Yoknapatawpha Crossing

Merit-based economies and Schoenberg

with 2 comments

A few days ago I mentioned reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and said it was good and fun and all, but not outstanding. Well, it’s been turning over in my mind, and the more I think about it the more appealing I find his whole idea of a merit-based economy. I’ve got no idea if this is something that other people have written about previously or what, but Doctorow sets his story in a society that no longer uses money; science has advanced to the point where all the necessities of life are essentially free for the taking. A person’s ‘worth,’ in this society, is determined by the amount of respect others have for them. Read about it here.

What got me thinking about this was Arnold Schoenberg, whom we’ve been studying in my music history class. Schoenberg was the first composer to develop any kind of coherent system for writing atonal music. Now, the phrase ‘systemetized atonal music’ is kind of misleading, because it makes it sound like such music would have an audible, coherent structure, which isn’t the case. Schoenberg spent some time before he developed his system, called serialism, writing atonal music without any particular blueprint. His suite Pierrot Lunaire is probably the most famous example of this. His efforts to devise a system for writing atonal music that didn’t rely on an external text for structure ultimately led to his creation of serialism.

Serialism, or the twelve-tone system, was a method that allowed Schoeberg to compose pieces that were completely atonal, yet still afforded the composer a framework in which to organize a work. Serialistic compositions are masterpieces of mathematical precision, rife with clever juxtapositions and inversion of lines, and absolutely unintelligible when listened to. In order to understand a twelve-tone piece on even the most basic level, you have to sit down with the score and analyze it. In fact, there’s really not much of a point in listening to the piece in the first place, because it’s not going to help you understand what’s going on, and you certainly won’t enjoy it.

Schoenberg’s earlier atonal pieces frequently sound like a group of instruments playing more or less random notes in no particular rhythm. His later serialistic pieces, which are possessed of an incredibly stringent, erudite structure, also sound like a group of instruments playing random notes in no particular rhythm. Interestingly, you can play one piece from each period of Schoenberg’s career to a trained musician or composer, and nine times out of ten they won’t be able to tell if the piece is serialistic or not.

The point is that Schoeberg created a system by which all the humanity could be removed from the process of writing ‘music;’ but the end result was not really art, rather, it was nothing more than intellectual masturbation. Schoenberg claimed his music was a natural extension of the development of music, and so wrote his first serialistic piece, a piano suite, based on traditional classical forms. What to him was a way of fitting his work in with the great masterpieces of the past to me seems like an attempt to legitimize something that can barely be called music.

But, what thinking about Doctorow’s book got me to realize is that, although my opinion about Schoenberg is shared by a shockingly large number of people, it’s not the whole story. Clearly not everyone feels this way, since we still at least study Schoenberg, and the crucial factor for the man himself would have been if enough people considered his work meritorious for him to continue doing it. It doesn’t matter so much that I happen to think his music is crap; there are people who find it richly rewarding, and on the basis of their opinion his work has some merit. So, moral of the story is that Daniel learned to be more open-minded.

It strikes me as kind of funny that even today, artists and scientists, the people who move society forward, are following something like this merit based system; few of them are well-paid, but they continue to do their work because they’re inspired to do so and because of the respect it earns them among their peers. Maybe one day the rest of us will catch up.

I think I lost my point halfway through the rant about Schoenberg. Sorry. Only one more final, thank god.

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Written by Daniel Grady

May 7, 2005 at 01:37

Posted in Books, Music, Rants

2 Responses

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  1. “intellectual masturbation.”

    i read this and am still as juvenile as ever. but you, sir, are deep.
    luv rachel

    your worst nightmare

    May 13, 2005 at 20:49

  2. Haha

    You’re too kind, Rachel. I always thought I was more of a ‘wide but shallow’ kind of guy.

    And ‘intellectual masturbation’ is one of the best phrases ever. I like to say while I walk down the street.

    D. Grady

    May 28, 2005 at 16:38


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