Sunday, June 12, 2011

Music for Listeners

The American composer Aaron Copland once said that he thought you ought to be able to get some sort of pleasure from music by just listening to it in a dumb sort of way. This is a pretty sensible position because it doesn't rule out that there might be music that will deliver more and more pleasure with repeated familiarity. But at the same time it says that there should be something in the music that will appeal even on first listening. Good advice for composers if they want people to listen to their music. Alas, many composers in the last century didn't follow this advice too closely. The whole avant-garde, progressive, new music movement tended to just seek the new with little attention paid to what audiences might enjoy. The 'new' was important; the 'beautiful' was not. I think the pendulum is swinging back now, but let me find a couple of samples for you of that avant-garde phase.

That string quartet by Anton Webern is one of the 'classic' pieces from the first half of the century. Webern thought that once listeners had gotten used to his style people would be whistling his tunes in the street. I think that unlikely! Not to deny that there is a kind of austere beauty to this music, but it is a very dry beauty.

The idea of altering the sound of a piano or other instrument by strategically inserting screws or pieces of plastic or rubber between the strings did not originate with John Cage, but he certainly is the most famous user of the technique. In this case, he manages to make a concert piano sound a lot like a Javanese gamelan.

This piece, Ionisation by Edgard Varèse, was first performed in 1933--the first piece of concert music largely for percussion. The most famous fan of this music is Frank Zappa. What do you think? There is a lot of very learned commentary on this piece, but to me its experimental character is foremost. To be honest I am reminded of that scene in Ghostbusters where Bill Murray is conducting psychological experiments. Every time his 'subject' fails to correctly guess what is on the card, Bill zaps him with an electric shock. This is a brilliant performance and extremely fine film of the performance. The split screens do a lot to reveal the structure of the piece. But still... are you likely to get much pleasure out of just listening to it in a dumb sort of way? Or do you feel more like the subject of an experiment?

Speaking of movies, here is my favorite musical scene from a movie. Let me set this up. Gerard Depardieu's is a rather mysterious character about whom we really learn no actual facts. He and Andie MacDowell arrange a marriage of convenience that benefits both of them. He poses as a composer, just back from Africa, but we see no evidence, other than this scene, that he is a composer or a musician of any kind. Just before this scene, the hostess, the lady in white sitting near the piano, has just been playing some nice Chopin. When the guests discover that Depardieu (his character's name is Georges Faure) is a 'composer', they ask him to play. Andie MacDowell's character is fearful that their plot will be exposed. Then he begins to play:

It's not Mozart! Here is what I love about this scene. Are we any more sure after he plays that he is indeed a composer? There are a couple of things that might indicate it: one is his hand position seems like that of most pianists, fingers curled correctly, and he executes a glissando with his thumb in the way it is done. Nice ending, too, with a long pause and then a high plink. But now that I've mentioned these things, I'll bet you could sit down to a piano and do just as well, couldn't you? The deep, dark secret of experimental, avant-garde music is that it can be indistinguishable from mere random flopping around. I discovered this when I realized that in many contemporary scores there is simply no way of determining if there is a misprint from the context. All scores have misprints (major or minor), but in modern music, how can we tell? For example, there is a very famous violin concerto by a very famous composer recorded by a very famous violinist with a very famous conductor and orchestra in which there is a section where all the notes in the violin are wrong. Apparently there was an error of several measures in the original printing where all the notes were printed a 4th too high. A couple of musicologists discovered this, but the news has apparently not filtered out to performers. So what are we to think?

Around 1970 a couple of composers rebelled against the ever-increasing complexity of the avant-garde. Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example, was writing extremely complex music for three and four orchestras. So Philip Glass and Steve Reich simplified music by returning to basic processes like repeated notes and harmonious chords. In the context of the time it was a radical move. Here is a piece for solo piano by Philip Glass:

Very pretty. Is it too pretty?


MB said...

What do you mean by, "is it too pretty?" I'd like to talk more about this.


Bryan Townsend said...

Greetings to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville! The general point of the post was that for a long time progressive composers tended to ignore completely whether their music had anything that an ordinary listener might find enjoyable. This phase of modernism seems to have mostly come to an end and a lot of composers now are writing music that seems to have returned to more traditional aesthetic values. I put up a piano piece by Philip Glass as an example and added the teaser question, "is it too pretty?" By this I was opening a window on the 18th century idea (coming from Edmund Burke and others) of the sublime: the idea that the greatest beauty, that they called the 'sublime', had an admixture of something else in it that they gave different names: fear, or horror. I suppose I was wanting to suggest that a great piece of music has a little more in it than just the pretty surface that Philip Glass gives us...