined Flinders School of Social and Policy Studies in March of 2011.

It is “a puzzle” he examines in his latest book, Twentieth century music and the question of modernity, published by Routledge.

Dr de la Fuente said that of the many reasons for why music of all the modernist arts had been the most resistant to popular adoption, it was the “role” of the composer that offered the most telling insights.

Adapting typologies from the sociology of religion, Dr de la Fuente assessed the roles of four of the most significant composers of the 20th century – Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez and John Cage – respectively as that of prophet, priest, ascetic or mystic.

“The musical ‘sub-culture’ of 20th century art music was incredibly intense, energetic and tribal,” he said.

“Having said that, despite the dominant stereotype of the modern composer as a kind of deranged scientist exploring abstract theoretical and technological possibilities, 20th century music was quite diverse: it ranged from people who composed in a fairly Romantic or Classicist way through to people who felt you had to reinvent musical language in every single piece and everything in between.”

Despite the problem that much art music of the last century did not connect with the public (“except perhaps as part of film soundtracks, such as the use of avant-garde orchestral music in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining”), Dr de la Fuente argues that this intriguing musical culture is very interesting from a sociological perspective.

“These composers tell us a great deal about the hopes and frustrations, aspirations and limitations of living a modern existence,” he said.

Dr de la Fuente also suggests that, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the pluralism of 20th century musical styles and theories, as well as the birth of a new spirituality in music, offers the prospect of music rediscovering a sense of “re-enchantment” and that – as has happened with figures such as Gorecki and Pärt, Glass and Adams – this may help to bridge the gap between composers and audiences.

Dr de la Fuente was invited to lecture on his book in the School of Humanities, Ateneo University of Manila, in July 2011. He will be giving a talk at the Centre for Cultural Research, Griffith University, in March, and will participate on a panel on ‘Music Signification’ at the University of Nanjing in October.

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2 thoughts on “Measuring musical modernism

  1. Miles Davis is often referred to as one of the greatest Artists of the 20th century. Nick Cave is surely one of Australia’s Great Artists, recognised for his services to Music and literature. He has been awarded with numerous honorary Doctorates, and entry into ‘Rock n roll hall of fame’. On this occasion, he was quoted as saying,”great, now I have somewhere to go when I’m dead”.

    The problem is one for the Institutions of Art to grapple with. In time, a re-ordering of ‘Greatness’ can occur. Thanks perhaps, to thinkers on the subject.

  2. Paul,
    Thanks for your feedback. I agree 100% that the real sources of musical creativity during the last hundred years have probably come from outside the world of classical music. If this topic interests you you should check out Howard Goodall’s television series, ’20th century Greats’, which argues that Bernstein, Hermann, Porter, and Lennon and McCartney are the real musical ‘genuises’ of the last century.
    Eduardo de la Fuente

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