Thursday, February 28, 2013

Musicological Sparring?

I really am not singling out the New York Times, even though it might look like it. Yesterday I critiqued a little video they put up and now I'm going to gripe about another piece. This one is called "Musicological Sparring, Courtesy of David Byrne and Questlove". I guess what set me off was the word "musicological" in the title. Though the NYT has certainly published real musicology, especially in articles by Richard Taruskin, this doesn't quite qualify. This one is just a conversation and one I am going to join in on.

The writer, Allan Kozinn, is a highly-respected writer on music and author of a good book on The Beatles published by Phaidon. I also have absolutely nothing against either David Byrne or Questlove. I used to be a big fan of Talking Heads. But I do want to go through this article and make some comments. First off, the opening strikes an odd note:
Because making music is, at heart, a formidable acting job — in which the performer projects a stage persona that may not be much like what he or she is like offstage — public interviews with musicians can be a gamble.
Really? This might be true of the celebrity musicians of today like Lady Gaga and a host of others who spend so much of their energy in constructing that persona. But it is scarcely true of the musicians I like to talk about and listen to. For the greatest performers, the goal is to transmit the music, not one's own personality, let alone a fabricated one. I recognize that this opinion may be a vanishing minority these days, but I wanted to put it out there.

Ahmir Thompson, known as Questlove, comes across as someone I am likely to be in agreement with. I like his principles! The article links to a comment he left on an NPR blog where he chastises the writer for not doing the job. He says, "it is your duty to discover the beauty of acclaimed art and why it was so." Yep. He is talking about Bruce Springsteen as an example, but I would say exactly the same thing about a half-baked article on Bach. But I'm not so in agreement with David Byrne:
Mr. Byrne’s book and Questlove’s course yielded the first potential fault line. Hadn’t Mr. Byrne suggested in his book that the creation and adoration of revered musical canon was a bad thing? Well, not exactly, Mr. Byrne said. He was “going after classical music,” not the pop canon that Questlove is teaching. And even at that, he said, “there’s some classical music that I really love, and some that I don’t get and I don’t think I will ever get.” What he really objects to, in fact, is “the subliminal thing going on, that listening to that music instead of the pop music I listened to, would make you a better person. It became this class thing.”
It sounds as if Mr. Byrne is one of those non-classical musicians who can never quite conceal their resentment of classical music. To justify this he creates what I consider a straw man, the idea that classical music makes you a better person. A "class thing". No music makes you a better or worse person. Music, like any other art form, may present moral situations from which you can, if you make the effort, derive moral "truths", but only music with a text can do that. You see, the problem with Byrne's argument is that it is not about the music at all. You can have a terrible piece of music with a great text or vice versa. The article goes on to say that it was Questlove that defended the notion of a canon. He believes there is a canon of classic pop albums and teaches a course to that effect. Then there is a long comparison of Public Enemy and Stravinsky that manages to avoid mention of any specifics of Stravinsky's music while going into considerable detail about Public Enemy's. Perhaps this is just part of the NYT's policy of making classical music nearly invisible.

The article ends with a discussion of Questlove's views on music education:
Probably the most striking moments of the discussion, though, were Questlove’s theories about musical education. One should, he argued, start young: he recently loaded up a couple of iPods for a friend with a new baby and attached it to speakers around the child’s crib. He would not say what was on the playlist, apart from Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, but he asked his friend to play the music around the clock. As for advice for older students, sought by a teacher in the audience, he took a strikingly traditional stand.
“I’m never that ‘follow your dreams’ guy,” Questlove said. “Because some people’s dreams will get realized and some dreams won’t get realized, so I kind of feel it’s dismissive – ‘Oh! Follow your dreams, kid, see you later!’ My radical advice is simple: you have to practice and you have to be organized. Which I know also sounds rather like bland, dismissive advice, but I think it’s true. If you look at all of history’s great figures, it’s discipline, practice, organization.”
Oh wow. Isn't subjecting a newly-born to non-stop Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa child abuse? But yes, he is perfectly correct in saying that "follow your dreams" is often bad advice and that discipline, practice and organization is how you develop the skills needed to be a musician of any kind.

I think what bugs me about this and most articles in the popular press is the sheer vapidity of it. There is almost no real information here. No detailed specifics, few statements of general principles. It's really just chat. Musicology is not just chat: it is discussion of something substantial related to music based on real knowledge.

And now, I really have to play you some Captain Beefheart:

Now, does that sound like just the thing for a newly-born?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Too Cool?

I just stumbled across this on the New York Times site. Ethan Hawke and Dana Lyn performing "Aura Lee" from a theatrical production. I dunno, I suppose that means that whatever reaction I have to this I should not have unless I go see the play. But, what the heck, I'll give you my reaction anyway. What were they thinking? I mean, I like Ethan Hawke. I thought he was great in Training Day. But really? Perhaps this is a hum-dinger of a performance in the context of the play, but standing on its own like this, it is just lame. What's with the changing octave all the time in the singing? Ok, he can strum the guitar a bit. But what's with the little music box ending? And Dana, not to be cruel, but that's just lame fiddle playing.

I guess we always expect everything from New York to be cool, smooth and sophisticated. But sometimes it's just lame. Now here's some violin and guitar with a little energia:

Musicians and Self-Criticism

Many musicians are very self-critical people. A very fine guitarist, with a long-established career, recently wrote me saying that whenever he heard a recording of himself he thought he should switch to a cedar-topped guitar. He plays a spruce-topped Hauser, but worries about his sound. A flute-player I used to work with was always saying how he hated his sound. There are a host of examples. Normally, of course, musicians only reveal these thoughts to other musicians that they are close to. Excessive self-criticism, which many of us are prey to, is a disease! Stage-fright is another manifestation of excessive self-criticism: you just feel that everything will go horribly wrong because you are fundamentally unworthy.

The thing is that self-criticism, in the proper amount, is absolutely necessary. When you are alone in your practice room who but yourself is there to say, "that scale was sloppy, better do it again;" or "my arpeggios are uneven, need to practice slower". But self-criticism can easily get out of hand. We also need a deep well of confidence and all that practicing, all that correction of errors, development of tone-color, phrasing and so on, must go towards building self-confidence. You need a lot of confidence to walk on stage and perform!

