3:19 AM

March 30, 2010

It’s 3:00AM, and I’m listening to the music of Arvo Part (two dots above the second a; I don’t know how to add them otherwise). Somehow, it conjures very vivid images in my head. Rather sci-fi-like images. And it makes me want to create a story out of them. As far back as I can remember, I don’t think I’ve ever attempted sci-fi. It’s typically not my genre, as the emphasis tends to veer more towards technological gadgets and advances on that front. Psychology, emotions, and the strength and frailty of human beings is more where my interests lie. A close and intimate portrayal of the seemingly mundane can reveal the most extraordinary aspects of life.

“A white room, the purest tone of white, ascetic and sterile…”

That’s all I’ll do tonight. By the way, I haven’t started my paper yet. Haaaa.

A topic arose in history today concerning the future of  art music, and our professor’s postulate that the music of Beethoven, Chopin, and others, which we might consider “main stream-Classical”, would sooner or later become obsolete in the same way that medieval motets and madrigals seems to be to us today. A very interesting discussion ensued. I didn’t participate, however. I wish I could have, but I have this debilitating anxiety problem when it comes to public speaking in class-discussion scenarios. Plus, I never fully think through my points and thoughts until a while after class, at which time, I’m usually thinking, “Argh, why couldn’t I have thought of these things beforehand around people who actually want to talk about this?”

As my social circle was mostly absent from that class/ran away after class/don’t find discussions like this interesting, I will seek solace in anonymous rants to the internet. [sigh] I think I’ll set a timer on this blog. I need to practice formulating concise responses under pressure. And if successful, transfer that into actual speaking instead of typing in solitude. Uh.

Anyway, the responses voiced to my professor’s prediction were more-or-less  all rebuttals. The arguments all stemmed from the general disbelief that atonal music, serial music, music of chance, and other 20th-century musical phenomena could ever be as well-received and as prevalent in concert halls as Beethoven or Mozart’s was and is.

On the surface, it seems to be an obvious response. I doubt that there are many people, professional trained musicians or not, who can seriously say that Pierre Boulez’ Structures Ia is more pleasant to listen to than Beethoven’s Sixth. There is sometime intrinsic in music with clear  pulses and rhythms, definable forms and structures, and repeated, singable tunes which links to the basic human condition. The soft cooing of a mother to her child seen from our relative primates emphasizes just how deeply ingrained and biological this preference for simple melody and predictable meter is. With this in mind,  I do not disagree with my classmates. Beethoven and Mozart, Bach and Palestrina, all made beautiful music which still drew from these basic elements, which is why they resonant so much more than, say, Boulez or Stockhausen. However, when compared to Jason Mraz, is Beethoven still the preferred music of the majority?

Here, I find that in order to understand the professor’s point, one must keep in mind the distinction between art music and popular music. Popular music almost entirely revolves around and adheres to that primal musical instinct: clear, steady pulse, simple melodies, and repetitiveness; all of this lends to memorability, which in turns allows listeners to easily become familiar with it, absorb it, and finally, participate in it. Popular music is comfortable and inclusive, and thus, it has changed very little across the entire span of human history. From the songs of the troubadours, songs heard and performed on the streets and in the homes of amateur musicians from the nineteenth century onwards, to the tunes heard on the radio today, this form of music has always been the type which the majority of humanity has listened to. As my theory professor likes to say, it’s somewhat like a narcotic.

Art music, on the other hand, whether it be of Beethoven’s, Chopin’s, or Stravinsky’s, has always been appreciated by only a sliver of the population. The statistics of regular concert-goers in urban centers today: 4% of the population. Why this severe discrepancy? There are numerous factors to take into consideration, including the practical accessibility of this type of music (ex. the price of a concert ticket at the orchestra versus buying a popular CD), and social contexts, but one musical factor which I think plays a role in this is that whereas pop music follows a static, flat-line sort of development, art music is in constant flux. Why? The creative urge of the composer mandates this.

Since the emancipation of composers from the church, the idea of the composer as the sole creator of his/her music places a great responsibility on him/her to produce something original and reflective of him/herself (or some other idea if not of the self, but an idea that is determined exclusively by the composer him/herself, and not by some external pressure). Art music composers compose for the sake of their creative impulse; whether or not it pleases an audience is irrelevant. Thus, the drive for novelty, for discovery, of new sounds and textures drives art music to something other than static development. The process is nothing new; why music historians sectionalize eras from each other is a result of this evolution in art music: Baroque music is different from Classical, which is different from Romantic, and then from Modern music. But does this mean that art music has progressed, and will continue to progress?

“Progress” as seen in terms of “better” or “worse”, I think not. Mozart is not “better” than Bach, nor is he “better” than Shostakovich. The way I see it, popular music represents a human, musical baseline which is straight and consistent. Art music is an oscillating wave. When seen in this way, points where the two “graphs” overlap are times when popular music and art music are very much similar. This was seen during the period of Rococo music and the style gallante. Prior to this, was  Baroque counterpoint, a more intensely rational form of art music. At this period in history, I  see the graph at an upper peak, far away from the songs sung in the villages of the time. But then, as mentioned, counterpoint did not continue to increase in complexity; rather the “graph” turned around and descended into the Rococo period of lighter, decorative music. After which, composers, tired of the monotony of repetitive forms and sounds, pushed for newer structures again, leading to the Classical period. History then continued, and after the sneers at Beethoven’s late string quartets, a short period of descent again into the light salon music of the early nineteenth century. And then, again, a rise in complexity as the Romantics (and late-Romantics especially) took to the fore.

Repeat ad libitum. During every “peak” in which music was deemed too complex, too obscure, and too distant from the public, a crisis in art music occurred, and the same questions which were asked today in class were asked by people of the time. Yet Bach’s legacy lives on today. His counterpoint and rigorous techniques form the base and provide a context and beginning for many composers after him, even of today’s composers. Does this mean that today’s composers will compose like Bach? No, of course not. But they will take him as an experience, from which to draw and learn from. As with many composers after him. Beethoven’s radical modulations and Wagner’s extreme chromaticism may have seemed bizarre during their day, but in retrospect, it is clear to see that their influence did live on, but in new and different forms.

Composers of art music will always look for new and original ways of expressing themselves, and often, they will seem ahead of their time, and will have to endure the jeers and heckles of those who prefer to stay at the baseline. Only time will really tell which composers and which trends will make a significant impact on the future (clearly not every composer will be as influential as Beethoven), but I do not think it is fair to say that atonality and electronic music is music which will simply shrivel away without any trace; it has already pervaded our musical society, whether we are aware of it or not: personally, after hearing more and more of this music, I’m finding it quite fulfilling and satisfying to listen to, just as much as a Beethoven sonata; the songs we hear and which are composed today are much more chromatic/less adherent to tonal centers than before the Second Viennese school, surely, and I venture to say that this is not simply a coincidence.

[Holy frick, I wrote the equivalent of ~30% of my term paper in this blog. aiehaelhaleh]


March 21, 2010

So I’ve decided to get back into blogging, though long interludes and hiatuses are still likely to occur.  This is primarily just an outlet for me to get excited about boring things, so unless have a thing for dusty academic literature, musical aesthetics, trivial rants, and disjunct sentences, you can probably skip it.

They’ll be short, in any case, seeing as I spent almost an hour setting this thing up and writing this blurb, and am now feeling guilty that I am not reading the books (almost done two out of the thirteen I checked out!) that need to read for an impending paper on Stockhausen. Oh, Saturday night. I have my coffee in hand.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2009

Best wishes, everyone! I hope the holiday season has been good to you all. I’ve been keeping myself pretty busy: reading, practicing, composing, writing, or at least thinking about doing those things when my lazy side kicks in.

I’ve been fiddling around with Finale and other music notation and production software. I’ve become very interested in using electronics and MIDI sounds, but I’m about as knowledgeable in those things as I am in astrophysics. Anyway, I was testing out an old karaoke mic this morning. It’s not that great, but at least it doesn’t sound like it’s being smothered, like my computer microphone does. Here’s the result of my experimenting. I think I rushed a few parts, but I’m all “recorded out” today. Those of you who’ve done the Grade 9 RCM might know this piece: Gabriel Grovlez’s “La sarabande”. It’s a 20th-century piece, very melodic, very poignant. Oh right, I should mention the E5 on my piano decided to die on me earlier on in the day, so it’s missing at some points.. but I hope it doesn’t impede too much on the overall sound. Also below is a translation of the poem, by Tristan Klingsor, that apparently inspired Grovlez to write the piece. Enjoy!

La Sarabande

Those who will come here to dance
Will no longer need to have light legs:
It is your turn, marquis and shepherdresses,
In ornaments of the past.

The bows under the fingers of the musicians
Loiter enough for the sarabande
And the delicate shoes move without hurry
On the rhythm of this ancient air.

A last note dies in the violins
Like a most tender confession;
The fringed dresses on the high heels
Whirl without waiting any longer.

And in pairs of tired couples
With little steps, the whole band
Of dancers of the sarabande
Go away.

The End

December 13, 2008

I’ve just finished my last exam of the semester. At 12:00PM. Driving through the remnants of a freak snow storm. It’s strange how the agonizingly painful days before an exam are all but a memory now. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the classroom, battling the exam, and now, I’m home again.

Now that it’s over, I guess I can finally relax and do as I please until the new semester starts up again, what I’ve been looking forward to all this time while I was studying. But I’ve yet to feel that burst of excitement and joy that I’ve been expecting. As stressful as preparing for the exam was, and as much as I killed my brain, trying to write a coherent essay in an hour, I loved the course, and in many ways, I’m a bit sad to see it end, especially since I had it with a professor whom I highly admire. It was only when I finally handed in my exam and left the classroom, that the realization of, “wow, this is the end of the course”, really permeated in.

Well, there comes a time when we must bid farewell to everything. Sometimes, even knowing this, we can’t help but feel a little down when the time comes.

But there will be more opportunities in the future: more courses to take, and more things to learn. Until then, I really should just enjoy myself!

Inaccessible Music?

December 6, 2008

Yesterday, I hear a live Schoenberg for the first time. It was in a concert by the Janaki String Trio, and the piece was the String Trio, Op. 45. All I can say are two, “Wow!”s: one for the spectacular performers in general, and another for the sublime power of the piece.

I’ve been exposing myself to more and more 20th-century music over the past year, fallen head-over-heels in love with the Russian trio (Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovitch), but very recently have I experienced much from the Second Viennese School. I had much interest in this music before then, reading up on it, and sampling bits from where ever I could find it. Unfortunately, the main source where I go to learn about new music (the public library), didn’t have any CD’s on these composers. Zilch.* So my first listens came from YouTube, a medium, I think, that is extremely fruitful, but doesn’t quite give the listener a decent feel for musical works, especially the already “inaccessible” kinds.

During these preliminary listens, I found it difficult to really understand the music, even though I sincerely tried, which disheartened me. But after last night, after I felt the endorphins rushing through me, I think the “Aha” moment finally came.

Why is this music so difficult to comprehend in our modern culture? Why are there no CD’s readily available even in specialty music stores? And yet, 20th century music is the most popular area of study for musicology graduates.

So perhaps its meant for only the overly-educated. But I’m still a mere undergraduate, and listening to the people around me after the concert, whom I’m sure weren’t all PhD. students, I think there were many others who at least felt affected by the music.

Yet I don’t know how many would buy a CD and listen to it for enjoyment. But maybe this music wasn’t meant to be enjoyed. The String Trio was supposedly composed to give sound to Schoenberg’s near-death experience with a heart attack, and there is a lot of 20th-century music that really is meant to be despairing. But so are ballade pop-songs and angst-riddled punk rock, and those sell millions.

Perhaps it is because this music still sounds so foreign to our ears. I don’t know of any other time in history when popular artists and musicians were amongst the richest people on earth; their music and presence, with the help of technology, has spread and influenced everyone. Tonal music, sweet, simply tunes, are everywhere: commercials, shopping malls, nursery rhymes, this music has just become so ingrained as what music should be like. Talking to my thirteen year old cousin after he listened to me play a 20th-century piece on piano, which I found absolutely delightful, filled with emotion, and meaning: “It sounds kind of weird,” he said rather bluntly.

I remember a quote by Schoenberg (which I heard while watching a documentary on YouTube), that he wished that one day, people would not see his music as simply a complex technique with no emotion, no meaning, but as simply music. Music that he wrote to express himself, his emotions, human emotions that we all feel. This music is not inaccessible. In fact, I don’t think any music that is composed with sincerity by any composer, their style being classical, blues, pop, or rap, should be deemed “lesser” than any other. We are all people, with feelings, with things we want to express. It’s only our styles that differ, but the emotions are the same, and I think if we listen carefully enough, and are open-minded and thoughtful, we can enjoy “Aha” moments with every genre.

*I know the university library has bucket loads, I’m sure, but I didn’t think of it at the time. Yes, yes, I know, slap on the wrist…

I’m a n00b, ok?

November 10, 2008

In my attempt to learn more about the music of Richard Strauss, I picked up a CD from the library. It took me a few minutes, as I sat there listening to “The Blue Danube”, trying to hear what Schoenberg called the “revolutionary” in Strauss’ music, before I consulted Google, and found that there is apparently more than one Strauss. Oh well. I like waltzes too!