Why is jazz perceived as demanding music

In 1906 the so-called “atonal revolution” took place in Vienna. Arnold Schönberg and his colleagues left the framework of traditional harmony and wrote compositions that were characterized by dissonances and abstract and asymmetrical rhythms. There were similar efforts by young composers in other places as well. The music that was created in this way, which set the direction for all of the classically influenced composition music of the 20th century, is called and is called “New Music” even if it is now more than a hundred years old.

This article deals with the path of "New Music" and illuminates its basic principles and their differences to jazz and jazz-related music, but also to modern visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.). It is also about future conceivable developments in music and the social concepts behind them.

Refused encounter
A Critique of “New Music”

If you take a closer look at the development of European composition music as a creative and contemporary art form in the 20th century and compare it with that of the visual arts, you immediately notice the fundamental difference in public perception and relevance of both art forms. While exhibitions of modern art from “classical modern” to “young avant-garde” attract a large and diverse audience, prints or even originals of 20th century art hang in millions of households and the art market is also reporting new price records for really contemporary works the so-called “new music” is limited to an elitist niche existence. Classical music from centuries past is still heard and admired; however, those who see themselves as further developers of this tradition are hardly noticed outside a narrow circle of followers.

What is the reason for the completely different development of these two art genres, which in earlier epochs always developed largely in parallel in terms of style and society? In my opinion, it is due to the different positioning towards two decisive cultural developments of the 20th century: on the one hand, the encounter between European tradition and the cultures of the southern continents and, on the other hand, the invention of new possibilities for the production, conservation and distribution of works of art, such as for example photography and the record.

Fine arts in the 20th century

Both aspects play a central role in the emergence of the visual arts of the 20th century, “modern art”. The discovery and dissemination of photography deprived painting of its most important task until then: the lifelike depiction of landscapes, events and people. The artists at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries accepted the challenge and began to develop a completely new understanding of their task. They were helped by the visual designs of the African and oceanic cultures, which in the wake of colonialism could be seen for the first time on a larger scale in Europe: masks, pictures, fabrics, cult and everyday objects. Neither the expressionism of the Dresden “Brücke” painters nor the cubism of Picasso and Georges Braques is conceivable without this influence.

This willingness to get involved in an encounter with the supposedly primitive cultures was deepened in several steps. While e.g. the painters of Expressionism still more or less emphasized an exotic surface stimulus, the French Surrealists in the 1920s dealt intensively with myths and rituals of non-European peoples in order to expand their understanding of art. A painter like Max Ernst was expressly interested, much to the annoyance of his American hosts, in Indian culture and was enthusiastic about it. In the course of the Fluxus movement in the 1960s, Joseph Beuys finally transferred the role of the shaman in Central Asian cultures to his own artistic self-image and thus achieved a new dimension of art in which different approaches from different parts of the world penetrate and enrich one another.

This openness to the encounter with the foreign, this willingness to leave the traditional framework (which many artists have also implemented literally) has made modern art exciting and complex. She was able to take up questions that move many people and give them a visual design that was not limited to museums and elitist vernissages, but also influenced everyday and entertainment culture.

The path of "New Music"

It was by no means clear from the outset that new music in the 20th century would go so completely different from “modern art”, but is the result of a course that was set at the end of the 20s and renewed again at the end of the 60s. Between around 1890 and 1928 there were many parallels in the development of music and the visual arts. In 1889, the French composer Claude Debussy got to know Indonesian gamelan music during the Paris World's Fair and was enthusiastic. He immediately tried to use the scales of this music for his own compositions. He was also very interested in ragtime, a style of music that had been developed by black pianists in the southern United States, and inspired him to compose some compositions. At the same time, the older Czech composer Antonin Dvorcak wrote the symphony “From the New World” during a stay in America. In this he used Indian and African American themes in a way that corresponded to the inclusion of European folk music in the compositions of Brahms, Mahler and Grieg.

This openness to non-European music continued and was an important source for the breakthrough to atonality. For example, Igor Stravinsky's ballet music “Sacre du Printemps” from 1913 incorporated influences from the Russian-Asian region. Under the influence of the explosive spread of jazz music in the 1920s, Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek wrote compositions that were influenced by jazz. In the USA, George Gershwin, Paul Whiteman and Aaron Copland tried to develop an American compositional style that included jazz elements. With the “Threepenny Opera”, Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill created a German-language musical at a time when this genre was only just beginning to emerge. The end of the 20s then, at least in Europe, marked a clear turning away from all these attempts to bring about an encounter between European and non-European musical cultures.

How did this change of direction come about that has shaped new music to this day? In my opinion, it is a whole series of factors that caused a deep and even today almost insurmountable divide between new music and the Afro-American influenced musical styles.

1. Towards the end of the 1920s, there was increasing conservatism in cultural and political life. Such diverse phenomena as the brutally enforced displacement of the Russian avant-garde by socialist realism, the strengthening of the fascist movements and the associated demand for a nationally conscious art as well as an increasingly conservative attitude, even among liberal and progressive artists, combine to create a picture of a zeitgeist in which the reassurance of one's own traditions and the rejection or disinterest in the stranger played a major role. Even artists, who are not suspected of being close to dictatorial regimes, behaved like this: Picasso temporarily abandoned his cubist approach and painted pictures that linked to representations from antiquity. Stravinsky and Hindemith ended their occupation with jazz and non-European folk music and referred to European music history in their new compositions. Stravinsky's ballet “Pulcinella” and Hindemith's opera “Mathis der Maler” and his viola concerto “Der Schwanendreher” based on German folk songs are well known.

2. The artists who did not want to join this trend trusted to a large extent constructivist and intellectually formed concepts. The so-called Second Viennese School with the composers Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg as well as the twelve-tone technique introduced by Schönberg played a special role here. This technique was intended to give atonal music a formal framework in that each composition was based on a series of notes in which the 12 notes of the chromatic scale each occurred once. A tone could only be used again when all the others had also occurred. This compositional technique leads to a strict, intellectually influenced music, the structures of which can often not be grasped with the ear, but can only be recognized in the score. This way of composing had an overwhelming influence on the further development of European composition music in the following decades. It goes without saying that this was in stark contrast to jazz with its basic elements of improvisation and rhythmic intensity.

3. The experiments with the inclusion of jazz elements in the 20s had also made it clear that this connection is not that easy to establish. In contrast to the fine arts, in which the painter or sculptor is the sole creator of the work of art and can bring together influences as he wants, the piece of music that is played is always the result of a collective. No matter how hard the composer tries to integrate jazz elements into his score; if the orchestra has no feeling for this style of music, the result will always be unsatisfactory. However, the musician's feeling for music and style has grown over decades of practice; it cannot simply be changed. A large orchestra is particularly immobile in this regard. So even if one leaves aside the Eurocentric arrogance that existed in the 1920s, including feelings of racist superiority over “Negro music”, it becomes clear that these attempts to achieve an encounter between different musical cultures on the basis of European orchestral music were not really convincing. If you hear a ragtime by Stravinsky or Hindemith today, for example, you have the feeling that you are witnessing an interesting but somewhat strange attempt to approach a musical culture that ultimately remained alien to both European composers and performing musicians.

4. The Frankfurt sociologist and music critic Theodor W. Adorno exerted an extraordinarily lasting and in many respects devastating influence even in the school curricula. Adorno considered everything beautiful and all expressions of feeling in music to be the result of a commercialization that draws music into the realm of the alienated world of goods, conceals the listener about the actual state of society and thereby serves to stabilize the capitalist system.
For Adorno, the only possible attitude of music was a fundamental social criticism, which was to be achieved through uncompromising application of atonal design principles and through strictly logical constructions that were free of any emotional expression. For him, the aim of listening to music was solely the conscious and intellectual recognition of the structures in the music. He strongly condemned feelings or physical impulses in connection with music. Because of this understanding of music, Adorno could not see any creditable music in the Afro-American musical styles.
In the furious rejection of this music, however, it is mainly Adorno's lack of expertise that stands out. In his classification of the listener types he confuses jazz and rock'n roll and does not even know the simplest design criteria of jazz music. Elsewhere he goes up to the statement: “The goal of jazz is the mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment, a symbolic castration. 'Give up your manhood, let yourself be castrated', apes and proclaims the eunuch-like sound of the jazz bands, 'then as a reward you will be accepted into a brotherhood that shares the mystery of impotence with you'. "

The way of jazz music

While on the European side a strange and unsuitable coalition of cultural traditionalists on the one hand and a constructivist-oriented avant-garde on the other rejected jazz music, it developed further towards the end of the 1920s and established its design principles, improvisation, individual tone formation and rhythmic intensity a new foundation.

In the 1920s it was not at all clear whether improvisation, as a central characteristic of jazz, would endure at all. In the first jazz bands, whose members could often not read music, improvisation was more or less a means of lengthening the pieces played by heart. If an improvisation sounded good, it was played over and over again by heart and thus gradually became an integral part of the composition, which was even occasionally taken over and played by other musicians. The compositions of George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman were understood by the (white) American public as a refinement and appreciation of jazz, which was thus freed from dirt and incompletion.

It was not until Louis Armstrong's famous recordings with his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” in 1928 that the spontaneous and improvisational aspects of jazz were clearly the focus again. With great creative power, Armstrong presented his improvisations not as a variation of the melody, but as a completely new invention based on the chords of the piece. His earthy and expressive trumpet tone became a model for countless jazz musicians and thus gave jazz a new direction. At the same time, the composer and band leader Duke Ellington found a way to combine composition and improvisation that is still exemplary in jazz today. He gave the musicians the freedom to bring in their own ideas in his compositions, and he composed his pieces in such a way that they were tailored to the improvisational style of his soloists.

A characteristic of all three basic elements of jazz (improvisation, groove, sound) is that they cannot be written down in a score. An improvisation is by its nature not notated, and rhythmic intensity and individual tone formation cannot be recorded in notes either. The advancement of jazz brought about by Armstrong, Ellington and others was only possible through the spread of a new medium: the record. To this day, the sound carrier (now mostly the CD) is the central medium through which musicians get to know new styles and in which old styles are preserved. In jazz, notes only have an auxiliary function to facilitate the performance of pieces. It is clear to every jazz musician that the “real” music does not lie in the notes, but in the spontaneous interplay.

Two media, two styles of music

In the mid-30s there were two different forms of music making, which combined a fundamentally different order of values ​​in relation to music with the use of different techniques for the transmission of music:
On the one hand there is European composition music, which its advocates do not call serious music in a really accurate way (because composers like Bach and Mozart also wrote downright popular music, of course). Here the score is the decisive medium. The musical work of art is preferably included in the score; it also has priority over the actual performance of the music. Shape, structure and construction are the decisive characteristics by which the value of music is measured. The question of whether this music is able to appeal to listeners recedes completely, as there is a strong distrust of the non-academically educated listener and of the emotional and physical perception of music. Paradoxically, there is a strong, historically based connection between a cultural traditionalism that refuses to give up its 19th-century listening expectations, and a composer avant-garde who relies on musicians in this tradition for the performance of new works, but consistently atonal and applies constructivist design principles.

On the other hand, there are the Afro-American styles of music that emerged from jazz, rock music, South American music, reggae, soul, funk, and even hip hop. These types of music do not need any notes, the music is distributed via the sound carrier, since the essential creative elements of this music cannot be written down in notes. Although this music is often devalued as popular music, it is artistically designed music that deals with the existential problems of today's people, creates worldviews and visions of life and is often extremely complex.The ability of this music to appeal directly to physical emotions, however, carries the risk of commercial exploitation, exploitation as a stimulant or drowsy drug. However, one has to recognize that the commercial marketing strategies have also opened up opportunities for artistically demanding music from this area that they would never have had in the ideologically entrenched concert scene of so-called serious music.

The unfulfilled predictions of new music

After the Second World War, both forms of music continued to develop within their respective stylistic approaches. It turned out that two predictions that the composers of New Music had made about the further development of music history were not correct.

