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Accompanying history

The dissonance of the 20th century echoes in the works of its classical composers.

October 28, 2007|Alex Ross | Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, is the author of "The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century."

Composers' careers were also changed, sometimes severed, by the ordeal of exile. In the 1930s and '40s, the neighborhoods of Los Angeles filled with refugees from totalitarianism -- among them Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, the opposing giants of musical modernism in the first part of the century. Both lived on streets north of Sunset Boulevard -- Schoenberg on North Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood, Stravinsky on North Wetherly Drive in Hollywood. Each attempted to Americanize himself, with amusing results. Stravinsky composed a ballet piece for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, mastering the challenge of writing for 50 dancing elephants. Schoenberg had a legendary, unsuccessful meeting at Paramount Studios with Irving Thalberg, who wanted him to write a film score; the Austrian atonalist spoiled his pitch by demanding, among other things, compositional control over the rise and fall of the actors' voices. Nonetheless, Schoenberg adapted to California life with surprising ease: He listened to UCLA football on the radio, wore wacky polka-dot ties and once made fun of a student's composition by galloping around the room and shouting "Hi-yo, Silver!"

With the end of the war came another, even more emphatic, rejection of the past. This time, many of the young composers were literally traumatized by the hellishness that Hitler had unleashed. Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, a communist partisan, had part of his face blown off by a British shell in the last months of the war. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, as a teenage medical orderly, had inserted straws into the mouths of still-breathing soldiers whose faces had melted. Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti lost most of his family in the Holocaust. All of them felt an acute, moral compulsion to start fresh in the music they wrote after the war. Stalinism also left a kind of stain; the spacious, plain-spoken, "open prairie" sound of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and "Fanfare for the Common Man" came under political scrutiny in the Cold War era, as if tonal writing and fellow traveling went hand in hand.

In the U.S., the diaspora of emigre composers in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere led to unexpected consequences. Schoenberg's 12-tone method of composition, in which no note in the 12-note chromatic scale should repeat before the others had sounded, became a kind of cult object among young Americans, who saw in it a super-sophisticated, hipper-than-thou language, a mirror image of rapid-fire bebop cool. One young experimenter, La Monte Young, studying at Berkeley in the late '50s, decided to elongate the notes in the Schoenberg series until they turned into mesmerizing drones. His colleague, Terry Riley, proceeded to transform that style into minimalism -- a music of steady pulses, stripped-down melodies and gradual chord changes. The last great revolution in 20th-century composition happened in 1964, when Riley's "In C," a semi-psychedelic experience in which players improvise on given melodies, was played at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Neither classical nor popular music was quite the same afterward.

During the 20th century, composers felt the sting of politics, but they did not do politicians' bidding. Of all the arts, music is the least controllable, the most elusive; Shostakovich demonstrated as much by writing ostensibly heroic Soviet symphonies in which listeners perceived all manner of subversive energies and secret lamentations. Copland, a gay Jewish left-winger from Brooklyn, inadvertently lent his "Americana" sound to any number of Republican campaign commercials; no filmmaker can evoke the innate goodness of rolling fields of corn and wheat without Coplandesque hymns on the soundtrack. Only a few degrees of separation fall between Schoenberg's angst-ridden Viennese utterances and the heroin anthems of the Velvet Underground. Extremes became their opposites over time.

Classical music is still coming to terms with its volcanic 20th century legacy. One hundred years after Schoenberg's first radical experiments, audiences grumble when the composer's name appears on concert programs. Yet modern works are slowly creeping into the heart of the repertory. Shostakovich's symphonies and Bela Bartok's concertos have become popular showpieces; Leos Janacek's and Benjamin Britten's operas play regularly at opera houses. Meanwhile, young composers who came of age in the era of the Internet are pilfering rhythms from hip-hop, learning do-it-yourself marketing from indie rock, publishing their own music and recordings and chronicling their careers on blogs. Composers may be on the cultural margins, but they are free to express themselves in an exhilarating variety of voices. An art form that once seemed on the verge of extinction has begun all over again, in a new key of C.

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