Monday, March 12, 2012

The Difference is in the Doing

I think that one difference between what we call "classical music" and what we might call "popular music" or "commercial music" (including music written in the various idioms used for what we call "classical music") has a lot to do with the motivations of a composer. The same composer can, of course, write music that is intended to be commercial as well as write music that is done with little regard for how it sells (or is consumed). There have always been great composers who wrote both commercial (or popular) and non commercial music. I suppose it has a lot to do with who the consumer of the music happens to be, and how s/he consumes it.

I believe that commercial music is written primarily to engage audiences. Film music is written to manipulate an audience to react to visual images and narrative in a particular way. Opera is too, and even more so in the 20th century. What we call "pop music" is very intensely geared to appeal to an audience, and it is "consumed" mostly by people who are not practicing musicians. Vocal pop music is often defined by a singer (or THE singer) connected with a song rather than the composer of a song, unless it happens to be a rare instance when it is the same person. In the case of the singer-songwriter, the idea of writing the song in the first place seems to be about sharing an emotional experience directly with an audience, where it is often consumed like "pop music," but is then "covered" by people who want to sing it themselves (and often not for an audience).

I assume that I'm not alone when I mention that communicating something to an audience is the last thing I have in mind when I write a piece of music. I write music in order to communicate with musicians and allow communication between the musicians who are playing the music I write. It is their business to communicate their interpretation to an audience. My job ends (if all goes well) where their jobs begin.

I have read that Telemann's motivation for writing music was to give people music that they enjoyed playing. I believe that Bach's motivation was similar, but he also had a job where his music needed to demonstrate the teachings of the Lutheran church. He managed to combine the whole enjoyment of playing thing and the manipulation of spirit thing rather seamlessly. Even people who describe themselves as not the least bit religious are moved emotionally when they listen to Bach's religious music. Instrumentalists who play Bach's non-religious music find personal enjoyment in the process of practicing it. And the personal enjoyment is something that we experience daily. For most of us there is no need to perform Bach's music. We play it because of what it does for us in our own private spaces.

Haydn and his contemporaries published string quartets so that people could play them for collective enjoyment. The challenges and jokes that he put in his music are there to enhance the private musical discourse. When Mozart wrote his "Haydn" Quartets, he did so as a way of communicating with a composer he admired. I believe that the idea of performing them for an audience would have been the furthest thing from his mind. The commercial success for most of the composers of the Classical Period came from the sales of their music. It's kind of like the concept of commercial success for Milton and Bradley comes from the sales of their games.

Sure, Mozart and Haydn did write music that was intended for audiences, and those audiences were often important ones that included monarchs and patrons, but I believe that some of their "public" music was different from the music that they wrote for their friends and for musicians they admired. I think that they wrote chamber music and piano music primarily for people to enjoy playing, and I believe that they always wrote their orchestral music (particularly Haydn, who had standing relationships with the members of his orchestra) so that the musicians would enjoy themselves while playing it. In Beethoven's later years he cared a great deal about what audiences thought of his Quartets (like the late Quartets), but those people were often musicians themselves, and Beethoven was an exception to all rules.

Moving forward to the period of uncommon practice (a.k.a. today), composers write their music for musicians to play and enjoy. The idea of the standard musical ensemble has expanded greatly. There are a great number of percussionists who like to use large numbers of instruments. There are people who enjoy using sophisticated electronic instruments, people who have expertise using extended techniques, microtones, and multiphonics, and people who enjoy exploring non western scales. Many of these musicians are young, and many are interested in playing new music written by people of their generation. The existing repertoire would be very small (if existent at all) for an ensemble made of tuba, percussion, flute, harp, bassoon, and French horn, and for such an ensemble to survive as a performing group, it would need good new music to play. I like to think that composers who would write for a young ensemble like the hypothetical one above would be more concerned about how playable the harp part is, if the bassoon can be heard above the tuba, or whether the percussionist can participate in the ensemble without dominating, than how an audience will respond to his or her musical ideas.

Members of the listening public and consumers of recorded music should remember that there is a lot of new music that is not being written for your enjoyment. It is being written for the enjoyment of the intended performing musicians, and for the enjoyment of other ensembles made of the same instruments as the intended ensemble. If they succeed at communicating the essence of a piece of new music to you, they have succeeded in their mission. If they don't, it could have something to do with the composer (who, if given a chance to hear a performance, can correct the problems in the work), or it could have something to do with errors of judgement (or notes, or rhythms) made by the performing musicians.

I really don't believe that contemporary composers should be judged against composers from a previous eras. I don't believe that living composers should be judged against dead ones. (The living composer can grow, and the dead one can't.) I also don't believe it is fair to judge a composer from the "common practice" period against a composer from what I call the "uncommon practice" of the present day. There will never be another Rameau, J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky, or Shostakovich (to give just a few examples). These were all singular musical personalities who continue, long after their lives ended, to challenge our imaginations and remain relevant and modern. I believe they all speak to the musicians who play their music now with the same voices they spoke with while they were living, but as "consumers" of music (everyone reading this post is probably, on some level, a consumer of music) we need to keep an open mind about what the music of today means to today's young musicians. The best stuff will survive because people will want to play it, and the stuff that nobody wants to play might have to wait for another generation to find musicians who appreciate. It could also simply fade into oblivion. Only time will tell. While we wait, musicians will still enjoy playing music written by the composers on the above list and by composers who may have not been as well respected or well known during their lifetimes.

I'll end this little rant by paraphrasing a statement I heard Stephane Wrembel make about the influence Django Reinhardt has on him: you can work under the shadows of great composers, or you can be illuminated by their light.


Lisa Hirsch said...

A friend passes along to me this, as his quotation of the day:

“Composers who try to please the public are guilty of whore’s reasoning” --Pierre Boulez

FWIW, I believe that it's difficult or impossible to generalize about why composers do what they do; I am myself a dreadful mind-reader, and my working assumption is that a range of individuals will have different motivations, and any particular person's motivations and interests might different from year to year or day to day.

Anonymous said...

Boulez is not worth quoting. Someone took him at his "word," and created that Boulez Project. Boulez is a pretend radical, but is very authoritative (reference your blog post on "authority"). Hirsch is correct to observe that composers work according to dissimilar motives. Isn't that terrific? People are different. What would it be like if some "authority" enforces a uniformity? Oy.

Susan Scheid said...

So much to think about here, I hardly know where to begin. I write as a listener, and, from that perspective, what has struck me so very deeply in my travels in new music is how much young composers and musicians reach out to welcome listeners in. Their wish, in doing so, is not to write music that they think I will be comfortable with, but to encourage me not to be afraid of something I’m not used to, to explore and discover, to be willing to try something new.

I come back repeatedly to the words a young composer wrote not long ago, exhorting us all to listen. They are these:

When you listen to music, whether intentional or not, the composer is giving you just a small slice of their life, and for just that moment you can feel what it’s like to exist as someone else. Sometimes it works to think of music as a highly advanced form of virtual reality. You have a variety of choices, each of which will send you into a different emotional state, and your decision all depends on your mood. Perhaps you want to be able to feel the slow unfolding of the 19th century Austrian countryside, and you can put on Bruckner 4. Or perhaps you’d prefer a childhood memory of trains and war, like soft chugging dreams, and you’ll put on Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

But although it can be an interesting learning exercise to listen to music that presents a life to which you cannot relate, I find (and I believe that most people agree) that there is a far more powerful beauty, the feeling that up against this deep black universe, across this long breathing black of the strange and electric night, perhaps there are others with whom I can share this fundamental innerness of human being, others to stand witness, to help break down this lighthouse-loneliness of thought.

And it is here that new music is most relevant. The music of our time should be exactly that. It should express our world. Music has the ability to connect people like few other things, and the music that we listen to is the music which we best understand. Some people will tell you that they identify more with Mozart than with anyone else. And that’s fine—if it’s true. But I challenge you, anyone reading this who is afraid of any of the thousands of strands of new music that exist today, anyone who settles for Beethoven (because what could be better?), or who doesn’t listen to anything without words (because it’s boring and quiet), or who assumes that what you listen to is what you like: make an effort to listen to as much new music as possible, listen to it loud (because music is meant to be heard!), and listen to it multiple times. Some of it you will hate. But there are some works which you will find indescribably beautiful, being produced all over the world, all the time, which are so much more meaningful because they describe a time and place to which we can relate.

