Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Classical Sucess Story?

If a classical composer has the first ten top-selling single slots at iTunes he must be a big success, right? Ok, now can you name him? John Adams? Nope. John Luther Adams? Nope. Esa-Pekka Salonen? Double nope. The name you are looking for is Ludovico Einaudi. What? Huh? Who?


Well, I guess we have to listen, don't we? Here is his big selling album, Islands:


The first tune, I Giorni, which means "the days" is nearly seven minutes long and I didn't feel a burning need to listen any further. I think that Einaudi's music is the perfect analogue to the paintings of Thomas Kinkaid:


This is actually the perfect occasion to demonstrate an aesthetic principle. What do you think that might be? What is the fundamental difference between Einaudi and Kinkaid and, for example, these two artworks:


(Yes, I know I just posted this piece, but it is an excellent example for my purposes.)


The examples by Einaudi and Kinkaid are, above all, soothing, are they not? Pretty and soothing. So what's wrong with that? It's a bit complicated, sure, but the main problem is that something purporting to be an artwork has to be more than soothing. It may have soothing elements or sections, as the piano piece does at the beginning with those two chords. But if it never gets beyond soothing, if there is nothing that contrasts with soothing, then it is not an artwork, it is simply wallpaper. Art must contain tensions. There has to be some elements that challenge us. Art is not supposed to have the same effect as a good tranquilizer.

Incidentally, this is why art requires leisure to exist. If your existence is one of constantly being harried from one demand to another, it is doubtful if you will be able to engage with and appreciate much art. What you really need is just to be soothed. Which probably explains the success of Einaudi and Kinkaid. A lot of people lead very harried lives!

But if you have some leisure time, a curious mind and some sensitivity to aesthetics, then what you really want to have a look at is the real thing. Actual Art. Which is not pretty, nor soothing. At least, not mostly.

So the problem here is really mis-categorization on the part of iTunes. Einaudi is not a classical composer. He is new age, easy listening, which should be a separate category.

13 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

But if the Einaudis go off the classical list, over to the New Age etc list, then the newspapers would have to run an extra three or four articles a month bemoaning the decay of classical. Some of those folks are already tranqed out, I'd guess: don't want to push them over the edge.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh.

Ken Fasano said...

Success financially is not the same as success artistically. Webern was not a rich man, but his music is far richer than JayZ's (a billion dollars in an elevator, according to his beautiful wife). Just a single note of Webern, well placed and orchestrated, is far richer than any rap song. This kind of vapid music reminds me of the Hanon exercises I hated to play as a kid. Are they music? Perhaps. But t they don't say anything. They are semantically poor. I'm listening to Beethoven op. 28. Semantically rich. I find most minimalism, and especially new age baby food, semantically poor. I wish I had the time and programming chops to write software that could evaluate the semantic richness of different pieces of music. The second movement of op. 111? Webern op. 10? Versus Philip Glass? I would love to study the math for this! There was a rococo composer whose had the audacity to condemn Bach — I forget his name. Same thing now with new age and rap. Just ignorance. What's the cure?

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, I am rather glad that you haven't written that software. My feeling is that there is something in good music that escapes our ability to analyze it. There is something magical about very fine music, something uncanny.

Ken Fasano said...

Recalling Beethoven's op. 28 sonata, we understand where Beethoven has brought us after just the first eight measures, perhaps the first three. It's sort of a sonic journey, perhaps just neurons firing, but nothing that modern science can explain. How do we get the "feel" after just three measures, then just let go and let Beethoven take us on a magic journey? Reading up on the subject of "semantic richness", I read that Leonard Bernstein was interested in using Chomskyan generative grammar to map semantic richness. So far the results have been disappointing. What are the production rules of op. 28?

Bryan Townsend said...

I love the "Pastoral" sonata. Yes, we look at what Beethoven has done and marvel at the structural intensity and clarity. But we cannot write a formula for generating more examples. I think the reason is that the Pastoral sonata and, in fact, each of the Beethoven piano sonatas, is unique. Each time he discovered a new way of creating a sonata. The aesthetic power is in the uniqueness. Science works with statistics and probabilities. Science generalizes. Science measures the typical, the standard, but there is nothing typical about a Beethoven piano sonata.

Schoenberg in his textbook Fundamentals of Music Composition chose most of his examples from Beethoven. A composer studying them might be inspired to find his own unique structures. But not by generalizing!

Christine Lacroix said...

Wow, what an interesting comment thread! Thanks to all of you.

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan you didn't say if you liked the Benedictus by Karl Jenkins. Did you find it too repetitive and not 'interesting' enough? Does it lack 'tension'? I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you talk about 'tension'. Is there 'tension' in Largo from Xerxes Ombra Mai Fu or Meditation from Thais?
I listened to the piece by Ludovico Einaudi and I enjoyed the first few minutes but it slowly became unbearable.

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan you didn't say if you liked the Benedictus by Karl Jenkins. Did you find it too repetitive and not 'interesting' enough? Does it lack 'tension'? I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you talk about 'tension'. Is there 'tension' in Largo from Xerxes Ombra Mai Fu or Meditation from Thais?
I listened to the piece by Ludovico Einaudi and I enjoyed the first few minutes but it slowly became unbearable.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't have strong feelings about every piece I listen to. The truth is that most music falls into the "ok, but nothing special" category. I think that is where I would put the Jenkins piece. Nothing jumped out at me.

The concept of tension in a piece of music is a pretty subtle and complex one. Taking Ombra mau fu as an example, in the Baroque it is characteristic of their aesthetic that a particular movement, such as this aria, be crafted to express a single emotion or "affekt". Therefore the tension is not internal to that movement, but exists, perhaps, in the relationship with the surrounding movements. You might also think of this as "contrast". Also, the idea of building in an internal tension into the structure of a piece of music is rather a 20th century idea and one that previous eras may or may not utilize.

It is hard to define what is meant by tension in a general way because of the usual problem of artworks being about uniqueness, not generality. Beethoven, for example, created aesthetic tension in his music differently in every piece.

I think the Einaudi is unbearable because it utterly refuses to make any kind of aesthetic expression except for soothing blandness.

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks Bryan!

Anonymous said...

Hello Bryan!

I don't find his music pretty nor soothing at all. In fact, I feel uneasy because it's so bad. Dumb passacaglias and baby tunes, just like pop music today. I'm done with this shit. Gonna listen to the awesome Cruxifixus from the Mass in B Minor.

Bryan Townsend said...

You go, Anon! That's the perfect antidote to Einaudi.