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Fragile Beauty, No. 2: Fear of Music

In preparation for my lecture at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Norway in 2017, I met with Justin DiCioccio, Director of the Jazz Studies Department at the Manhattan School of Music - a master performer, teacher and clinician. As part of our conversation Justin began to ask the question, why does Jazz not generate the excitement of Modern Art? On any given day you find hundreds of people going through the doors of the Museum of Modern Art, often looking at artwork that is to this day is still misunderstood by the general populace and yet, there they are paying the admission price to look at for many, what they are told are masterpieces of the middle to late 20th Century.

Since that day, Justin has sparked my interest in looking at this question in a deeper way and I have recently read the book Fear of Music by David Stubbs which asks the question, "Why has avant garde music failed to attain the audience, the cachet, the legitimacy of its visual equivalent?" The Museum of Modern Art has developed a marketing strategy and a message which is designed to catch your attention as to why you need to be at the museum to witness the pinnacle of contemporary art. Additionally, they have reinforced a timeline of modern art throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st which has a cross over between both the visual and sound arts. This time line also includes reminders of what was happening historically in the 20th Century at any given point to put the art work in a perspective of how society influenced the artist and how the artist influences society.

After your visit to the Modern Art, you are directed to the exit invariably through the main shop where art, photography, cinema, sculpture, design, architecture are all represented. But music? It seems somewhat clear that there is an acceptance today by the general public towards contemporary art in all its forms - abstract, conceptual, non-figurative, collage, or is it more that people have just learned to tolerate the likes of Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning?

There is no doubt that contemporary art is headline news. Modern art is accepted at all levels "from pavement to penthouse corporate". But what has become of its musical equivalent? In the first decade of the 20th Century, both music and art entered on an even playing field. With Picasso's Les Demoiselles D' Avignon and around the same time, Arnold Schoenberg was composing his first atonal works. A Jackson Pollack may sell on the art market for a hundred million dollars or more, the equivalent in music is literally non-existent. While the masses come from all over to witness abstract art, they run away from the concept of abstract music.

David Stubbs second question, "why can the general public apparently not get enough of one avant garde and yet barely be aware of the existence of the other? Why the schism?"

For some answers to these questions, I look to Alex Ross who has authored two books on listening to the music of the 20th Century. Alban Berg once told George Gershwin, "Music is music." All of us have varying reactions and feelings to the physics of sound, however in the 20th Century music is drawn into a mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon. Some have attained more popularity than others and yet, none has a true mass appeal. In order to answer some of these questions, I have often looked to John Cage, "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating."

It has been said of Classical music today that its repertory begins with Bach and terminates with Mahler and Puccini as most are possibly not aware that composers are still writing orchestral music at all. We also need to examine how we listen to music. One moment in the concert hall, the next on headphones while we work out. Where modern art has looked to explain a piece of artwork - historically, technically, materials used, thought process, the artist in their studio, etc... to give the viewer a frame of reference, an understanding; music has not been as organized to do the same with its avant garde.

What are your thoughts on this topic? If you would like to comment in any way, please see the contact tab above and send me your thoughts, suggestions and opinions. This theme will be a recurring entry in my monthly blog, Fragile Beauty. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you.

Bill Stevens Artist, Composer, Educator


  • September 29, 2019
    The Shadmoor, New York, NY
  • October 6, 2019
    Tomi Jazz, New York, NY
  • October 27, 2019
    The Shadmoor, New York, NY

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