Thursday, April 12, 2012

Unsettled minds - Atonal music

Another quote from Albert Camus about music, this time from his "Note Books (1951 - 1959)" with this particular entry written in 1954.

"Atonal music, music for the voices, for the feverish voice of modern man"

Presumably he is referring to the second wave of atonal music, or more precisely the 12-tone serialist form pioneered by Schoenberg that was slightly more contemporary than the Second Viennese School that preceeded the first world war. In any case, it is nonethless a powerful insight from Camus to link the music to the voice of modern man at the time, a world still recovering from the war and in need of structure. But there is also a sense of rebellion in atonal music that must have resonated well with camus who had just published his celebrated novel and essay "The Rebel" that lead to his much publicised break with Sartre

In "The Rest is Noise" Alex Ross also takes up this theme of rebelion, linking the first wave of atonality with Thomas Mann's novel "Doctor Faustus". Indeed, this novel is perhaps the the most imprtant reference throughout the book. He quotes from another Mann story "Gladius Dei" about the effect of art on society which parallels the themes of "Doctor Faustus":

"Art is the sacred torch that must shed its merciful light into all life's terrible depths, into every shameful and sorrowful abyss; art is the divine flame that must set fire to the world, until the world with all its infamy and anguish burns and melts away in redeeming compassion!"

In this sense, atonality is pictured as a rebellion against "the bourgeois worship of art", or art purely as decorative form, a gold leaf covering, when more important social matters where stirring: the increase in inequality and the rise of national socialism. An important philosopher of the times, Otto Weininger wrote:

 "everything purely aesthetic has no cultural value"

a phrase that had much influence in one of the other principle atonal musicians at the time, Alban Berg.

One can draw parallels to modern music, but perhaps particularly electronica: is it all aesthetic now? Do we need something more rebelious to reflect our times or to wake us from our torpor?

It is also a curiosity then, that Russian director Alexander Sokurov has returned to the theme with his latest film "Faust" based in part on Goethe's classic work and also the novel of Thomas Mann.

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