Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Being in Love with Music

A while ago I put up a post that included a sentence something like this: "One of the first composers I fell in love with was Debussy." That is the kind of thing I've been used to saying for many years. But suddenly it struck me that the expression is a bit odd. Maybe it is because attitudes toward love (and sex) have changed in the last forty years. We seem to regard love in rather a more literal way these days. If you love someone you must be in a sexual relationship with them! So let me hasten to say that I have never had the slightest desire for Debussy in that way. But I love his music.

(I am thinking about writing a post about music and sex, but that is a different topic.)

I think that "love" in the sense I use the word above, implies a number of things. It assumes a certain amount of familiarity. You are not in love with a composer (or his music) that you don't know at all. Here are the piano duo of Marina Porchkhidze & Vladimir Shinov playing Debussy's Six Épigraphes Antiques:

Another thing that is implied by being "in love" with a certain composer or certain pieces of music ("I love the piano music of Debussy, but I'm not so crazy about his orchestral music...") is a certain investment in the music. You are involved with it. I think this explains another phenomenon that I have noticed.

Occasionally I go to this restaurant that has a television that can access various music channels. I'm not familiar with the details as I cancelled my cable contract about ten years ago. But as I recall there are five or six different channels, each devoted to a different style or genre. For example, there is "classic rock", "lite classical" (yes, spelled like that), and "tranquillity" which is New Age noodling. This latter channel, which they often choose, I find a bit annoying. Not as annoying as a lot of other possibilities, mind you, but still annoying. Why? After all, this is music that is carefully crafted to be as innocuous as possible. Let me set it aside another similar phenomenon. I once was hospitalized for a few days with a kidney infection. For some reason, along with other medication, the doctors were giving me tranquilizers. I only realized this when I noticed that I had been aimlessly staring at the wall for half an hour, thinking of nothing. This is not something I am normally capable of doing. I realized that I had been given something and this made me uneasy and edgy. Yes, tranquilizers make me edgy! It's because they alter my normal mental state. I don't like being turned into a semi-vegetable!

The experience of New Age music or "tranquillity" is something similar for me. The music never goes anywhere. The harmonies have no real function, just washes of pastel color. There are no incisive rhythms or melodic ideas, just an aimless burbling. This I find annoying because harmonies should go somewhere. Imagine listening to someone give a speech who just wanders aimlessly, changing subject randomly. That is the feeling I get listening to New Age music. "For God's sake" I want to say, "do something, go somewhere, don't just sit there drooling to yourself!"

What is missing is an investment on the part of the composer/performer in some of the essential fundamentals of music: structure, continuity, direction and coherence. My stance towards music is to invest myself in it. When it refuses that possibility, I find it annoying.

Sometimes I ask people what kind of music they like and a typical response is "oh, I like all kinds of music." I am mature enough that I no longer bite their heads off: "whaddayamean? You can't possibly like all kinds of music!" Now I assume that what they mean is they like (some) music of all kinds of genres, which I do myself. But often what is really meant is that they are largely indifferent to music. This seems to me to be different from the situation thirty or forty years ago when I seem to recall that people were a little more invested in music, cared more about it. Perhaps those decades of merciless commercialization have had an effect.

I also wonder if the relentless dissemination of music over radio, television, iPod, laptop and home stereo also has an effect. I don't think you feel quite the same about music if it is constantly blasting at you from every corner. For many people today, I suspect that music is a kind of acoustic wallpaper, not something they notice the details of.

In November 1705 Johann Sebastian Bach, at the time only twenty years old, walked from his home in Arnstadt to Lübeck, a distance of some 250 miles. He was determined to meet and learn from Dietrich Buxtehude, the skilled composer and organist of Lübeck's Marienkirche. Walked! Now that is a serious investment in music. A friend of mine who is a guitarist and composer spends a good deal of his spare time reading through, on seven-string guitar, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. As that was written for keyboard, this is not so easy.

Now, for the benefit of people that I might run into on future social occasions who are in dread that I might ask them "what kind of music do you like?" here are some useful responses:

  • Oh, I don't like music. I much prefer knitting.
  • Music? What is music?
  • I really like the later oeuvre of Guillaume Machaut.
  • Britney Spears' early works, before she went all commercial.
  • I like music with a backbeat.
  • Oh, man, I'm like totally into death metal!
  • Have you ever heard Blue Oyster Cult? Now that's music!
  • I just listen to whatever's playing.
  • Oh God, you're not going to make me listen to more Bach, are you?

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