Featured articles

Sharing a Stage: The Growing Proximity between Modernism and Popular Music



New York City. Merkin Concert Hall. 21 February 2013. I have been to countless new music concerts, but none like this one. I expressly went to the concert because I knew that it would be different, yet the differences were more striking than I had anticipated. In the lobby before the show, it seemed as if this was a typical new music concert. There was a familiar cast of characters: the guy in his sixties with a forlorn ponytail who had chronicled more new music than I probably ever will and the young composition student looking around for student friends. But then I noticed the hipsters, guys with manicured beards and stovepipe jeans. That there were hipsters there was not surprising. What caught me off guard was how many were chatting away in the lobby. At one moment, I was in Merkin Concert Hall, the next it seemed as if I was in a Brooklyn club.

The concert was a little bit of both. The first half of the show was devoted to the music of the young Brazilian composer Marcos Balter, performed by the new music group Ensemble Dal Niente. This could have been the beginning of any new music concert, and an especially engaging opening with Balter’s imaginative works. The second half brought to the stage the indie rock group Deerhoof – the draw for the hipsters in the lobby. Merkin Concert Hall became a club, although the acoustics were a little too alive for an amplified rock group, especially one that juxtaposes blasts of noise and heavy drumming with pop sing-songy vocals. How to finish the concert? Perhaps the only way was to bring everyone together on stage with a piece for both ensembles by Balter.

So, yes, a different type of new music concert, but, it turns out, far from a unique one. In this and other concerts, the Ecstatic Music Festival has put down bridges between the new music and indie rock worlds. So too have other festivals and new music groups. Several composers also travel back and forth between the two worlds. Then there is me, the musicologist. As much as I enjoyed the music of Balter and Deerhoof, I did not go to the concert specifically to hear either one. I instead went to experience first-hand an idea that I had been contemplating, an idea that the concert captured.

That idea is a growing proximity between modernist music and popular idioms. The two were nothing but proximate in the Ecstatic Music Festival concert – sharing the same stage. They, however, are not always so pressed up against each other. The closeness between the two takes different forms. In my book Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, I discussed one such form: the interest in certain musical and aesthetic ideals shared by musicians in both idioms. My references to this proximity, though, were brief, quickly closed off with a remark that this could be a topic for another book. [1] The topic is indeed large enough to warrant a book. In regard to popular styles, it covers a range of music, from 1960s groups like the Beatles and The Velvet Underground to present-day indie bands. It is also a largely unexplored topic.While connections between the two musical realms have been touched upon here and there in discussions of individual bands or composers, the increased closeness between new music and popular styles has not been identified as a larger historical development [2]. Once ascertained as such, questions quickly arise. What does that nearness say about the contemporary musical scene? How does it fit into the history of modernism?

These are pertinent questions for a collection entitled Transformations of Musical Modernism. The proximity between modernist and popular idioms not only reveals a modernism that has been transformed but it also transforms our conceptions of modernism. To appreciate the extent of those transformations and to answer the above questions, I will approach the topic from two contrasting perspectives. The first is a theoretical perspective that focuses on mutual interests in musical material and aesthetic ideals. To get at those affinities, I will discuss the lines of inquiry that have crossed the two idioms. The second approach looks at what is happening on the ground, that is, at concerts like the Ecstatic Music Festival show at Merkin Concert Hall. I will examine the infrastructure of festivals, clubs, record labels and magazines that has emerged to support the connections between new music and popular styles and consider the types of musical and cultural connections that those organizations are making between the two.

From Transformations of Musical Modernism. Editors Erling E. Guldbrandsen and Julian Anderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.   


  1. David Metzer, Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 245.
  2. Christopher Ballantine has recently offered an illuminating discussion of the intersections between modernist and popular idioms. Ballantine, ‘Modernism and Popular Music’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 139/1 (2014), 200–4.


Modern Silence

Samuel Beckett.  Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Beckett. Wikimedia Commons

Theirs is a closed relationship—always two, never three. When brought together, words and music keep to themselves. There may be others but they are merely observers, standing on the outside listening in. They are the ones who discuss the ups and downs of the relationship: how well the two get along with each other, which one has more to say, and who does so more clearly. Some of the observers have even written dramatic works about the two. Think of Salieri’s Prima la musicapoi le parole and Strauss’s Capriccio.