So why is new music relevant? Because we don’t live in a world with court musicians anymore, and we don’t live in a world ruled by the British Empire, and we don’t live in a world where the fastest way to contact a friend is to write them a letter or ride to their home. Even since the premiere of The Rite of Spring—a piece often associated with modernism—we’ve been through two world wars, sent humans into space, and invented the internet. Music is my optimal language, and I want it to express my world.

I find these among the most beautiful, and true, words written on the subject and come back to them again and again.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for adding depth (and breadth!) to this conversation, Sue!

Sean said...

re: Boulez — when time comes, I wonder who will write the article "Boulez est mort."

re: Susan's posts — I also appreciate many of the sentiments expressed in that quotation, but I am troubled by some as well. Clearly, there is passion simmering beneath it all, but I think a kind of false dichotomy has been set up, one between "old" and "new". Bach's music, for example, is revered today not because it is old, but rather in spite of it. A great deal of the music that has survived through the centuries benefitted its own time by not being a part of it—there's a hint of the eternal in such music, as well as a capacity to transcend. While we cannot and need not separate music from the times in which it was written, the stylistic traits that we associate with particular time periods are only music's most topical aspects. In other words, I don't feel I need to relate to Bach's time, because it's precisely the timeless aspects of his music that interest me most.

The use of the word "should" in the quotation is revealing, as is the "challenge" to those "afraid" — this is very emotional language which, I feel, is antithetical to developing a deeper appreciation of music, contemporary or not. And while its true that today's musical pluralism makes it difficult for the average listener to find and absorb new work, that's not something new—nor is that of a young modern composer feeling isolated, misunderstood, and under-appreciated.

As a composer I can appreciate and empathize with much of what was said, but I can't help feeling saddened by this person's seemingly local sense of perception, too. The "beauty" that he or she is speaking about (in reference to making a connection, sharing an "innerness" between human beings within his or her own time) is undeniable. But is it not equally potent to connect, with such "innerness", to someone or something across vast spans of time, too?

As with any discussion about music and the arts, there are many subtle shades of context that profoundly influence how we interpret such commentary. And I am not at all suggesting that this composer is "wrong" -- it's not a matter of such. I suppose what I'm trying to say is (and borrowing from Bertrand Russell), my imagination is held captive by music's ability to "hold sway above the flux", whether in my time, or others.

Elaine Fine said...


I'm having trouble figuring out which "should" you are referring to! I would like to be able to follow your argument here, but I have no idea where to go. Could you have deleted some part of your comment?

Susan Scheid said...

I like very much what Sean has written, a thoughtful counterpoint to the quotation I admired and offered up. This in particular, captured my imagination: "my imagination is held captive by music's ability to "hold sway above the flux", whether in my time, or others." Thank you, Elaine, for sparking such an interesting conversation.

Sean said...


Here is the selection (emphasis mine):

"And it is here that new music is most relevant. The music of our time should be exactly that. It should express our world."

Thank you for sharing that quotation—I think no one could remained unmoved by this composer's passion.

P.S. The part of the line that I appropriated was from the introduction to Bertrand Russell's autobiography:

"I have wished to understand the hearts of men.
I have wished to know why the stars shine.
And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux."

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you, Sean. And thank you for adding the rest of the Russell passage.

Susan Scheid said...

One more footnote, if I may, this time on the subject of Boulez. I'm aware of two contemporary composers who have written musical responses grappling with the legacy of Boulez and thought you might be interested in them. The first is a piece for solo harp by John Metcalf called "Le Tombeau de Boulez." The other, a piece for solo piano by Judd Greenstein, is "Boulez is Alive." Each composer--they are from different generations of living composers, as you'll see--shares on his website a bit of commentary about the piece. Coming at all of this as one of those "lay listeners" Babbitt spoke about, I found this all quite fascinating and instructive.