The scene:The Great Ballroom of the Clinton Library in Little Rock.
The event:The second of this season's series of chamber music concerts.
The time:Almost 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, just as the performance is about to begin.
The overture:The murmur of conversation in the room melts away. Anticipation rises. The listeners await the momentary arrival of the string quartet. But first comes a slipping sound, almost grating, like bottles and glasses skidding against one another.
A slowly ascending arpeggio reaches unsuccessfully for High C. Then a momentary pause for suspense before a climactic clash, as of cymbals. There is an intake of breath here and there in the hall, followed by a satisfying crescendo, or rather crashendo. For a table of wine glasses in the corner of the room has collapsed. The concertgoers break into appreciative applause.
It was the perfect introduction to the atonal music of Anton Webern, disciple of Arnold Schoenberg, he of the 12-tone scale. A professorial type, Herr Webern developed an elaborate theory of musicology involving rhythm, pitch and palindromic forms.
I don't know what all that means, either, but his music must have been impressive on paper. When actually performed, however, it comes out sounding like a lackadaisical game of marbles being played on a smoothly polished wooden floor. Free classical music from the traditional notes, and, at least to a Western ear, the result is freefall much like a wobbly table of wine glasses freed from gravity.
How to describe "Webern, Movements for String Quartet (Five Pieces), Op. 5"? Composed in 1909, it's a cosseted world's view of chaos. The long world war in three acts (I, II, and Cold) had not yet begun; the course of civilization was still thought of as inevitably onward and upward.
Progress was a given, a kind of inevitable Darwinian process in which the fittest would survive as always new and better forms emerged. As in Professor Webern's experimental work. In short, these people had no idea of what real, bloody global chaos was.
These five pieces may be better than they sound, as someone once said of Wagner. At least they're mercifully short. Together they would make a fine soundtrack for a Hitchcock movie, maybe "Spellbound." They're jagged, disjointed, fantastical, placid at times, disturbed underneath and more than a bit precious. Like some people you unfortunately know.
Some in the hall wince. Others snort. But if Webern's music appalls, it also interests. Though he was avant-garde then and even now, his work has become a period piece. Why does he grate while other futurists from the past still amuse? Why is Charles Ives still a delight to hear, Webern a chore?
Because Ives, American that he was, had a sense of humor and humanity. He had a connection to the past even if only to satirize it. He had a light touch and playful disposition. Webern, a most serious man, was decidedly, theoretically, imperatively Teutonic.
It is easy enough to visualize Webern's five pieces as a series of scenes:
Mice skitter across an empty room.
A heavy tread on a dark staircase.
A slow collision of unidentified and maybe unidentifiable objects.
A Greek frieze crumbles not over time but suddenly.
Somewhere a humming noise provides a lush background. Is it the grand hall's automatic shutters adjusting, the air-conditioning switching on or off, or just my imagination?
Whatever the intrusion is, Herr Webern would have done well to include it in the score. It fits right in: unmelodic, mechanistic, meaningless. This is music, or rather sound, disjointed and disconnected from the past. In short, it's post-modern, maybe post-beauty.
At the merciful end, the mind is cleared, the way a child's room might be when all the playthings are dumped into the toy chest at the end of the day and the top falls shut. The relief in the hall is almost palpable.
Happily, Schumann and Dvorak are also on the program a welcome reminder that civilization didn't end in 1909. But the music, or rather sound, of Webern was a harbinger of just how agonizing the 20th century would prove.
What does today's mimimalist classical music herald? Or, when it comes to popular music, where will rap and hop-hop lead? Are they all the (muddy) wave of the future, or will they prove as much of a dead end as Webern?
As the 20th century demonstrated, civilization is not a given. It has to be defended.