Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Transcendental Music

Isn't it odd and interesting that music to meditate by, sometimes called "New Age Music" is not so terribly 'transcendental'? I'm unsurprised, though. Things are often not what they seem at first. As Shakespeare says in Hamlet, "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain". It can be a sign of seriousness or depth in music to hold a note for a long time or use a lot of repetition, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a drone is just a drone. Here is a particularly well-regarded example of New Age Music by Constance Demby dating from 1986:

Have you ever had the experience of encountering something that greatly resembled something you had previously valued highly, only to realize that perhaps you were wrong? That's way too abstract! What I mean is, listening to this, with its obvious references to movies like Stargate and 2001: A Space Odyssey, instead of making me value this more highly through association, made me downgrade the movies instead. This is mere effect. It sounds like an introduction to something, but the something never arrives. I had the same feeling watching Lost. Layer upon layer but sooner or later you realize there is nothing there. An obfuscating introduction is a great thing if it precedes something of import. But in itself it is merely annoying. It is like someone selling you a magnificently wrapped package that, when opened contains ... nothing.

Now let's go back a little further and listen to something that was influential on New Age Music. This is the first part of Octet by Steve Reich, written in 1979:

There is still the same, static quality to the harmony, but it is underlaid by a real intensity in the rhythm. Steve Reich's music is very rhythmically oriented. This music is certainly an acquired taste, but I think there is a kind of limited transcendence there. There is real delight when the flute enters at 2:13.

Going back just a little further, here is Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony, composed in 1976:


Unless you have your volume up fairly high, you won't hear much for the first minute as the very low bass strings creep along slowly. This music is both like and unlike the Demby and Reich pieces. It unfolds slowly, true, but there is something unfolding here. It is a very big canon, with a single melody slowly being layered on top of itself, starting from very low and rising higher and higher. There is a direction here, even more than in Steve Reich, because the harmony is not so static. There are three movements to this symphony and this is  the first movement.

Now, going back just two more years. This is Shostakovich's 15th String Quartet, composed in 1974. It uses the simplest musical means:

But transcendental music does not have to be slow or sad. I have posted this before, but the last movement of Mozart's last symphony from 1788 is almost as transcendental as music can get:

I said "almost" because there is one piece that pretty much defines "transcendental" in music. The Dona nobis pacem from the B minor mass of J. S. Bach, dating from 1749:

If that doesn't give you chills, I don't know what will. Rather ironic that possibly the greatest piece of music written for the Catholic liturgy was composed by a Lutheran. Note what this music has in common with the other ones: simple themes, layered on top of one another with a real sense of direction. In this case, as in the Mozart, a real arrival as well. At 2:40 when the trumpets and tympani come in, the music has 'arrived'.

Not much else to say.


RG said...

You mentioned "ethereal" music in an earlier post; is that relatedto "transcendental"?

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't recall where I used "ethereal"--can you direct me? But I suspect I would have used it in a local sense to describe a passage in a piece that was high-pitched, had a diaphanous texture and probably soft dynamics. "Transcendental" would refer more to a whole piece with the quality of transporting you outside yourself. I would point to the examples above (the last four) for concrete examples. It might be interesting to try and nail down the concept in a more technical way, because I think theorists tend to shy away from that sort of thing.

Shantanu said...

Super post.

I have never been able to describe that phenomenon you mentioned about new age music and movies like 2001. I have experienced it before.

Thanks for putting it in words.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Shantanu! And welcome to the Music Salon. I noticed that a couple of my clips have expired so I put up new ones. You might want to check the post again.

Gavin said...

I think that, more than most qualities, transcendence is in the eye of the beholder. For me, at least, it tends to only come once or twice for any particular piece. For example, I can remember the first time I heard "Spem in Alium" or Steve Reich's "Tehillim" -- I felt that feeling of being outside myself. I love both pieces, but I've never quite that same experience on subsequent listenings.

The Mozart that you refer to in this post has never done it for me. Arvo Part does, and so does the occasional Chopin. Oddly enough, despite being my favorite composer, Bach very rarely does.

gotta run, but I may add more later.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very interesting! For me, pretty much the same pieces that that transcendental effect whenever I hear them. And it is most frequent with Bach!