Modern music

By Source, Fair use,

The Pianoduo Festival under the artistic leadership of the Dutch Pianoduo Scholtes & Janssens took place for the fifth time in Amsterdam this year and October 13th I attended a concert titled Modern Masters. Before the concert musicologist Leo Samama gave a short lecture on North American Classical music after the second World War. The concert of the Maltese-Belgian duo Gabi Sultana & Mirek Coutigny consisted of works for piano duo of well – and not so well – known US composers. Most of the works where written for two pianos but some were also played four handedly on one piano.

Classical music is not my expertise nor main interest but this event attracted me for a couple of reasons. When I found out about this festival, I was surprised to learn that there exists such a body of works written for two pianos or two pianists. I must admit that the term piano duo first brought to my mind the sort of “adapted” duo performances Victor Borge was famous for 😉

I had heard such repertoire before but always thought these works were more of peculiarities and outliers in the larger corpora of composers. And they probably are, but apparently there are enough compositions, not only to justify a dedicated festival, but also enable a group of pianists to specialise in this repertoire. A quick googling revealed that there are thousands of compositions written for more than one piano and/or more than two hands, although I couldn’t find many of the evenings works in these listings.

East coast vs West coast

Although the North American developments were also discussed during my musicology studies at the University of Amsterdam, I don’t recall the different approaches to music in opposite sides of United States being discussed in the terms Samama did in his lecture. He pointed out, that while the composers on the East coast where closely following developments in Europe and continuing the continental tradition of progressivist modernism, the West coast composers looked the other way to Hawaii, Japan and the rest of Asia for inspiration. They were also more interested in how the folk, rock and pop artists made music than in their more scientifically minded colleagues at the East coast.

Looking across fences

Artists were of course looking across the genre “fences” from the rock and pop side as well. Towards the mid 1960s e.g. members of The Beatles started getting interested in broadening their musical horizons, each in their own way. George Harrison turned to Indian philosophy and music, Paul McCartney was more interested in honing his composing skills inspired by the Western art music tradition and John Lennon was more oriented with the folk ways of making music.  As they worked out their musical ideas largely together in the studio, the final recorded versions were likely to a combination of many of the above directions. So e.g. the Norwegian Wood of John Lennon is a folk song with some Indian influences.

But whenever they have the chance people tend to look over the fences everywhere. Some 20 years later the Japanese author Haruki Muarakami wrote the novel Noruwei no Mori inspired by Lennon’s song. In 2010 Tran Anh Hung directed a film based on the book. The levels of cultural and linguistic translation as well as the artistic experiences travelling through time and space in these works are intriguing, but have to be discussed another time.

The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album inspired e.g. The Beach Boys to make their Pet Sounds to which again The Beatles responded with the Revolver album. For Eleanor Rigby Paul McCartney asked the producer George Martin to write a string arrangement.

All these and other experiments went on in the rock/pop circles leading up to the Progressive Rock of the 1970s and on.

Artistic reactions to World War II

The East and West coast composers had also a different reaction to the horrors of World War II. The rise of the Nazis drove most of the left leaning – mostly Jewish – intellects to exile, many across the Atlantic. Among those immigrating to the US before and during the World War were e.g. the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky and nearly all of the Frankfurt School philosophers. They had witnessed first hand the Enlightenment project leading to sentimental National Romantic ideals and together with unchecked emotions resulted in the concentration camps and genocide.

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant. (Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectics of Enlightenment (1947))

What the Nazis called the “Final Solution” has been viewed as the “unexpected” result of a blind belief in technological progress. Nevertheless, this hasn’t been enough to everyone away from modernist beliefs, and the response of composers on the East coast – although Schoenberg actually lived in California – was to dig deeper into the modernist scientific approach to music-making; incorporating the latest technologies and theories to create new music that would be more “rational” rather than emotional in content. Some referred this development as the “American academic avant-garde”, although views differ on this.

Also in Europe this kind of thinking prevailed in the so-called Darmstadt school, to which the above quoted Adorno was also a frequent attendee. The Darmstadt school composers first continued working on the ideas of composers the Nazis had oppressed, such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warshaw is one of the best known early musical responses to the Holocaust.

Composed using the twelve tone technique Schoenberg had been developing already before the war, the Survivor is an expressionistic commemoration of the horrors Jews faced during the war. Luigi Nono, one of the most prominent members of the Darmstadt school, continued Schoenberg’s musical legacy. While not directly reacting to the war, Nono’s strongly Marxist criticism in his work in the decade after the war is in line with Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critic mentioned above.

