The best music does not exist merely, as so much pop music does (and as so much forgettable classical music once did...), to magnify the significance of the present moment - if the present moment is all that matters, it doesn't really matter what music you listen to so long as it pumps your adrenaline, increases endorphins, fosters camaraderie, and soothes your mood. If the music burns with no more message than a sentence you can find on a fortune cookie, then it is merely background noise which you can use as a tool to elicit the proper emotional response you which for at that given moment.
The best music is far too complex for that - you listen to it with the knowledge that you have no idea how it will make you feel, because every experience with it can be completely different from the time before. It inspires awe and love, but does so in an extra dimension from a canned music that you know will elicit the response in you which you want before you put it on. What it has to say to you is utterly unique to it, and can only be learned with time and repetition's fourth dimension. In April, it may evoke joy, in July it may evoke nostalgia, in October sadness, and in January, awe, and God only knows what the music will make you feel in twenty years' time.
Nothing else in the world makes us aware of the universe's largeness to the extent of music. There are no words to properly elucidate music's impact upon us, because it clearly exists in a dimension we cannot yet understand in which we can hear time itself be bent. The way this is done is that in every piece of music, there are three types of rhythm: phonic rhythm, metric rhythm, and harmonic rhythm. The phonic rhythm is the most atomic level of music - every change in the music, every change of note or dynamic or tone color by every instrument is an articulation of phonic rhythm, and every possible combination of the above is phonic rhythm as well. Once the phonic rhythm is shaped on the micro level, it becomes metric rhythm, which is, of course, the rhythm around which the notes are organized. Shaping the metric rhythm is, at least in Western music, the raison d'etre of it all - the Harmonic Rhythm, by which music goes through a series of chords, modes, and keys and tells the fundamental building blocks of its story and message. Harmonic rhythm is the macro level of music - spans of time large enough that we don't even perceive the change as rhythm, but rhythm it most certainly is.
It is in the interplay between these three rhythmic forces that music often seems to bend time itself. It is something more than simply beautiful, it is an experience not unlike travel through time, and if not through time, then at least through alternate dimensions. Every shift in the harmonic rhythm, whether consciously or unconsciously, causes your ear to anticipate the next shift. But if a composer is good, he does not fulfill your ear's expectations, and he constantly surprises you. If a composer is great, he utterly transcends your expectations into dimensions completely beyond what your imaginations thought capable. A great composition makes you aware on at least three different levels, not only to contemplate the orderly metric rhythm of this present moment, but also to revaluate all those microscopic phonic rhythms you heard in moments past, and contemplate all the macro possibilities of harmonic rhythm henceforth.
Beginning with Wagner, composers began a process of utter abandonment of tonal expectation. By my estimation, the greatest composers since Wagner - here's just a quick list on which I'm no doubt forgetting many: Brahms, Janacek, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Bruckner, Nielsen, Sibelius, and to a lesser extent, modernists and pre-modernists like Ives, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Messiaen - have all, in their ways, been voices of conservatism; near-obsessives in their focus upon recapturing the embers of a tonal framework to which Wagner lit a match, because the miracle that is harmonic rhythm is only within the tonal sphere. Harmonic rhythm is the entire reason classical music exists - without it, we might as well never listen to it again.
When music abandoned tonality, it abandoned eternity. The most cutting edge music was not a means of contemplation, it was a drug, meant to accentuate the present moment without worry for the past or future. Once Tristan premiered, it was only a matter of time before free-floating tonality was judged an insufficient drug, and the public abandoned music in its more traditional forms for a kind of music that uses music's far more primal force - rhythm - rather than harmony as its structural backbone. We have never recaptured that audience ever since.
"Schönberg is dead, Ellington is dead, but the guitar is eternal. Sterotyped harmonies, hackneyed melodies, and a beat that gets stronger as it gets duller - that is what's left of music, the eternity of music. Everyone can come together on the basis of those simple combinations of notes. They are life itself proclaiming its jubilant "Here I am!" No sense of communion is more resonant, more unanimous, than the simple sense of communion with life. It can bring Arab and Jew together, Czech and Russian. Bodies pulsing to a common beat, drunk with the consciousness that they exist. No work of Beethoven's has ever elicited greater collective passion than the constant repetitive throb of the guitar."
- Milan Kundera
I'm a huge Kundera fan, though never moreso than I was in college. I have, so often, thought along the lines which Kundera articulated here that when I first read this paragraph in college (though I can't remember which book of his for the life of me), that it was as though Kundera played a musical note within me that I was struggling to know was there.
And yet, as I get older, and approach an age when a writer ought to start thinking about making something more permanent than a blogpost, I find myself thinking that Kundera is, to say the least, more than a little hard on rock music.
It's not that Rock can't be eternal art: anybody who's ever heard Imagine, or What's Goin' On, or Let It Be, or A Change is Gonna Come, or Blowin' in the Wind, or In My Life, or Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, or or God Only Knows, or Sympathy for the Devil, or One, or Tangled Up in Blue, or Dancing in the Street, or Bridge Over Troubled Water, or Redemption Song, or The Times They Are a-Changin', or A Day in the Life, or Eleanor Rigby, or Born to Be Wild, or Stand by Me, or I'm So Lonseome I Could Cry, or You Can't Always Get What You Want, or Knockin' on Heaven's Door, or Desolation Row, or Both Sides Now, or Folsom Prison Blues, or Baby What'd I Say, or Moment of Surrender, or The Sounds of Silence, or Georgia on My Mind, or Only the Lonely, or Fire and Rain, or I'll Take You There, or Sloop John B, or Bloody Sunday, or Sail Away, or Hallelujah, or The Harder They Come, or Maybe I'm Amazed, or Beautiful Day, or The End, or Fight the Power, or Cortez the Killer, or Chimes of Freedom and I Shall Be Released, or Jungleland and Thunder Road, or She's Leaving Home and Hey Jude, or so so so so many others, knows that these might be songs that can be played, sung, heard, and loved, by anyone who hears them. You would have to be deaf to the wonders of music to not here the greatness that glows from them with all the inner luminosity of the world's greatest music. This is not just the usual silly tosh about romantic love made by silly musicians for silly people, this is music that touches, through a mixture of music and lyrics, a place completely similar, and yet totally different.
It is so very different from what once was music that it almost requires a different name. This emotional combination derives from music that would be stupid without words, and words that would be stupid without music. It is only in the combination of the two that this music reveals a purpose - in some ways, a pretty extraordinary one. It is similar to variations on both music and poetry, but different all the same. It is the spiritual child of the Musical, and therefore the spiritual grandchild of opera and art-song. If you subtracted one artform from all the various arts which it synthesizes, it would be terrible. But together, it becomes something so much more than what Milan Kundera says it is.
Perhaps when we take this artform truly seriously, we will give it a different name. But so far, we don't really take it seriously. I often think to myself that, like the Troubadours of the Late Middle Ages who wrote their own songs and traveled from town to town, having to produce their own shows, we have created an amalgam of music and poetry that is perfect for an era that requires the maximum utility from its musicians. The best of them were probably very good indeed, and touched upon eternal greatness, nevertheless, nobody remembers the music of Jaufre Rudel de Blaia or Bernart de Ventadorn or Piere Vidal, because the circumstances under which they wrote their songs - just a voice with rhyming lyrics and a guitar - are so easily duplicable. We can hear music almost exactly like the Troubadours in our own era, but hear it in our own language, about people and problems and sentiments we more readily understand. Nevertheless, this is the best aesthetic we're ever going to get under circumstances of a democratic world in which everybody cares about their rights and nobody cares about their responsibilities. Anything is possible, but nobody should be too surprised if, a few centuries hence, there is barely a note of 20th century music which anybody listens to.
I don't doubt that once upon a time, there were many people who found elements of Mozart and Beethoven stupid, perhaps there still are, but when you view the reduced complexity of the harmonic rhythm in comparison to Mozart and Beethoven, and the reduced capacity of the vocabulary in comparison to the poetry of Shakespeare and John Donne, you see that both are significantly reduced. Perhaps its reduced because its teleology seems (to me at least) to articulate sentiments that are at bottom a little more simplistic - would anyone say that even great songs like Imagine or The Times They Are a'-Changin can even climb to foothills of Beethoven's 3rd's and Don Giovanni's eternal summits unless they're trying to avoid being called elitist or snobbish?
The difference between the classical music of Old Europe and the various classical musics of America is that the greatest music of Old Europe has survived the transition to cultures completely unlike the ones in which they were birthed, and even if people don't know Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, they still know who they are and are in awe of their genius. Will a similar awe carry over the next two-hundred years for Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Paul McCartney?
