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Important historical document but not so useful for simple fans
on August 31, 2005
MODERN MUSIC AND AFTER is Paul Griffiths' survey of the art music scene from 1945 to 1995, a time when music had first gone from limitless optimism for "progress" after World War II, to the disappointment of the late 1960s, and finally to the thousand forking paths of the 70s and later. I found the work interesting as a quick read, though certainly not a useful reference work.
The initial hero of Griffiths' work is Pierre Boulez, who in post-war Paris was certain that the twelve-tone method of Schoenberg and (even more so) Webern was the future of music, and by relentlessly publishing and composing Boulez was trying himself to make it turn out that way. After speaking something about the French composer's post-war worldview, the author presents the 1950s development of the Darmstadt school, when Boulez was joined at the forefront by Stockhausen and Nono, with important contributions by Cage and Barraque. At the same time, the "classic modernism" of Babbitt and Carter was flourishing. The 1960s and 1970s is shown as six waves, these being the use of quotation, music theatre, politics, virtuosity and improvisation, computer music, and minimalism. Ligeti, Xenakis, Cardew, Reich, Messiaen get the most attention here. The chapter on the 1980s and 1990s gets the title "Many Rivers" and discusses Schnittke, Rihm, Part, Kurtag, Gubaidulina, Ferneyhough, Feldman, Birtwistle, and Berio among others.
As is probably inevitable in such a work, some important people are left out. Per Norgard, whose infinity series is one of the most innovative concepts of contemporary music, is missing, as is Magnus Lindberg, who established himself as Finland's foremost young composer with "Kraft" in 1986. Lutoslawski is simply inexplicably absent. Sofia Gubaidulina scandously gets only about a page. However, Griffiths was prescient in including Tan Dun, who was little known then but is increasingly popular now. Another failing of the book is that for reasons of space, most composers only get a few paragraphs, and really, if you already own recordings of a given composer's work, the musicological essays in the CD notes are probably more substantial than anything you'll find here.
MODERN MUSIC AND AFTER is worth flipping through for any fan of contemporary music, but I think that it works better as a historical document than as a useful resource for said fans to learn more about the music they love.