Think of Beckett’s Words and Music. Turning to the radio play, we can hear a very different presentation of the starring pair. With Beckett, Words and Music are actual characters instead of being represented by the stand-in poets and composers of the earlier two operas. [1] More than that, they speak their own languages—Words utters words and Music utters only music. There is no Countess to choose between them, as in Strauss; rather, a tyrant named Croak bullies the two and commands them to elaborate upon a series of words and images, including love, age, and “the face.” Imploring them to “be friends,” he grows tired of them talking past each other and departs. Words and Music are left in tantrums and despair.

Pettiness, ennui, and quarrels are not ways in which the relationship between words and music is usually depicted. Amid all the squabbling, an even more shocking departure from convention can go unnoticed. Beckett breaks up the closed relationship by adding a third character. The character does not say a word nor play a note. How can it, when the part belongs to silence. Throughout the play, as in many of Beckett’s works, extended moments of silence set in, marked either as such or as “pauses.” As the play goes on, the moments grow more prominent, reaching an unsettling climax for the title characters when the sounds of the departing Croak trail off into nothingness. What disturbs them is a new and persistent “sound,” one that is neither speech nor tone. Silence interrupts their private dialogue, demanding their attention and ours. [2]

It is hardly surprising that quiet broods in Beckett’s drama and does not play even the smallest part in Salieri and Strauss’s works. Modernist arts have engaged silence to an unprecedented degree. Silence, of course, has been a long-standing site of artistic, philosophical, and spiritual rumination, but it was not until the 20th century that it assumed such an extensive presence in artistic creation. As for music, silence forms a large part of the sound worlds explored by modernist composers. To be sure, silence appears prominently in works from previous periods, as in the engulfing pauses of Beethoven and Bellini, for example, but it was never mined so deeply or used to such diverse effects prior to the last century. As Salvatore Sciarrino, a master calligrapher of quiet, has remarked: “Sound has an intimate relationship with silence, the consciousness of that connection is new.”[3]

The “intimate relationship” between modernism and silence has been interpreted in different ways. In what has become a critical trope, silence stands as the larger artistic and social oblivion awaiting modernist arts. Adorno, for example, calls attention to the irreversible slide of new music into silence. So removed has this music grown from audiences and so absorbed has it become in its own practices that it recedes further and further away until it becomes unheard, or silent. [4] Susan Sontag situates silence as a “termination” for contemporary art. According to her, art, as material or even ideal, torments the modern artist, who views it as an impediment to a desired “transcendence.” The block can only be removed by silencing—no longer creating—the work of art, a step taken by Rimbaud, Wittgenstein, and Duchamp. [5] Umberto Eco describes a less severe form of renunciation. Restlessly stripping away the superfluous, be it the familiar or the past, modernism reaches a point of nullity, attained in the white canvas, the blank page, or four minutes and some of silence. [6]

These writers show little interest in silence as artistic material. It remains first and foremost a broad cultural and aesthetic fate. Sontag mentions the “self-conscious” and “traditional” use of silence but sees it as “unrelated,” even “antithetical,” to the larger “termination,” an insignificance making it unworthy of critical elaboration. [7] Adorno may discuss the role of silence in the music of Webern and others, but he subsumes that role into the cultural morendo of modernism.

From Journal of Musicology 23 (2006): 331-74   


  1. The characters are also called Joe and Bob, respectively. 
  2. Morton Feldman wrote incidental music for the radio drama. Surprisingly, his score does not engage silence, or near silence, as much as do some of his other works.
  3. Salvatore Sciarrino, “Entretien,” Entretemps 9 ): 139. Some studies deal ex-clusively with the role of silence in 20th-century music. Notable ones include Martin Zenck, “Dal niente—Vom Verlöschen der Musik,” MusikTexte 55 (1994): 15–21, and Ger-hard Stäbler, “About Silence or What Happens When Nothing Happens?” EONTA 1 (1991/92): 68–81. A modified version of the latter appears as “Stille Schrei Stille,” Positionen 10 (1992): 24–26. This volume of Positionen deals exclusively with the topic of silence. 

  4. This view is reinforced in the sections dealing with Schoenberg in the Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Bloomster (New York: Seabury Press, 112–33. Elaborating upon Adorno’s “negative teleology,” Edward Said has re-marked that “the reversed course toward silence becomes [modern music’s] raison d’être, its final cadence.” Said, “From Silence to Sound and Back Again: Music, Litera-ture, and History,” Raritan 17 (1997): 10. 

