Friday, September 4, 2015

Love and Hate

I've been listening to a lot of Messiaen lately and what is so very clear about his music is that it is very profoundly about love: both Christian love and secular love. A composer commenting on this site once said that a composer must "learn to hate." Put it together and music composition, as with many other things, is about love and hate.

This came clearly to me recently when I realised that the set of songs I am preparing to record, my Songs From the Poets, is in reality a love-letter to civilisation. I simply picked out twelve poems by some of my favourite poets that were particularly susceptible to being set to music and let the texts themselves suggest the idiom. For example, my setting of a poem by the 8th century Tang dynasty poet Li Po (known these days as Li Bai) is inspired partly by Chinese pi'pa (lute) music though I also use a "preparation" to suggest the sound of a Chinese temple bell. On the other hand, my setting of a scene from The Clouds by Aristophanes, a satire about Socrates, resembles nothing so much as an opera buffa aria. The setting of a poem by Victor Hugo (in the original French) has just a hint of Fauré. A lot of the songs have no very clear genetic background, but still are evocative of the styles and genres of Western music. As I said, the set of songs is a love-letter to civilisation which I associate with the great works of poetry from Homer to Wallace Stevens and with the great works of music from Léonin and Pérotin to Olivier Messiaen.

So where does the hate come in? Apparently Messiaen had no need of hate. The edge in his music is provided by things like visions of the Apocalypse. But I, for better or worse, am not religious so this is just not there for me. As I am attracted to civilisation, which I see as transmitted and expressed through great poetry and music, I am repelled by barbarism, which I see in both the corruption of our civilisation by internal forces and in the enemies of civilisation, of which we have plenty at the moment. The mindless thumping of a great deal of pop music, as a soundtrack to mindless soft core pornography is an example of the former. Civilisation is about humanity, morality, mindfulness, and the magic of expressive beauty. The ancient Greeks, who to my mind invented most of the foundation of civilisation, thought only three things were truly important: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. These are often referred to as the transcendentals. I tend to understand them as they are embodied in great works of art. As Sydney Smith once averred"If I were to begin life again, I would devote it to music.  It is the only cheap and unpunished rapture upon earth."

Living is, in large part, about distinguishing truth from illusion, good from bad and civilisation from barbarism. The fact that we seem not only to have forgotten this, but be in the process of denying it, is an example of how our civilisation is being corrupted. For fear of being accused of being "judgmental" we are allowing this to happen. Just as there are things worthy of our love; there are also things worthy of our hate. We are given the ability to perceive and to think in order to evaluate and determine which are which.

So, to end up, let me see if I can find something worthy of being loved and something else worthy of being hated. For the former, it is hard to go very wrong by picking a piece by J. S. Bach. This is the cantata "Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen", BWV 66 with the Collegium Vocale, Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor:

It is much harder to pick something worthy of being hated. I heard the perfect example in a restaurant the other day, but of course, I have no idea who was responsible for that awful music! But let's try this on for size:

Do I need to add some caveats? Sure, can do. Yes, music like this does have a function: it gets people out there moving around on the dance floor in clubs and discos 'round the world. I've been there myself, though not recently. I have no problem acknowledging the functionality of it. But at the same time, we have to admit that musically it consists of mechanised thumping as an accompaniment to semi-organized caterwauling. Think of this as the musical equivalent of Kraft Singles or a Big Whopper. Yes, it's food, sort-of, but not anything you would want to celebrate.

I think that music that is formulaic, clichéd, perfunctory, melodramatic, sleazy, dreary, boring or tedious is worthy of being hated to the extent that it is formulaic, clichéd, perfunctory, melodramatic, sleazy, dreary, boring or tedious.

UPDATE: I find I have an unlikely ally: Keith Richards who recently said:
“What rap did that was impressive was to show there are so many tone-deaf people out there,” he says. “All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it and they’re happy. There’s an enormous market for people who can’t tell one note from another.”


Marc Puckett said...

Wonderful post!

After you and Althouse both linked to the Keith Richards, I dragged myself to the article; "(t)he world will also likely come to embrace the charms of 'Crosseyed Heart'"-- sure, sure we will; one shakes one's head at the ironies and incongruities and public relations nonsense.

The local public library plays music via loudspeakers in the small pedestrian plaza outside its main doorway-- who knows who chooses the selections, and they are variously folk or jass or classical pieces: but never, never electronica in any form.

The main city bus station, across the street from the library, plays loud 'classical music'-- I don't even 'hear' it any more; was an instrumental version of the Habanera from Carmen for a long time-- very screechily from its (terrible) loudspeakers in a ploy to discourage the masses of kids/homeless people/hippies who sprawl about-- I think that actually had a bit of an effect when it was first introduced a couple of years ago. But the sound system has decayed and nobody pays any attention any longer-- there's a lesson there, too.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have certainly read a number of times about classical music being used in public places in the US and UK to discourage or drive away loiterers and yahoos, but I have never witnessed it personally. Down here in Mexico the only music you hear blasting away in public places is Mexican pop music: ranchero, cumbia and perhaps some EDM.

If Bizet's Carmen on a decaying sound system is failing to do the job, I suggest Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony on a powerful new sound system with sub-woofer! That's going to have an effect!