One frequent source of metaphors about music is the likening of a program to a menu with an entree, first course, main course and dessert. One that is not very often used, but that I would like to embark on here is likening musical performance to social intercourse and in particular, the etiquette of social interaction. Don't you find some music charming and engaging and other music boorish and clumsy? Have you ever felt a piece of music was bullying the listener? Or another one drawing the listener in?
The string quartet program last night gave a couple of interesting examples. The program ended with the String Quartet No. 1 by Charles Ives. There followed an encore, an arrangement for string quartet of one of the variations from the Goldberg Variations by Bach--no. 13, as a matter of fact. The utterly different approach of the two pieces in juxtaposition made me think of musical etiquette.
Musical interactions can be governed by social etiquette as much as any other kinds of human interactions. For example, if one of the players has a fermata, the others have to wait for him. This is a bit like allowing someone to proceed through a door ahead of you. We even have specific musical terms that are often written in the score. "Colla parte" for example, means for the accompanist to follow whatever the soloist is doing. The art of musical accompaniment in general is the art of following, in tempo and dynamic and phrasing, what another instrument is doing. In a string quartet you see the members observing one another closely for attacks, cut-offs and phrasing. So this is all perfectly normal.
What I want to suggest is that sometimes I feel that there is an unspoken aesthetic of music that is akin to a kind of etiquette that could govern or at least suggest relations between the music and the listener, the composer and the audience. For example, is it good and proper to pound away at the audience with the same idea over and over and over again? Usually not, though there are some significant aesthetic exceptions: the minimalist school of composers did this and they had a very specific intention.
Last night's concert, which featured a quartet by Philip Glass, demonstrated to me something interesting. You might recall from my posts on the Schoenberg Violin Concerto that one of the problems I saw for that music was the extreme rhythmic dislocation. Composers today have far much more of a "groove" in their music and it is likely due to the influence of those two "minimalists" Steve Reich and Philip Glass who reminded us over and over and over that pulse is an important part of music.
So, often what one might expect ordinary musical etiquette to forbid, such as going on and on with the same pulse for a long time, is frequently permitted by an important aesthetic need. This is so often the case that the idea of an etiquette of music is a strange concept for us. But, I would like to argue, sometimes it seems like the right metaphor.
Going back to that concert, the quartet by Charles Ives, especially in juxtaposition with the music by Bach, seemed to me boorish and vulgar. Yes, I know, that's a bit extreme, but I call them the way I hear them. Ives may be a bit of a sacred cow, and there are some lovely pieces by him such as the Three Places in New England, but often his music seems to me to be, as I say, boorish and vulgar. What is vulgarity in music? Things mashed together with little care for the overall effect, going on and on, hammering on an idea, no matter how ugly. Writing with no respect for the performers and the audience, focusing only on one's own musical obsessions. Hey, that sounds exactly like Charles Ives! In fact, one of the performers, in announcing the piece, said something similar, but mentioned it as if it were a good thing!
So let's do some listening and see if you can see what I mean. Here is the last movement of the String Quartet No. 1 by Charles Ives:
Ugh. I suppose you can call that "triumphant" and "happy", but to me it is just an ugly mishmash. I get the same feeling from that as of being trapped in a corner at a cocktail party by a boorish and ignorant person who insists on telling me his half-baked views on everything while poking me in the chest with his finger. It is a wonder to me that a string quartet can play this music with a straight face who also might be playing quartets by Haydn or Beethoven. Don't they see the difference? Or does the ideology of modernism completely justify this? I suppose it used to.
Let's juxtapose that Goldberg Variation, no. 13, so as to get the effect of the concert:
Those two pieces side by side surely reveal something?
Let's end with some better music by Charles Ives. Here is "The Housatonic at Stockbridge", the last of his Three Places in New England: