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The emperor has no clothes: Atonal music, the unacknowledged elephant in the concert hall

By Charlotte Cerminaro
web posted October 29, 2018

For classical musicians who grew up and worked in the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, playing atonal or ‘12 tone’ music is an expected and required part of any orchestral or chamber music concert season. It is assumed that this duty will be undertaken with no undue difficulty or complaint. It is also assumed that there will be no criticism of this music--if it can even be called music--no matter how dubious or utterly obnoxious it sounds. And the prerequisite demands made by some composers must be met, without delay, whatever they may be. The utterly barbaric behavior toward a Steinway grand, making it ready to play a piece by John Cage for “prepared piano”, must be undertaken without hesitation or grimace.

During rehearsals many conductors will routinely spend the lion’s share of valuable time on a piece of music that serves no real aesthetic or artistic purpose. Even a highly trained ear has difficulty discerning whether wrong notes, wrong entrances or bad intonation is occurring in most atonal pieces. After intermission, when it’s time for one of the great tonal masterpieces, an inexperienced audience member has no trouble hearing that the piece is under-rehearsed, the conductor unprepared. This phenomenon, dripping with irrationality and irony, continues to occur. As a performer, witnessing a conductor getting completely lost, giving wrong cues and losing the orchestra is rare, usually on under-rehearsed programs. Specifically, programs with a 12-tone piece on the front half and a major symphony on the last half--and if problems arise they are invariably an unprepared part of the last half.

The course of events that brought about atonal music was surprising in that it was seen, by its proponents, as the only answer to an ever-evolving tonality of the 20th century. As creative minds were innovating and inventing to solve the problems of an increasingly technological civilization, many musicians of this time were attempting to do the same. Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mahler, Bartok and Richard Strauss, to name a few, were part of an avant-garde school of composition, transitioning out of 19th century romanticism. This was no easy task, but it was a necessary one. The world was rapidly changing and these artists were on the front lines, experiencing these changes first-hand. New forms of expression were a necessary part of reflecting, even shaping, the events of that time. And, like art from every other century, it would serve as a tool of enlightenment, or, as a weapon against tyranny, hatred, evil and ignorance.

It was against this backdrop that less creative minds would find an easy answer, one that would allow them entrance into a field that, by its very definition, required years of training, dedication, practice and phenomenal insight. The only logical evolution of this art form, according to atonal composers, was to remove all boundaries, rules, rationality---abandoning technique and skills, things used by all artists for millennia---and make their own form of expression. The problem is that they called this form of expression, “music”, thereby attempting to equate it with the work of true artists. Creating this “music” requires no special skills, though many atonal composers will pontificate about their own work, claiming it takes high intellect to understand. Not wanting to be seen as uneducated or illiterate, modern critics and concert-goers will ignore the obvious and pretend to understand, even appreciate, this fake music. The manuscripts of many of these pieces resemble drip-art at its worst. Some of them look like cow dung, and sound like it as well. And like the proverbial “Emperor’s New Clothes”, these imposters will continue their promenade through concert halls, unashamed. And every musician will continue to hope that, one day, someone else’s kid will point out the obvious. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2018

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