I am reminded of a very funny New Yorker cartoon from years ago. A small boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, is standing by a piano onstage and saying to the audience, "And now, God help us all, Rachmaninoff 3."

Aristotle really had it right when he pointed out that the right course of action is the middle between extremes. Courage is the right virtue, steering a middle course between cowardice and reckless disregard. Moderation is one of the most important virtues. Excessive self-confidence might mean that you too easily accept sub-standard playing. Excessive self-criticism means that you never have enough confidence.

Let's listen to some confident playing:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

One Wise Politician

One of my favorite bloggers, Instapundit, often says that the current political class is the worst ever. But sometimes you can be surprised. Canada's Pierre Elliott Trudeau had some surprising things to say at times. I recall that after coming out of a viewing of Gallipoli, the film about WWI by Australian director Peter Weir, that he said the ending made him feel "sucked into nothingness" which is a pretty good take on it. And speaking of Australians, I just ran a across a remarkable interview with Australian politician Paul Keating who was Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996. Here it is:

I don't think I have ever heard more sensible talk about music and the arts from a politician. How in heaven's name do folks like this get elected in Australia?

I've long had a soft spot for Australia since I first started watching Australian cinema in the 70s and 80s. Lots of excellent films like Breaker Morant and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Lots of good pop music too like Men at Work:

In the early 80s it was that song that turned me back on to pop music. There was also XTC:

Some of the best classical guitars in the world are made in Australia by people like Greg Smallman. They make some great wine too like Penfolds Grange. Then there are some recent pop stars like Gotye who just won a Grammy for Record of the Year for his song "Somebody That I Used to Know" (that I blogged about long ago!):

But I find the less pop-oriented musician Packwood even more interesting:

Wow. Australia is a fascinating place all right.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Varieties of Pleasure

One of the most important functions of art is to give pleasure. Indeed, if something that formerly had a mundane role is re-imagined primarily to give pleasure, we start calling it an art. A lot of very pleasurable things started out as very ordinary. Take cheese, for example. Cheese was invented simply to preserve the nutritional value of milk before there were refrigerators. Other food items like wine or preserved meats have a similar origin. In their altered form, they remain edible for considerable lengths of time, even in hot climates. But over time, the possibility of improving these foods to become more pleasurable, became evident. Even by the time of ancient Rome, gourmet varieties of cheese were being produced and imported.

Even the so-called fine arts have mundane origins. The arts of the ancient Greeks like pottery began as simple utilitarian objects and slowly became decorative objects of great beauty. This wine container depicting Herakles and Athena dates from about 540 BC:

The wine jug has been transformed into a work of art. I got started thinking about this after watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain about Ferran Adrià, the famous chef who created possibly the finest restaurant in the world while it was open, El Bulli. Here is part of the episode:

This is most obviously about the transformation of the simple act of eating into an art form. Looking at coverage in the mass media, this is a widespread phenomenon. Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal that have less and less coverage of things like classical music, have more and more coverage of food and drink. The one art form is in decline while the other is in ascendance. The arts of personal adornment also seem to be rising in importance. The French franchise Sephora sells beauty products and there are something like 100,000 videos on YouTube celebrating shopping there! Yes, really.

So, classical music down, while food, drink and make-up are up. What else is down? I suspect a big one is poetry. Poetry was perhaps the first fine art. It was already in a state of high development by the time of Homer, about 800 BC, when the other art forms were still in a crude form. Indeed, one could argue quite cogently that the art of poetry has seen nothing superior to the Iliad and the Odyssey since. And where is poetry today? Name the most important living poet in English. Everyone I can think of offhand is dead like T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin or Wallace Stevens. A few minutes with Google and I come up with the name John Ashbery, but I confess that I am not familiar with his work. It seems as if poetry is one art form that has been rather thoroughly erased from public view.

I think I am seeing a pattern here: what seems to be driving popularity is two things: first, the ability of something to directly deliver pleasure to individuals in the form of food, drink, make-up and so on (clothing and accessories also come to mind--think how the fashion industry is making serious attempts to become a fine art); and second, the ability to monetize this delivery commercially. I suspect we are not fully conscious of how much the commercial has squeezed the non-commercial in the last several decades. Poetry is experiencing such a severe decline probably because no-one has figured out how to monetize it. Classical music is experiencing a decline because it is becoming only marginally commercially viable. The commercial success of classical music was in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Before then it was not commercial in the modern sense of the word because it was supported by the aristocracy. In the 19th century the art form of music had a tremendous expansion because it was the ideal art form for Romanticism and had a ready made audience in the shape of the newly emergent middle class. This commercial success was extended by the development of the recording industry, the very archetype of how to monetize something ephemeral by turning a concert of music, something as evanescent as can be, into a piece of vinyl that can be purchased. Alas, with the Internet, revenues from recordings are fading fast so the business model for classical music is fading away.

One fine art that seems to be doing very well is the visual arts: painting, sculpture, installations, etc. These provide an easily marketable object that you can purchase and take home. This seems to appeal to the new aristocracy of the hyper-wealthy. A lot of classical music is still supported by the wealthy in the form of patronage of concert series, orchestras and opera. But I have the feeling that fewer and fewer of the wealthy really understand what they are supporting. This is a consequence of the more or less successful erasure of classical music from having a public presence. That sounds as if there is a kind of conspiracy and there probably is not--though I do sense a kind of malicious pleasure among some people who are fans of popular music at disparaging classical music for being too elitist.

Back to pleasure: to me, there is no more intense or full pleasure than classical music. No more powerful aesthetic force. Music, not just classical, but music of different kinds, can create an entire universe of being in just a few moments. It can take you on journeys impossible to describe in words. It can elevate and transcend, warm and terrify in a way no other art form can. So I am just a bit disconcerted to see it superseded by lesser art forms like cuisine, beverage, make-up and fashion. Perhaps the burden that weighs down classical music is the need to understand it a bit, to be prepared to listen a few times. Perhaps in our time most people prefer the immediate pleasures.

