Thursday, July 21, 2005

What’s wrong with modern music

The book about music and the brain is spending a lot of pages to get at some basic ideas. The movement of perception from right brain (feeling) to left brain (idea) in professional musicians is huge.

There are three things
1. The natural characteristics of sound—what is usually called acoustics
2. The natural characteristics of us, how we hear, how we perceive the sounds we hear, how we organize them in our brains, all things designed to support survival, not entertainment
3. The building up of expectation over time—learning

Education is a kind of fourth thing, but this fourth thing has only to do with the process of composition, not the cultural idea of music. Basically the problem is that our composers know too much. They are carefully trained to know all about serialism and every other cute trick someone has dreamed up over the centuries. To curtail this conversation to its shortest possible length, they know a very great deal more than they have any actual use for.

The most successful composers of the past took the idiom they were born into and manipulated it to their own ends. Wagner took the new ideas of modulation he was hearing all around him and organized them into a seething, writhing morass. Bach took the tricks of the fugue invented by others and carried these to new heights of expression and complexity. Both of these very different composers are just writing variations on the compositional style common to their own era. It is item 3, the building up of expectation over time, that makes this all possible. They owe a huge debt to those who preceded them, because it is they who created the context of expectation. A Bach that appears out of thin air is completely useless as well as completely impossible.

These modern composers with amazing skills are lacking one essential feature: a context of expectation. We never know what to expect. I know that Messiaen had a whole theory of composition that he based his pieces on. I don’t need to know what this is to realize that his theories allow him to build up a context of expectation for me the listener. My brain knows what he’s doing without understanding his theories and is able to derive pleasure from it.

Gross generalization number one: theories of composition are for composers. In the precise second that the listener needs to know about them, the sounds in question have ceased to be music. Our brains make up their own solutions, and do not require the assistance of theoreticians.

The music of today lacks an overriding cultural style. Our music is absolutely all over the place, so society is not being particularly helpful to people wanting to write music.

I’m going to put in a little Vivaldi, some Brubeck, here and there a little tango. You actually hear composers saying things like this. Spend a lot more of your time concentrating on the context of expectation you are creating for the listener and lots less on impressing us with how much you know and how well you write.

Which reminds me of my Imbrie story. There is a composer named Andrew Imbrie, and when I was in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus we were assigned to sing one of his pieces. Every week, sometimes two or three times a week, we would come and take out his piece, and every rehearsal there would not be three notes that sounded familiar. It was always a new piece each time we rehearsed it, and this went on for weeks. He seemed completely successful at eliminating expectation and probably would not understand if I told him this was a bad thing.

Create in me an expectation. Society is not providing you with a context, so that means you have to create one. The context and the expectation are one. Help me anticipate where you are going, because it is my anticipation that creates the music.

Gross generalization number two: it is the listener and the process of listening that makes it music. Not you.

In Doctor Tischler's history classes we were taught that tonality was the invention of the Italian composer Archangelo Corelli. Up until then strong harmonic direction existed mainly only at the cadence points and in between things went in pretty much any direction. Tonality meant that this sense of harmonic pull permeated the entire composition. This was a powerful concept that then swept the musical world and became the primary interest of composers for 200 years.

The attraction of tonality is that it provides a context for anticipation. We love the sensation of being pulled along. Pop still includes this feature, but the fascination of tonality to the exclusion of virtually all else is gone. Serious composers today seem offended by the idea that someone would easily organize their materials into understandable structures. Confusion seems to be the objective.

Many of the most attractive composers now belong to the school called minimalism. They have decided to pare it all down and try again. Maybe too much complexity is just boring. Glass is the most extreme, but Pärt is definitely a minimalist. So is Górecki. Less is definitely more.

Footnote: Corelli created the reality of tonality, not the theory--that came much later.

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