How the Avant-Garde Got Popular (or Not)

In 1930, after receiving dozens of letters complaining about their “ultra-modern” radio broadcasts, the British Broadcasting Company published a set of listening instructions in Radio Times:

Listen as carefully at home as you do in a theatre or concert hall. You can’t get the best out of a programme if your mind is wandering, or if you are playing bridge or reading, give it your full attention. Try turning out the lights so that your eye is not caught by familiar objects in the room. Your imagination will be twice as vivid.

If you only listen with half an ear you haven’t got a quarter of a right to criticize.

Operating under the direction of Edward Clark, the BBC had been doing its best to bring the musical avant garde to the masses, programming brutal dodecaphonic operas alongside stand-up comedians and patriotic marches. Lord Reith, who had founded the BBC after replying to an ad in The Morning Post, believed that audiences would accept new musical works with “comparatively little effort.” He was wrong. Complaints continued to pour in, and before long the BBC was lashing out. “Many of you have not even begun to master the art of listening,” a programming director wrote in Radio Times. “You have not even begun to try.” In 1936, the BBC gave up the fight. Tonality returned to the airwaves.

The situation is not much different today. As David Stubbs notes in his new book Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don’t Get Stockhausen, avant-garde and experimental music remain cultural punch-lines. Starting somewhere around 1907, when Arnold Schoenberg began to overhaul Western tonality in 1907, compositional music completely abandoned the theoretical anchors that had grounded it for centuries. It is impossible to overstate just how radical a break this was. The composer Anton Webern was not exaggerating when he gloated over tonality’s corpse: “We broke its neck.”

Twentieth-century modernism had other casualties, though, including the visible world in visual art. In the space of about fifty years, representation completely broke down. By the 1950s, Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists had made New York—not Paris—the cultural capital of the West, and today their paintings bring in tens of millions of dollars. They are dorm room posters. Stubbs’ question is a really good one: “Why has avant-garde music failed to attain the audience, the cachet, the legitimacy of its visual equivalent?”

Fear of Music is an intelligent book, but it doesn’t deliver on the promise of its subtitle, and part of the reason is Stubbs’ idea of what qualifies as an equivalent avant-garde. The visual arts had seen impressionist painters rubbing at the textures of representation throughout the late nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until Picasso that the structures began to crumble. Once you look at a woman and see an arrangement of geometries, you are no longer simply seeing the woman. You are seeing your own seeing, and from Picasso to Pollock seeing itself became the proper subject of painting. In 1958, the artist and critic Allan Kaprow wrote that Pollock had made it possible for painting to confront the senses—and therefore life—directly. Not to see things. Just to see.

Modernist music was after directness as well, but not through any new abstraction. Western music was abstract already, which was an important element of its status. Musical mimesis—flute trills for bird calls, for example—was lowbrow, and composers who did use the devices of program music usually ended up defending themselves. Beethoven insisted that his Pastoral symphony was not programmatic: “it is more an expression of feelings rather than a tone-painting.” This doesn’t prevent us from hearing the brook in the second movement, which Beethoven titled “By the Brook,” but it shows us how music in the West made a hierarchy of itself.

What modernism ended in music was the idea that music consisted of organized pitches, tones vibrating at particular frequencies that could be written down and then performed by any musician capable of reading the language. In 1913, the painter and composer Luigi Russolo laid out the new criterion: “[Music] comes ever closer to the noise-sound.” Russolo believed that the best model for modern listening was the battlefield, a place where the ear is much more privileged than it is in daily life. “From noise,” he wrote, “the different calibers of grenades and shrapnels can be known even before they explode…There is no movement or activity that is not revealed by noise.” Decades later, John Cage would agree: “It had been clear from the beginning that what was needed was a music based on noise, on noise’s lawlessness.”

Lawlessness is a good word for it. When we talk about sounds, we are talking about the domesticated part of the audible world. Sounds have names. They can be controlled by the people who hear them. They are often nice to listen to. Noises, though, only refer to themselves, and they are what we would rather not be hearing. Until the end of the nineteenth century, “musical” meant pitched sounds produced by certain kinds of instruments harmonizing with one another in certain ways. What modernism built was a much bigger tent of musical sounds—it let the noises in.

Looking to replicate war in the concert hall, Russolo designed and built his own instruments. None of his originals survived, but his diagrams show large wooden boxes with a metal cylinder on the side. One of them was called “the roarer.” Another one was “the scraper.” The moans, whirrs, skronks, and thuds that came out of them would have been impossible to write down using traditional notation, but what helped noise along in the first half of the twentieth century was the quickly increasing sophistication of recording technology. The phonograph and the studio opened up the very textures of sound itself to composition, and they also cut out the middleman—the performer—allowing composers to exercise complete control over the music they wrote. For all the talk of “revolution” and “opening up” that accompanies the musical avant garde, the composers themselves were often domineering types. A musician in rehearsal once asked Karlheinz Stockhausen, who claimed to have visited the star Sirius, “How will I know when I am playing in the rhythm of the universe?” “I will tell you,” he replied.