But is there anything that can compare to this:

Or this:

UPDATE: This is an interesting take on the same phenomenon.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Leaving Your Vocation

This account of a singer who stopped being a professional classical singer, rings quite true. I went through a somewhat similar experience. Some quotes:
When you are a classical musician at a professional level there is no question about who or what you are. Your life automatically has a purpose.
Because I was a musician, I did not go to college. I attended a top-tier music conservatory, which, if you are unfamiliar, is basically a ferociously competitive vocational school for people with profound and highly specific talents and skills. The best conservatories don’t admit students on the basis of potential to attain professional caliber. By the time a classical musician is college aged she has to already be at that level or she’ll likely never acquire enough of an edge to succeed. Thus classical musicians are trained at classical music… and virtually nothing else. When you are a classical musician at a professional level there is no question about who or what you are, or what you do. Ever. 
Except that sometimes, oftener than any classical musician I know has ever admitted, it does eventually become a question. Statistically, of course, it must be so. There are not enough places, in the great parlous game of musical chairs that is the world of classical music performance, for everyone to sit. In the end some people just don’t have the chops to make a go of it. Some people just don’t have the patience. Classical musicians, like other working artists, deal with preternatural amounts of penury and shit-shoveling in order to stay competitive. Sometimes shit just happens—a car crash or an addiction hitting bottom or the realization that someone’s got to put shoes on the baby. Sometimes the interest, the talent, and the opportunity just can’t all be made to happen at the same time. One’s ability to be that thing, a professional classical musician, gets lost, or given up. Or taken away. Or maybe all those things. And so does that sturdy, symbolic, insular but sometimes magical identity.

Masterpieces of Music: Beethoven Symphony No. 3

I haven't done one of my "Masterpieces of Music" posts for a long time and I haven't posted much on the Beethoven symphonies at all, except for the 5th and 9th. Time to fix that!

I would like to have a look at the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven; the first one that really broke out of the bounds of the 18th century. It was completed in the summer of 1804. There are a number of stories associated with the symphony, in particular the one that relates how it now has the nickname "Eroica" rather than "Bonaparte". For these, have a look at the Wikipedia article. I'm just going to look at the music.

I talked about the introduction to Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 here with its deceptive opening of cadences in the wrong keys before finally settling into C major. The Symphony No. 3 wastes no time with that, instead opening with two forte blasts in E flat major, the tonic. Then we immediately have one of the main themes:
There are a couple of interesting things going on here. First of all, the theme simply outlines the tonic triad: E flat, G, B flat. Then it surprisingly moves to a C sharp which turns out to be the root of a C sharp diminished chord, the viiº7 of D. This is achieved by the economical means of having the violas and violins simply hold, respectively, a B flat and G from the tonic harmony. The resolution of the C sharp to a D gives us a iii chord in first inversion (G B flat D, with the D in the bass), which becomes a V7 chord in first inversion: B flat, D, F, A flat, resolving to the tonic. If we had all day, I could go through the whole symphony with this level of detail. With a composer like Beethoven, every detail is fascinating. But as the symphony is about fifty minutes long, I don't think we have the time! I just analyzed about ten or fifteen seconds of the beginning! Beethoven goes on to do some wonderful development of this theme. Here is one passage in the violins:
There are only two elements here, both derived from the first theme: the outlining of a triad, in this case the A natural, C, E flat or the viiº of B flat, the dominant, followed by the outlining of G, B flat, D, the mediant or iii chord. The other element is that little movement to the upper neighbor which you could see as a development of the two semitone intervals in the original theme: from C sharp to D or D to E flat. The whole of this exposition, which is about three minutes long, consists in this sort of rhythmic varying of the basic material.

Here is another example of the fluid, dynamic way Beethoven handles the theme. This passage in winds takes the interval between the second and third notes of the original theme, the G falling to the E flat, and slightly ornaments it with an eighth note, then echoes it in the high winds:
Note that each iteration has different intervals. Lots of interesting things going on and I haven't even gotten past the exposition of the first movement. I hope this gets you started. With Beethoven, every detail is significant. Let's listen to the whole symphony. There are four movements. After this first one, which is itself as long as a lot of 18th century symphonies, there is a funeral march, a scherzo and a finale. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Classical Music Invisible?

I've talked a lot about the neglect of aesthetics, about the commercialization of music, about the coarsening of popular taste and what really is going on in classical music. But I just ran across something that really brings it together: in the mainstream culture of our time, classical music has become almost invisible! Every year for the last few years, the New York Times Magazine has done a little montage honoring musicians who have died in the past year. Here is the link. The montage includes Etta James, Dave Brubeck, Davy Jones (of the Monkees), Levon Helm (of the Band), Donna Summer, Ed Cassidy (of Spirit), Greg Ham (of Men at Work), Ravi Shankar and on and on.

Do you notice anything odd? Alex Ross commented as follows:
the magazine has a thing against classical music; with the exception of David Mason, the trumpeter who played on "Penny Lane," no Western classical musician has appeared in these compilations.
 He says this is "particularly maddening this year, since we lost two gigantic figures: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter." And I would add to that Gustav Leonhardt, also a gigantic figure. Ross says the magazine's position that ""these are artists who have affected popular culture" doesn't hold water as Fischer-Dieskau has sold ten million records!

I would go a lot further and point out that a criteria such as "artists who have affected popular culture" is a weaselly one. Big deal! When they are honoring drummers from obscure bands from the 60s like Spirit and ignoring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elliot Carter and Gustav Leonhardt, they are aggressively denying the real wellsprings of Western music. This is fundamentally vicious, in my view. As ugly as a taxi-driver refusing to pick up a black fare in the days of the struggle for civil rights. That might seem an odd comparison, but it is characteristic of oppressive regimes to make their opposition seem invisible. Sometimes this is physical as in the people "disappeared" in Argentina a few decades back, but it is even more effective to simply deny some people a voice. Don't let them appear on television, don't cover them in the newspapers. This, along with arrest on false charges, is how the Chinese authorities have been handling Ai Weiwei.

It's not just the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal is also reluctant to cover much classical music. If an article on a classical musician does appear in the mainstream media, it is dumbed down to the point that we might as well be talking about a pop musician. Have a look at this article on Canadian film composer Mychael Danna in the Globe and Mail.

