Monday, January 18, 2016

What is Music?

I recently finished reading Philip Glass' memoir titled Words Without Music and want to add a bit to my previous posts on it. One was "Words About Words." I strongly recommend reading the book, by the way. It is one of the most fascinating composer memoirs I have ever read.

There is a passage in the last chapter that I want to quote:
In my first year at the University of Chicago, the question I asked myself was, "Where does music come from?" The attempt to answer that question led to the composition of my first piece of music.
More than a dozen years later, still pondering the same question, I asked Ravi Shankar where music comes from. His reply was to bow toward a photo of his guru and say, "Through his grace, the power of his music has come through him into me."
Over time, for me, the question has evolved into another question: "What is music?"
For a while, the answer I found was that music is a place.
He goes on to say that he means this poetically: you can take a plane to Chicago either in reality or in your imagination and you can go to the place "music" in your imagination. I think I have talked about this in several places. Just before a performer begins a piece on stage, he goes to that place called "music". I often think of it as a place in the mind, but it seems to be a particular place in the brain as well. There was the case of the German cellist who had a terrible infection in his brain that wiped out much of his memory: he could no longer recall his friends or relatives or place names. But he could still read music and play the cello, indicating that these functions were in a different part of the brain. Glass talks about this quite differently, but I think that the basic idea is similar.

Music is like its own universe, close to but different from the ordinary world. If you have the aptitude and the discipline and the devotion, you can inhabit this universe, at least partly. I also sometimes think of music as being like a bridge between people. I will never forget a summer spent touring Europe with a flute player. We spent months in France, Germany and Italy and never visited a single art gallery or museum, but we met thousands of people (including my future wife). A musician is a kind of ambassador from another universe. Since it can be quite a magical universe, music can bring you many friends.

So let me thank all the wonderful friends I have met through this blog, itself a kind of bridge.


Christine Lacroix said...

That's an absolutely lovely piece! I've listened five times.Now that you've read Philip Glass' memoire has it influenced the way you feel about him? By the way you didn't answer my question: "If you truly believed these musicians were passionate about what they were doing, passionate about the music itself, would you accuse them of money grubbing?"

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, very charming piece. It is from Glassworks, an album I owned in the 80s. Most certainly reading his memoir has made a big difference in how I regard him and his music. Now I know a great deal about him, his life and what he thinks about music and composition. I'm not sure it makes a difference in how I listen to or evaluate the music, though.

Yes, you are right, I didn't respond to that question. It is rather a tricky one, isn't it? It actually seems to prompt a whole bunch of other questions: what sort of evidence would speak to a musician's passion about their music? Would it be evident in the way they perform it? In the specifics of the music itself? Would the lyrics offer clues? What about the qualities of the music itself? What if the songs very predictably used only tried and tested harmonic progressions and hackneyed rhythms? What does it mean to be passionate about your music? Does it mean you play or sing with passion? Does someone who sings with restraint indicate a lack of passion? If you are passionate about your music do you seek to find unique ways of creating it, or are you content with the usual clichés?

I actually think that posing those questions is the best answer to your question!

Anonymous said...

"What is music?"
To the modernist, it's and auditory work of art, usually with sound that reaches listener's ears.
Example: Using a blender to make orange juice. That's so music.

To the classical musician, it's rote.

(I guess I love today's perceptions on music.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Aha, we have been visited by the shade of John Cage!