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Avant-Garde and Modernism

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Avant-Garde and Modernism

I make no apologies for postings inspired by writings of Richard Taruskin for the simple reason that most of what he writes is both interesting and provocative--something not true of most writing on music. But it is a bit surprising to be alerted to the aesthetic virtues of a 20th century composer by Prof. Taruskin. Still, there it is. The composer is Stefan Wolpe discussed in the essay "Optimism amid the Rubble" in the collection The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays. My title comes from one brilliant throw-away paragraph that illuminates a distinction that I had been unaware of:
Avant-garde and modernist, though often interchanged, are far from synonyms. Where "avant-garde," originally a military term, properly connotes a combative, countercultural position, "modernist" has long come to imply an entrenched (indeed, a tenured) high-cultural one. The avant-garde is an outsider faction; modernists are insiders. One faction challenges authority; the other wields it. One stands to gain, the other to lose. And so one is optimistic, the other pessimistic. Wolpe's optimism, by turns exuberant and serene, shines through the craggy surface of his work and wins it new friends. It energizes listeners.
Richard Taruskin. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Kindle Locations 714-717). Kindle Edition.
 The piece by Wolpe that Taruskin directs our attention to is Piece in Three Parts from 1961:


My own stance towards 20th century avant-garde composers like Wolpe, whose name I have heard, but whose music I didn't know, is ambiguous. I went through something of an apostasy towards the whole fraught enterprise, but then have had to return to it and work through the whole history again. It is fascinating to read Taruskin's brief recounting of Wolpe's difficulty with Stalinism in the Soviet Union despite being a committed communist his whole life:
Wolpe was disillusioned by the postwar political crackdown in the Soviet Union, too. The humiliation of Prokofieff horrified him. It confirmed and intensified his avant-gardism--his commitment to oppose all established power, which, he now saw, was by definition reactionary and intolerant of difference.
Richard Taruskin. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Kindle Locations 730-731). Kindle Edition.
Taruskin hangs his essay on a perplexing little quote from Wolpe:
"It is good to know how not to know how much one is knowing," Stefan Wolpe told an audience of young California composers in 1959. New York's most idiosyncratic serialist, a former dadaist approaching his seventh decade, was trying to keep them young at a time when modern music was going gray.
Richard Taruskin. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Kindle Locations 684-686). Kindle Edition.
Which reminds me of a passage in the Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas where he is discussing the relationship between the Good and the Beautiful:
"Good" and "beautiful" have the same reference but differ in meaning. For the good, being what all things want, is that in which the appetite comes to rest; whereas the beautiful is that in which the appetite comes to rest through contemplation or knowledge ... "Beautiful" therefore adds to "good" a reference to the cognitive powers, "good" refers simply to that in which the appetite takes pleasure, but "beautiful" refers to something the mere apprehension of which gives pleasure.
[Quoted in The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas by Umberto Eco, p. 36.]
Apprehension, that is to say, knowledge of--the knowledge of, apprehension of, beauty, gives pleasure. But sometimes, we just think we know what beauty is and we would be better off not knowing how much we are knowing.


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