Like They’ve Never Heard Before
As I’ve mentioned once or twice before on NewMusicBox, I’m getting ready to teach a month-long continuing education course on radical American music before World War II. To that end, I recently checked Carol Oja’s Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s out of my university library (to which I’ll have access for only a few short months more). I haven’t finished it yet, but the first half held my interest ably during the flight from Minneapolis to BWI. Although the particulars of some of Oja’s attempts to situate and contextualize prewar music within the long 20th century will probably seem a little narrow to readers with a more robust knowledge of postwar and more recent musics, as a work of cultural history I recommend the book highly.
I found Oja’s writing on George Antheil especially noteworthy. The futuristic pseudoscience and chest-thumping self-aggrandizement that adorn Antheil’s hyper-rhetorical manifestos are leavened by impossibly forward-thinking observations about musical material and form. About the infamous Ballet Mécanique, Antheil wrote that “it was conceived in a new form, that form specifically being the filling out of a certain time canvas with musical abstractions and sound material composed and contrasted against one another with the thought of time values rather than tonal values.” Had anyone said things like this before the 1920s? It’s a revolutionarily explicit foregrounding of the linear category of time, which Antheil made explicit as “the space of our musical canvas.” Rather than understand musical experience as a symbolic or agonistic play of events, Antheil—probably, now that I think of it, drawing a conclusion or two from the music of Debussy and especially Satie—proposed a quantitative view of that which had previously been conceivable only qualitatively.
This isn’t a wholesale endorsement of everything Antheil ever wrote in words or in notes, but—as part of a larger argument about the creative agitations of American ultramodernism—I think this point is worth remarking on. The notion of musical clock-time’s independence from agogic time is almost as crucial to postwar modernism as the notion of breaking down musical sound as graduated parameters. It’s very possible that there are clear antecedents here that I’m failing to notice—it wouldn’t be the first time Henry Cowell beat someone to the prescient punch, for instance—and, if so, I hope someone will chime in and set us straight. In any case, as we charge into the New Year, do celebrate the possibility that—like Antheil—something you’re thinking about right now might be on everyone’s mind in a few decades.