  5. Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 3–7. Sontag, like Adorno, sees the alienation of new styles as leading into a larger cultural silence. 

  6. Umberto Eco, “Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable,” in Postscript to “The Name of the Rose,” trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 67.

  7. Sontag, “Aesthetics of Silence,” 6. In a 1964 article on Michel Leiris’s Manhood, Sontag briefly mentions that silence has become “a positive, structural element in contemporary music” since Webern. Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1967), 68.

Shadow Play: The Spiritual in 'Black and Tan Fantasy’

Duke Ellington in 1943.  Wikimedia Commons

Duke Ellington in 1943. Wikimedia Commons

On the Seventh Day, God created the spiritual.  The Garden of Eden: a lawn outside an antebellum Southern white church, where a group of slaves has secretly gathered to hear a Sunday morning church service:

Huddled there, they passed the Word of God around in whispers. . . Noiselessly. . . they’d inch a bit closer. . . When the great white voice inside rang out in Triumph. . . the blacks outside would grunt subdued approval.  When the whites inside lifted voices in joyous song. . . the blacks outside would hum along, adding their own touches. . . weaving melodic, harmonic, rhythmic patterns.  Thus the spiritual was born.  Highly emotional worshipping of God in SONG.

This creation story—spanning seven days from a mythic Monday to Sunday and featuring an Adam and Eve named Boola and Voola—comes from Duke Ellington’s scenario for Black, Brown, and Beige, his “tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America” (Ellington n.d.).  As a divinely created song, the spiritual watches over that history.  In Black, Brown, and Beige, Ellington’s spiritual melody—the lucent “Come Sunday”—offers solace, chimes faith, and extols triumphs.

This glorification of the spiritual and the “tone parallel”  recounting of African-American history furthered the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that aimed to uplift black in American society by celebrating their artistic and historical achievements.  During the Renaissance, the spiritual was lauded as one of the crowning achievements of the race.  In his influential essay “Of the Sorrow Songs,” W.E.B. Du Bois helped coronate the genre, presenting it as a noble voice of suffering, raised during slavery, that conveyed the sadness, hope, and faith expressed by its creators to following generations (1903, 250-264).   Du Bois’s conception of the “sorrow songs” served as the Renaissance ideal of the genre and was musically realized in the performances of such singers as Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes and in the arrangements of J. Rosamond Johnson, among others.  Notably, these versions largely eschewed folk practices, drawing instead on the vocal and compositional conventions of European concert idioms, an affiliation that enhanced the gravity and classicism that Du Bois ascribed to the genre (Radono 1995; Sundquist 1993, 525-539).

Although incorporating jazz styles, Ellington’s evocation of the spiritual still paid homage to the sorrow song ideal with its suggestion of musical and historical transcendence.  “Come Sunday,” however, came late to the Renaissance veneration of the spiritual.  Premiered in 1943, Black, Brown, and Beige appeared almost a decade after that movement had died out, a lag resulting from the long gestation of the unprecedented work.  But Ellington had drawn upon spirituals before this, incorporating one into “Black and Tan Fantasy” during the late 1920s, the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance.  According to Bubber Miley, co-composer and a cornetist in Ellington’s band, a spiritual inspired the main theme of the work (Dodge [1934] 1993, 108); however, as discussed below, that spiritual was not one of the treasured sorrow songs but rather a hybrid tune derived from a sacred song by a white composer.

Whatever its origins, Miley’s spiritual is part of a mix of sacred and secular elements in “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a variegated piece that blends the spiritual together with blues, contemporary urban jazz idioms, call-and-response patterns, and a Chopin quotation.  This amalgam creates a variety of moods and sensations, including a broad satirizing of religious display.  Behind the satire lies a less obvious irony, one that can be heard as targeting the sorrow songs.  “Black and Tan Fantasy” present an ironic reversal of those works and the musical and religious propriety that defined them.  The jazz work does not treat its spiritual in such a pious manner; rather, it uses blues idioms to distort the melody.  This transformation, as seen in contemporary reviews of the piece, fascinated listeners and, with the later appearance of the beguiling work in a film, moviegoers as well.

From Black Music Research Journal 17 (1997): 137-58