Sunday, August 07, 2016

Questions Concerning Sound and Music

In an essay about Charles Ives, Jan Swafford writes about George Ives, the father of Charles Ives:
As importantly, George Ives taught his son to respect the power of vernacular music. As a Civil War band leader he understood how sentimental tunes such as "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground," "Aura Lee," Stephen Foster songs, and marches and bugle calls were woven into the experience of war and the memories of soldiers. Much as did Gustav Mahler a continent away, Charles Ives came to associate everyday music with profound emotions and spiritual aspirations. One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: "Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds-for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."
At some point Charles Ives uttered his famous (perhaps rhetorical) question "What does sound have to do with music?" Swafford puts it in an appropriate context:
Thus Ives's comment, echoing his father's words: "What does sound have to do with music?" For Ives, music is not mere sound but the underlying spirit, human and divine, which the sounds express even in the inexpert playing and singing of amateurs. Thus the paradox of Ives's music, echoing his paradoxical person: he could be realistic, comic, transcendent, simple, complex, American, and European, all at the same time. If some of his music seems crowded nearly to bursting, it is a vibrant and entirely realistic portrayal of his conception of life, his sense of democracy in action, and of his own all-embracing consciousness. As Ives once said, Music is life.
We now live in a time where sounds can be lined up, preserved, and incorporated to any situation, and played for reasons both musical and non-musical (consider the white noise used to drown out possible outbursts of opposition in the areas of the hall that held Sanders supporters during the Democratic National Convention). Ives's statement "Music is Life," does not strike the same rebellious chord (or discord) it struck during Ives's lifetime.

We live in a time when someone who is not able (for whatever reason) to translate what s/he plays into musical notation is capable of making a functional sound-track for a video (see the post below from yesterday). Someone who doesn't play (or even own) a traditional instrument can use household objects to generate what would function as music, and that person could record it using a smartphone and share it for all the world to hear. Or a person who doesn't play a traditional instrument could use a device like the Koka's Soundtrack Box No. 1, and get stunning results.

Koka's Soundtrack Box No. 1 from nikoladze on Vimeo.

Does this box make sound, or does it make music? Do we need to expand our vocabulary to express the capabilities of our technology? Does using an instrument like this (and it is indeed both an instrument and a beautifully and thoughtfully constructed piece of art) generate sound, or does it generate music? When playing a traditional instrument in a non-traditional way (using extended techniques, for example), is the result music or sound? If there is a difference, where does that difference begin and where does it end?

No comments: