Why the shock of the new was so much more shocking to musical audiences

Plus: The dedication to A Chorus Line is out of step and why People Like Us has nothing to fear but fear itself

Related Topics

It was curiously gratifying to learn, last week, that Darmstadt – that sanctum sanctorum of new musical experiment – was quite often emblematised by an image of the Hochzeitsturm, a Jugendstil tower in the town with a profile that looks as if it's an architectural rendering of the gesture the Americans call “flipping the bird” – a single-digit salute that invites its recipient to depart without further conversation. This fitted a personal prejudice. Like quite a lot of people I've never really known what to make of serial music, or how you might go about enjoying it in anything but a punitively cerebral way. That is, I can understand people submitting to it as an intellectual exercise and even relishing the challenge it presents to inherited musical tradition. But I have some difficulty in imagining anyone putting on a recording of Luigi Nono or Karlheinz Stockhausen, say, for reasons of pure pleasure. What's more I couldn't help but feel that my alienation, as an ordinary listener, was always part of the point as far as its practitioners were concerned. There was a Millwall-supporters quality to the tight sodality of hard-line serialists – “everybody hates us, we don't care” – which seemed to be perfectly summed up by that five-fingered tower.

I saw the poster that stirred this thought in The Sound and The Fury, BBC Four's useful (for outsiders, at least) introduction to the history of 20th-century music. And coincidentally I'd just come from an exhibition that celebrated another fraternity (they were almost exclusively men) of radical experimenters – the Barbican's exhibition Dancing Around the Bride, which details the impact on four very significant American artists of the work of Marcel Duchamp. In both cases old forms were being abandoned and old verities about art being overthrown. In both cases the definitions of what might count as "art" or "music" were being expanded to the point that more conservative audiences were distressed and even angry. But the outcomes from these two cultural developments were very different. They can, crudely, be summed up by box office.

Tate Modern, the inheritor of a Duchamp-ian tradition of conceptual art, is now one of the capital's biggest attractions. Contemporary classical music, by contrast, remains something of a difficult sell. Audiences for the former can be counted in millions. For the latter in thousands.

I'm not making claims about the respective merits of the art, only noting that a large audience was able to accommodate itself to new concepts in visual art in a way that never really happened with the musical avant-garde. And I found myself wondering why that should be as I went round the Barbican. My best guess would be that visual art was less fearful of pleasure. Its declaration of independence from the past was to abandon representation – an unmissable badge of difference which wasn't as easily accessible to composers. Music was obliged to break with melody instead, and so severed a cord that might possibly have towed an unsettled and uncertain audience behind it.

What was striking about The Sound and the Fury's account of Darmstadt was the doctrinal severity of the movement. What was striking about Dancing Around the Bride was the sense of restraints being thrown off – and a kind of tripping delight at the very different forms pleasure could now take.

And there can't be much doubt that the end result in each case was very different. Where Darmstadt gave the audience the finger, Duchamp – and his admirers – beckoned them in.

Chorus Line quote's out of step

Before this week, I didn't know that the dedication to A Chorus Line, triumphantly revived this week, is "to anyone who has ever danced in a chorus or marched in step... anywhere". It seems recklessly over-generous to me. Anywhere? Really? Even Nuremberg, where the storm-troopers high-kicked their way to a sense of Aryan supremacy? Or North Korea? I think I know what Michael Bennett was getting at – that melting away of identity that accompanies all kinds of human synchronisation, from line-dancing to army drill – but I still feel he could have been a little more picky about who he welcomed into the hoofers' club.

Nothing to fear but fear itself

Troubling to see that People Like UsBBC3's documentary about Harpurhey in Manchester – has been accused of leaning on the scales in its account of the community. Some locals are apparently furious at the way they've been depicted and the local MP has taken up their cause. But some of the complaints were a little baffling. One of those protesting was Lisa Walker, whose son Dale featured. She's reportedly indignant that his apprenticeship wasn't mentioned and seems to feel he was presented as a wastrel. But I thought that Dale was charming – full of an enterprise limited only by lack of opportunity. Which made me wonder if some of the protestors are furious about the reactions they fear they'll get, rather than those they have.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Assistant - Travel

£15500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Mechanic

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Auto centre is based in We...

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Technician

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established dealer gr...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: Greek Yes voters were so shy they didn’t even turn up to the polling stations

John Rentoul
epa04832814 Supporters of the 'No' campaign wave flags and react after the first results of the referendum at Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, 05 July 2015. Greek voters in the referendum were asked whether the country should accept reform proposals made by its creditors. 10367444  

Greek referendum: As Greece spirals towards disaster, a new era of extremist politics begins

Daphne Halikiopoulou
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate