As has been true of all periods, music of the last hundred or so years is related to past traditions yet has developed modes of expression that are distinctly modern and depart from earlier practices. Works of art are always in some respect reflective of the time in which they were created and, conversely, shape our perception of the period in which they were produced. Some music readily speaks to us because we are in some way connected to its historical and cultural context, yet often the closer works of art are to us in time, the more alien and inaccessible they seem. This is not a new phenomenon. Artists have traditionally been visionaries, creators of new ways of experiencing and communicating that challenge our comprehension. Insight into the circumstances of a work’s genesis and what the composer set out to accomplish can help us listen with more sympathy and understanding.
In the early decades of the 20th century, many creative artists were reacting against the aesthetics and values of Romanticism. The composer Igor Stravinsky and the painter/sculptor Pablo Picasso are among the important figures whose works reflect their interest in tribal societies and the primitive, ritualistic dimension of the human psyche that was the subject of Freud’s research and writings. One of the most radical departures from past music traditions was Arnold Schoenberg’s “method of composing with twelve tones” that rejected principles of a key center and the distinction between consonance and dissonance that had been the foundation of Western music for centuries. Because of the absence of a tonic, twelve-tone music is often called “atonal,” a term to which Schoenberg objected, or “serial” because the compositional technique involves manipulation of a germinal series of pitches. Schoenberg’s theoretical writings and his serial works have had great impact on subsequent generations of composers. While twelve-tone describes Schoenberg’s compositional procedure, his style is classified as expressionist. Expressionism was an early 20th-century movement that sought to reveal through art the irrational, subconscious reality and repressed primordial impulses postulated and analyzed in the writings of Freud.
Another important development during the early decades of the 20th century was awakening of interest among American visual artists, novelists, poets, playwrights, choreographers, and composers in creating works that reflected a distinctly American, as opposed to a European, sensibility. In music, the renowned Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who visited the United States during the 1890s, challenged Americans to compose their own music based on native folk materials. His own Symphony # 9 (1893), written during his stay in America, was evocative of the African American spiritual. By the 1920s American composers like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland were incorporating the rhythms and blues tonality of jazz into their symphonic works. Gershwin’s 1924 piece, Rhapsody in Blue, is the best-known work from this genre. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Copland, Gershwin, Virgil Thomson, and Roy Harris drew from an array of American folk styles including spirituals, blues, cowboy songs, folk hymns, and fiddle tunes in composing their populist symphonic works.
American composers of the early 20th century also sought to create distinctly new works by engaging in radical experimentation. Charles Ives, writing in the first two decades of the century, was the first American to move away from the Romantic European conventions of form and style by employing dissonance, atonality, complex rhythms, and nonlinear structures. These ideas were continued by the American experimental composers Henry Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow, Edgar Varèse, and Ruth Crawford Seeger in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1940s and into the post–World War II years, American avant-garde composer John Cage would challenge listeners to completely rethink what constituted music and art through his radically experimental works that drew from new technology, performance art, and Eastern systems of thought and aesthetics. Cage paved the way for the so-called “downtown” New York experimental scene that broke down barriers between music, visual art, performance, and so forth. Cage’s interest in non-Western music inspired the minimalist composers including Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, who would draw on African and Asian musical systems in the 1960s and 1970s.
This interest in non-Western music in the last 50 years is a result of the unprecedented contact between different cultures. For most of human history, musical repertories have evolved largely in isolation from one another, so musical experiences have been principally confined to the music of an individual’s own immediate culture. Today the opportunities to hear music and the types of music that are available have expanded dramatically as a result of modern technology and increased contact among peoples. Modern modes of travel and communication and technologies for recording music invented since the end of the 19th century have removed barriers that isolated different musical traditions and repertories from each other. A typical music store in the United States today has sections devoted to recordings covering the entire span of European classical music from the Middle Ages to the present, world music, and repertories that evolved during the 20th century such as jazz and rock. Music from distant times and places is also featured in the programming of some radio stations, television stations, and online music sites. Residents of large cities and those living near college campuses have opportunities to hear live performances by musicians trained in other cultural traditions or specializing in early music, as well as concerts by orchestras, opera companies, and soloists performing standard classical repertory. For musicians, the globalization of music has opened new doors and dissolved old boundaries. Performers study and gain mastery in repertoires of cultures other than their own, and composers can draw on literally the entire world of music in creating new crossover styles.
Modern technology has made possible not only the preservation and broad dissemination of music, but has also become a source for the generation and manipulation of musical sounds. One of the earliest devices that created musical sounds by electronic means, the Theremin (named after its inventor, the Russian scientist, Leon Theremin) was introduced in the early 1920s. Using the numerous technologies that were developed in the following decades, composers recorded musical tones or natural sounds that they transformed by mechanical and electronic means and sometimes supplemented with others generated electronically in a studio. This raw material was then assembled for playback, either as a self-sufficient composition or combined with live performance. Today, technology-based composition has become a widely available process through the storage of sound samples in home computers. Synthesized, sampled, and digitally altered sounds are commonly used for special effects in popular music, movie scores, and works for the concert hall. There is also a repertory in which the tone color dimension of sound is what the work is about. Comparable to the abstract painter whose materials are the basic elements of shape and color, the composer constructs a succession of aural events of unique tone color, dynamics, and registration.