According to these predictions, the influence of jazz should only be short-term and superficial, a temporary fashion. In fact, however, jazz developed more and more new and artistically increasingly demanding styles as well as a strong awareness of its own history. The rock music that emerged from jazz shaped the musical feeling of other generations of young people and not only displaced the hit song, which is a form of light music based on classical music, but also produced impressive works of art with lasting influence.

In addition, the composers of New Music had assumed that the atonal design elements would prevail in general hearing. Analogous to the result of scandal and habituation that accompanied the work of many classical composers in the 18th and 19th centuries, general acceptance was also expected for “New Music”. “In 50 years, people will whistle my pieces on the street,” Arnold Schönberg had said. In the decades after the Second World War, however, this assumption increasingly turned out to be wrong. The required “emancipation of dissonance”, that is, the liberation from tonal hearing, did not materialize. A dissonance is still perceived as tension and a subsequent consonance as relaxation.

It is precisely in this point that the difference between new music and modern art becomes particularly clear: the pictures by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee and the other representatives of classical modernism have actually had great public success after initial rejection and the visual perception of most people and the Everyday culture through to advertising graphics. The new design techniques, such as the techniques of collage and frottage developed by the surrealist Max Ernst, are indispensable components of an education for creativity in school art lessons.

A new attempt at encounter in the 1960s

While many composers of new music reacted to the increasing drifting apart of these two stylistic concepts by calling for political support and more public presentation of their music, and viewed the spread of Afro-American musical styles as a catastrophe for European culture, there were some composers who renewed it Looking for contact with jazz. Above all, the Cologne composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann stands out, who tried to incorporate jazz and popular music into his compositional style in his opera “The Soldiers” and many other compositions. His idea of ​​time as a continuum in which all time levels overlap and relate to one another is closely related to the experience of time in jazz improvisation. Other composers also tried in the 1960s to incorporate improvisational elements into the music using so-called “aleatoric”. They included principles of chance and freedom for the musicians in their compositions. Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, one of the leading composers of the avant-garde, even led an improvisation ensemble towards the end of the 1960s.

On the other hand, free jazz brought jazz musicians closer to the atonal sounds of new music. The jazz improvisations were freed from the harmonic frameworks and continuous meters on which they were based; The decisive factor was now the spontaneous interaction, which also included noisy elements. Especially in Europe, jazz musicians tried to develop an independent variant of free jazz that was in close contact with new music. Albert Mangelsdorff, Manfred Schoof, Gunter Hampel, Peter Brötzmann in Germany, Mischa Mengelberg and Willem Breuker in Holland, Evan Parker and John Surman in England and many others shaped the sound of this music.

While free jazz actually made jazz in Europe independent, grown up, so to speak, and there are still scenes of freely improvising musicians in many major European cities, the composers of new music soon gave up their preoccupation with jazz and other improvisational means. In the 1970s and 1980s, the avant-garde concepts lost their strength. Karl-Heinz Stockhausen began to write his large esoteric work “A Week of Light”, which in some ways leads back to the 19th century and to Richard Wagner's conception of music theater. Composers like Hans-Werner Henze and Wolfgang Riehm, who saw themselves as keepers of the tradition of orchestral music, shaped the self-image of the newer generation of composers. The works of Henze and Riehm are tailored to the traditional instrumentation of orchestral music, which makes it easier to perform. In addition, in spite of the atonal style of composition, the listening impression is based on the music of the 19th century, which also makes it integrable for the classical cultural scene.

An ongoing ditch

The two lines of development of the music of the 20th century in Europe that I have described have led to two completely separate musical worlds, which live largely according to their own rules. It should be noted that the forms of music emanating from jazz shape the music and body feeling, the style of movement and the sense of time of most people. As with any vital form of culture, there are close relationships and mutual influences between art and everyday music in Afro-American music. The spectrum ranges from complex concert music in the field of jazz to rock music, which is often also demanding in terms of text and staging, to the shallow sprinkling of many radio stations.

An important aspect of Afro-American music is its ability to pick up on short-term trends as well as profound problems of today and to shape them artistically. Like no other music before, it is also able to integrate different influences and musical cultures. In recent years, for example, there has been an increasing focus on stylistic elements of oriental music traditions in both jazz and popular music. This is a positive aspect of globalization and a creative alternative to the often propagated clash of cultures.

In contrast, European composition music is becoming more and more isolated. Although it is supported politically and with large financial resources and still dominates the school curricula, it is less and less anchored in people's musical experience. It is increasingly perceived as a self-contained musical language that is no longer capable of development and that is comparable to the ancient languages ​​Latin or ancient Greek. Of course, in order to understand European cultural history, it is also important to learn ancient languages, and of course there are irreplaceable and timeless texts in these languages. But nobody would try to have a discussion about today's issues in one of these languages. It is the same with classical music: even the many young people who are learning a classical orchestral instrument, outside of their specific occupation with the instrument and their few concert visits, usually do not hear classical music, but rather popular music with which they identify.

New music is a little-loved appendage of classical music, asserted as a compulsory program at “Jugend Musiziert”, as a rare component of subscription concerts, as a rather drab subject matter in upper secondary school, and otherwise limited to insider events. It is sandwiched between its own utopian-avant-garde claim and the cultural traditionalism of the classical music business into which it is integrated. This serves to a large extent for the bourgeois self-assurance and the demarcation of European culture from other world cultures. This situation means that many composers and followers of new music interpret the history of the 20th century as a single decline, which a tiny group of initiates desperately and in vain resisted.

outlook into the future

But what does the above-mentioned division in musical life mean in concrete terms for the further development of European music in the 21st century? In my opinion, due to its fixation on the notation of scores and classical orchestral instruments, as well as its distrust of all physical forms of music perception, new music is unable to combine an authentically European awareness with openness to the world and positive visions of the future. The basic stylistic elements of jazz (improvisation, rhythmic intensity and individual tone formation) are too important as stylistic achievements of the 20th century to simply ignore them. They also shape the listener's musical feeling too much; this development step cannot be reversed.

If there is to be an approach to make European traditions fruitful for the music of the 21st century, it has to go the opposite way: on the basis of jazz, both the notation of the score and the classical orchestra as a body of sound can be reinterpreted, changed and be associated with other stylistic elements in order to build a bridge between the music of earlier centuries and the music of the future.

Matthias Petzold, May 2008


When rereading the text, I noticed a few things that suggest an explanation and addition. On the one hand, I noticed that my presentation of both the history of music in the 20th century and the current situation relates very much to the situation in Germany. In Germany, Adorno's theses and Arnold Schönberg's twelve-tone technique had a particularly lasting effect. In addition, the political support for classical concerts and the orientation of the school curriculum towards classical music are particularly strong.

In other European countries, especially England, France and Russia, composition music in the 20th century was not so much determined by constructivist concepts, but rather followed the concert music of the 19th century from the outset. The work of Benjamin Britten in England, Ravel, Milhaud and Messiaen in France and Prokofiev and Shostakovich in Russia can serve as examples. What is characteristic of these countries, however, is that the contrast between alleged serious and popular music does not exist in this form, that the jazz-influenced music styles receive much greater recognition and public appreciation, and that classical composition music is asked to face a competitive situation , in which it must remain understandable for enough listeners.

On the other hand, there is also a composer's school in Germany with the “New Music Theater” direction founded by Maurizio Kagel in Cologne, which incorporates improvisational concepts and the examination of popular and non-European music in its work. These include the composers Manos Tsangaris, Maria de Alvear and Carola Bauckholt. A characteristic of this school of composers, however, is the strong inclusion of elements from experimental theater. Music is just one element among others here. The occasional inclusion of popular music is like a collage and alludes to social realities. In this respect, this approach, as interesting as it may be, does not solve the stylistic dilemma I have described. In addition, this group of composers only plays a small role within the classical music scene, although it is well noticed, but not very influential.

I am aware that such a concise account of the musical history of the 20th century, as I have given it above, is always incomplete and, in a certain way, one-sided. My aim was to present the emergence of the contrast between classical concert music and the Afro-American styles, which can be felt painfully every day in music life both in the concert area as well as in schools and music schools, and which both the passing on of a musical awareness to the younger generation Blocked the development of sustainable forms of music.

Matthias Petzold, June 2008

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