Carlos Chavez and his Amazing Future Goggles,1937

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The downfall of  Western Classical Institutions? 

Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, in his 1937 book “Toward a New Music” tackles many questions which are still surprisingly relevant today. For instance, my musical colleagues and I spend a surprising amount of time discussing why it is so hard, even in the 21st Century, to get audiences to accept 20th Century classical  music.  Chavez has a good explanation, that while it is “…easy to trace the highroad already constructed,  it is “….very difficult to build new roads”. “ Further, “To seek new forms of expression…. is arduous”, while it is comfortable to accept the tried and true classics of the past as our own truth.

In ensuing chapters he discusses at length potential directions that the “New Music” music may take, with amazing foresight. He predicts that technology will free human expression from the narrow resources provided in nature, resulting in artistic progress, and suggests that not pursuing “physio-mechanical” progress would thwart man’s need for expression. His exhaustive discussion of scales posits that music history shows a human tendency to seek constant change and development of scales, and that technological advances will further this tendency, effectively predicting much of the work of Easley Blackwood (only 7 at the time the book was published). Of course, he would have been familiar with microtonality through the work of his colleague Juan Carillo, who first described his “thirteenth sound theory” in 1920. He says at one point “It is true that the creative imagination may sometimes conceive music in impossible sounds, or sculpture in impossible masses, volumes, and colorings. This merely means that, for the time being, imagination is outdistancing the material means of realization…” Personally, I hope the human imagination will always triumph in this way.

While Chavez mostly seems to champion technological progress, he expresses some concerns too. One is that the economic tendency towards mass production and standardization may “deprive society of the variety of high types of product which human ability is capable of producing.” He then decries the fact that electrical musical instruments available to the public are far inferior to those in experimental laboratories. I imagine that his heart would have been warmed by our current era of fingertip technology, electronic keyboards, midi, sound patches et al.  He would have been first in line for the new iphone.

In another surprisingly futuristic twist Chavez discusses how evolving sound technology will give composers more and more control over the interpretation of their works, eventually taking out the “middleman” of the interpreting musician. Certainly some composers in various genres are there now, creating electronic works that will be reproduced the same way every time, and one could say that in a way the recording industry has also provided this. Yet at the same time there seem to be many contemporary composers who value the musical interpretation of the individual musician, and continue to write with this in mind.

Recently at our University discussion has turned to the growing irrelevance of Classical music in our culture.  Did Chavez forsee this too? His book lays out a map of some of the things that have brought it about: the recording industry, the wide availability of technology that reproduces music mechanically, radio broadcasts. With amazing prescience he says: “ Only a small effort of imagination is required to enable us to envisage a time when radio (to mention only one of the electronic apparatus of musical reproduction) may transform radically or completely replace institutions now seeming as solid to us as the daily paper, the book, the magazine, the concert, the theater, and-more than anything-the school in all its grades.”

In other words, he hit the nail square on the head, and this in 1937!

-Flora Newberry


Chavez, Carlos. Toward a New Music, translated by Herbert Weinstock. New York:Norton, 1937.


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