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

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Personal Finance Editor: Cutting out the middle man could spell disaster for employees and consumers alike

Simon Read
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch  

Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes tell you what to think. Don't let them

Memphis Barker
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week