No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents

The high modernism of Schoenberg and his followers seems to bring out a contradiction in the general understanding of a common practice that I think is worth pausing over. An old composition teacher of mine used to reminisce, bitterly, about “the situation” in the academy in the 1950s and ’60s. “Ostracized” as a composer of tonal music, he had difficulty breaking into the ranks of university music departments, which he complained were completely dominated by serialism. It sounds like he may have been suffering at the hands of a common practice that was not his own.

For all the talk about a post-tonal Tower of Babel, modernism often ends up sounding univocal, especially when described by composers who did not embrace it. Joseph Straus has convincingly exploded the myth of serial tyranny in the United States, showing that serial composers “were represented roughly 15 percent of the time” in academic positions, performances, publications, recordings, prizes, and attention in the press during the 1950s and 1960s (“The Myth of Serial ‘Tyranny’ in the 1950s and 1960s,” Musical Quarterly 83/3, Fall 1999, pp. 301-43).

The misplaced memory of these composers’ exaggerated influence shows the power that a common practice (even one as contested and volatile as serialism) wields to represent and distort our perceptions of historical periods. Furthermore, the exclusion that many felt as a result of serialism’s role in the American academy is an example of the disciplining function of a common practice. The commonality of this particular common practice was therefore simultaneously an embrace of its followers and a dismissal of those who chose other paths, not only in the prestige-economy of the university, but in how we view our history. This is a problem with any attempt at codifying a common practice.

The movement my teacher found to be so alienating grew out of Schoenberg’s desire to codify the fragmented techniques that were blossoming in the wake of tonality’s disappearance from European elite music. By 1950, serialism had been positioned as a state-supported international style over and against the nationalist styles of the Communist Bloc. Though originating in Germany and Austria, serialism became consolidated in the United States as later serialist language acquired an air of universalism reminiscent of the first common practice period.

A rhetoric of internationalism aided the ascendance of the U.S. on the global political stage, which in turn provided a sense of historical necessity or naturalness to American hegemony during the cold war. Serialism was positioned as the musical manifestation of this new internationalism. Again, this ostensibly “liberal” support of an institutionalized avant-garde was in practice not simply a universal embrace of innovative cultural production, but also an exclusion and dismissal of those who did not fall under its umbrella.

The important difference between the original common practice period and serialism’s attempt at creating a new international musical language in the middle of the 20th century was that economic forces had by now segmented the global consumer market to such an extent that the audience for academic or elite music was only one—a small one—among many. The imperative to construct and maintain a universal musical language after 1950 might be regarded as an aesthetic-ideological holdover. And, with the decline of socialism in Eastern Europe, the network of global economic power had shifted enough that the authority of this aesthetic holdover was no longer tenable.

From No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents
by Benjamin Piekut
© 2004 NewMusicBox

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