Archive for April, 2011


Unweaving the Rainbow

It’s such a tough meme to kill.  Why are people so committed to the proposition that intensive and comprehensive study (or even not so intensive and comprehensive study) somehow ruins one’s ability to appreciate a given phenomenon?  I’m sure it’s in no small part a rationalization of laziness and/or lack of perceptive capabilities.

Those active in the scientific fields have done a pretty good job of quashing this meme in their own context.  Students of biology, medicine, physics, etc are generally students of biology, medicine, physics, etc because they are excited to learn about the phenomena pursuant to those fields; they believe better understanding leads to greater appreciation.  They don’t undertake their studies simply to observe phenomena and then not study them.

The situation in the arts is a curious one.  This being Musical Beef, I’ll concentrate on musical art.  Most professional musicians have gone to school to study music.  Institutions devoted to the study of music are out there.  It’s often expected that a candidate for a job in the musical field hold degrees in the relevant area of musical study.  Yet the very same people who expect a professional musician to hold music degrees, and would even drag out their own degrees from prestigious conservatories in order to boast, are constantly prattling about how trying to explain music to others (or even to yourself) ruins the listening experience.  Nonsense.  What I think the author of the popular blog Proper Discord was trying to say was that there is a time and place for musical study, and actually during the concert is not it.

Don’t get me wrong.  My first and best test for musical greatness remains the “goosebump test.”  Concerning the uninitiated’s concert experiences, Proper Discord writes: “they enjoyed the good stuff, and didn’t enjoy the bad stuff.”  I share the view that music can be appreciated without knowing much about it.  Indeed, music’s effect on the limbic system (and more specifically the sympathetic nervous system – why we get goosebumps!) isn’t dependant on a full understanding of various compositional techniques.  I just don’t think getting to know more about the music diminishes one’s appreciation of it.

Proper Discord closes with a quote from Georges Braque: “There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.”  Oh, boy.  Postmodern deepity time.  If you can’t explain it, how do you know it’s any good?  Or completely awful?  If someone comes to me proclaiming the greatness of this or that, I want them to be able to give me at least SOME kind of a rationale, just as I always feel obliged to explain why I think something is great.  And you certainly shouldn’t pronounce negatively on something without being able to explain what the problems are.   “Just because,” or “de gustibus non est disputandum” only gets us to the postmodern quagmire where, since everything is great, nothing winds up being great.

This, however, I couldn’t agree with more:

A lot of the time, though, we rationalise what we like after we’ve decided that we like it.

Unfortunately, I think this is how quite a lot of music finds its way into the canon.

PS:  The video at the bottom of the article is not the first time Proper Discord has compared music with food.  I don’t think the analogy is apt (although I have to admit that post is mostly pretty clever and funny).  We’ve evolved to crave the once-rare fats and sugars now found in junk food.  That’s why it’s so satisfying to indulge.  Our inner-caveman is unaware that sensible portions of healthy food are in plentiful and immediately available supply.  Is there a similarly self-preserving genetic directive compelling us to indulge in “cheesy pop music”?  I don’t think so.


The dilettante’s heavy artillery: The Canon

There are a few “tricks” people who fancy themselves composers use constantly in an attempt to create what they suppose is a fresh, contemporary and intellectual sound.  These include triads with added tones (especially the 2nd), faux-modality (lowered 7ths or raised 4ths), and above all else, canon.

Added tones can be nice, but they’re not sufficient for supporting a claim to innovation and “freshness.”  The basic material is often still good old-fashioned tertian harmony.  Which is fine, too.  Artistry in composition is a result of pitch/rhythmic manipulation at a much deeper level than this.  An added tone carries much more artistic currency if it is achieved rather than imposed; that is, if it’s appearance has a far-reaching justification (as opposed to the local [and easy] “I like this sound” justification).  If there is no far-reaching justification, perhaps it’s better left out.  Brahms touched on this issue when he wrote that the difficulty of composition is not coming up with material.  Rather, it is knowing which material to let go of; knowing which material will and will not contribute to an organic whole.  The same can be said for the evocation of modality.  What compelling reasons do you have for employing that raised fourth?  Is more and more weight given to the use of the raised fourth until finally it’s assigned its own harmony or harmonic area?  This would be one possibility for a well-justified use of modal inflection.  Most often one finds simple and un-elaborated suggestions of Aeolian, or, if the dilettante is really daring, Dorian, and even less frequently Lydian.

If, however, there is one device that’s used in the hope that its mere appearance will grant profundity to the piece in question it is the canon.  There seems to be a misconception among many musicians that a canon is cerebral music simply by virtue of the fact that it is a canon, and regardless of (perhaps in spite of) many of the music’s other characteristics.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Any stumblebum can slap together a canon if s/he is unconcerned with the resultant intervals and how they relate to each other.  I’m certain the misconception regarding this procedure stems from its association with works like “Musikalisches Opfer,” the “Canonische Veraenderungen,”  and of course the “Goldberg Variations.”  These canons truly are cerebral achievements, the likes of which we may never again see. 

So why are Bach’s canons such an achievement?  Certainly not just because he had the idea to write a canon.  No, the thing that boggles the mind when looking at a Bach canon is how he was able to construct a piece, so much of which is prescribed by the “leading” voice, which satisfies all voice-leading demands and produces meaningful progressions of harmonies.  His capacity for musical forethought must have been second to none.  Just consider the final canon (@ 2:00) in the “Goldberg Variations.”  The material is crafted so well, with such Olympian planning, that it requires no independent bass to “clarify” harmonic meaning and put the sonorities in their proper inversions.  And he manages to create this coherent music in all forms of canon (inversion, augmentation, cancrizans, etc) at any interval!  Sometimes with two or more pairs of canonic voices!!  Each pair with unique material!!!  To be sure, some tweaking takes place: what was a major second in the leading voice might manifest as a minor second in the following voice.  But in a way, knowing where and how adjustments like this can or should be made adds to the artistry.  Indeed, real answers are rarely advisable.  Leonard Bernstein (again), in one of his lectures at Harvard, said that a “modern” way of treating a cantus firmus imitatively might be to let notes that are correct in the c.f., but sound wrong after treatment, “just stay that way.”  That sounds to me more like “the easy way out” than “modern” artistry.

Without the strictures described above, a canon becomes unremarkable – no special talent is required to produce it.  To wit:

Clearly, the result of this canonic treatment wasn’t given too much thought.  The canonic device itself (at the 3rd and in inversion – ooh!) is somehow supposed to set these bars apart as a moment of utter profundity.  Given that the piece from which this is taken is cast in a more or less traditional harmonic and contrapuntal idiom (lots of added tones, too, I hasten to note), this excerpt is chockablock with redundancy and voice-leading errors.  Not to mention a sudden and unjustified intrusion of chromaticism and dissonance.  “Well, it’s 2011!  We don’t worry about voice-leading anymore” you say?  Ok.  But even if we grant that the excerpt need not comport with its surroundings regarding syntax and grammar, it still fails.  The horizontal minor ninth would, in Bach’s hands, be an exceptional and arresting gesture – because of how Bach would justify and resolve it in both the horizontal and vertical directions.  That ninth would even be something special in one of the other movements of this piece.  Here, however, it has no special horizontal or vertical significance because of the “panchromatic” idiom the composer has momentarily adopted.

Usually what happens when a composer like, say, Steve Reich (no he di-ent!) creates a canon is you end up listening to a sort of unfolded pandiatonic or panchromatic or panwhatever chord for the duration of the canon.  One harmony.  And that’s it.  How is such paucity of content evidence of creative genius?  Imagine if “Das Rheingold” ended after its famous introduction, before any singing began.  Would people proclaim Wagner a genius based only on those hundred-odd measures?

EDIT: Another problem with regard to the canon is that many pieces called canons are not, in fact, canons.  If a melody is strung out over a ground bass, and this melody is given to each upper voice in succession, entering when the ground repeats, the piece is not a canon.  It is a round.  Therefore, Pachelbel’s “Canon” is not a canon.


A surprising admission

A few months ago Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times revealed the 10 composers he considers to be the 10 greatest.  I have to agree with many of his choices (particularly No 1), but he avoided including any contemporary composers.  He gives this reason for their omission:

We are too close to living composers to have perspective. Besides, assessing greatness is the last thing on your mind when you are listening to an involving, exciting or baffling new piece.

Umm…what?  One of the insults regularly hurled by devotees of the avant-garde at those with more traditional tastes is that “they only like music by old dead guys.”  Yet Tommasini seems to be endorsing the use of the criterion “old and dead” in the process of evaluating a composer.

And that second sentence makes no sense to me.  Of course I’m assessing the greatness of a piece of music as I listen to it.  How could I not be?!  Does it hold my attention?  Do I find the turns it takes compelling?  Does it stimulate my arrectores pilorum?  These things aren’t necessarily things I consciously think about while listening, but whether or not they are answered affirmatively is my (or my “id’s”) first pass at assessment.

But here’s the really big problem: isn’t he basically admitting that he’s unable to identify great music when he hears it?  That seems an unfortunate malady to have when you’re a professional music critic.  I’m sure he wouldn’t see his statement in this light, however.  He’d likely claim that, in fact, it’s not possible for anyone to separate the modern wheat from the modern chaff.  This is one of those disheartening manifestations of postmodernism.  It seems to Tommasini (and unfortunately to many, many of his musically literate and professionally active readers) that this is simply the most reasonable stance to take.  Well, if it’s so reasonable to say we just can’t determine greatness immediately, that it’s not even an enterprise of which we are capable, that only time will tell, then what’s the point of going to music school?  Did I sit through all those theory and musicology courses for nothing?  That knowledge isn’t up to the task of critiquing modern music?  Or what would be the point of going  to hear new music?  *applause, applause* “Wasn’t that fantastic?”  “I don’t know.  Ask me again in 100 years when perhaps a consensus will have slowly and cautiously accrued and I won’t have to do any thinking myself or risk making a poor judgment.”  “Oh.”

Of course, there is another implication Tommasini inadvertently reveals with that statement.  Perhaps he finds it difficult to pronounce definitively on much of modern music because much of it lacks meaning.  Content with semiotic value can’t be invented and imposed all at once.  But this will be the topic of another post.



Don’t talk to me about the benefit for creativity of mind-altering drugs.  If you tell me a piece of music is the result of “vistas made available by the consciousness-expanding properties of drug X,” I will evaluate it commensurate with the level of effort that went into its creation: not very valuable.  Art should be the result of deliberate consideration. Or even considered deliberation!


Hey! Not so fast…

There are certain contexts in which a stringendo can work.  Most often the composer will explicitly indicate one (which, if I may be perfectly frank, is no guarantee that it will work: I’m unconvinced that the stringendi indicated by Max Reger in some of his organ pieces are well-advised.  Listeners who don’t know it’s a mandate from the composer invariably complain “you’re rushing!”).  There are a few other contexts.  But these contexts are not in the majority. 

In a piece which treats rhythm and meter more or less traditionally, rushing just sounds like, well, rushing.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with fast tempi themselves, but as far as expressive temporal manipulation is concerned, rubato, agogic, tenuto and ritenuto are the rule.  Stringendo should be the rare exception.  Virtuosity is not demonstrated by speed alone, but by conveying the sense that you, the performer, are in control.  And nothing belies a lack of control like rushing.

But demonstrating virtuosity isn’t the only reason for employing a deliberate approach to temporal manipulation.  The harmonic, contrapuntal and architectural logic of a piece can (and should) be highlighted with judicious application of rubato, tenuto, etc.  Stringendo doesn’t set one moment apart the way those other devices do.  To me, stringendo almost always feels as if the performer is inexorably careening toward a technical train-wreck and is really only along for the ride.

So why do I frequently encounter musicians who seem to argue just the opposite, i. e., that rubato etc. are to be used sparingly, and what amounts to rushing is the one thing that can insure against a boring performance?  Perhaps they don’t miss the way tenuto et al. can bring the logic mentioned above into sharp relief because they aren’t perceiving that logic in the first place. 

Well, anyway, I’ve got might on my side.  David Higgs, Jacques van Oortmerssen, Andras Schiff, Alfred Brendel – all proponents of riding the “back edge” rather than the “front edge” of the beat.  Higgs, a luminary in the world of organ performance, likes to make an analogy to driving a horse-drawn coach: you have to keep the reins taut.  That tension is what generates excitement, propels the piece forward and makes a compelling experience for the listener.  If the reins aren’t taut it’s because you’ve lost your grip and the horses are getting away from you.