Interesting Scribbles

Modern Music’s Dilemma: Escaping Beauty or the Ugliness of Truth

September 23, 2017

Notes from a talk by Dr George Barth on May 12, 2017 at Theology on Tap.

What does modernism look like?

The truth can be beautiful; beauty is not painful. Beauty is an escape from the truth — so if I want truth in music, I need it to be ugly, right?

“Years of bad habits, also called tradition. The strongest appeal to tradition is that you must know the rules before you break them.”

Tradition is book learning — free the mind from it and cultivate technique.

Skill is not enough — you need multiple skills. But not too many, or your music is too beautiful and not revolutionary enough. Some skills are best left unlearned. Which ones? Traditional skills — they’re too enticing.

Modernism — believing that the present is better than it past, and the future will be better still.

Going back to the Middle Ages, to the philosophy of the time, good music is good morality.

Desire. In a perfect world, we would desire only good things. Beautiful things are desirable.

Morally, intentional transgression is a worse problem than unintentional transgression. But aesthetically, only intentional transgression is accepted/acceptable. A “wrong” note can be useful in describing things like the difference between beauty and prettiness, or to illustrate a struggle.

Principal of mediocrity — the Earth isn’t special, nor is the Sun, nor is anything about us in particular. This mindset pervades modernism.

One kind of freedom is that of arbitrary choice. The other kind is when the will submits to an external standard. The former is defined by its lack of constraint; the later by its constraints.

With this in mind, let’s look at a progression of composers.

Beethoven broke new ground, remaining deeply attached to tradition.

Wagner untethered tonal harmony, so that it always wandered from modulation to modulation. In “Prometheus”, the music doesn’t even move anymore, it just points. It’s striving without attaining, and then it gives up.

Schoenberg — overthrow the hegemony of tonality.


Listen to what I do, and make your own sense of it.

Serialism. 12 tone freedom — “both male and female” — every note is equal. None appears again until they have all been used.

The worst thing that can happen to a modernist is to become old fashioned. And it keeps happening!

Outside academia…

“Not religion, but revolution, is the opiate of the people.”

What do you have that you didn’t receive?