How Should We Then Live? Chapter 10: Modern Music And Literature
Existential, modern philosophy first spread into the general population through paintings as seen in my previous article. After that musicians, poets, and novelists started in on the act. Musical elements that expressed the separation of man from meaning in life started in classical music. Later, similar elements were added to jazz and rock music.
Modern Music Development
The first one to start this shift in music was Ludwig van Beethoven in the Quartets he wrote in 1825 and 1826. His music can't be considered "modern" in that it expressed modern philosophical views. However, those who truly wrote modern music like Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) followed Beethoven's lead.
"These Quartets are my highest articles of musical belief (which is
a longer word for love, whatever else), as indispensable to the ways
and meaning of art, as a musician of my era thinks of art and has to
learn it, as temperature is to life."
Composer Arnold Schoenberg's (1874-1951) major innovation was the "12 tone row" which was inspired by Beethoven's Quartets. The signature of his sound was that it varied throughout the song. He built tension to the very end with no resolution. It mirrored Post-Impressionist painting's use of geometric forms to make visual abstraction and fragmentation. When listening to music like this you can actually feel the tension build up in your body.
This lack of resolution was in contrast to Bach's use of rhythmic diversity which ended in resolution. Bach's music was informed by the Reformation, so that the different rhythms and harmonies worked together. They fit, just as the Bible teaches a direction to history and that each individual is connected to God and to society through God's design. When the different elements come together you can feel a physical release of tension.
Following Schoenberg were Anton Webern (1885-1935), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), and John Cage (1912-1992). They all introduced non-resolution in new ways to music.
"his [Webern's] way of placing the weightier sounds on the offbeat
and perpetually varying the rhythmic phrase imparts to his music its
indefinable quality of "hovering suspension."
Stockhausen was the first person to make electronic music in Electronic Studies (1953 and 1954). He added many new kinds of sounds, some which sounded like music and others that didn't. The whurrs and whips he uses remind me of how a Theramin sounds. He wasn't making electronic sounds to mimic instruments like a trumpet. He was adding things that sound like other worldly or space sounds. He also added chance into his composition.
John Cage took Stockhausen's idea of composing by chance and ran with it.
"Cage believed the universe is a universe of chance, and to express
this he produced music by chance."
Ironically, he put much thought and preparation into making music by chance. He flipped a coin to make decisions. He made a machine which moved randomly to act as a conductor of an orchestra. He had two conductors who couldn't see each other lead the same orchestra. In one video I saw him sit at a piano, play a stop watch for 30 seconds and get up and walk away. In 1947 he made Music For Marcel Duchamp. So the ideas he was communicating were obvious. Just as Duchamp's nude person was so fractured there was no human, Cage's music was so irrational and fragmented that there was no music. To make that extremely obvious he even recorded silence. He philosophically tore music into pieces and threw it away.
But yet he knew he couldn't live in the real world like how he wrote music. He was a fan of eating mushrooms. One day he thought about applying chance to picking mushrooms to eat.
"I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of
my chance operation, I would die shortly."
There is a real world out there that requires logical and objective thinking to operate within. The creations of mankind must fit within the created order of nature to function. Even human ideas of beauty flow from acknowledging the order and logical design of an object. The designer of the Concorde airplane, Sir Archibald Russel was asked about his creation.
"Many people find that the Concorde is a work of art in its design.
Did you consider its esthetic appearance when you were designing
"When one designs an airplane, he must stay as close as possible to
the laws of nature. You are really playing with the laws of nature
and trying not to offend them."
The ironic thing about the ideas we have followed in music is that they are self-contradicting. Philosophers searched for meaning and values in the irrational or in the realm of non-reason. The artists recognized that meaning and values built on non-reason were illusory. They couldn't be certain in what meaning they assigned to their lives. They started to question if meaning and values exist at all. They then applied this disbelief in meaning to the physical world. They couldn't help but do that. You can't fragment your personal life from the world around you. There really are universals. But it is obvious that the physical world does not operate in an irrational way. Maybe events in your life seem chaotic, but the world itself follows certain physical laws. Your values shape your view of the material world and vice versa. For this to work you have to accept that meaning and values can only be found rationally and objectively. The universal that ties all the particulars of life together best is the God of the Bible. John Cages' music wasn't really music because it didn't follow this principle.
The next group that spread existential and modern philosophy were the poets, novelists, and screen writers. I will cover screen writers and movies in the next article. T.S. Eliot (1885-1965) was the first to add this philosophy to poetry in the English speaking world in 1922 with The Wasteland. Below is an excerpt:
Le Prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you.
Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih.
Now compare those words to Picasso's or Duchamp's paintings. Compare them to Cage's music. It is fragmented. It is absurd. The idea that there is a purpose to life is mocked. We know Eliot was communicating a world view because when he became a Christian later in life, his poetic style changed. He didn't move back to completely traditional poetry but what he was communicating was different, so his style changed to accommodate it. The picture at the top of the page is instructive since the cover art for the book is a fragmented painting of Eliot. The output of general culture communicates existential philosophy to the masses of society until the present day.
"Popular music, such as the elements of rock, brought to the young
people of the entire world the concept of a fragmented world - and
optimism only in the area of non-reason."
"Poetry, drama, the novel... carried these ideas to the mass of people
in a way that went beyond the other vehicles we have considered.
All of this gives us today an almost monolithic consensus, an
almost unified voice shouting at us a fragmented concept of the
universe and life.... We and our children now get this message from
every side -from art, music, general culture, modern theology, the
mass media, and often even comic books."
I can confirm that even comic books today communicate this philosophy. This wasn't true in the golden and silver ages of the 1940s-1960s. However, the anti-hero craze of the early 1990s could be tracked back to the philosophy described in this book. The rejection of reason for formulating values and meaning then crept back into science. Even scientists as genius as Albert Einstein pointed out that objectivity can't be found in science either. We will pick back up with this issue in the next article, explore how cinema was used to communicate philosophy, and finish up discussion of chapter 10. This chapter was very long but very important to understand how modern philosophy was disseminated into every nook and cranny of society. In 2021 we have all been saturated in this thinking.