Music, Noise, Future, and the foolishness of confidence (a passage from Kundera)

I read a passage of Milan Kundera today that I would like to share.  Please forgive me, copyright hawks.  It is about the unpredictability of the future and the foolishness of confidence, as told via an anecdote about 20th Century music.  I quote:

In 1921 Arnold Schoenberg declares that because of him German music will continue to dominate the world for the next hundred years.  Twelve years later he is forced to leave Germany forever.  After the war, in America, laden with honors, he is still convinced that his work will be celebrated forever.  He faults Igor Stravisnky for paying too much attention to his contemporaries and disregarding the judgement of the future.  He expects posterity to be his most reliable ally.  In a scathing letter to Thomas Mann he looks to the period “after two or three hundred years,” when it will finally become clear which of the two was the greater, Mann or he!  Schoenberg dies in 1951.  For the next two decades his work is hailed as the greatest of the century, venerated by the most brilliant of the young composers, who declare themselves his disciples; but thereafter it recedes from both concert halls and memory.  Who plays it nowadays, at the turn of this century? Who looks to him?  No, I don’t mean to make foolish fun of his presumptuousness and say he overestimated himself.  A thousand times no!  Schoenberg did not overestimate himself.  He overestimated the future.

Did he commit an error of thinking?  No.  His thinking was correct, but he was living in spheres that were too lofty.  He was conversing with the greatest Germans, with Bach and Goethe and Brahms and Mahler, but , however intelligent they might be, conversations carried on in the higher stratospheres of the mind are always myopic about what goes on, with no reason or logic, down below: two great armies are battling to the death over sacred causes; but some minuscule plague bacterium comes along and lays them both low.

Schoenberg was aware that the bacterium existed.  As early as 1930 he wrote: “Radio is an enemy, a ruthless enemy marching irresistibly forward, and any resistance is hopeless”; it “force-feeds us music … regardless of whether we want to hear it, or whether we can grasp it,” with the result that music becomes just noise, a noise among other noises.

Radio was the tiny stream it all began with.  Then came other technical means for reproducing, proliferating, amplifying sound, and the stream became an enormous river.  If in the past people would listen to music out of love for music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, “regardless whether we want to hear it,” it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form): sewage-water music in which music is dying.

Schoenberg saw the bacterium, he was aware of the danger, but deep inside he did not grant it much importance.  As I said, he was living in the very lofty spheres of the mind, and pride kept him from taking seriously an enemy so small, so vulgar, so repugnant, so contemptible.  The only great adversary worthy of him, the sublime rival whom he battled with verve and severity, was Igor Stravinsky.  That was the music he charged at, sword flashing, to win the favor of the future.

But the future was a river, a flood of notes where composers’ corpses drifted among the fallen leaves and torn-away branches.  One day Schoenberg’s dead body, bobbing about in the raging waves, collided with Stravinsky’s, and in a shamefaced late-day reconciliation the two of them journeyed on together toward nothingness (toward the nothingness of music that is absolute din).

– Milan Kundera, Ignorance, 2000

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About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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One Response to Music, Noise, Future, and the foolishness of confidence (a passage from Kundera)

  1. kitchenmudge says:

    It’s a very interesting bit of commentary, but Kundera leaves out a rather important bit about the music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky both: They had lost sight of what music was about, and composed things that were interesting only to a tiny élite. Today, their music evokes nothing from me. I’d much rather hear some renaissance or baroque stuff in a historically informed performance. Pythagorean tuning comes naturally to the ear. Twelve-tone, not so much.

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