On the West coast, however, composers like Steve Reich and John Cage started looking into ways of making music which were less hierarchical in the traditional sense where the composer writes down his musical ideas in a set of instructions, the score, and the musicians perform – or execute – them. The more conceptual approach of composers and artists like Reich and Cage grew into the  Fluxus movement in the 1960s aspiring to move away from “art works” and emphasising processes – of creation as well as experience. One of the most extreme experiments in this direction was Cage’s composition 4’33”, which questions the very nature of music as sound, let alone the roles of composer, performer and listener/audience. The Dutch philosopher Rob van Gerwen has called it perhaps “the greatest work of art that 20th century has produced, but it is not a piece of music.”

I warmly recommend to also watch the audience responses to this performance. They’re very telling of what we normally expect from a performance and what may happen when these expectations are not met 🙂

I’ll stop here for now. I’ll be back shortly with a few words about the actual performance that evening.


This is a poster for Fences (film). The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist.

I’ve written about music and film a couple of times before and although Denzel Washington’s latest film Fences is not about music and in fact has very little music in it, walking out of the cinema I thought it was an experience I’d like to share. Music has a role in the film as well, but it was the experience of watching this film in a sold out hall that I’d like to focus on here. This is also why I’ve included this post in the Gigs category.

One of the scenes, that for me came closest to an experience I usually have in concerts, didn’t have music playing at all. The film, however, is a good example of effective use of music in ways that serve the story – or are a part of it. But most of all I was reminded that watching a film in cinema is a social event, however little social interaction there might be – which is often preferable.

Fences is a story of a working class African American family trying to get by the best they can in a 1950’s post second World War but pre-Civil Rights Era suburban town. The main character is a man played by Denzel Washington who’s taking his role as the head of his family very seriously but, although he loves his family, he thinks it’s enough – or doesn’t know better than – to show it by providing them with material well-being to the best of his abilities.

Music first enters the story as the main character Troy’s eldest son walks in the house to borrow money. The son is trying to make a living as a musician and his father doesn’t approve. Although, as discussed before, music has provided professional opportunities to many African Americans, it’s been an uncertain bread bringer at bes and not a much more respected profession African Americans than it has in the mainstream society.

Watching together – Silence

As said, most of the film doesn’t have music at all. The “musical” experience I mentioned above was a moment in the scene, a part of which you can see in the trailer above, in which Troy is telling some very unpleasant news to his wife (I don’t want to spoil this for those who haven’t seen the film yet). Once he’s spilled out the words there’s a long silences as the words sink in, as much for the wife hearing the news, Troy waiting for her reaction and the audience watching the drama.

This intense moment of silence reminded me of my favourite moments in concerts; the endings of a performance where the whole hall – or whatever performance space – in intense stillness hangs on the last sounds as they fade away. In such moments one can kind of feel time. Every passing second, as the sounds fade, we come to terms with the performance we’ve witnessed and (hopefully) appreciate the efforts the artists have made to create it for us. In the scene of Fences I described above, the tension of between the characters was palpable as the sold out hall of around 100 people were sitting in silence and living the moment with the characters on the screen.

Like all performances, such moments are unique. Although this film is exactly the same every time it’s projected, the audiences are different. I’ve noticed it lately to be quite rare that audiences have the patience to keep quite in such moments. This can be also heard in the clip below (at 5’20”) where after the solo performance of Lars Danielsson starts to clap while the last notes are still ringing.

Music in storytelling

In Fences, music proper only enters the story after the above described scene; after the story takes a turn in the Golden Cut.  We see Troy in blue thoughts at the bar while Dinah Washington sings You Don’t Know What Love Is (“until you’ve learned the meaning of the Blues”) in the background. Washington’s bluesy interpretation is a great choice, but also realistic as a contemporary of the story.

This scene also introduces Troy singing an old folk song Old Blue to himself, which helps bring closure to his relation to his youngest son in the end of the film. Again, I don’t want to disclose too much of the story not to spoil it for the “uninitiated” 😉

Troy sings Old Blue as an unaccompanied Blues, whereas all the versions I could find of it are in more country or American folk style. In Troy’s Blues rendition the dog of the story seems to be himself, which in the end his youngest son also realises helping him to make peace with his father.

Thus, in Fences we have music being part of the story – as it is part of life – in good and in (perceived) bad as well as accompanying life. Most impressive for me, however, was the performative similarity of the experience of that intense silence in the cinema. It takes a strong performance to capture an audience in a way that it stays silent for longer than 5 seconds and Fences, at least last night, it worked.

With various streaming services gaining popularity among music and film lovers alike, I find it good to keep in mind that there’s more to listening to music and watching films together as part of an audience, than individual pleasure of listening and watching art being performed while sitting on the coach at home and/or with headphones on. But more about this another time. While I think music will always be performed, with films it’s a bit different and we’ll have to see how things develop.

