Monday, June 16, 2014

Our Musical World

I've been listening my way through all the symphonies of Allan Pettersson in the last few days and one of the interesting side-effects is the perspective it gives you on our "normal" musical environment. Pettersson is a very serious man and very serious composer. His music is like a psychological drama or a moral objection and it unfolds in a monolithic intensity. After living for a few hours in that world, when we return to our normal musical world we can be struck by the incongruity.

Let me set up the next bit by having you listen to a bit of the music of Pettersson. This is just the first part of his Symphony No. 7:

Now have a look at this innocuous news item: "Inside Virgin Galactic's newest passenger spaceship". Perfectly normal story, but listen to the music that accompanies it! Not a single moment of the narrative can be told without the mindless thumping of a drum track with occasional synth music. It is the bizarre incongruity that strikes me. Why is it necessary to accompany a story about commercial space flight with electronic dance music, the unholy descendent of disco? Why would it be needed to accompany any story, for that matter?

Most people probably don't notice the music, or think of it as being perfectly normal, like sonic wallpaper. But it, along with the music-video style jump-cutting, is an artifact of media culture. Children grow up surrounded by this thumping and jump-cutting and therefore expect it to be present everywhere. A story without this sort of thing could be felt as boring. So it is everywhere.

But what is the long-term effect of this? I would think that there would be one and perhaps it is listening to the music of Pettersson that has given me a hint of that. You cannot take yourself or indeed your existence, seriously while you are head-banging your way through life. Let me say it again: "You cannot take yourself or indeed your existence, seriously while you are head-banging your way through life." I very, very strongly suspect that the assembly floor where they are manufacturing the spacecraft does not feature a booming music track. Why? Because it is really impossible to concentrate on your work while you are bobbing your head to the bass drum. But for mass media consumption, the soundtrack is necessary. Could it be because it is actually necessary that most of us not take things too seriously? Well, I don't know, perhaps that wanders into conspiracy theory territory. But I can't get the bizarre incongruity of this story and, for that matter, virtually everything on television, out of my mind.

Just a side note, I am rather sensitive to television because I quit watching it about a decade ago so the typical television devices all seem bizarre to me now. News channels are unwatchable for me simply because of the music and the ubiquitous swooshing and swirling of the logos that introduce every brief segment.

So here is something that someone might do some research on. What sort of psychological effect does pop music, especially the repetitive drum tracks, have on people? Researchers into the sociology of music might do us a real favor and earn their keep if they look into that.

Music is, or can be, a powerful force. But it can be an influence in all sorts of ways both good and bad.

Don't let's end with that horrific example! Here is the finale to Haydn's Symphony No. 92 "Oxford" from a time when music could express sheer joy and delight:

Joy and delight can also be serious...

UPDATE: For some reason an old cartoon pops into my head. A conductor has passed away and unfortunately he is going to hell on a very deep elevator. The doors open and he walks into a room where there is a whole orchestra waiting for him to conduct. For all eternity. And the whole orchestra consists of banjos...

This is a different cartoon, but gives the general idea (and there is even a banjo):


Rickard Dahl said...

A thought I had for a while now is that music can be seen as a kind of virtual world or virtual reality. It's like when you watch a movie and are into the movie world in your perception while actually sitting on a sofa and are in the "real" world. The same way you might get immensed into the world of music. Of course, there are varying degrees of immension, the most involved probably comes when listening to a concert (unless there are many people (especially sitting next to you) disturbing the music with coughs and various other noises). On the other hand when listening to music while focusing on other things probably creates less involvement in the music world and more in the real world. Obviously different kinds of music create a better or worse musical world. Almost all pop music don't give the kind of involvement found in classical music. There are obviously some types of classical music (especially symphonies, maybe operas too) that create a great musical world with vast landscapes of music. Sounds like Allan Petterson's symphonies might be a great example of this.

Every mainstream thing nowadays have to be filled with bad meaningless music it seems. I think it would be odd for the average viewer if the news clip wouldn't have music because it would be seen as boring or too scientific (when it in fact just barely scratches the tip of the iceberg). Also, in general I think many of things done in the mainstream and society in general is messed up. One example is the consumerist economy where things are manifactured not to last and people buy things they don't need. I can understand spending money on a good hobby but wasting money on superficial things like the latest smartphone, make-up, high heels, fashion instead of using things until they break/get worn out is pretty wasteful. But on the other if people stop supporting this consumerist lifestyle then the economy will break... Another example is the political correctness stupidity, especially things like feminism. If you show that the political correctness crowd is wrong and tell them they hide from the truth they will call you a sexist, racist or whatever. A quote I've come up with recently (unless someone has already said something along those lines): "Sometimes the truth is more painful than the lies used to hide it." And indeed, the political correctness crowd have difficulty accepting the truth. And ofc there is the example of pop music, TV nowadays and so on. Basically, art and media dilution. There is basically a lot of trash music, trash TV shows and so on. And it doesn't help that people follow that trash and apply it to their lives. I would also be interested in research of how pop music affects people. I suspect that it leads to a bigger desire to buy more and do more stupid things. Obviously it also leads to a bad musical taste and maybe also a shorter attention span. In the humanity fields I heard research typically has an hypothesis that is tested so this is in a sense my hypothesis.

Anyways, before I "old cartoon pops into my head" I started listening to the movement by Haydn you linked and I thought you were referring to Haydn's music and I actually thought it would sound good for a cartoon as it's very witty and joyful. But yes, conducting an orchestra for an eternity seems like a good joke. Speaking of cartoons, they were better before. Nowadays they let children swallow anything. The sad thing is that children are the ones that can be most easily influenced and it seems like many parents nowadays don't really care about instilling good values in their children. They let the pre-schools, television etc. do the work...

I know it's a bit ranty comment but I hope it's ok.

Rickard Dahl said...

Oh, and I was also thinking about privacy and freedom of speech and such. This political correctness thing is clearly getting worse and worse and more is done to censor opinions that are not seen as good by whoever is in charge or the political correctness crowd. For instance you might or not not have come across this:

Propaganda and desire for censorship at it's finest.

Also, I forgot to mention a documentary I watched called "Terms and Conditions may Apply". Basically about how for instance the long terms and conditions that we just accept without reading actually infringe on our privacy. It's kinda scary how much information Google, Facebook and other internet services collect. So if have time, watch the documentary.

As an end note for these long comments, I think George Orwell was an absolute genius and so many things that he said have come true or are coming true, maybe not in the same exact manner but still. He is a goldmine for quotes.

Bryan Townsend said...

Whew, that was a long comment! And I won't spoil it by saying much. I don't know why I put that cartoon at the end, it really doesn't have anything to do with the post. Better to have ended with the Haydn. I don't know anyone who did witty delight better than he.

(Just a quiet whisper about that YouTube clip "Ban Bossy". I'm not sure what Condoleeza Rice is doing there because I have heard it mentioned that items like that are really "battlespace preparation" for Hillary Clinton's presidential run.)