If I set out to construct a strategy to wipe classical music off the map, I doubt if I could come up with anything more destructive than what is really going on.

When Was Modernism? --One Hundred Years Ago

"When Was Modernism" was the title of a talk given in 1987 by Raymond Williams and also of a collection of essays. It highlights the odd consequences of using the word 'modernism' to characterize a period in art history. After all, 'modern' simply means of now, up-to-date. It is more of a promotional slogan than a description. In a time when the avant-garde became more and more to resemble a fashion show, being 'modern' was simply a stance.

Looking back at the early modernist manifestoes, such as this one by the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noise, we see that 'modernism' was one hundred years ago!

Then there was post-modernism.

I'd like to close with a piece by one of the oddest 'modernists', the Anglo-Welsh composer Peter Heseltine, who published his compositions under the name Peter Warlock. As we hear in his Capriol Suite for string orchestra, he was very influenced by Elizabethan and Jacobean music. An antiquarian modernist!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Butterfly and the Orchestra

UPDATE: Sorry, this got posted by accident before it was quite finished!

I've recently had a fascinating experience as a composer: I just finished my first piece for orchestra. Bizarre, I know. I should have been writing for orchestra all along. Let me trace out my peculiar career as a composer for you.

I was drawn to composition before I even knew it existed. When I was nine years old, the first time I saw someone playing while reading music (on piano) I immediately sat in a corner and tried to copy the notation to see how it worked. Years later, when I was writing a lot of songs, I taught myself to read music so I could write out orchestral parts for my songs. At this point I had had no training at all and had not yet actually discovered classical music, so I didn't really know what I was doing.

The discovery of classical music and the subsequent devotion of all my efforts to learning to be a classical guitar virtuoso took up most of my energy for quite a while. But I did, from time to time, compose the occasional piece of music, just as I would now and then sit down and write a poem. Both of these activities just seemed a normal part of existence. To this day I am amazed to meet someone who has never tried to write poetry. Did they not have a troubled adolescence?

One of the first composers that I really tried to emulate was Claude Debussy and to this day I feel a special affinity for his music and methods. Another composer that made a huge impact on my thinking was Steve Reich. Only once did I ever try to write a 12-tone piece--that kind of approach just never appealed to me, intuitively. Though I think of myself as being very rational and analytical, when it comes to artistic creativity, I am very intuitive. Oscar Ghiglia commented on my playing that it is completely intuitive. I think it was even a compliment...

I have usually written for guitar, simply because it is my instrument. For many years I focused on chamber music with guitar because I like playing chamber music and there is a shortage of good chamber music with guitar. I have written for flute and guitar, viola and guitar, two guitars, voice and guitar, violin and viola and guitar and guitar orchestra. After hearing my songs for voice and guitar premiered I suddenly got the urge to write a piece for orchestra. It is an overture about six minutes long.

Now here is the interesting thing: it is not more difficult to write for orchestra than it is to write for guitar. I found it to be easier. So much easier, in fact, that I felt like a butterfly escaping from a cocoon! For decades I have been trying to squeeze musical ideas into the rather restricting box of what is feasible on guitar. This is undoubtedly another reason I wrote a lot of chamber music. It is just damned hard to fit things on solo guitar! So the experience of writing for orchestra was like going for a roller-coaster ride, or sky-diving. It was just a big thrill! I write a line for violins and it just soars. I add on the violas and cellos and it soars even more grandly!

The art of composing has a lot of components to it, but where it starts is with an idea, a motif, a rhythm, a harmony. If I don't have to filter everything through the screen of what is possible on guitar, then composition becomes a wider-ranging activity. As soon as I finished the piece for orchestra (which I hope to have performed next season) I started a string quartet.

Here is the opening of the piece for orchestra:

I decided to write an overture because it is a form of modest duration--this one is about six minutes long--and there are some guiding precedents. There are slow and fast sections, for example. But otherwise, I just let it unfold. There is a kind of contrasting section--a development?--in the middle that consists of six layers of hemiola. That is something I took from a rhythmic study I wrote for guitar a few years ago that had three layers of hemiola. At the end, I create a sense of finality using only rhythmic means. Even though I write tonal music these days (well, more modal, actually), I don't feel that cadences have a functionality any more. Anyway, while the piece isn't perfect, I do basically like it and I look forward to hearing it played by real musicians instead of my music software.

Now, let's hear another overture, from The Barber of Seville, by Rossini. Rossini is often under-rated as a composer, but he shouldn't be:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Anatomy of a Bach Chorale

After chewing over that University of Melbourne study on consonance and pitch in a few posts, I think it would be interesting to dig into consonance, dissonance and harmony from a musical point of view, rather than a scientific point of view. Thanks, by the way, to my commentor Joel for making an excellent contribution to figuring out what was going on in that study.

I have mentioned a couple of times a book that has been in print for nearly 250 years: a collection of Bach chorales put together by various people including Bach's son, C. P. E. Bach. I was just looking at it and learned that the original sources for almost half of these 371 chorales have been lost! I hadn't known that before. Just how much of Bach's music have we lost? Between his death in 1750 and the explosion of Bach performance and appreciation in the last three-quarters of the 19th century, quite a bit apparently.

In any case, what I want to do is take a Bach chorale and look at it closely to see just why Bach is so respected as the master of harmony. Luckily a suitable chorale is available on YouTube with the score. Here is "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir" (Out of deep distress I cry to you), the concluding chorale from the cantata, BWV 38:

In the collection of Bach chorales, this one is titled "Aus tiefer Not", but you will notice that the text actually sung here is "Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel". Bach used the text of the first part of Luther's chorale for the opening movement, and the text of the second part for the concluding chorale. Here is the first section:

It is actually clearer in the YouTube clip! Let's just walk through what Bach is doing here. The key is A minor, which has no sharps or flats. We see added sharps because in minor keys, in order to create a leading tone, we need to raise the seventh note of the scale--in this case G becomes G#. There are two short phrases in this first section. Each one ends with a held note, shown by the fermata sign (the curvy thing with a dot). This is where the singers take a breath. The two most important harmonies in a piece in A minor are the tonic triad, ACE and the dominant: EG#B. As you can see, both phrases end on the dominant. We don't get a cadence on the tonic until the second section.

