Monday, March 10, 2014

Vulgarity in Music

I was at a string quartet concert last night. On the whole an excellent concert with an interesting range of contemporary music. I'm not going to name the quartet as this won't be a review of the performance. I do want to talk about a phenomenon I noticed that is of aesthetic interest. We often talk about music using metaphors because that is usually the best way to communicate without using a lot of technical terms: "Then follows a passage in the relative minor that pivots on the Neapolitan sixth chord to C major." This does not mean much unless you have taken a few courses in harmony. So we fall back on metaphor, which can often be very clear and informative.

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:


Bridge said...

Agreed on the quartet, I didn't find it particularly interesting although I am not familiar with Ives' music at all apart from Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question, both pieces I more respect for their significance than enjoy necessarily. I don't think there is any mystery or that it is related to modernism at all. It happens all the time that people who are afraid to speak their mind or not interested in using it in the first place just go along with the mainstream opinion and there are almost countless examples of critics being way off in their appraisal of certain works (Moby-Dick springs immediately to mind.)

I actually find Mozart's Musical Joke to have more interesting themes than the quartet you linked, based on first impressions, and Mozart was trying to create an ugly mishmash. I guess it's the curse of being a master, huh?

Rickard Dahl said...

I found the quartet movement by Ives to be enjoyable. I guess I can see what you mean, it doesn't sound completely coherent at times. But Ives was ofc trying to mash things together (although I suppose less here as it doesn't sound so dissonant) and sometimes it worked out better than other times.

Bryan Townsend said...

I had forgotten about "Central Park in the Dark". Interesting piece, as is "The Unanswered Question".

As for the performance last night, it sort of confirmed my belief that audiences will clap enthusiastically for any piece played loud and fast with lots of enthusiasm!