Wednesday, November 28, 2012

John Simon's Search for the "Soul in Music"

I would love to visit a museum (or two) and/or go to a concert (or two) with John Simon because what seems to move him emotionally when considering works of music and art is so vastly different from what moves me emotionally when considering works of music and art. I have great respect for him as a writer and as a thinker, and find that he makes his case for "his music" eloquently in this recent blog post. I followed his suggestion to look at his book, John Simon on Music, which I could browse by way of Google Books. Rather than taking issue with anything in the book, I must make the observation that poor Mr. Simon's tastes seem not to have changed in 30 years. 30 years is one third of a hefty lifetime, and half of an adulthood.

In his blog post he dares the reader to define what "soul in music" might be:
But define it? I defy anyone to do so. I can only say that it is what moves me, stirs up my insides, would make me sing or hum it if I knew how. What, in a Hungarian phrase, crawls (caressingly) into the ear. What makes me forget my worries, my inadequacies, my mortality. What makes me want to hear it again and again.
Since I can't resist a challenge (and the only way to get the question out of my mind is to answer it), I'll give it my best try.

I would say first, given the context of this question, that the music that moves Mr. Simon is music that he knows and has known for a long time. He is a self-described music lover, which means to me, in this context, that he loves the music that he knows, and doesn't have much room for learning to love the music he doesn't know.

Perhaps it is a generational thing. Mr. Simon grew up at a time when there was very little in the way of "early music" around. His music-related writing from the 1970s seems to be uninformed by what we now call historically-informed performance practice, and it also seems to be focused on musical rarities and music that might have been considered on the fringe at the time. Why would someone who developed tastes off the beaten path want to trod the beaten path of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn? How can somebody dismiss Vivaldi when recent discoveries (within the past 10 years or so) show what a multi-faceted composer he was? And I wonder why Mr. Simon finds Haydn preferable to Mozart? Does he know everything by Haydn and by Mozart? Could he identify the Haydn influences in the Mozart "Haydn" Quartets, or the Mozart influences in Haydn's Opus 76 Quartets, or the Mozart influences in Haydn's London Symphonies? These kinds of comparisons need to be made on a piece-by-piece basis, and through making these kinds of comparisons most musicians and music lovers begin to learn more about what makes both of these composers great. Enough about this.

I'll go back to Mr. Simon's question about the "soul in music." My answer is simple: I don't think that there is "soul" in music. I think that everyone's musical experiences are singular, and everyone's musical loves are singular and very personal. Some of us have unconscious "libraries" of musical references that compel us to relate one piece to another, and some of us don't. Some of us appreciate structure (structures of all kinds) in the music we respond to, and some of us respond emphatically to music that defies the notion of structure. There are people who hate chocolate (I know two of them), and there are people who love chocolate more than anything in the world. Almost everyone loves their mother's cooking, regardless of how good (or bad) a cook she was (or is). Is there a soul in science? Scientists have always been on the lookout for some kind of truth, and they even constructed a really good method to do so, but there is always more knowledge that can throw a wrench into what we like to call "laws." Once in a while someone gets lucky in science or in math and comes up with something that really holds water. Once in a while someone gets lucky in music too. Composers we consider great usually have had (and those that are living have) technique, knowledge, resources, and luck.

I don't believe there is a "universal musical truth," but I believe that within a particular musical endeavor, whether it be a performance or a composition, there are periods of insincerity and periods of sincerity. There are also constant periods of success and lack of success in composing and performing. I can listen to a recording of a performance a few days after I played a concert and hear only the flaws. I can hear the same recording five years later, and the flaws might just fly by my ear, unnoticed (they flaw right by!). I can spend weeks writing a short piece of music that engages my imagination and keeps me happy while I am at work on it, and I can hear it five years later and wonder what the hell I might have been thinking. Or I can hear a terrific performance of something I that I didn't think much of after I wrote it.

Everything is subjective. Music is vast and entirely personal. People who disagree on everything from politics to chocolate can find common ground in music that they both love, and Mr. Simon does have some excellent music on his list of "fourteen sublime works by thirteen composers."

1 comment:

Lisa Hirsch said...

This is a great posting, thanks. I'm completely with you on the individuality of our responses to music and the impossibility of defining "soul" in any objective way. And yeah - my musical tastes have expanded enormously over the last 30 years, and I look forward to the composers now unknown to me whose acquaintance I hope to make in the next 30. So poor Mr. Simon, indeed. Someone should play him some Machaut or Dufay or Carter (hehehehe).

I clicked through to Simon's blog posting and was flabbergasted, but I think there is a huge clue in his blog posting to what and how he hears.

On one hand, he says he dislikes repetition in Romantic and pre-Romantic composers, and he also lists a range of composers who might be labeled minimalist as composers he dislikes.

On the other, he likes Stravinsky and Janacek and specifically calls out the Janacek Sinfonietta. Now, I love that piece, AND there is a ton of repetition in it. And there's a lot of repetition of various kinds in Stravinsky.

What I get out of this is that he is not attuned to repetition as part of a large-scale, developmental, harmonic scheme. If you can't follow the harmonic tensions of a long Bach piece, yeah, it might sound repetitive. Ditto the harmonic tensions of, oh, let's take the first movement of the Eroica.