Bach does something very radical at the very beginning here: he begins, not only with the dominant, but with a dominant 7th. This chord is spelled EG#BD. The D is the seventh. But the D is put in the lowest voice, the bass. When the bass note is a note other than the root of the chord (A is the root of an A chord, E is the root of an E chord, etc.), the chord is said to be "in inversion". This was a discovery (theory?) of Rameau in his famous book on harmony published in the 1720s. If E is in the bass, the chord is in "root position" if G#, then first inversion, if B, then second inversion and if D is in the bass, third inversion. The interesting thing about 7th chords in last inversion is that, since the seventh is in the bass and sevenths have to resolve down (one of those rules), then a dominant chord in last inversion pretty much always has to go to a tonic chord in first inversion. If you have a look, you will see that yes, that is exactly what happens. Then we have another dominant chord, this time in second inversion and then a tonic in root position. This is how Bach gets this strong descending bass line: D C B A. Next is a little hint of G major, but at the last instant, the harmony swerves back to the dominant of A minor. And that's the first phrase! Tricky to put into words. The great strength of music notation is that it records all this very efficiently. The second phrase begins with a strong dominant to tonic, both in root position, then wanders into C major for a bit before, again, closing with the dominant of A minor. Now it would be good to go back and listen to this first section again, trying to hear some of this.

Not counting the repeat, this first section is only about 20 seconds of music. Can you hear how strong the 'flavour' of the first chord is? How that bass note has to resolve somewhere? Bach does  much more radical things than this, of course, but this is a good sample of what goes on in a Bach chorale.

Each voice is independent and sings well. The bass line is nearly as important as the soprano melody on top and even the middle voices, the alto and tenor, are enjoyable.

The exercise of taking a simple melody, like the top line here, and writing the other three voices or "harmonizing" the melody, is one that every music student spends quite a bit of time learning how to do. This kind of smooth, flowing harmony, with occasional pungent harmonic tension, is a lot harder to write than it sounds!

So that's a little 20 second insight into Bach's harmony... If you want to listen to the whole cantata, of which this is the last movement, here it is:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Consonance and Dissonance

I tracked down the abstract for that University of Melbourne study on music that has been reported in various places and that I have written a couple of posts on. I often find that journalistic reporting on research is so confused it is hard to tell what is really going on. So let's have a look at that abstract. Here it is:

Consonance and Pitch.

By McLachlan, Neil; Marco, David; Light, Maria; Wilson, Sarah
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Jan 7 , 2013, No Pagination Specified.
To date, no consensus exists in the literature as to theories of consonance and dissonance. Experimental data collected over the last century have raised questions about the dominant theories that are based on frequency relationships between the harmonics of music chords. This study provides experimental evidence that strongly challenges these theories and suggests a new theory of dissonance based on relationships between pitch perception and recognition. Experiment 1 shows that dissonance does not increase with increasing numbers of harmonics in chords as predicted by Helmholtz's (1863/1954) roughness theory, nor does it increase with fewer pitch-matching errors as predicted by Stumpf's (1898) tonal fusion theory. Dissonance was strongly correlated with pitch-matching error for chords, which in turn was reduced by chord familiarity and greater music training. This led to the proposition that long-term memory templates for common chords assist the perception of pitches in chords by providing an estimate of the chord intervals from spectral information. When recognition mechanisms based on these templates fail, the spectral pitch estimate is inconsistent with the period of the waveform, leading to cognitive incongruence and the negative affect of dissonance. The cognitive incongruence theory of dissonance was rigorously tested in Experiment 2, in which nonmusicians were trained to match the pitches of a random selection of 2-pitch chords. After 10 training sessions, they rated the chords they had learned to pitch match as less dissonant than the unlearned chords, irrespective of their tuning, providing strong support for a cognitive mechanism of dissonance.
 The first thing I notice is that I was correct in assuming Helmholtz was one of the people they were disagreeing with. I suppose this is all reasonable from a scientist's point of view? Perhaps my commentor Joel could weigh in here. But I find a lot of things perplexing. First of all, the opening sentence: "To date, no consensus exists in the literature as to theories of consonance and dissonance." What literature are they referring to? Certainly not the theoretical literature in music that abounds in discussion of consonance and dissonance. By "theories" of consonance and dissonance they must be referring to theories of the listener's reception or perception of consonance and dissonance. OK. Then they refer to the "frequency relationships between the harmonics of music chords". What this means is unclear. A chord in music is the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes. Typically chords are triads or tetrads. Yes, every note, in a chord or alone, has harmonics, that is, the overtone series, but what the "frequency relationships between the harmonics of music chords" is, is a mystery to me. Most of the rest I find unclear as well. But perhaps that is due to my ignorance of the scientific context.

Here is how a musician and composer looks at consonance and dissonance. All intervals are divided up into consonant and dissonant, but the line between them has changed over time. If we go back far enough, every interval except the perfect ones (fourth, fifth and octave) was considered more or less dissonant. In actual use this meant that while you could use other intervals, you couldn't end with anything other than a perfect one. Dissonances like thirds and sixths, had to be passing. Later on, thirds and sixths were accepted as consonant, though the minor third was often not considered suitable in a final chord, so a major third was substituted resulting in a tierce de Picardy. As chords with an added seventh developed, found very useful for the added tension they provided cadences, the seventh and tritone were used more and more--though again, they were used in a chord normally passing to a consonant tonic harmony: GBDF (the tritone lies between the B and the F) going to CEGC. The most dissonant intervals have always been the tritone and the minor second, but we find them in constant use during the whole common practice period. However, for most of this period they were used in specific ways and resolved in specific ways. In the late 19th and early 20th century, their use became more and more frequent and the resolution more and more ambiguous until finally the whole notion of consonant and dissonant was tossed out with the development of 12-tone music.

What I find problematic with the researcher's approach is that they seem to take no account of the context. But I can't imagine understanding anything much about consonance and dissonance without context. A C major triad can sound harsh and dissonant in just the right (or wrong!) context. Here is the beginning of the Piano Sonata op 106 by Beethoven, nicknamed the "Hammerklavier" which begins with a simple B flat chord, though sounding quite bold and 'crunchy':

It's all in the context...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


  • A Stanford geneticist has research that seems to show human intelligence declining.
“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2000–6000 years ago. The basis for my wager comes from new developments in genetics, anthropology, and neurobiology that make a clear prediction that our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprisingly fragile.”
You know, that might explain some of the trends in recent music history... Naaah, just kiddin'.

