Thursday, March 8, 2012

Familiarizing and De-familiarizing

A lot of courses are taught for the purpose of 'familiarizing' students with the material: Music History 101 for example. Listen to and "become familiar with" certain kinds of music. Sometimes this is easy because the music is written to make an immediate and unforgettable impact. Here's a good example:

Here is another:

Even some quite recent music is designed to be immediately accessible:

But some music, the kinds that we have courses to familiarize ourselves with, takes some focused attention:

That is the first movement of Alban Berg's Lyric Suite for string quartet written in 1925/26. You will have to listen to that a number of times to become familiar with it. Some much older music also takes repeated listening, such as this isorhymic motet by Guillaume de Machaut:

But familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then certainly a kind of complacence. We become over-familiar with some music and cease to realize how powerful or unusual it really is. The six concertos that Bach wrote for the Margrave of Brandenburg are some of his most familiar music. Here is the first movement of the No. 6:

What is really bizarre about that is that the soloists are two violas, the most retiring and least soloistic of all the instruments in Bach's orchestra. Why choose them for the solo parts? If, as some have pointed out, the structure of the orchestra is the structure of society in microcosm, then what is Bach saying here? Is he a revolutionary, arguing for the overthrow of those tyrannical violins as later Frenchmen argued for the overthrow of the French kings? Doubtful! But Bach may well be pointing out that all people are equal in the sight of God and superficial social hierarchies in this world are not so important. Why, even violas can shine! We think of Bach as being a nice, safe, orderly composer, one who sedates us with tranquil evenness. But the reality is that Bach often wrote very spiky, even unsettling music, especially when he wanted to depict the sorrows of this world. Here is an aria from a cantata by Bach. The text translates as "Groaning and pitifully wailing":

I think the more you listen to that, the more unsettling you will find it, as it is full of very powerful dissonances. Here is an even more extreme example:

That is the opening chorus of the cantata BWV 101 and the text speaks of war, famine, and plague. The harmonic clashes are unrelenting. Thanks to Richard Taruskin for both of the above examples, found in his Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 2.

One of the goals of what is known as the 'new' musicology is to take a fresh look at the perhaps overly-familiar music in the standard repertoire. This looking at things from a fresh angle, something I try to do from time to time, is called 'de-familiarizing'. Try it for yourself: take a piece you know and listen to it with fresh ears. What is odd or unusual about it? What is the composer really up to?

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