Music Composers Unite!
I don't subscribe to the idea that whether you like a piece or not depends on your emotional disposition or 'preferences for a particular style. Evidently there are pieces out there which are liked by the majority. Why is this so? Well I thought about why is 'La campanella', 'Fur Elise', 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' and others so famous when there are other equally as beautiful pieces. Well clearly these 'equally as beautiful pieces' aren't as beautiful as the most played pieces of classical music. Why? Well I think, and I could be wrong, that they're all such coherent pieces of music. By that I mean the melodies are very memorable. It's the same with anything beautiful I guess. The more 'refined' and coherent something is, the more beautiful we seem to find it. Everything that constitutes to the design of something has a purpose - it's not something extraneous. Every note has a purpose to produce something that is whole and 'perfect'. If you started removing even one note then the melody would alter dramatically to become unrecognisable. Music like this seems to be very dense and 'interconnected' in an illusive sense and I hear something that is so precise and delicate but has overwhelming meaning to exist. As if there is a three dimensional underpinning that connects the piece by pulling it together and exposing only the notes that are relevant. That's why I think other pieces aren't as popular because they are facets of these more coherent pieces.... Bach's music is so enjoyable to listen to for this reason. Every note has a purpose... It's quite difficult to explain really but imagine I wanted to extract sodium crystals from a saline solution. I'm sure you've probably done this in school. You leave it out to dry so that the liquid evaporates and you're left with the sodium crystals. In this sense, the liquid is the extraneous notes and the sodium crystal the melody. It's a refining process.
Which kind of begs the question: What do I have to do to become a good composer. You need to ensure your music is coherent, whole and interconnected with an overwhelming reason to exist. This is most important. I am struggling to find words in my vocabulary to explain my point. Ornamentation and such like doesn't detract from a piece being coherent. It's a question of: Does what's written down produce on the whole something that is coherent. It's very difficult to explain! But imagine if I were going to choose a particular chord or sequence. What if I had chosen one with lesser musical effect? Continually doing this would produce nothing of significance. It's all about how musical units are connected with each other.
Bob, If the internet encourages individuality vs conformity, then perhaps this generational effect will wane over time. Are you familiar with Toffler's book Future Shock? It's basic idea is that, not just change, but the rate of change, has been increasing for some time now. In other words, change is accelerating. One hundred years ago the Wright brothers were experimenting with air travel. By 1969, we had walked on the moon. Yet in the 500 years before the Wright brothers, the greatest inventions were the watch, steam engine and steel. Computers began in the 1940's, and filled entire buildings. Today we have handheld computers which leave them in the dust. Biological science has seen similarly explosive growth. So what is my point? It may be that change is happening so fast that "generations" are becoming obsolete, because change is occuring so rapidly that soon there will be nothing to even identify a particular generation, other than the dates which outline it. In the past, change occured so slowly that a generation was not nearly long enough for it to be delineated as unique in some way. One generation was pretty much the same as another. then change began to accelerate. This produced generations sufficienlty distinct that we could talk about them: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millenials and so on. But if change continues to accelerate, it could wipe out any uniqueness that a generation could identify with. This could create a situation where people no longer define themselves in terms of being part of a particular generation. they would define themselves simply as individuals. and that would put every kind of music on an equal footing. We would then find out if one kind of music tended to be favored more than others. the diluting factors of conformism and commercialism would no longer apply. All this is pure speculation of course. but if true it should become evident in time.
Bob Porter said:
Every generation has to come up with it's own likes and dislikes.
Evidence of ceaseless change is evident even in your post, Kristofer. In just a few sentences, Chuang Tzu has become Lao Tzu.
I certainly agree that we have been de-evolving as far as the arts go. for me, the last great hurrah was the age of Impressionism in Art, followed by the same in Music. since then serious art and music have gone to hell. anyone can throw a can of paint on a wall and be declared an Artist. And serious music has become an exercise in carefully avoiding any suggestion of tonality, as that might cause the listener to actually like the music, because it does what great music has always done, exalt the human spirit, or even suggest the divine. Silly listeners, don't they know they're not supposed to feel anything when listening to modern music; they're supposed to...actually I have never figured that one out. Have mathematical ecstasies? Be confused, or even better, appalled?
Yes, this is just my opinion...
"I certainly agree that we have been de-evolving as far as the arts go. for me, the last great hurrah was the age of Impressionism in Art, followed by the same in Music"
With all due respect, unless you have listened to every piece of music written since the era of impressionism, and seen every work of art painted since the era of impressionism, I don't see how such a blanket statement can be made.
To cite just a few examples: If you don't think any of the orchestral works, or quartets or piano works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartok are as good, or better than the impressionistic works of Debussy, I think you are definitely missing something. Virtually all conductors and composers and musicians, working with or for major orchestras in large cities would agree.
There are people who think nothing decent has been written since Palestrina, but they are in the minority. So are people who think nothing since Debussy has been worth listening to.
Neverthless, if you have not listened to every work, you cannot generalize. You can merely make a list of the works that you have not enjoyed.
If you don't like Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, or you don't like Bartok's Fourth String Quartet (have listened to these works?), then all you can say is you don't like these particular works. You cannot say, "we have been de-evolving," For one thing, you have to take into account that a great deal of bad music written in the past has merely been forgotten. Bad music written during the time of Debussy and before is not presented to us today very often. Contemporary music, bad and good, is performed today. If you lived in 1850, I think you might say, "Beethoven was the last hurrah, and everything has gone down hill since then." Would you have been right to say that?
In a way, the answer would be "yes," and Brahms himself thought so. In another way, you might have been very wrong.
You said, "serious music has become an exercise in carefully avoiding any suggestion of tonality"
I suppose I will have to say this many times before people respond to it.
But, there is no such thing as music which avoids tonality. Schoenberg's music was pantonal (or dodecaphonic), not "atonal." There is no such music as music without scales or tones or harmonic relationships.
In modern or contemporary (or foreign music for that matter) the tones, harmonies and scales used are simply different. Tones are not lacking. In some cases (as in Indian or Japanese music) the intervals between tones in various systems are just smaller or larger, and tunings are different.
Of course, you are supposed to "feel something" when you listen to a modern, or contemporary piece of music.
If you listen to Indian classical music, and say, for instance, "I don't feel anything," that's on you, but it has nothing to do with a supposed lack in the music. Thousands upon thousands of people go to Indian classical concerts all the time; and if you do this, or if you listen to Indian classical music on the internet or through some other medium, you will know this.
Indian Classical Music station, from Bangalore
The same is true of Chinese and Japanese and many other musical traditions which have evolved and developed over centuries.
In the case of modern and contemporary musical works, you can accustom yourself to their modes, harmonies and various characteristics, simply be learning about them, as you would learn about music from another culture, or as you learned to like any classical composer over time which you did not understand or appreciate at first.
One has to learn to like a symphony by Brahms. One has to learn to like a Beethoven Quartet. Few people like these things the very first time they listen to them.
You have to open your ears and listen, as if you are hearing it for the first time, over and over, and always, as if you are listening it for the first time.
If you want to close your ears, and your mind, to different ways of hearing sound, and experiencing aural reality, of course, you are free to do that, as well.
All the above I state as objective fact, and not simply as "just my opinion."
An opinion would be Ligeti's Atmospheres is a greater work than Penderecki's Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima, or vice versa.
The statement, "music has devolved since impressionism" neither qualifies as an objective judgment or an opinion. It is a broad generalization which cannot be substantiated.
I couldn't say it better than Bob. Although Ondib does have a point. But every time I hear someone say "You need to listen to X, Y or Z, it will broaden your horizons." I say " No, I don't." I don't have to listen to anything. I choose to listen to the music I like. Why? Because it makes me happy. I think that's a pretty good reason. I'd rather be happy listening to Mozart and Debussy, than have others think I am open-minded, because I listen to everything that’s out there, even if most of it leaves me bored or annoyed. My happiness is far more important to me than what others may think about me, Call me close minded, provincial. Tell me I'm shutting myself off to the wonders of contemporary music. I don't care. I'm not going to listen to music I don't like. Shostakovich makes me nervous. I actually like Prokofiev and Bartók. So I'm not quite as close-minded as some may think. But Ondib, you are right to say that it is only opinion when I claim that music has been de-evolving. You caught me pontificating again, and spouting nonsense that nobody cares about. I'll have to work harder on keeping this unfortunate behavior under control. But thank you Bob for attempting to defend me (if that's what you were doing), I appreciate it.
Hello, all. I am brand new here, so I hope I don't offend by jumping into the middle of perhaps the most contentious debate in music today. Your discussion is quite interesting. I've shared nearly all of the thoughts expressed here during the decades since I became serious about music.
I think that music can be both an intellectual and an emotional experience. But I also believe one of these has much greater "staying power," for a host of psychological reasons.
Art will always change; that is the nature of things. Many could (and do) argue that music reached the pinnacle of form with High Classicism (WAM as the apex); others would argue that music reached the pinnacle of expression with Romanticism (LVB). But we would have missed out on many lovely works if progress had ceased at either of these pinnacles. I agree with Fredrick's assertion about artistic progress (i.e., evolution). There are really only two paths forward: logical steps and reactionary movements. It seems to be mostly a question of extremity.
I find the work of Schoenberg and his many descendant branches to be quite interesting from an academic standpoint. From ultra-rationalism to indeterminacy, there is always something philosophically intriguing about the kernel of "the idea" and/or the implementation. I enjoy examining each facet to understand the what, even if I never fully understand the why. At the very least, each movement stirs up some debate around the eternal "what qualifies as art" question, and that is almost always a valuable discussion.
But finding intellectual satisfaction in a movement doesn't mean I will ever listen to it for personal enjoyment. You couldn't pay me to endure a Boulez piano sonata even once more. And if you've heard Cage's 4'33" once, you've heard it enough times to grok "the idea." Works like these speak to my mind, but they don't speak to my heart.
And although a few moments ago, I implied lack of understanding of the why, I don't believe that is really true. Not to get too philosophical or religious, but much of the art of the past century was grounded in widespread nihilism. And when a civilization looks outward, sees only the void, and decides that "aloneness" is the defining characteristic of the human condition... well, I don't think we should expect the art to be particularly inspirational to the heart. "Heart" could seem rather trite if there is nothing to believe in.
I also agree with Fredrick that it seems much of the great experiment is over, and that the musical community is coming to some consensus that, while intellectually stimulating, the experiments were mostly artistic failures. Don't tell this to my past theory and composition instructors, however. :P
Bob Porter said:
I have always believed that music is not an intellectual or academic experience. It's an emotional one. You can study music all your life. Tear it down note from note. Understand why and where things happen the way they do. Plenty of musicians and composers do this. But in the end, a great composer wrote something timeless not because of theory, but because his gut, his heart, or maybe his soul made him combine certain groups of notes.
David has hit on something here I think, with the possibility that Nihilism may have had something to do with the experimenting that went on in the past century. Nihilism produced existential despair, and this became reflected in Art and Music. Nihilism attacked just about everything, from religion to politics. Unlike Existentialism, however, it offered no way out of the darkness. Existentialism did, namely, that individuals can create their own meaning, and art has always been one of the ways to do this, as it involves the act of creating something, which is an affirmation of one's self. Nihilism only deals in negations. All of which is to say that art reflects the times, and in particular the philosophical or religious ideas, of a particular period.
Welcome to the debate, David! A very interesting and thought provoking post.
Doesn't sound very constructive to me...fortunately, the Soviet Union is no longer around.
Permit me to make two few points:
1. In answer to the statement that Russian political nihilism was not very constructive, which Michael made, I agree. What that has to do with the existence of the Soviet Union, I am not sure. In any case, I don’t think we can “blame” nihilism for an alleged “devolution” in state of modern or contemporary classical music. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the Russian political nihilism of people like Nechaev or Chernyeshevsky, or nihilism more broadly, simply as a “belief in nothing.” Saint Saens appears to have been an atheist and a pessimist, if the views expressed in his volume “Problèmes et mystères” are accurately expressed. I don’t see how it is reflected in his music, necessarily. The relationship between music and personal belief may be very tenuous. As far as “devolution” is concerned, I think it is impossible to prove that devolution has occurred. If anyone ever does, let me know.
2. I want to state this second point VERY provocatively, though I hope no one will take it personally. I will say first that I respect the views of all those who participate on the forum. Let us examine statements like,
‘I know what is meant when someone says ‘that modern music seems to avoid tonality (and so do you). No matter how much I studied contemporary music that avoids a tonal center (and you know what I mean), or was "grunts and squawks" …’ etc., etc.
May I suggest that words such as these can be perceived as extremely offensive. (Not by me, necessarily). They might be seen as being on the same level as, or similar in thrust to, overtly racist statements. I make an analogy of course, which consists of two parts:
A: When you call a black person a “ni__er,” you call him what he does not want to be called. Schoenberg did not want his music to be called “atonal,” because it does have tones. (People continually ignore this point). Why not respect Schoenberg and his followers simply by calling his music pantonal, as he wished it to be called? It could be perceived as highly disrespectful to call a work “atonal” or a composer “atonal,” simply because he uses tones in a different way than others, or because he creates modes with different musical colors; just as it is disrespectful to call someone a racist epithet (a “coon,” for instance) because his skin is a different color. I am making this statement sincerely, though analogically.
B: To say, “I have studied this or that composer who is ‘atonal,’ and I know I don’t like them,” is like saying, “I have known people who are black, or brown—I have a lot of experience with them—but I still don’t like them.” It seems on its face to be prejudicial. It’s a broad generalization as well. If you haven’t met all black people, you can’t say you don’t like them. And if you haven’t listened to the majority of pantonal, polytonal, microtonal, or other avante-gard, contemporary works, you cannot make such a broad statement as you have done. I will suggest that no one here has heard anywhere near one tenth of the music written since 1945 that is in the contemporary classical concert tradition. You may or may not have met many Indonesians, Muslims or people from Borneo, but would you be justified in saying they are all worthless, and not worth meeting?
So this has nothing to do with nihilism, or with so-called “tonality.” If a person says, “I like White people, because I am used to them,” I take that about as seriously as a claim that “I like diatonic music, because I am familiar with it.” Let me repeat, I am making this point in a deliberately provocative way. I will stress this: I am not accusing anyone of racism; but I do think the analogy is a sound one, from the point of view of logic. Negative statements about post-war, or contemporary music appear to be simply the product of a chosen bias. If bad teachers influence a person… well, I know people who hate history and all manner of subjects, simply because of bad teachers. It has nothing to do with the content of the subject matter. My mother seems to still hate Germans, because as a girl of 9 years old, she lived in England, and was bombed by Germans. Her own father was gassed by them, in World War One. That’s merely circumstantial, though, and has nothing to do with German people in general. You can hate Messiaen and Stockhausen and Boulez, if you had bad teachers teach you about them. (Incidentally, the first two of these were devoutly religious, in their own ways; so if nihilism were the problem, I don’t see why Messiaen, who was very religious should be less appreciated than Saint Saens, who was an atheist and a pessimist).
Bob Porter, I respect your opinion, and of course, you are free to have one.
As I said, I expressed that idea that way, to make it provocative.
I would like an explanation, still, about why the analogy is incorrect in your view.
Why is calling Schoenberg an "atonal" composer any different from saying Louis Armstrong sings "n---er" songs? (Neither one liked either of the respective terms).
(Doesn't the statement, "this music lacks tones, because it has no tonal center" demonstrate just as much ignorance as the statement, "this negro person's skin 'lacks light' because black is the lack of light?")
Why is generalizing about all music written in the last fifty years any less prejudicial than making generalizations based on race or religion?
Why is saying, "I don't like any music written since 1960, and I have studied a lot of it," any different from saying, "I don't like any Black people, and I have met quite a few of them" ---when the truth is no one has heard even a small portion of all that music, and no one has met more than a small number of the people from any one race, comparatively speaking?
If the analogy is flawed, I would like to know why.
Please remember, I am not making accusations of racism; I am simply putting this question in the most provocative way I can, while trying to remain faithful to laws of analogical thinking.
No offense is intended.
The analogy between calling music atonal and using a racial slur is false. Black people have good reason, to say the least, to resent the n-word. They were enslaved by white people for several centuries. How is that in any way similar to calling someone's music atonal? The former is a deliberately vicious reminder of one of history's worst inhumanities. The latter is simply a descriprion of a type of music, however inaccurate. I'm sure Schoenberg didn't lose any sleep over it. If he did, he was not as confident in what he did musically as he should have been.