[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 5:24 PM Eastern on 26 Apr. See below.]
In the wake of yet another wave of outraged attacks by New Music's defenders, supporters, and champions against The New York Times's longtime classical music critic, Bernard Holland, one of this crowd's favorite MSM whipping boys, for his latest critique of atonal music, we started to think afresh concerning what it is about much of the atonal music of our experience that we found so, well, unmusical — worse, found to be non-music, even anti-music. It's not atonality per se — i.e., the music's lack of a triadic tonal center(s); a "home base," so to speak — nor is it the almost unrelenting, unresolved harmonic dissonance that's the hallmark of the atonal. It's something much more fundamental: the lack of an audibly perceptible and coherent musical narrative from work's beginning to end, which is to say the lack of the work's saying comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods which are — or ought to have been and be — but mere tools used in its making.
In a February 2008 piece for New York Magazine on the music of venerable (and now celebrated) atonal composer Elliott Carter, Justin Davidson, the magazine's classical music critic, put the matter differently but most eloquently:
It’s often suggested that appreciating Carter requires a special kind of training — that some secret knowledge would make all those vinegary chords and dribbling rhythms suddenly make sense. Actually, the ideal listener would be one who had experienced total short-term memory loss. I could love all those little auroras, those dazzling bursts of iridescence, so much more if only I were relieved of the need to relate them to what came before or to wonder — the title of Carter’s only opera — "What next?" After the first minute or so of his mazelike music, I lose all sense of how deeply I have wandered in. Each passage blots out its own past, and at any given moment the possibilities for what the ensuing few bars might hold are virtually infinite. Carter creates no expectations, and so he cannot defy expectations, either. I will accept any dénouement, but I do so without investment in the outcome. A single blinding moment might be worth a standing ovation; a long chain of them gets only an irritated shrug.
Just so [4/26 – see Update below]. To put the matter more bluntly and much less eloquently, a composition absent an audibly perceptible and coherent musical narrative from beginning to end is gibberish and not music.
Whenever we've expressed this idea within the hearing of those committed to the atonal, and even those committed to the noise-making of charlatans such as Cage and Stockhausen, we had hurled at us the charge that we'd surely have said the same about the mature music of Mozart and Beethoven at their most advanced had we lived in their times. While we suppose that's possible, we think it only remotely likely and bordering on the impossible. For however harmonically outrageous their mature works might have gratingly struck contemporary ears, no-one — except his rhetoric get the better of his common sense, or he be literally tone deaf — could have accused either composer of composing works absent an audibly perceptible and coherent musical narrative as the requirements of the Classical forms employed by both all but guaranteed its presence. And that's the test — the touchstone — that determines whether a work as a whole is genuine music or gibberish. Flashes of musical brilliance — even a sustained series of such flashes from work's start to finish — simply won't do to make that work a work of genuine music unless those flashes conspire to produce an audibly perceptible and coherent musical narrative.
We are not a defender, supporter or champion of tonal over atonal music. We are a defender, supporter, and champion of genuine music over gibberish. We don't give a rat's ass about the processes and methods a composer uses to create his works. We insist only that those works be music and not gibberish which is to say we insist on each having an audibly perceptible and coherent musical narrative from beginning to end. That's genuine music's sine qua non — even its very definition — and we will accept nothing less.
Update (5:24 PM Eastern on 26 Apr): For an important clarification of our above remarks, see this post.