Saturday, August 11, 2012

Taking the Notes Seriously

Joseph Kerman in his book on the Beethoven string quartets talks about how they seem to have a special quality that sets them aside from most other music. This quality is a personality, a character, like that of a person. This gets me thinking...

Sure, music has a personal quality because it is a bridge of communication between persons. How else? But a lot, perhaps the great majority, of communication between persons consists of rather mundane things. There is a special category of conversation that really just serves as a kind of social lubricant: "hi, how ya doing?" Other kinds of communication are necessary, but humdrum: "meet you at 11 for coffee." Or necessary, but cold and factual: "the quarterly report will show a 17% drop in earnings." It is just a small part of communication that is weighted with real personal contact and seriousness. When you are falling in love with someone, for example, every word carries with it levels of meaning that are not present in ordinary conversation.

This brings us to music. Just like other forms of communication, music comes in various levels. A lot of it is like social lubricant: light forms of dance music like the waltz:

Or most of today's music videos:

As it does not have the same semantic content as language, we don't use music to arrange appointments or report earnings. Though George Harrison did use one song to complain about tax policy. (I know I have put this song up before, so different version this time: live, with Eric Clapton!):

Music can have, potentially at least, the emotional weight or subtext akin to a person you are close to saying "I really want to see you." While a lot of music by a lot of composers never feels intimate in that way, some composers seem to have a particular gift for it. Take the opening of this quartet by Beethoven:

The music is so urgent, so compelling that it feels the equivalent of a tsunami warning, or a court summons. Something you really have to hear! Other music by Beethoven can feel like you are cast into a deep pool of mourning:

Few composers are this gripping, but another is Shostakovich who with just a couple of notes, compels your attention so thoroughly that you can't turn away:

To play this music, you have to take every note seriously, just as you take every word seriously in a communication from someone you are in a close relationship with. Another mysterious and magical aspect of music...


Carey said...

Thanks again for your blog, it is a wonderful resource
of knowledge you're sharing. I do have a question: you
I'm interested in your Bach book of 8 pieces with
performance notes and have faound a few copies
around for sale (OOP?), but can't seem to find
the contents of the book. Can you tell me what
pieces are included?


Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Carey,

Yes, I sure can! I tried to include pieces by Bach that had never or rarely been arranged for guitar. The book is organized into eight chapters with each chapter progressively dealing with more difficult music. The first chapter is the minuets from the second cello suite. Then there is the sarabande from the same suite. Chapter 3 is the Bourrée from the first lute suite (and yes, I know there are many editions--didn't want to leave it out). Then the siciliano from the first violin sonata (transcribed in G major). Then the andante from the second violin sonata. The prelude from the third cello suite transcribed in D major. Then the whole first cello suite transcribed in A major (because D really doesn't work). And finally, the prelude to the 4th Lute Suite. There are lots of bonuses such as exercises and suggestions for ornaments, some harmonic analysis and many, many suggestions for how to approach the music.

The first cello suite in my transcription, I have recorded and posted on this blog.

Carey said...

Thanks so much! The Second Cello Suite is a
favorite of mine, and the Sarabande might be
approachable. Not many recordings of
this piece on guitar, and the ones I know of
are rather romantic interpretations.

Sounds like a very good book, with the notes
and esp harmonic analysis.. I'll have to get a
copy while it's available.