Feedback from the Class > WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY MODERNITY?

What do you mean by "modernity", and why do you think we're still sort of "in it"? Why is it important?

May 21, 2009 at 9:20 AM | Registered CommenterBen Carson

Well, first of all, I could be wrong about its importance. Maybe the Internet and globalization really is launching us into a new era and all the old music will disappear. (And if that's true, you might have chosen the wrong major!) But I doubt it -- lots is changing, but lots stays the same...but let's not go off on a tangent.

Back to the question.

Modernity is the time in which:

(1) Instruments were standardized. The guitars, violins, violas, cellos, contrabasses, oboes, flutes, trumpets, and keyboards that we use today are not radically different from their baroque predecessors. But almost none of those instruments were standard, or common, in those forms, 100 years earlier.

(2) Notation was standardized. Very little about the notation system used to rehearse and perform a contemporary film score is substantially different from the conventions of early 18th-c music publishing. 17th-century scores were radically different, with only a few similar features to ours.

(3) Many scholars believe that the 18th century was the beginning of European/Modern concepts of individual personality -- that before this thing called "modernity," human beings saw themselves for the most part saw the body and the soul as only tentative things, vulnerable to crushing will of higher powers, and not worth paying much attention to. Starting with Shakespeare and Voltaire, the individual will of a person becomes a thing worth cherishing. So it's easy to understand why modern concepts of entertainment and art evolved:

(4) European (and other) human beings, starting with Rousseau, ended about 3000 years of praising "civilization" as a "cure" for the evils of nature. Because of the beginnings (and some of the horrors) of modern cities, the rise of the prison system, and the nascent beginnings of industrialism, humans started to question whether civilization was as awesome as Plato thought it was.

In the mid-18th century, European artists and writers started thinking of nature as a good thing, for pretty much the first time in their cultural memory. Music was deeply affected by this -- starting with Monteverdi (who is among earliest baroque composers), people don't think of there being "wrong" notes anymore, except when notes sounded unnatural, unpleasing, or artificial. Valuing nature translates to: composers in Italy (Peri, Monteverdi, Caccini) writing music to sound like natural speech ("recitative"), and composers in France (Rameau, Couperin, Campra) writing music that explores sound effects and deliberately imitates the beauty of nature and the world around us. The principles and rules of composition became more flexible, and could be applied or disregarded, attended to, modified, or ignored, depending on one's musical purpose.

(5) Modern concepts of entertainment and art evolved. Before the 18th century, the category of "concert music" didn't exist as it does now...European music was for education, for worship, for courtship rituals and story telling, and sometimes for the pleasure or relaxation of a bishop or king. The concept of the "concert" was born in the 18th century, and along with it, the notion that music was an expression, meant to communicate beauty and particular emotions to a whole mass of independent thinkers (the "audience"!), devoting time to music for its own sake. This is a radical transformation, much more radical than any of the transformations of music in our own lifetimes.

(Yes, more radical than iPods. And Pandora. We still expect music to move us personally, to compliment our identities and daily activities, and we want to be individual aesthetic appreciators of it, who share a music's "greatness" with a group of like-minded fans. All of these things are 18th-century concepts of music.)

So why does this matter to you? Well none of those points necessarily make Baroque music great. But as it happens, baroque harmony, rhythm, and melodic organization remains the lingua franca of modern music departments...many composers have broken the "rules" (sic) of baroque music, to the point of leaving music almost unrecognizeable, but for many of the great songwriters and composers that you admire, right up to Cole Porter and Duke Ellington and Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder and CAKE and David Bazan ... the feeling that harmony is dynamic, or that rhythm is mobile... all comes from the same underlying principles.

If Wagner does something that Bach wouldn't have done, it may sound beautiful and free, but it sounds that way largely in relation to the starting point of Bach's style, which he learned. If you want to create the same feeling of freedom as Wagner, or Debussy, or Stravinsky, or early Schoenberg, or Charles Mingus, or John Adams, it remains important to have that freedom in relation to a basic language, that all of those composers share in their background.

And remember, these aren't rules! They're guidelines!

May 21, 2009 at 9:20 AM | Registered CommenterBen Carson