Meanwhile, go to movies! 😀

Music and Film


I’ve been lately intrigued by the different ways in which music is used in films and would like to share some of my thoughts in light of a few specific examples.

Most films and tv series have a theme song or music in the beginning and end, but there are others, mostly outside or in the margins of the mainstream films, in which music is used very sparsely. In many films music is also participating in the storytelling, or even has its own agency. Such techniques were already perfected by Richard Wagner with his aspiration for “Gesamtkunstwerk”; an artwork where all the artistic elements – music, poetry, acting, staging, lighting, etc. – serve more or less equally in the telling of the story. Some film composers, such as John Williams (e.g. Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potter), have taken their cue from Wagner and Wagnerian devices such as leitmotifs can be found in their works.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, without the preceding Ligeti piece.

The director Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, chose to use mainly existing compositions in his films. While there may have been an economical motivation for this practice at some point of Kubrick’s career, the artistic rationale for his choices of music are intriguing. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) begins with a fragment (ca 3 min) of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères while displaying a blank screen. This is followed by the “Sunrise” fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, beginning the composition’s journey towards one of the most used pieces of music in films up to the point of being a cliché. Both compositions are used in the film as leitmotifs. There juxtaposition, however, add another layer of reference to the film – with a real life element. While Ligeti admired Kubrick’s work, he wasn’t fond of being placed in such proximity with 19th century composers (Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau is played during a scenes picturing a moonwalk and docking to a space station), nor the fact that Kubrick failed to obtain the rights for using Ligeti’s music in the film.

The space station docking scene with Strauss’ An der schönen blauen Donau. I love the way he takes his time with this scene. Something you don’t see in contemporary films very often.

These juxtapositions, however, are very powerful in anchoring the film’s depictions of future to the cultural heritage of the viewer (in a rather western-centric manner), but also supporting the main storyline of human evolution. Music in this film is also able to draw lines between the distant moments in the human evolution the film portrays and centre them to the present.

A Clockwork Orange

Poster of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwor Orange from 1971.
Poster of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange from 1971.

In A Clockwork Orange (1971, also by Kubrick) music has an important agency. (Spoiler alert: The end of the film is revealed.) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the culmination of symphonic composition, plays an important role as part of the “cure” of the overly violent main protagonist. The Hollywood hit Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is sung by the protagonist while performing his violent acts.

The Singin’ in the Rain scene from A Clockwork Orange.

While this juxtaposition of a popular, happy song from a family film and extreme violence is certainly effective in underlining the madness of the protagonist, one could also argue that the music in this film adds another dimension to the story about a man who doesn’t fit into the society (to put it mildly). Musically, the film would seem to claim that popular culture is the problem and the Classical music and culture (including science) are the solution, or “cure” – for the protagonist in a very concrete way. But this “cure” is applied by re-conditioning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (fourth movement), which the main protagonist also listened quite voluntarily earlier in the film, through the Ludovico Technique. In fact, it is his keenness on music – and “Ludwig van” particularly – that “cures” him as he is forced to witness the violation of this art in the test.

The Ludovico Technique scene from A Clockwork Orange.

So the question remains, whether the music used in this film is a statement of the particular kinds of music and their place/role/status in the society or is that relation arbitrary in the overall scheme of the film to portray the fringes of our social norms? In short, nothing in Clockwork Orange is quite what it seems and I’d recommend you to not only watch it, if you already haven’t (and if you can stomach it), but also to do some reading on the contradictory reception of this film. My apologies for spoiling the end here, but the film is more about the process the main protagonist goes through rather than the end result, in my view.

Deux jours, une nuit

As the icing on the cake as well as a form of catharsis, two exquisite musical interludes drift into the dialogue-fuelled effort as a way of re-setting the momentum. Sarah Ward (

While Kubrick was certainly aware of the interpretative layers music was adding to his works, and the extent to which they were in his control, many film makers – mainly outside of Hollywood – seem to be rather cautious in their use of music. I recently saw Deux jours, une nuit (2014) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which is a great example of this. First, there’s no music during the opening or closing credits. In fact, the film has music in only two scenes, both of which happen in a car and the music is played by the protagonists through the car stereo. Music in this film is part of the storytelling, but it’s not telling the story but rather part of the story, part of the protagonists’ life:   In the first scene, the husband of the main protagonist plays music from the car stereo while they’re driving, but the main protagonist asks him to turn it off as in her current mental state she cannot handle it. On the other scene there’s a third person in the card as well, things are looking promising and Van Morrison’s Gloria from the radio provides them with an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate the moment.

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