Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nerd Alert

Someone has written a book about musicology:  Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music.  For me this is interesting stuff.

Part I

To start with he worries about why musicology.  Musicology, the study of music in history, is basically the same profession as art historian.  Does anyone ask why art history?  If you go to a museum, there are pictures hanging.  Someone has to decide what you get to see, and that person is an art historian.  They decide what is worth looking at and what isn’t.  Art is interesting, so people study it and become art historians.

Musicologists have a similar function, but there are subtle differences.  Music is interesting, so people study it.  But unlike art which exists whether anyone looks at it or not, music only exists if someone is listening.  It exists only in the moment.  Musicologists spend a lot of time on studying old manuscripts, transcribing them into modern notation and creating critical editions for potential performances.  To create the moment of existence. 

The reason for musicology is love.  Someone loves a particular music and studies it.  Usually Germans study German music, British people study British music.  Only Americans appear to be generalists and study music from other countries.  He complains that there is little evaluation of whether or not the particular music being studied is worthy of the attention being paid to it.  He complains a lot.

He traces the history of musicology back to the rediscovery of Bach early in the 19th century.  The primary focus of musicology is what he calls western art music.  However, his primary focus is the entire intellectual musical landscape of the post WWII period.

The closest I came to musicology came from having failed the history portion of the entrance exam to Indiana University.  My repertoire and therefore my knowledge was from the Romantic and Modern periods, so I breezed through those.  I recognized the Lied that was asked about.  I recognized the peculiar chord from the Symphony of Psalms.  But earlier periods were something else entirely, and I had to study them painstakingly from a real musicologist.  He wanted facts and lots of them.

One of the results of all this is the history book posted in the links at left.  I found it useful and fascinating to group music into generations and recognize that there were common features to all the music of a single generation, that things changed in discrete chunks of time.   You could teach yourself to recognize the dates and identities of composers and pieces of music just by pegging them on one of these style periods.  I felt a sudden useful clarity.  It is a conceptual generalization and not a set of facts.  If I were to try to improve it today, I would add more style information.

[Please note. Just as I am not an opera critic, I am also not a book critic. I review based on what thoughts the book stimulates while I am reading it. The more diverse the thinking, the better the book.]

I am finding Kerman's book fascinating, even though I don’t always get what he’s talking about. Kerman talks about generalizations a lot without really tying them to the specific examples. Positivism, for instance. He appears often to be preaching to the choir. These guys all know what he’s talking about, I suppose.

There is a nice section in Contemplating Music about the progress of Bach scholarship since WWII. It is fascinating to think that the same composer that set off the existence of musicology continues to stimulate thinking. His dates of composition have all been rearranged to put all the church cantatas before the Matthew Passion. This is fact based musicology.

There is something very satisfying about studying Bach. For instance, he was a master of counterpoint in a way that perhaps no one else was. Kerman talks about his use of prima pratica, the style of composition that points back to Palestrina, and says that parts of the B minor mass are in this style. He also talks about Bach’s familiarity with the very Rococo Pergolesi and his son CPE Bach. I was taught that Bach was stuck in the past, that by 1740 the world had passed him by. It would be nice to think that this wasn’t true. What would make this really interesting for me would be a list of specific examples. This is the world of YouTube. We never have to go without examples.

The big topic seems to be musicology vs. criticism. Our art historian would not worry about this. If he is picking out pictures for the walls of the Metropolitan Museum, he requires critical judgments and not just facts. Usually the musicologist isn’t the one who selects what pieces are played, but perhaps this is changing.

Part II

I am not having the easiest time with Kerman's book.  I am making a bigger effort not to schmooze while discussing this very intellectual writing.

I'm pleased to see he validates one of my perceptions.  Intellectual writing about music tends to focus on form and analysis--the process of evaluating the overall structure of a piece.  This process puts all Italian music at a severe disadvantage, since that simply isn't what it's about for them.

Musicologists write about whatever is at hand, and this used to be mostly music of the Renaissance.  Audiences are interested primarily in music of the nineteenth century and the neo-Romantics that lap over into the twentieth century like Mahler and Strauss.  Musicologists haven't really been worrying about what pictures to hang on the walls of their museum.

(Classical / Western Art) Music used to be about music.  Tonality was well established by composers before Rameau came along to propose the fundamental bass.  The composer dog created the material for the analyst tail.  Now music is about inventing a theory and then composing stuff to fit the theory.  The tail is wagging the dog. Evaluation is based on how complicated the theory is and not on whether or not anyone would want to listen to it.

My flaw, I know, is that I can't help editorializing.  For me editorializing is the whole point.

Bottom line:  there isn't necessarily any correlation between the musical value of a piece and how fun / interesting it is to analyze. I would go to a ridiculous extreme: you are only allowed to evaluate the music if upon hearing it you are absolutely unaware of the theory upon which it is based. You might still like it, but it won't be because the theory is cute.

I, for instance, am well aware that Messiaen composes based on his own complicated theory. I have no idea what this is, but when I listen to his music, I like it anyway.

Part III

I have no excuse for writing about this. By all means please skip this.

I love reading books about music and the brain because it is our brains that create the music. The only theoretical analysis that means anything is the one that our brains do all by themselves. We can help it along, but the brain does all the heavy lifting.  This is why the case of tonality is so interesting.

What is tonality? It's the idea that at every point in the phrase, on every chord in the phrase your ears hear the pull to the tonic or key note. The English invented it. Dowland's music is fully tonal. 

Anecdote: At a Mu Phi meeting one of the members played a piece by Froberger. At the end another member said, "Interesting chord progressions." They would be interesting because they weren't chord progressions at all. Though he was after Dowland, Froberger was still pre-tonal. It is tonality that creates the idea of a chord progression. Froberger just wrote triads that didn't go in any particular order except at the end.

Dowland spent time in Italy, and once the idea of tonality had taken root in Italy, it quickly spread to all of Europe. Arcangelo Corelli was the first Italian to immerse himself in the idea. With their dominant position in music at that time, the Italians carried the concept everywhere. By 1700 everything was tonal and pretty much still is today. Bach's understanding of tonality as reflected in his music may have been the most sophisticated of his era, as is the case with most features of his style.

This idea swept Europe entirely without the benefit of a theoretical explanation. Composers of the Baroque understood harmony as it was outlined in the figured bass, but clearly chordal function and not the bass note creates the sensation of gravity toward a single note. It wasn't until Rameau in the 18th century invented the fundamental bass concept that we understood how tonality actually works. Or at least were able to explain it to our verbal brain.  This idea of Rameau's, after a lot of tweaking, is what is taught in theory class.  (Later came Schenker, whom we will ignore.)

Theory is basically just verbal explanations for musical concepts.  The musical concepts do not actually require any verbal explanation. The brain forms its own explanation, and this explanation is not expressed in words.

The thing we are trying to communicate here is that the idea of tonality was created in the minds of people who were creating and hearing music. It existed for 100 years entirely without the benefit of a theoretical explanation.

I suppose I'm a radical. I kind of think you must create the music in my brain using nothing but the sound of notes in the air, and that it doesn't matter how you explain it on paper. Music never becomes words.  Teach me how to understand your music with the music itself, and my brain will do the rest.

Theory is lots of fun but basically irrelevant.  I think it's relevant to training musicians.  It helps you think about things you wouldn't necessarily have thought of without it. The problem comes when you get so caught up in it you start to think it actually explains music.  It doesn't.  Your brain does that.

Carry on.

No comments: