The Shock Of The New, Even When It's Old

I've been spending a lot of time watching classical music videos on YouTube recently, and something I find very hard to ignore is the comments. People hate classical music, at least if it's less than 100 years old. Modernism remains deeply traumatic. It gives me hope.

Of course, I would say that -- I'm something of a modernist, and modernism was supposed to be shocking and alienating. At least, some of it was; the kind I like is usually a bit removed from that. In reality my engagement with Boulez or Lachenmann or whoever doesn't involve me being shocked and alienated. Nor does it involve me feeling superior because, by sheer strength of character, I'm succeeding in enjoying something weaker mortals can't. I just get a kick out of it. Sorry.

I'm OK with the people saying "I don't get it" or "Is this music?" -- those people have just encountered something new and are open to learning from it. I want to hug them. What grate are the quasi-expert declarations that, despite what others may have told you, what the video contains is not music, often coupled with a half-hearted and illiterate attempt at philosophy.

The story behind all the negative comments is the same: modernist composers were all charlatans who had no idea what they were doing, and who managed to garner successful careers through fraud.

Never mind that Schoenberg wrote what is still a standard textbook on Romantic harmony. Never mind that Boulez made an international career conducting 19th century music. Never mind that people flock to concerts of music by Messiaen, Berio, Xenakis, Stockhausen and others not because they want to show off to their friends but because they find this music invigorating, exciting and even intoxicating.

And never mind that a person smart and determined enough to fake a career as a composer can make a lot more money in a hundred other ways. Classical music isn't really a big-money industry, and even academia only offers moderately good salaries. Why is "It's a vast conspiracy of fakers" more attractive an idea than "I don't understand this music yet"? Of course the answer is easy: the former flatters the person who believes it while the latter leaves them vulnerable.

Modernist music was and still is splendid but it sometimes asks you to listen in different ways, and to accept sounds you may not be comfortable with or might have already associated with bad things. It treats you like a grown-up; of course, not everyone responds well to that. And yes, in the mid-20th century the cultural elites sometimes sponsored modernism at the expense of other styles. That's a problem with cultural elites, although in my opinion in this case they did a great job with getting good music made and heard that otherwise might not have been.

The hopeful part is that modernism remains a thorn in the side of listeners; something they seem to be forced to confront despite their hostility towards it. This means there's still cultural life in it: it still means something and retains the power to move. You can't say that about much other music from the last hundred years, which has largely been flattened out into the cultural meh-scape of the post-postmodern West.

Anyway, I've recently discovered a solution to the problem of idiotic comments on YouTube: the No YouTube Comments plugin for Firefox. This plus uBlock Origin makes YouTube into the best thing in the world. Give it a try and see how long it takes you to go back to reading comments: my bet is you never will.