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…

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