Themes for Variation

A while back, T.L. Ponick wrote this quirky piece over at the Washington Times, found here also, about the death of classical music (a.k.a. elitist-academic-experiemental-mindless fucks) and, I guess, where to find good music (in movies), because Erich Korngold was good... and he inspired others... and modernism is Hitler.

"...when new music is introduced, concertgoers are turned off by the snarling cacophony that's a legacy of the Second Viennese School. These musical ideologies valued new works in direct proportion to the auditory pain they inflicted. Largely the product of a nihilistic European intelligentsia reeling from the destruction bookened by two world wars, this institutional ugliness has mindlessly possessed at least two generations of American academic composers."

Flumpbdpa! That’s the sound my logic gland just made. It’s also the sound it made when I tried to watch the latest presidential debate. So, hold on, this is might be forced.

Ponick's defending Korngold’s irreverence towards modernity and at the same time decrying the Second Viennese School for their irreverence towards tradition? Is he saying that one is better than the other? If that’s so, doesn’t that imply that the “institutional ugliness” is really a rejection of dogmatic thought? Way to bludgeon your argument with personal scorn, Ponick. Subtract three points.

Add one point. The use of “snarling” is exquisite. But I would have used “mouth-foaming.” It sounds a little crazier and dogmatic. By the way, you don’t need “mindlessly.” Being possessed implies mindlessness. Minus one point.

Contrarily, Korngold ALSO experimented with twelve-tone music, as did Stravinsky, Copland, Barber, Bartok, Britten, Berio, Part, Piston, Schnittke, Shostakovich, Penderecki, Nono, Reynolds, Harrison, Riley, La Mont Young, Rochberg, and Glenn Gould. Glenn Fucking Gould! If he was so darn proud of his late-romantic-ness, then why would he try it out? Minus eighteen pionts.

Before I move on, I’d like to revisit the proposition made in the second sentence:

Level of pain in new music/Level of pain in Romantic music = Relative value for the “mindlessly possessed” (greater pain = greater value)

I could say that, in general, the relative instrumental forces of a modernist orchestra (at least in Korngold’s hay day) is smaller than that of a Mahlerian orchestra. So, by Ponick’s postulate, Romantic music is generally louder and, thus, closer to the audible pain threshold (ca. 120 dB). Minus three points.

Music. (sigh)

"Yet while such composers labored mightily to exterminate listenable music, classically trained professional composers who still longed for money and an audience - including European Jewish composers anxious to escape Hitler's wrath - headed for that capital of decadence, Los Angeles, to try their hand at writing music for motion pictures."

Again with the evil modernists trying to kill everything good and Holy! Sorry, the metaphoric association between Jews and Nazism is nowhere near similar to the underappreciated writer of film music and the “exterminators” of musical ethics. Certainly, Korngold was Jewish and he left Austria to escape almost certain death. Bravo! I am glad and sympathetic for him and his family. But, I find this to be in poor taste; it only advances Polnick’s anti-out-of-the-box tastes (which is fine. I don’t care. It’s just that if you’re gonna write an article tangentially criticizing modernity, then you’d better be able to do so with something other than the old Hitler comparison). But, if you want to go down that road, then do some research. Find out which composers were first banned by the Third Reich, the modernists (who apparently tried to get rid of other composers?).

Just to make Ponick’s sentence more palatable, so we can talk about it without having to mention the Holocaust, let’s reduce the fluff a bit.

“Classical composers who still longed for money and an audience headed for a capital of decadence to write music for motion pictures.”

Well, now. That’s more like it. He is saying that lots of immoral, degenerate, unprincipled people in Los Angeles were willing to pay a lot of money for music that they could listen to while watching a story, like opera, which is why classical composers went there. That makes more sense. Right?

Ponick sums up his argument thusly:

"...it is long past time to recognize Hollywood's greatest film scores as significant milestones in the legitimate classical repertoire. Continued academic snobbery and pointless experimentation only further alienate musical culture from its traditional and popular roots in the unities of dramatic presentation and formal structure. These universally identifiable elements will continue to attract eager audiences now and in the future - even if they have to conceal themselves within musical genres where the snobs will never find them."

I don’t know why I even try. This is only the first post and I already feel like throwing up.

Academic snobbery I accept. Especially those professors with tweed jackets that have those annoying little elbow patches/protectors. But “pointless experimentation?” Just think, if Leopold Mozart never wrote that bird-whistle concerto, someone like Korngold might have and, then, Ponick would be writing about old Leopold instead. Or, if there wasn’t a Beethoven, then there wouldn’t even be any music to write about!

By the way, I picture “dramatic presentation” as if a young paige emphatically bows, flailing one arm in some elegant circle-eight while extending his other arm holding a scroll declaring Korngold as the successor to Beethoven. I digress.

I agree that Korngold is deserving of more attention. In fact, after the recent Mozart anniversary hullabaloo, he received his own festival of sorts. Good. His influence is still present in films today and he earned his legacy. Furthermore, I think that even though film music goes relatively unnoticed, it is worth a second look. There are remarkable things happening.

This blog was conceived as a forum for those of us, who dislike poor writing about music, to respond and dissect articles like this one, that presumably shape the way our culture thinks about, interacts with and purchases music. Hitler references, personal attacks, misinformation, misdirection, misnomers, poor grammar: things that the purveyors of information should not do or possess. I don’t care if a writer dislikes this or that kind of music as long as the information he/she passes along to us is correct or plausible.

Ponick is the guinea pig; there are many, many others who say foolish things.

To wrap up, he says that good musics will have to conceal themselves within musical genres where the snobs will never find them. And good music has both “dramatic presentation” and “formal structure.” I’d be hard pressed to find a piece of any kind of music, be it aleatoric or otherwise, that doesn’t have form in any sense of the word. I offer one whole dollar to someone who can find me a John Cage piece that doesn’t have form. Taken further, a culture who likes bowing paiges and form should go see more movies, because they shouldn’t like anything else (esp. by the mindlessly possessed, who spend their whole lives loving, practicing, learning and trying traditional and new things). Don’t look anywhere, but to your blockbusters like Rocky Balboa and Harry Potter. In other words, nothing should ever change. Minus twenty-five points.