The Music of Time

Posted: Jan 03, 2008 12:01 AM
The Music of Time

Dear Music Critic,

It was wholly assuring to learn that someone musically literate is also less than taken with the late but not great Anton Webern, the modernist composer whose strange little work, "Five Pieces," inspired some less than admiring words from me in a recent column.

But whereas I was amused by his modernism, you were appalled. Not just by Webern's discordant music but by his discordant life. As you point out, the German composer wound up a Nazi sympathizer and, in the chaos at the end of the Second World War, was accidentally shot and killed when he stepped outside his house for a smoke. What a ridiculous way to go, although it does match his music. It struck you, however, as poetic justice:

"How poetically just that his insignificant music was cut short by his need for a cigarette. How poetically just that his emotionless music was cut short in such an emotionless manner. How ironic that such calculated music should be cut short with so little calculation on either side. No composer's early death cost our civilization less, even had he not been a Nazi, which is amazing - such mathematical music reaching out for pagan irrationality!"

A cruel judgment, sir, if an all too accurate one.

Me, I'm not amazed that an artist who cuts himself off from the past would wind up without a future. What lends art, or life, meaning but its connection to what has gone before and will go on after? By composing in a void, relying only on abstract theory, Webern cut himself off from his own time-bound humanity. He was going to reinvent music, free it from its past, change it forever.

In that sense, Webern's utter rationality was irrational, for it denied the nature of man as a creature in time. Much as we may foolishly long for timelessness, that is not our province.

I understand that the American soldier who fired the fatal shot spent the rest of his life guilt-stricken. That GI may be the most human element in Anton Webern's story, for he was in touch with his humanity, and took responsibility for his actions.

All of which brings to mind what is emerging as the theme of the coming election year, which already seems to have arrived. It's pounced on us unexpectedly early, like a hungry tiger. Its mantra: Change.

Can a presidential candidate get through a speech without promising Change? It's as if they were all relying on the same focus group that decided what voters most want is Change! Which could be the mantra of all modernity itself. Change to what or from what or instead of what - all that goes unspecified.

There's no need to go into detail. We the People are simply expected to react favorably to any mention of Change. Call it the political version of a Pavlovian response. The marketing of presidential candidates still has more in common with selling soap than ideas.

When I took Advertising 101 in journalism school back in the age of teletypes and hot type, both of which now have the antique air of quill pens and parchment, I was told that the two most powerful words we could use in writing ad copy were New and You - a reflection of Americans' (1) constant infatuation with change, and (2) our complete self-absorption. At least that much hasn't changed.

Much like Anton Webern, we are so intoxicated by the blank, purely abstract future (A Bridge to the 21st Century!) that we lose touch with the very real past. And having forgotten it, we find ourselves on a bridge to nowhere, suspended in mid-air indefinitely.

And so, no longer anchored in the values of the past, much like Herr Professor Webern, we become prey to the ideology of the moment. In his sad case, it was National Socialism. If he'd been a Russian, it would have been the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. He had no ballast to keep him from being swept away. So we, too, run after ever novelty. Please, anything but the old and familiar, drab as prudence and gray as duty.

It's a familiar pattern: Note the star-stuck look in the eyes of the younger enthusiasts at any rally for a presidential candidate. Their candidate is going to change things forever. A new beginning!

But unless we maintain a bridge to the past, there will be nothing to pass on to the future, and we will find it as empty and unsatisfying as, well, as Webern's "Five Pieces," which is now only an historical curiosity itself.

Much as we fight against it, or even deny it, we're all destined to be part of the past. We can make it a meaningful or meaningless past, a full or empty one, a noble or base one, but we can't avoid becoming part of it - no matter how much we chant Change.

With a sigh, and a smile.

Inky Wretch