Perhaps it's the best we were ever going to do in our era when the possibility of so many technical means are at our disposal, and none of us yet knows how to properly use any of them. The best work of this electronic era is in artforms that are still completely new: cinema and television, perhaps radio and now podcasts too. Musical literacy's declined precipitantly since World War I, and in many ways, literacy itself seem to have been declining since the 1960's. In its place is a completely new visual language - Cinema, a combination of drama, music, and visual art - the latter being the most basic of all artforms. When you place cinema into the long-form views of television, you throw literature into the mix as well. What separates cinema from what came before is that it is literally visual art that moves and emits sounds and uses music to color its own mood. It is an entire new dimension of artistic possibility, one that will take literally centuries to exhaust. The novel as we know it seemed to come into shape just as Shakespeare seemed to exhaust the possibilities of the stage. By the time of Moliere, the novel was clearly ascendant. By the time of Ibsen, the novel was so dominant that nobody thought a playwright could ever write plays as powerful as the greatest novelists. Just as Don Quixote seemed to magically appear in Shakespeare's wake, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance seemed to magically appear just as the literary novel was reaching its apex. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Eliot, and Dickens were all merely a generation before, Tolstoy had only been dead for five years; James, Twain, Cather, Chekhov, Gorky, Hardy, Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Mann, Hamson, and Conrad, were all at work or quite recently deceased - it was an epoch, three-hundred years later, when all the complex psychological and metaphysical problems first laid out in Shakespeare were being demonstrated to their fullest plumage. But just as these energies reached their summit, they began to exhaust themselves. So great was the intellectual energy of the world that a new world, a much more technological world couldn't help but be born from it that would (will) vastly expand the possibilities of what it means to be human.
But so great is the onus of mastering this technology that no person could ever master it alone. A novelist can plot out every word of his novel, and these inanimate objects and concepts cannot help but conform to what a novelist wills with only the limits of his imagination to stop him. A composer may not control his performances, but only a composer has ultimate authority over the notes. The artist has his raw materials, the poet his rhymes and metrics. But a film can no more have a single author than can a Medieval Cathedral. So vast is the undertaking of film that it generally requires hundreds or thousands of people to present their faces and bodies to the camera, and hundreds or thousands of people behind the camera to render those on camera to the correct aesthetic effect. Every movie, even the worst pre-packaged crap, is a miracle of invention with more authors responsible for its success and failure than ever we know.
What can today's music, still basking in the afterglow of the Composer's Era, possibly be next to these monumental achievements? If the greatest of Troubadors had to compete in splendor with new Eglisses (Cathedrals) like those Chartres and Amiens and Reims and Rouen and Notre Dame de Paris, how could they possibly compare? So how can even the songs I mentioned above compare in their splendor to Citizen Kane or The Rules of the Game or Children of Paradise or Tokyo Story or The Dekalog or Apocalypse Now or Fanny and Alexander or Mullholland Dr. or Shoah or The Godfather Movies or The 400 Blows or The Apu Trilogy or Ugetsu Mongatori or Raging Bull or Touch of Evil or Sansho the Bailiff or Persona or Blue Velvet or Wild Strawberries or Nashville or Chinatown or A Day in the Country or Aguirre: The Wrath of God or The Seventh Seal or Do The Right Thing or Wild Strawberries or Jules et Jim or Three Colors or To Be or Not To Be and so so so so many others?
Film is the one art form in today's world that is perhaps more miraculous than music. Music allows us to imagine alternate dimensions, but film literally opens up a porthole to the physical properties of an alternate dimension that exists directly in front of us. Nothing in music can compare to that, but since music so little physical substance (does it technically have any at all?), it has nothing but the personality of its creators to animate it. It requires overwhelming personality for a composer or performer to give audiences any kind of great musical experience. Film, on the other hand, is almost the literal opposite of music. Its physical properties are so manifest that it requires almost imperceptible subtleties - one blink of an eye from an actor in the wrong place (or the right one...) can change the entire meaning of a movie. One scene with improper backlighting obscures necessary details to the movie's comprehension. Music works because the individual expression of the performer is compelling in a manner that the audience finds receptive. Cinema works because the audience perceives things that its practitioners only suggest.