Marks of diacritical distinction


I’ve been listening to a lot of modern music recently. This kind of music is sometimes called modern classical, or sometimes classical contemporary, but then movie-music composers (such as Hans Zimmer and John Williams) and even, perhaps inadvertently, Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, are included. So that won’t do as a term.

“Modern” and “classical” are actually non-overlapping magisteria, so to speak, so modern classical is a contradiction in terms. Classical music ended when Romanticism began — somewhere in the last movement of Beethoven’s Third, I believe.

Romanticism then falls between classical (Bach to Beethoven) and modern, which evolved some time in one of those very long movements with endless chromatic development by Wagner or Mahler. The origins of modernity itself are contested, so it’s no surprise that modernism in music might have any one of several starting points. (Giovanni Arrighi, when he updated his economic history, The Long 20th Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times, added a prelude section longer than the central text and going back to a hazy patch of the 1300s.)

There may also be an argument that, not only has the 20th century now ended, but so has modernity and we’re now into post-modernity, in which modernity and pre-modernity can coexist, moving ahead at varying rates — like a piece of music with different bits in different metres at the same time. I think particularly of Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances.

Technically, one should refer to Western Art Music, abbreviated WAM, when speaking of what is usually referred to as modern classical music. I like WAM20, meaning WAM of the 20th century, with a slight interest in what might have been produced in the 21st. Slight because I’m still processing the 20th century.

Mostly, I like composers with interesting names. Hence Satie, Varèse, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Nigg, Bax, Xenakis, Boulez, Eötvös, Janácek, Bartók, Husa, Takemitsu, Ferneyhough, and Birtwistle, of course. (I make exceptions for Cage and Crumb.) Some get extra points — I call it the Dvorák bonus — for unusual diacritical marks, as in Martinu. One seldom sees that little circle on top of a “u” (usually the Mail & Guardian’s typeface doesn’t allow it; we haven’t the full suite, it seems). Lutoslawski is favoured for the sake of the little transverse crossbar in the middle of his surname.

It’s seldom worth going by first names, because so many are so plain. Satie is Erik instead of Eric, but that’s just a tweak. At least Milhaud is a Darius, which not many people have been named since the last Persian emperor of that name was defeated by Alexander the Great at Gaugamela in 331BCE. Martinu, happily, has the forename Bohuslav, though it sounds like a sub-ethnicity; if you told me the Bohuslavs are a tribe who live in mountain caves, I’d believe you.

And now, although it’s rather dull, I have to listen to (Iannis — not bad) Xenakis’s work for solo percussion, Pléïades, simply because it has such good accents.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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