  • Here is an essay on the delights of good design--with the misleading headline Why We Love Beautiful Things. I say misleading, because as a comment on beauty, it is only perhaps a quarter true. The essay attributes 'beauty' to proportion (the Golden Section), certain colors and landscapes and fractal geometry. And, of course, all this is sparked by various samples of psychological research. Isn't it about time that talk about beauty--which is really aesthetics--was informed, just a bit, by actual understanding of aesthetics? I find these clumsy scientistic fumblings ever more tiresome... Here, let me mess things up by posing a nice philosophical question: do we love beautiful things because they are beautiful? Or are they beautiful because we love them?
  • Here's a slightly more detailed account of that research on beauty in music from the University of Melborne. Here's the lead paragraph:
Our love of music and appreciation of musical harmony is learnt and not based on any innate natural ability according to a new study by researchers at the University of Melbourne.
Well, that certainly raises more questions. For one thing, it poses a false dichotomy. Our appreciation of harmony can both be learned AND based on some innate natural ability. Mozart learned harmony, but his abilities were enormously greater than the average person's because of some innate natural ability. Does anyone seriously question this? It continues:
Associate Professor Neil McLachlan from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said that previous theories about how we appreciate music were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony.
Previous theories, being, probably, ones pointing out the relationship between the overtone series and basic harmonic progressions. The first overtone is the octave, the second overtone is the fifth. The fifth is an extremely important interval in harmony as witnessed by the basic teaching device, the "circle of fifths". Things like this indicate that the structure of harmony was, at some points in history, related to basic acoustic facts. Here is another claim:
The researchers used 66 volunteers with a wide range of musical training and tested their ability to hear combinations of notes to determine if they found the combinations familiar or pleasing. “What we found was that people needed to be familiar with sounds created by combinations of notes before they could hear the individual notes. If they couldn’t find the notes they found the sound dissonant or unpleasant,” he said. “This finding overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing.”
Again, some very confused half-truths. It is certainly true that repeated exposure to certain combinations of notes enables most listeners to better hear what is going on and therefore to appreciate the music more. This simple discovery, known, by the way, to every music teacher for the last 1,000 years, overturns nothing! What is most puzzling here is the claim about how this is a discovery that "overturns centuries of theories". But they don't bother to mention what those theories were or who held them.

Here's some home truths for the folks at the University of Melborne: people's ability to appreciate and understand complex music is partially learned and partially based on natural ability. A lot of harmony is closely related to acoustic phenomena like the overtone series. It is hard to know what exactly they mean by the "physical properties of the ear", but it would certainly be impossible to appreciate music if your hearing were severely compromised.

I am at something of a loss here to see just what, if anything, the researchers managed to discover here.

  • The recorder player Walter Bergmann offers us some charming rules of chamber-music playing. Hat tip to Norman Lebrecht.

Twenty Six Golden Rules of Ensemble Playing

by Walter Bergman (1903-1988)

1.  Never worry whether you play the same piece as the others;  they will soon find out.
2.  Stop at every repeat sign and enter into a palaver about whether you should, should not, would, would not, could, could not, want, or want not, to repeat.
3.  Which is the most important part in an ensemble?  The other one.
4.  Always aim for the highest number of n.p.s. (notes per second).
5.  If you play a wrong note, give your partner a dirty look.
6.  Always keep your fingering chart handy.  If, in the middle of the piece, you don’t know the fingering of a note, look it up, try the note, and then catch up with the others.
7.  If a passage is difficult, slow down; if it’s easy, speed up.  In the long run it all evens out.
8.  A right note, at the wrong time, is a wrong note (and vice versa).
9.  Do take your time turning a page – it gives everyone a nice rest.
10. Rests are difficult, especially on the recorder.  If you are not sure of their lengths, ignore them.
11. If you alone are right and everyone else is wrong, follow the wrong.
12. If you have irretrievably lost your place in the music, stop everyone and say, ‘I think you need to retune.’
13. Blessed are the poor in intonation, for theirs is the kingdom of music.
14. Memorize the following line, which you can have ready for a variety of situations: ‘I alway play in tune, because I play a Moeck (Coolsma, Aulos, Dolmetsch, Koch, Kung, von Huene, etc.) recorder.’
15. Tune carefully before playing, and then you can safely play out of tune for the entire evening.
16. Your conductor has been paid.  There is no need to look at him.
17. But be sure to _follow_ the conductor (don’t be together with him).
18. Spare the breath and spoil the tune!
19. Remember, vibrato _always_ starts on the upper frequency.
20. An ornament should be an embellishment and not an embarrassment.
21. Remember Shakespeare’s immortal lines:
“A rest is silence” (Hamlet)
“My kingdom for a semiquaver.” (Richard III)
“My foot my tutor?”  (The Tempest)
22. Pick out of old books (Quantz, etc.) what you like, and bypass what does not suit your preconceived ideas.
23. Authentic interpretation is not achieved until not a note of the original is left.
24. Do be careful to select the right edition. The best editor is he who writes _forte_ at the beginning of a fast movement, and _piano_ at the beginning of a slow one.  He puts breath marks over rests and omits them where they could be helpful. He also write prefaces that make the performance of a piece completely unnecessary and sometimes even undesirable.
25. Remember, _forte_ and _piano_ marks, dots, and crescendos and decrescendos are not there to be observed.  They are decorations for the eye, invented by frustrated engravers, and they have no special musical meaning. As communications from the composer they are equally unimportant, because composers are mostly dead and don’t understand their own compositions, anyhow.
There are, however, three exceptions to this rule:
a)  A dot over a note prolongs its duration by one half-step.
b)  Crescendo and decrescendo hairpins are essential over rests.
c)  In examples like the following, adhere carefully to directions: [six measures of tied whole notes, marked 'Nicht schleppen (do not drag)']
26. Thou shalt not play the little bit left over at the end… [Here there should be the little musical example. The little bit left over is the 2nd entrance of a repeat.]

Monday, February 18, 2013

Are There Musical and Unmusical Nations?

I'm not sure if this is a forbidden topic or not, so I will tread carefully. It seems very obvious, despite the efforts of some scientists to deny it, that musical talent is not evenly distributed in the population. Yes, I'm afraid that it really is the case that merely purchasing violin or piano lessons for your child will not guarantee that they will learn how to play well. On quite a few occasions in my decades-long career as a music teacher, I have had to tell parents that their child was not progressing and it was probably not worth it to continue to enroll them in lessons. I regarded this as my duty. I also think that it is the responsibility of the parents to find out where their child's skills may lie. Yes, put them in dance classes, tennis classes, music lessons, art camp--give them as many opportunities as possible to discover their talents. But be aware that in most areas they may have no particular talent.

I think all that is simple empirical observation and a little common sense. But this leads to another question: are all cultures and nations equally gifted musically? According to the doctrine of multiculturalism, the answer should be yes, the cultures of all nations are of equal worth. But this seems incorrect to me. For example, some nations have enormous and brilliant musical traditions while others do not. Take Italy and Switzerland, for example. Though next door neighbors, one has an unequaled musical tradition but the other does not. Italy has given the world opera, Vivaldi, Verdi, Rossini, Francesco da Milano, Stradivarius violins, La Scala, Pavarotti and the list goes on and on.

OK, now name one important composer from Switzerland.


See what I mean?

In Latin America there are strong musical traditions in some nations like Argentina and Brazil, and very scanty musical traditions in other nations like Chile and Bolivia. By "scanty" I don't mean that there is no music--there is scads of music--but that little of it is of lasting quality. Mexico, where I live, seems to be a somewhat tone-deaf nation. True, there are some fine Mexican musicians like the composer Manuel M. Ponce or the singer Luis Miguel, and the mariachi tradition is an interesting one. But by and large, Mexican music is harsh in timbre and rhythmically stiff. Brazilian music, on the other hand, is typically fluid and charming.

Why is this? I'm not sure. The reasons are probably complex and different for every culture. One interesting phenomenon seems to be that oppressed sub-cultures sometimes develop strong musical traditions. Some that come to mind are the gypsy culture in Europe where the gypsy folk music traditions are very strong in places like Hungary, Romania and Spain. Flamenco is largely the creation of the gypsy culture of Andalusia in southern Spain. Another one is the Irish musical tradition, a Celtic one that has lived under English domination through most of modern history. A third one is the Black music culture in the US which has given the world blues, gospel and jazz.

How about some examples? First, Guinness-fueled Irish fiddling and picking:

Next, one of the original Delta bluesmen, Charley Patton with "Spoonful Blues":

Here are the virtuosic Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks:

You don't hear that kind of thing every day...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Möbius Strip and Music

I discovered topology at a fairly young age. I think it was one of the very first things I discovered that truly seemed magical. An object in the real world with only one side? And one edge? That was the Möbius strip. The easiest thing in the world to construct: just take a strip of paper, twist it once and tape the ends together. Voila, something you can perplex your friends with. Here is what it looks like:

It has some interesting properties. Yes, it has just one side which you can demonstrate by taking a pencil and drawing a line down the middle. You can draw the line continuously without lifting the pencil on both sides, because there is only one side. Now, what do you think will happen if you take a pair of scissors and cut the strip in two down the middle? Well, you can't cut it in two! Instead you will get a single strip half as wide and twice as long with two twists.

Now what does this have to do with music? There is a YouTube video that demonstrates the relationship between a Möbius strip and a Bach canon. The canon is the type known as a 'crab' canon, meaning that the melody combines with itself played backwards:

The musical mathematician Vi Hart does even more in this mind-bending video where she demonstrates the folding of space-time with a music box:

If you are interesting in mathematics, music and Bach, this article is a useful introduction.

Let's end with a piece by Bach that has provoked a great deal of commentary. The St. Matthew Passion that Mendelssohn called "the greatest Christian work" is a mammoth depiction of the crucifixion of Christ set for two choruses, two orchestras and six vocal soloists. This article gives some idea of the scope and complexity of the structure. Here is a performance of Part I by Nicholas Harnoncourt:

Making Classical Music More Elitist!

UPDATE: I shortened the title of this post.

A few weeks ago an article was published in the Independent covering a talk the new head of Universal Music's classical music unit gave to the Association of British Orchestras. The appropriately named Max Hole was previously a rock band manager and the advice he gave was predictable:
He believes that classical music needs to be promoted beyond the existing core audience, not just young people but “people like me who would engage in classical music if they didn’t feel it was elitist or forbidding”.
“Musicians need to think about the way they dress, and need to appear more excited engaged with the audience,” he said. “There’s more to it than just taking a couple of bows at the end of a concert.”
He said that the traditions and institutions that seek to promote and preserve classical music “are in danger of causing the genre great harm and hinder its growth”. Even the term “classical” is in danger of alienating its audience, he said.
Conductors need to actually talk to the audiences, and Mr Hole pointed to the “sheer exuberance” of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. He said there should be screens showing the audience the conductor’s work, and “more theatrical” use of lighting.
Yes, of course, classical music should be promoted just like popular music.

I couldn't agree less! This is the conventional wisdom these days and perhaps it might gain Universal Music and some of the more trivial performers more sales, but this kind of attitude is likely to make classical music just as superficial and trivial as popular music.  Do I even need to point out that classical music is not the same as popular music? It attracts a different audience who listen in a different way. They really do not need to adopt all the ridiculous distractions that pop music uses to hide its vacuousness like chatting up the audience and theatrical lighting.

Max, I just can't emphasize enough how I dislike your whole attitude. In fact, it is with renewed vigor that I will set out to make classical music just as elitist and forbidding as possible in hopes of driving you as far away as possible. And furthermore, shut up!

Why did it seem like a good idea to appoint someone like Max Hole, who obviously dislikes classical music, to an important role in the business? Does Universal Music have a death-wish? It is people like Max Hole that are the ones that have the potential to cause classical music great harm.

Now, let's listen to some of that elitist, forbidding music played by a particularly elitist and forbidding performer, the great Grigory Sokolov:

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Learning to Unappreciate Music!

In my last post I stumbled across an interesting cliché about listening to music: that learning more about music and how to listen to it inevitably leads to appreciating more music. Here is how one writer put it:
Researchers at Australia's University of Melbourne say that the more dissonance (which they describe as "perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound") that we hear in music, the less we enjoy said music. Seems obvious enough, right?
Also falling into the "no kidding" category is the not-at-all new notion that the more we're exposed to a certain kind of music — either through intentional engagement or simple osmosis in whatever culture we're immersed in — the more we like that music.
 So, any exposure to any kind of music means we will like it more? I'd like to test that theory. Here, listen to this:

If you didn't appreciate it the first time, then I'm sure that just listening to it ten more times will do it?

How about this?

Just give it more time and I'm sure you will start to appreciate the subtleties...(!?!)

The truth is that most music is not very good and some is rather remarkably bad. If I were still teaching at university I would love to offer a course in "How to Unappreciate Music". We would learn to identify bad music by listening. This is valuable because good music, not to mention great music, is at one end of an aesthetic spectrum at the other end of which is bad music. The clues as to what constitutes aesthetic worth are as evident, by their absence, in bad music as good music. If you want to appreciate the subtle power of good repetition in, say, Beethoven, then I really think that you should be exposed to the grating unpleasantness of bad repetition.

Why are the virtues of unappreciating music so rarely mentioned? Is it that those who are trying to flog music appreciation courses are just scared of driving away business? Is it the fear of seeming negative? Is it just too subtle a concept? The truth is that the more comprehensive and profound your knowledge of music is, the fewer pieces of music you are likely to enjoy and the more music will drive you up the wall! Ah, that's probably why people don't want to mention it.

Well, let's clear the palate with some good music, shall we? Here is a late Haydn symphony, nicknamed the "Drumroll" for obvious reasons:

Learning to Listen

I just ran across an article that I thought I was going to be able to recommend whole-heartedly--at least until I read it! The Atlantic has a report on some music research done at the University of Melbourne. From the headline, I thought it was going to be wonderful stuff:

Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful Is a Learned Trait

It starts like this:
Why does the music that to some people is lovely, even transcendent, sound to others like a lot of noise?
Researchers at the University of Melbourne attribute to the amount of pleasure we take in music to how much dissonance we hear -- the degree of "perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound."
I've put up a lot of posts before critiquing 'scientific' research into music, here, here and here. Often the problem starts with the basic assumptions: if the scientists have no real knowledge of music, then they will often craft experiments to test things that are too obvious, or simply too crude. For example, the assumption that the amount of pleasure we take in music is inversely related to the amount of dissonance, is a crude one. I'm having to deduce the assumption here as the writer seems unable to state it clearly and grammatically!
Trained musicians, perhaps predictably, were more sensitive to dissonance than lay listeners. But they also found that when listeners hadn't previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it. Where this ability was lacking, the chords sounded dissonant, and thus, unpleasant.
Yes, an interesting and valuable observation. A great deal of music takes repeated exposure to appreciate because you can't hear what is going on at first.
The ability to identify tones and thus enjoy harmonies was positively correlated with musical training. Said study co-author Sarah Wilson, "This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned."
Well, sort of. Here one of the fundamental prejudices of some scientists comes out. As Steven Pinker argued in The Blank Slate,  one of dogmas about human nature is that the mind has no innate traits. However, as every music teacher knows, there are those who have an inborn propensity to hear and make music and those who don't. Or, as a Czech violist of my acquaintance used to observe, "there is talent, and there is also anti-talent!"
From a practical standpoint, the results seem to suggest that we can train ourselves to better appreciate music. ... And in fact, the researchers conducted a second experiment to test the validity of that theory. They took 19 non-musicians and trained them to identify the pitches of certain chords. Ten sessions later, the participants were better at hearing notes. They also reported that they found those chords to be less dissonant than other chords that they hadn't been taught, regardless of how technically harmonious they were.
I think that they are confusing two different things here: comprehension on the part of the listener and dissonance in the music. If you have a trained ear, you are able to comprehend and enjoy complex music which can often be dissonant. It is still dissonant, but you understand the point of the dissonance, where it comes from and where it is going. An untrained ear just hears the dissonance and not its function. Oh, and the writer is leaving out the obvious corollary: as we become more trained to listen to music, we will begin to notice how vacuous, offensive, crude and maudlin much music is. Why is that never pointed out?
The more ambitious implication of the findings, according to lead author Neil McLachlan, is that it "overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing."
Now that is just weird. What centuries of theories? Who thought this? The only candidate I can think of was the 19th century German scientist, Hermann von Helmholz. But hey, anything to puff up the significance of your research, right? In the conclusion, the writer goes completely off the rails--at least I assume it is the writer as it would be strange indeed if the researchers were this ignorant:
As they explain in their discussion, the basic, 12-tone do re mi scale isn't "naturally" harmonious. Instead, it was first introduced by Pythagoras (yes, he of the theorem), who developed a system of "tuning based on successive 2/3 proportions of string length." It was a logical, mathematical method that in turn gave us "the simple mathematical relationships [that] can be found between the harmonics of common Western chords" that we've since learned to love.
First of all, the do, re, mi scale has seven notes, not twelve. The chromatic scale has twelve notes. And scales are not "harmonious" naturally or otherwise because they are notes spaced out in time. Harmony, on the other hand, is notes sounded together. Yes, Pythagoras did observe some interesting things about the proportions of overtones in vibrating strings. But what is missing here is not only Pythagoras' own ideas about the effects of music, but any hint at all that how we relate to music, whether by love or hate, has something to do with musical aesthetics.

Much of the confusion that this study seems burdened with could be alleviated by just a tiny amount of research into music aesthetics. The concept they are desperately in need of is the 'sublime' which I talk about in this post. Much of the aesthetic function of dissonance in music is to evoke the sublime, which is often more interesting than the merely 'beautiful'.

Let's have an example. Here is Le Poème de l'Extase by Alexander Scriabin that, by means of calibrated dissonance and orchestration creates a somewhat threatening beauty: