Thursday, January 10, 2013

800 Words: A Five Year Old Attempt to Make a Theory of Music

This is something I just found which I think I began around five years ago. I never finished or published it in any form. Much of it doesn't necessarily reflect my current feelings, and I'm not even sure it accurately reflected my feelings at the time I wrote it. It is also quite fragmented and incomplete, but with a few changes to flesh out the ideas I was expressing, I suppose what's here is still publishable and worth reading to those curious enough.

The key to music is not emotion, but expression:

In a sense, Stravinsky is right.  Music is incapable of expressing anything specific but its symbols, but deaf is the person who thinks music is incapable of expressing anything but itself.  The greatest property of music is its capability to expressing something unique to each listener, upon each listen, within each performance.  Music can be an abstraction, and far more than art, abstraction (rather than representation) is its natural home. But just as visual art can easily take the form of abstraction, music can easily take the form of representation. Great songs and word painting would be impossible without music’s capability to represent ideas, images and people. Furthermore, music grants each person the ability to hear themselves within its contents: for some people the beginning of the Eroica Symphony can be Allegro con brio, for some it can be Napoleon, and for some it can be their own grandfather.  None of them are right any more than they are wrong.  But a Rorschach test is an unchanging abstract blot on a page that doesn't move.    But from it we supposedly see something more about ourselves, and we emerge (hopefully) a little wiser and more experienced than we were before.

The absoluteness of music is a dangerous concept:

Nothing has damaged classical music more than discouraging personal reaction to it.   Hear in music whatever you like.   That is all.

Opera is still the greatest artform the world has yet created. 

It's still the only total art work in existence.  Its production involves collecting gifted people from all available facets of endeavor, and then undergoing a preciously delicate fusion of all their talents in a manner that depends upon each of them giving of their best to one another.  Film also involves every facet of talent, but by definition the result can't communicate as spontaneously, and all raw human emotion must be processed through the hundred filters of the camera, the editing room, and the priorities of each behind-the-scenes artist. Filming depends almost purely on the kind of control and organization that until 100 years ago was a military prerogative.  It communicates to us only through the kind of precision that's planned and approved by overseers to the last detail, and then executed by underlings.  Film is a miracle of organization, but the organization can never be democratic, and that lack of free exchange can impede on what film is capable of expressing.  Film works by implication - we can read emotions into a person’s facial expressions, but direct emotional expression almost always comes across as stupid and awkward because there is no context to which the other elements of the production can respond in real time.  Film can imply the recesses of the human condition, and suggests those recesses better than any other medium, leaving our imagination to fill in where film stops.  But by its very nature, film is nearly incapable of make audiences feel along with the characters.  Nothing on a screen can equal the experience of watching subversive feelings and ideas communicated directly by people whose flesh and blood is directly in front of their audience.  Opera depends upon such spontaneity.   A specific phrasing by an oboeist may vary from night to night, and that might effect how the singer sings a different phrase, which might in turn affect how the entire ensemble phrases another section.  Great opera requires at least as much planning as great film, musical greatness requires decades of training and, usually, decades more of rejection.  But nearly the entire effort of great opera is put to the service of allowing audiences to feel precisely as the characters feel.  Music is by its nature democratic, and speaks a universal language accessible to anyone capable of hearing it.  It appeals directly to the heart. Theater is by its nature aristocratic, counting upon the audience to be schooled in language, conventions, and the suspension of disbelief.  It ultimately appeals to a people's brain.  Opera appeals to senses that are both more basic than music, and loftier than theater.  It pleas for empathy, and appeals to common humanity.  It asks us to view music not as a means to perceive our own emotions, but instead as a means to perceive the emotions of others and to understand the consciousness of another human being at a far more basic level than we could without opera.  It is an experience the makes the world at once a more enobled and more dangerous place than the world than the world would be without opera.  Opera makes the world more interesting.

Above all contemporary operas, there are Stephen Sondheim's:

For me, Sondheim is perhaps the giant among American artists of any form or any period - a natural transition figure between the exhausted old world of literature and acoustic music and the brave new world of cinema and electronically produced music. Obviously he achieved such a state by being the American lyricist par excellence.  He's totally without the sugary sentimentalism of most musical lyricists, or the metaphysical pretensions of even the best rock lyricists like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  Sondheim's lyrics, for all their technical accomplishment, are about the genuine issues of real people, and his shows have that ability perhaps only shared among musicians only by Mozart to imply even more emotional depth than his songs express directly.  What we call in America the "Musical" has no peer among its creators at any point in its history, and opera has very few.  If Sondheim ultimately takes a back seat to Mozart, it's because great music is more powerful and universal than great lyrics.  Mozart's best librettos (the Da Ponte operas) are wonderful, but they're still functional.  And music - an art at which Sondheim is very skilled but without genius - is more expressive than lyrics can ever be.

Classicism for its own sake is necessary, but can kill originality:

There is a striking irony at the heart of the idea of referring to the music of previous eras which is so good that it must still be performed 'classical music.' There are few eras in human history which valued music less than the Classical Era. And there are a number of highly explicable reasons that of all the composers of all the thousands of composers working during the entire second half of the 18th century, most music lovers only remember the names of 
Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart. And it is because of the rules of composition so rigid that no one could break out of them.

Ascribing rules to proper composition is unfortunately necessary, but adherence to them still damages individuality in the extreme and the temptation to follow an anonymous template is something that most composers throughout history found themselves unable to resist. As a result, the classical era music was considered an 'inferior' artform, akin to the design of furniture and ceramics in its ability express artistic truth. As such, it was only those people who were able to swim against seemingly unswimmable tides and find ways to subvert the rigidity of these rules who succeeded in creating great music.

Likewise, in American Musical History, a series of mini-’classical’ periods helped us to create what we now know as the ‘song’ the ‘album’ and the ‘musical.’  Song writers of the 10's, jazz musicians of the 30's, rock and roll musicians in the 50’s, disco musicians of the 70's, and independent musicians of the 90's, found a way to create faultlessly crafted songs that are pleasing to the ear.  But beyond their ability to please us, they are almost uniformly of little value because they are interchangeable.  Any competent person can learn the rules of crafting music, but it takes an artist of real individuality and taste to create music of greater qualities than merely pleasing.  

It is entirely possible that posterity will regard the entire late-20th century as a similar sort of musical mausoleum during which music was considered a minor, subsidiary art for the purposes of housing other purposes - lyrics, dancing, perhaps even improvisation. Music to be listened for its own sake is almost an unheard of concept in our day. And therefore very, very few musicians of our day are able to craft music for its own sake that is listenable for the sake of critically distant appreciation. 

It is entirely possible that the greatest music of our historical period has yet to be written. Just as the template of the classical period enabled Romantics to build musical greatness out of the classical models of sonata form, symphonies, and reformed opera - perhaps the hit single, the LP-length album will provide the template for a musical era less encumbered by extra-musical limitations.

I adore High Romanticism, I have contempt for Decadence:

Music does not exist to take us out of ourselves, it exists to remind us of whom we already are.  It is THE expressive artform, and Romantics like Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and Verdi (and their descendents) wrote music that still compels because what they've written taps into our primal need for music to reveal emotions within us that we'd forgotten were there.  I believe that attempts to create music that attempts other goals almost inevitably ends in boredom.  The list of famous musicians who attempted to use music for something other than expression is unfortunately endless.

I adore Verdi, I have contempt for Wagner:

Verdi is the consumate example of an artist whose methods should fail, yet rarely do.  Wagner is just as consumate an example of an artist whose methods should succeed, yet rarely do.  Verdi is opera at its most irrational and spontaneous, Wagner is opera at its most rational and planned.  Verdi uses irrational means to depict the way people think and feel, Wagner uses rational means to depict people on their most irrational levels.  Like Mozart, Verdi is interested in depicting people as they are.   Wagner is interested only in depicting people as they should be.   His music appeals to the untamed id, and while we shouldn’t deny it’s occasional appeal, his music does not inspire love, it inspires infatuation.

I love Musical Nationalism:

Nationalism was as beneficial to music as it was noxious to politics. From approximately 1848-1917, musicians of every major European center attempted to recapture their own identities. The qualities which made the root music of their milleus unique.  The best of them created music that both belonged to their people, yet to only themselves.  Each of these great figures crafted a completely personal solution to the question "How do we make music our own?"  Between Offenbach, Franck, Bruckner, Smetana, the Strauss family, Brahms, Ponchielli, Borodin, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Massenet, Arthur Sullivan, Faure, Rimsky-Korsakov, Duparc, Chausson, Leoncavallo, Puccini, Janacek, Elgar, Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Debussy, Delius, Mascagni, Richard Strauss, Glazunov, Sibelius, Nielsen, Dukas, Scott Joplin, Pfitzner, Lehar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, De Falla, Rachmaninov, Ives, Erno Dohnanyi, Ravel, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Respighi, Bloch, Bartok, Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Kodaly, Berg, Leo Weiner, George Butterworth, Heitor Villa-Lobos and dozens of others, a new, and personalized musical language (different in every case) was created that empowered whole new groups of people to be touched by music's greatness for the first time - people for whom hearing that some Germans named Mozart and Beethoven wrote good music simply wasn't enough and who never thought that the seamless interaction between melody, harmony, rhythm, and form would be enough to sustain interest.

I am indifferent to Modernism:

I believe in Direct Communication between musician and audience.  Classical music is a partnership of three equals: the composer, the performer, and the listener.  A satisfying relationship between them depends upon the continual good will of each party to the other.  It is perfectly acceptable for an immaculately performed work to be met with incomprehension from the audience.  What is not acceptable is for the incomprehension to be deliberately sought.  A listener must always be challenged but never ignored.  Our audiences pay our salaries, and they must never be made to feel that their investment in us reaps an unworthy dividend intentionally.  Similarly, I do not for a moment believe that Modernism is the reason for classical music's decline.  I do, however, believe that Modernism unwittingly facilitated a (not THE) musical decline by allowing composers to hide from direct communication behind esoterica.  History is packed with fine composers who used a difficult language to communicate difficult sentiments.  But these seemingly esoteric means were used for communication just as direct as any that came before.  For every overrated mediocrity who rose to prominence due to the 'difficult' label, there is a difficult composer who is entirely deserving of his approbation. For every Webern there was a Berg, for every Boulez a Messiaen, for every Stockhausen a Ligeti.  

I am not particularly fascinated by 'early music' movements:

Lazy man that I am, what interests me is the summit, not the process.  I do not doubt that there are countless masterpieces in the centuries Western Music History before Bach, and I've heard quite a few of them.  But I'm unwilling to sit for hours upon end listening to forgettable period pieces in order to find another gem for my personal collection.  I enjoy Italian music from the period of Monteverdi and Gesualdo just fine, and I like the Elizabethan composers even better.  But life is too short to let anyone who is not a paid researcher dig the island up for buried treasure.  I look forward to hearing anything worthwhile from what they find.

I feel very little affinity with any contemporary musical genre, including what we now call 'classical music':

I have no doubt that there are contemporaries with which I would feel more affinity, but there's a lifetime's worth of music to listen simply for the potential of finding them.  In nearly each genre, there are plenty of artists whose work I find myself admiring, and yet when I try to hear their complete output I find myself out of sympathy. The number of living creative musicians from the American Popular Tradition whose music I find great without reservation is a miniscule number: Sondheim and Randy Newman are the only two whose greatness I feel no need to question - and I value even these two geniuses more for their lyrics and diversity of expressive moods than for any musical sophistication.

I have complex feelings generally on American Music:

The history of American Music is not yet written.  We still haven't decided what constitutes musical quality, most European nations had another 700 years on us to decide that.  The greats of our era may have languored in obscurity for their entire careers, or they may as yet be young unknowns. Nevertheless, The History of American Music as it currently stands is a story full of unrealized talent, burned out talent, bad talent celebrated for bad reasons, synthetic talent, misdirected talent, and good talent overrated because nobody could figure out what greatness was.  I believe that any list of the greatest talents this country has ever known has to include could go on for days.  And yet they shine so greatly because they're like gold coins in an endlessly plowed field of shit.

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