Saturday, December 24, 2011

300th Post

Assuming a modest 500 words per post (some have been over 1000), three hundred posts come to something like 150,000 words, or a few books! What I try to do every day is come up with some idea or perspective on music that might be illuminating. This partly comes from a long period of teaching when I was always trying to find some perspective, some metaphor that would reveal an important aspect of music to the student. I have had students contact me twenty years later saying they still remembered (even if I didn't!) a particular metaphor I had used.

What should I do today? Sometimes I comment on popular music, as in yesterday's post on the music of 2011. A lot of the time I talk about Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich because they seem to me to be the most important composers of all. You can discover a lot more about music studying a Bach fugue or a Beethoven sonata or a Shostakovich string quartet than pretty much all the alternatives. But I have a lot of affection for Haydn, Mozart and Steve Reich as well.

I don't think you can take music seriously and not develop strong opinions about the worth of different musics. That's why articles like the one in the Wall Street Journal I talked about yesterday puzzle me. How can a music critic find everything absolutely delightful? I find most music to be either horribly dull or just horrible. Ah, I think I just found my topic for today: levels of creativity. This is going to be parallel to the post I did a long time back on levels of musical knowledge. Here it is.

Let me see if I can define levels of musical creativity:

  1. You write a simple piece in a well-established musical form or genre such as a minuet or a folk-song. Mozart could do this when he was seven.
  2. You write a piece in a more demanding genre such as a sonata movement or a two-part invention. (I say 'write', but this could be improvised as well-in Jazz, you wouldn't write it down, for example.) Second and third year music students typically do this sort of thing.
  3. You write a really appealing piece or song in a well-established genre. A rock group or individual artist in pop music might do something like this that becomes popular--a 'hit'. A classical example might be something like a Haydn minuet.
  4. You write something that really captures the genre, exhausts the genre or exceeds the genre. A good example of this would be one of the more famous songs by the Beatles: "Yesterday" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" for example. A classical example might be one of the Bach fugues like the C major from Bk 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a good Beethoven symphonic movement like the second movement of the Symphony no 7. Perhaps one of the Chopin mazurkas.
  5. You write something that absolutely transforms the genre or form. Examples: The Beatles, Revolver; Bach, the keyboard suites; Haydn, the symphonies; Mozart, the piano concertos, Beethoven, the early piano sonatas.
  6. You create an entirely new form or genre: Haydn, the string quartets and symphonies; Chopin, the nocturnes, the scherzos, the ballades; Stravinsky, the modern ballet; Steve Reich, process music; Scarlatti, the single-movement keyboard sonata.
  7. You create something that transcends not only the form or genre, but that is a master work transcending its era. Bach, the WTC, the Art of Fugue, Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5 and 9; and several of the later piano sonatas; Shostakovich, Symphonies 5, 7 and 10.
That seems to exhaust the list, but there are a lot of great pieces that I didn't find a category for. For example, the Shostakovich string quartets are a re-invention of the Classical string quartet, but adapted to modern sensibilities. They are important enough for me to worry that I don't know where to put them. I also  recognize that there are some very important works in Jazz that I also am not sure where to put. Another artist that doesn't fit very well is Bob Dylan who has done some great things, but hard to characterize. The lyrics are brilliantly original, but are often combined with music that revives or recapitulates older musical styles. This very combination has a kind of creativity to it.

But the thing was to take a stab at it, even if it isn't entirely successful. The value in an exercise like this is that it puts things in perspective. This might help in explaining the relationship between two pieces where one is a flawed attempt at something truly new while the other is a more successful realization of something already established. What that tells you is that they need to be considered, valued, in different ways. Let's end with some music. The second movement of Beethoven, Symphony no. 7:

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