The final triumph of noise in music was announced by silence. John Cage’s most widely known and most radical composition is 4’33”, in which the performer sits at the instrument mute and motionless for the period of time identified by the title. (There are at least six recordings available. I got mine on iTunes, with Wayne Marshall at the piano. It’s a good performance.) Of course, the world is never completely silent, and so what Cage’s piece highlights are the ambient sounds in the concert hall, which turns out to be a noisy place even when people are doing their best to be quiet. Whether 4’33” opens your ears to the music of everyday life is a matter of taste. What’s simply fact, though, is that for the first time the idea of music had been inflated to encompass the whole sphere of audible phenomena. All noises became sounds.

Noise has created a lot of confusion among music historians, and it partially explains why Stubbs gets his equivalences wrong. For roughly five hundred years, the history and development of Western music had been charted along the lines of tonality. Instrumentation, industry, and aesthetics all played important roles, but the ever-changing list of permissible tones and harmonic progressions is what made it possible to connect Palestrina to Handel to Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert to Wagner to Strauss to Schoenberg. Cage broke that causal chain for good, and so a lot of people thinking and writing about the development of music in the last-half century really aren’t sure what it is they mean by “development” (you can count me in with that group). Developing, yes, but with respect to what?

Institutions can help to make these histories make sense. Stubbs, who is British, opens Fear of Music in the Tate Modern, instinctively—if not explicitly—recognizing that modern art would be completely impossible without the museums that house it. People on weekend trips to New York don’t go to de Kooning’s Woman 1. They go to MoMA, where they will pay their respects—or make quiet, cautious criticisms—to whatever the curators have put on display. As Stubbs writes, the crowds wandering Britain’s second most popular tourist destination (the British Museum wins by about one million visitors per year) look “rapt with boredom.” And still they come by the thousands. The Tate is what lends the works in its collection their cultural power. It is appropriately housed in a former power plant.

The modern museum era began in 1929, when Abby Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan—“the adamantine ladies,” as they came to be known among New York  society circles—thought up the Museum of Modern Art. It opened on November 7th, nine days after the stock market crash. It moved from place to place in its early years, but in 1940 MoMA secured its position as the authority on modern art with an enormously successful Picasso retrospective, the first ever in the U.S. By the end of World War II, it was generally recognized as an enormous success.

By that point the museum had also begun to collect a large number of works by Abstract Expressionist painters: Gorky, Calder, Stella, Motherwell, Gottlieb. In 1944, it sold off some nineteenth century paintings in order to buy Pollocks. The meteoric celebrity of these avant-garde painters looks surprising until you realize just who was working on their behalf. It was Alfred Barr, the director of Museum Collections at MoMA (as well as its first president) who persuaded the publisher Henry Luce to put Jackson Pollock in the pages of Life magazine. The profile, with its full-page photos of Pollock straddling the canvas, paint flying off his brush in electrified currents, turned him into a culture hero: America’s manly painter-cowboy.

The connection between modern art and a healthy American virility is everywhere in this period of time. One book on American museums, written in 1948, addressed the “problem” of modern art in this way:

How easy it is to see why a forward-looking period like ours should have an immense interest in its own image as projected by modern art. The term applies to all the products of the modern period, good and bad. (To be sure, when they are very bad, we simply do not classify them as art, just as we do not think of mentally or morally defective persons as ‘Americans,’ although, by nationality, they are that.)

As if the financial and cultural support of the world’s most powerful modern art museum were not help enough, avant-garde visual art was also heavily promoted by the US government. As the Cold War intensified, the CIA and State Department developed a vast cultural propaganda operation that Alfred Barr described as “benevolent propaganda for foreign intelligentsia.” The centerpiece of this campaign was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. As Frances Stonor Saunders writes in the book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, the CCF became involved in almost every sphere of American arts and letters: “journals, books, conferences, seminars, art exhibitions, concerts, awards.” It is missing the point to ask who was involved with the CCF because everybody was involved with the CCF. In the span of a few years, the government successfully weaponized American art.

One of the campaign’s goals was to cement the link between artistic freedom and American ideology. At the 1952 opening of “Masterpieces of Twentieth-Century Painting,” a CIA-funded exhibition in Paris, James Johnson Sweeney said, “On display will be masterpieces that could not have been created nor whose exhibition would be allowed by such totalitarian regimes as Nazi Germany or present-day Soviet Russia.” The show exhibited works by European painters like Matisse, Cezanne, and Kandinsky, but everything on display was owned by American individuals and institutions. The implications were clear: the cultural center of the West was no longer Paris. It was New York. With Pollock’s primal works at the leading edge, the American assault on European sensibilities was a huge success. Some European viewers were not so much impressed as terrified. “This strength, displayed in the frenzy of a total freedom, seems a really dangerous tide,” one Barcelona critic wrote. “Our own abstract painters, all the ‘informal’ European artists, seem pygmies before the disturbing power of these unchained giants.” Sweeney argued that modern art, with its thrashing individualism, “is useless for the dictator’s propaganda.” It turned out to be just great for the President’s.

Music had its own role to play in the American culture campaign. (It may have been a Cold War, but as Saunders notes, it was a total war.) The Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century festival had a musical segment as well, and more than seventy twentieth-century composers saw their work performed there: Berg, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Debussy, Mahler, Bartók, Poulenc, Copland. Much of the CCF’s musical programming was organized by Nicolas Nabokov, a handsome Russian émigre who circulated freely among friends, wives, and political agendas. Nabokov had been working for the government since 1945, when, as an employee in the music wing of the Information Control Division, he was told to “establish good psychological and cultural weapons with which to destroy Nazism.” It was a line of work that suited him, and he handled the transition from Nazis to Reds with ease. In 1954, he organized the International Conference of Twentieth Century Music in Rome, with a heavy emphasis on atonal composition. But while similar festivals of visual art generally drew enthusiastic reactions from audiences and critics, the music was not so warmly received. “We were deferential,” Susan Sontag wrote. “We knew we were supposed to appreciate ugly music.”

It is hard to imagine Susan Sontag talking about Mark Rothko with such dismissive condescension, but she is hardly the only cultural figure to talk down to experimental music. Norman Mailer once stumbled into a performance by the free jazz musician Sun Ra and his “Arkestra.” Sun Ra, working in a well-established tradition of black music which has been identified as “afro-futurism,” regularly claimed to have visited the planet Saturn. Stubbs and others have written eloquently about Ra’s radical brand of musical freedom, but Mailer credited the concert only with clearing out his head cold. He then called the music “strangely horrible,” which is even more damning than just “horrible.”

What Sontag and Mailer needed was an institution that could make sense of what they were hearing. The bad luck for them—and especially for composers—was that the American musical avant-gardists were almost all post-war figures, and this is exactly when the power and influence of the symphony orchestra began to wane. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, orchestras have struggled with increasing desperation to maintain funding and relevance, but these mostly cosmetic efforts have failed. In the mid-nineties, London’s Royal Philharmonic announced big plans to update their image. An article in The *Independent *reported that concerts would include a video screen with close-up images of the conductor’s face, “drama, lasers, and maybe a camera right down the clarinet.” What the spokesman doesn’t mention was any plan to change the music, which is nothing new. By the end of the nineteenth century, symphony orchestras had already settled on programming that heavily favored Classical and Romantic composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Most major orchestras today make some concession to twentieth century experimental music, but those works are very rarely the centerpiece of a given performance. Many symphonies give off the impression of wishing that the last sixty years had simply never happened.

It was a different story in the nineteenth century. The orchestra as we know it today began to take shape in 1842, when the New York and Vienna Philharmonics were founded. Before then, the majority of orchestras were basically house bands, funded by and held accountable to monarchs and aristocrats. As the aristocracy crumbled in the wake of industrialization, however, orchestras became civic institutions, and they grew right along with the cities that provided the money. By the turn of the century, the best orchestras were internationally famous institutions. It became possible to distinguish between two groups playing the same piece. People talked about “the Philadelphia sound.”

Fame and funding invested famous orchestras with the power to direct musical taste. In The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, the critic Alex Ross evocatively depicts the respect accorded to famous composers by European audiences. In Vienna, Gustav Mahler could not walk down the street without cab drivers whispering excitedly to their passengers, and when Richard Wagner conducted the first complete performance of his massive Ring cycle, the audience included emperors from two continents. The celebrity status of classical musicians was an American phenomenon as well. When the celebrated tenor Enrico Caruso was arrested for groping the wife of a baseball player in New York’s Central Park Zoo, it made front pages around the country. Caruso said that a monkey did it.

Like MoMA does today, orchestras at the turn of the century helped audiences to make sense of a hundred years of instrumental music. That the orchestra was not equipped to make sense of the post-war musical avant garde has as much to do with unfortunate timing as anything else. Institutions succeed by cultivating relationships with the right group of individuals. Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss—these people needed orchestras, and orchestras have been needing them ever since. Likewise, Pollock and Rothko are foundations of the modern art museum. The real question isn’t why orchestras failed to embrace John Cage. That’s easy: they were already committed to the nineteenth century composers who had made them famous. John Cage was opposed to that kind of music in every possible way. It is hard to let go of a first love.

The real question is what MoMA will do when the Abstract Expressionists fall out of favor, which they inevitably will. Institutions have many virtues, but agility is not one of them, and already there are fractures in the world of contemporary art. Visual artists looking to get rich and famous don’t go to MoMA anymore; they hit the road, showing and selling at the dozens of bi-annual art festivals that have scattered themselves around the globe in the past decade. These festivals occasionally find their way into the news cycle if an artist sells for enough money, but they have not produced anything close to a household name. You need muscle to get into the history books. Stubbs thinks it’s strange that avant-garde music isn’t widely popular, but that’s not strange at all. Avant garde arts are confrontational, difficult, obscure, and deliberately opposed to the currents of mainstream taste. The real anomaly is the popularity of abstract visual art. As grand as Rothko’s luminous color fields may be, they didn’t do it alone. They had institutions to back them up.