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Fragile Beauty, No. 3: Fear of Music, part 2

Last month I posted in my blog, Fragile Beauty, the question, "Why has avant garde music failed to attain the audience, the cachet, the legitimacy of its visual equivalent?" I had quite a few excellent discussions that can be summed up by this comment I received from Eric Kenny on my Facebook page...

I like the question of why modern art seems to be more appealing than modern jazz to the average person.

I think it's fundamentally because sound is much more involving to the average person than a visual. One can walk away from a visual; walk to the
 next piece. But sound follows one around the entire room.

With modern art, the audience can move at their pace, move away from a displeasing tension, where the audience is at the mercy of the modern musician's tension.  

With art the audience can decide how much abstraction they feel is right.

Let me first state that in my question, I was not specifically looking at modern Jazz represented by Ornette Coleman, late period John Coltrane or the musicians of the "New Thing and/or the Loft Jazz scene, but also to the realm of "modern" orchestral music. Starting primarily with the point of departure from tonality in Cubism and Schoenberg representing the birth of visual and musical modernity. In examining Schoenberg, his desire was to liberate the repressed properties of musical sound. His system desired to avoid repetition at all costs to an audience that was steeped in minimalism and repetition. Imagine how these sounds must have felt completely alien to the modern ears of the time.

Meanwhile, abstract expressionists were thinking along these same lines. Wassily Kandinsky was producing the first abstract watercolors at the same time as Schoenberg was doing away with tonality. Where Schoenberg was trying to make music that aspired to posses the qualities of paintings, Kandinsky was painting toward aspiring to the conditions in music. To listen to Schoenberg would be to hear color and to look at Kandinsky would be to see sound.

To Eric's statement above, Alex Ross writes from his book, "The Rest is Noise", Psychological factors also come into play when music is set in front of a crowd. Looking at a painting in a gallery is fundamentally different from listening to a new work in a concert hall. Visual art is a different experience for the uninitiated. If at first you have trouble understanding it, you can walk on and return to it later, or step back to give it another glance or lean in for a closer look. At a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications, they are a crowd, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.

Schoenberg wrote, "Art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself! Express oneself directly! Not one's taste, or one's upbringing, or one's intelligence, knowledge or skill." However what resulted after the first world war was a cultivation of pre-Romantic and Baroque styles perhaps as a way of escaping recent history. In much the same way that in our time the arrival of Wynton Marsalis and the "Young Lions" in the 1980's ushered in a look to Jazz's past in Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Be Bop to the second great Miles Davis Quintet of the middle 60's as a rejection of Free Jazz and the commercialism of Fusion Jazz.

As I write this, I am encouraged that it feels as though a return toward new music is beginning to take shape as many major orchestras around the country and the world, including the New York Philharmonic, have commissioned new works to be presented along side their more traditional programming. There are a number of new ensembles and organizations (collectives) today that look to present new music to an audience that seems eager to be a part of the idea of new music performance as an event. Is it possible that literally over a hundred years after Schoenberg introduced his first compositions that we are more able to accept new music in its varied forms?

Thanks for reading and as always your comments, thoughts and ideas are really appreciated.  I would like to thank Alex Ross and his book, The Rest is Noise and David Stubbs for his book, The Fear of Music that were the basis of this discussion.

Bill Stevens Artist, Composer, Educator


  • November 3, 2019
    Tomi Jazz, New York, NY
  • November 6, 2019
    Shadmoor, New York, NY
  • November 24, 2019
    The Shadmoor, New York, NY

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