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]

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.

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!

First-Impression Syndrome

November 8, 2008

First-Impression Syndrome (FIS) is the tendency for some people to favour the first interpretation of a piece of music that they hear over any subsequent ones.*

Now, of course, if the first rendition heard was really subpar (for example, overhearing me hack through Beethoven’s “Pathetique”), then yes, other versions will sound much better. But assuming that this is not the case, and one is listening to a legitimate recording performed by professional musicians, the situation, I think, becomes much different. More often than not, the first recordings I listen to remain superior in my preference, even though I really do try to appreciate other interpretations.

Two possible explanations for this phenomenon:

1. If one becomes familiar with a piece by initially listening to only one rendition, he/she becomes accustomed to that particular version. The listener subconsciously learns to associate the version with “the norm”, the “correct” way that the piece should be played. I propose that this is not dissimilar to the way in which traditions and customs are ingrained: a fondness for familiarity, a sort of reverence for the tried and trusted.

2. Something akin to divine guidance leads me to unknowingly pick out the best recordings right off the bat, and thus, all other recordings are literally just worse.

Of course, this does not happen 100% of the time, and there have been cases where I do have epiphanies with different versions, but the relatively low number of occurrences with which this occurs just strikes me as a little weird. Thoughts?

*FIS is by no means a legislative trend, nor does it have any scientific backing (or perhaps it does, but I haven’t bothered to look). It is purely a thought I had while sitting around trying to fill up some time.

Not too long ago, I listened to Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto for the first time. What a magnificent piece. The piano, with its swirling virtuosic displays, never loses its emotional intimacy. Here, I’d like to write my thoughts about the work. I realize reading music reviews without listening to the music is somewhat pointless, so I’ve uploaded the movements to help make it less dry. The CD set I used can be purchased here at a very reasonable price for anyone who’s interested.

Now, without further ado,

Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 16 – Sergei Prokofiev (performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn)

First Movement – Andantino

The first movement is wrought with pleading anguish. It begins quietly with the piano, singing a haunting motif against pensive arpeggiations in the left hand. The orchestra plays largely a supportive role, adding colour and augmenting the dynamics of the piano. The climax of the movement is brilliantly composed. The piano solo which leads up to it begins with the return of the motive, enrapturing the audience with its melancholy wistfulness. Then, we listen as the piece slowly descend into feelings of despair and anger; the lone piano seems to be mirroring the struggles and battles of a conflicted mind and soul, with such full and rich harmonics that it makes the orchestra seem unnecessary. Finally, after the piano’s defiant proclamation, the melody crescendos, and the orchestra slowly melds in with it, producing a spine-tingling zenith. The movement ends with the motive again, slowly fading into nothingness.

Second Movement – Scherzo (Vivo)

The second movement takes off with a sprint. Here, we hear Prokofiev’s signature wit, as the piano seems to run along, as through with fire at its metaphoric heels. It lasts only about three minutes compared to the twelve-minute first movement.

Third Movement – Intermezzo (Allegro Moderato)

The third movement opens with rich, deep, bellows; rumbling from the depths. The piano comes in, and we hear it partaking in this solemn march. Its own light-footed steps contrast with the fat sound of the orchestra. However, as the movement progresses, the piano gains more confidence, or is perhaps seduced by the overwhelming power of the orchestra, and slowly loses its contemplative nature. The movement ends with the piano marching along just as robustly as the orchestra, which seems to rejoice manically at its success in winning over the piano. The last few cadential notes are quiet, but resolute, as though the piano is declaring that it is finished fighting.

Fourth Movement – Finale (Allegro Tempestoso)

But that is not the end. The fourth movement takes us by surprise. The sudden descending strings and piano bring to mind an image of one who is thrust into a dream of falling, straight down, bewildered, in an ambiguous sky. The audience, unsure where this is all heading, wonders if the rest of the movement will be a chaotic fiasco, but just then, the piano’s melancholy soul, which rang out so beautifully in the first movement, returns with a new motif, but which is no less moving. It sounds more jaded and tired at first, but helped along by the orchestra, it makes a few heroic steps forward. By mid-movement, however, the piano’s resolve seems to wavers. It flounders alone for a while. We hear the motif reoccur from different parts of the orchestra, as though they are fragments of the piano’s memory. The piano, in response, gives a slow recitation of the motif, as though slowly coming out of its stupor. However, it is too late, and with a fantastic race at the end, the piano’s journey culminates into a fury, before dropping off to a convention V-I cadence.

A technically sound ending, but the “story” remains open ended. This, however, adds to the concerto’s intrigue. As these are simply my own thoughts on the work, it is quite possible that they converge very little with the composer’s own views. However, I think that that is one of the features that makes music so intimate and personal. Interpretations of the same music can vary remarkably. It’s an interesting topic – musical tastes among different people and cultures. In fact, I was going to dedicate this post to a longer discussion about that: talking about how the audience of Prokofiev’s time detested the concerto, but I wound up writing a full review of it instead! Anyway, perhaps in a later post.

References:

Prokofiev, Sergei. Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 16, Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn, 1975, Decca 473 259-2 DTR 3. Compact disc.