Facts About Music Modernism

Written by justin schamotta
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Facts About Music Modernism
Modernism relates to a desire to explore new musical horizons. (Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

In music, modernism relates to compositions and performances that break with the past and accepted practice. Modernism may display elements of surrealism and anti-romanticism, as well as a more general intellectualism. It began toward the end of the 19th century as a reaction to the increasing scale of forces used in orchestras. The National University of Singapore says that there are four characteristics of modernism in music.

Desire for the New

Modernist musicians and composers seek to explore previously unheard modes of expression, as well as trying out new techniques and aesthetics. Igor Stravinsky shocked Russian audiences with the wildly irregular rhythms and extreme dissonance of his composition "The Rite of Spring" in 1913. Arnold Schoenberg invented the concept of serialism in an attempt to move beyond previous experiments with atonality. His abandonment of standard harmonic relationships and decision to compose using the 12 notes of the chromatic scale was a turning point in the development of modernist music.

Infiltration of the Popular

Modernists are concerned with introducing musical forms previously considered "high culture" to a new audience. Early composers such as Gustav Mahler provided a bridge between the traditional classical music of the 19th century and the modernism of the early 20th century. The music of jazz modernists such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong introduced a new generation to music in the '20s and '30s. In 1951, according to the Yale Review of Books, modernist jazz musician Charlie Parker performed for the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky, and incorporated some of the composer's own interpolations during a solo.

Performance as an Event

Modernist composers see the performance of a piece of music as an event in its own right. Some of the most famous modernist musical events include the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's "Poème Symphonique," which required 100 metronomes to be wound and left until they lacked momentum to emit any sound. Ligeti said the piece was a critique of the contemporary musical situation. In 1952, David Tudor performed a famous piece of music entitled "4'33''," by John Cage. It required the pianist to sit in front of a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds without playing a note.

Use of Technology

Modernists embraced technological advances and scientific developments. In the 1910s, futurist composers such as Luigi Russolo hoped to liberate music so that it could incorporate any noise. In 1958, the modernist composer Edgard Varese created an eight-minute-long "Poeme electronique" entirely on tape for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair. Varese used a collage of studio recordings, distorted bells, and piano sounds and bells, as well as altered recordings of choral music.

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