We are Mozartians

“The Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter. Carolyn Abbate’s argument against plot-centered, as opposed to narrator-centered, understanding of musical narrative exemplifies how widespread the assumption is that all music must be essentially temporal, that the disposition of events in time always matters in music: since all music is temporal, Abbate argues—that is, since music always has a temporal arrangement of events or ‘plot’—it is all ‘narrative,’ and hence applying the term, taken in this sense, to music is redundant. But for music written a mere half century before the Viennese classics this assumption of the primacy of the temporal disposition of events is invalid.” (Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow)

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I Changed My Mind About Minimalists

And I mean just that—not that I was a hater and now I’m a fan, not that I was a junkie and now I’m a critic. I’ve just simply done to minimalists what one ought to do in music history: not be content with sweeping generalizations but studying particular personalities and their particular output. The results have actually startled me.

First, some background. Back when I first encountered early music, as I’ve recounted many times, I was baffled by the fact that nobody talked about Medieval music and was also passionate to see it re-invented. Shortly afterward, I ran into the music of a particular (living) composer whom I saw actually attempting to do just that. He was a composer that would have been the typical European Ligeti or Penderecki type, but in the ’60s he converted to Estonian orthodoxy and ceased to compose during the turmoil for around 10 years. After he emerged on the other side, his style was radically transformed by the Notre Dame school of Paris (13 c., mmmmm, yes). His name is, of course, Arvo Pärt. Pärt rightly or wrongly is usually considered a minimalist and has subsequently molded the American school of composition in his image, mainly through the conduit of Eric Whitacre. (Sigh.)

So much for Pärt. Then, around the same time, there was the New York Hypnotic School, emerging from Julliard in the wasteland created by America’s Schoenberg obsession. These guys emphasized aleatory, cells, phase, counterpoint, modality, and all that jazz. They were Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. I presumed pretty much all of them—well, in fact all modern composers besides Pärt and a few others—were just pretty much bunk. I did that on the basis of a little Glass, a little Reich, the little of Riley I could put myself through, and some other composers whose music I found to be as profound a musical experience as eating cotton candy is a gastronomic one.

There were also a handful of modern composers who were engaged in a whole lot of “neo” schools. Neo-impressionism, neo-expressionism, neo-primitivism, neo-serial, and a whole bunch of other stuff that it’s difficult to remember the night after it’s premiered. Most of this I found bland, and I’m afraid I still do.

And you may think I’m a terrible snob, but I have this as evidence: there’s nothing in any of this music that excites the audience the way an audience of Brahms or Dvorak was electrified. On this blog, I’ve identified that as a result of compositional deadness after the demise of classical music, the inability of composers to compose in our own language and still be High music.

On this much I have changed my mind, that we don’t have to wait for the reinvention of a contemporary, high idiom. Pärt is not alone in this reinvention.

I think the first blow to my skepticism of minimalism was a piece by Jonathan Dove performed by the Stanford Chamber Chorale. Dove is a middle-aged British composer and I think not particularly well-known at least in America. I went home from the concert impressed by the piece, because it stuck out amidst a program of Eric Whitacre and Whitacre’s various worshipers and fellow pan-diatonicists. The Dove was similar but it had edges. It had its quietness and haunting dissonances, but it was wild, rugged, and, dare I use the adjective (and please don’t misunderstand me), masculine at points. This is an unusual experience indeed when it comes to choir and organ.

I didn’t want to admit (snob that I am) that I liked the piece to anyone, but I looked up a recording on YouTube and listened to it. And then I listened again. And again. I glutted myself on the piece. I got sick of it. And a week later I’d listen to it again about ten times. And get sick of it again. And then go back again. There was something about it that I found quite compelling. Quite possibly that’s subjective, but you can point to some definite musical things he’s doing that make him stand apart from some of his contemporaries.

But it turns out that I hadn’t properly understood some of his contemporaries. I should mention in passing that I also reversed my opinion on Hans Zimmer, and that is not unrelated as I found out. I got a random email from the Stanford Arts Commission asking me and a few other music students if we could turn pages at an upcoming concert. None of the rehearsal times conflicted for me and so I consented. Lucky for me—it was a Steve Reich concert and it turned out that the man himself was co-running the rehearsal with the conductor of Alarm Will Sound. I had a while to see him up-close, in person, working with one of the best sinfonietta ensembles. I was not really prepared for the experience, but I found myself doing a 180 on Reich.

I am no junkie, I am not categorical fan, and I still don’t like him sometimes. But during rehearsal and especially during the concert, I was confronted with an experience I have scarcely had before. It was a combination of three things that I have always looked for and haven’t found: (1) it was contemporary, (2) it was high, challenging, confronting me with musical possibilities I hadn’t thought of or was new to, and (3) it was also in the language, the idiom of our peculiar musical moment. Which is simply to say that, in a nearly unprecedented experience for me, this concert was normal. Normal in a way that showed just how abnormal our compositional deadness is.

I am sure that I then experienced what I’ve talked about for a while, how music must have been for the audiences of classical music but cannot entirely be for us because it is in the past. There’s no doubt Reich is (1). I know some people will object to (2) but I have recently listened to quite a lot of pop, alternative, metal, and hip-hop and I have yet to find something that musically catches me totally off-guard, which is fine. That’s what that kind of music is supposed to do. I think if you analyze it closely, you’ll find it’s true for you as well. But (3) is perhaps the point where I can’t be totally sure. What I do know is this: the audience’s reaction was not far from mine. We were all confronted with a concert experience that was not the usual binary of bored vs. interested. The binary was arrested vs. annoyed. It was impossible to be bored. Hypnotic is ironically the ultimate misnomer: the audience was forward-leaning the whole time, wide-eyed and riveted on the players, discussing in the intermissions, and unafraid to express opinion. I found it difficult to let my mind wander even if I wanted it to (and sometimes I did want to). It was all a musical language we could handle and knew, perhaps for no more mysterious reason than that it really did come from a composer composing (like Pärt) with respect to nothing but the desire for new compositional possibilities. (Reich’s style from the ’60s has also found its way subtly into our common vocabulary through Hans Zimmer, Radiohead, and Andrew Bird, all of whom, I think, have claimed to be directly influenced.)

It was for me an unusual experience and I think it was perhaps the sort of experience that few people are likely to have experienced in two and a half generations. I can hope that it will be increasingly common. This doesn’t mean Reich is, again, a great composer. I’m simply saying that he is, in the company of few others alive, a normal composer. Normal in the sense that this blog has been insisting on recovering.

The particular pieces that I really found great (and there were some in the program I thought were stupid; don’t worry, I’m still a snob) were Piano Counterpoint Arranged for Six Pianos, aspects of New York Counterpoint, Radio Rewrite, and The Cave (various movements; I can’t quite figure out either his theology or politics, but I suspect we wouldn’t agree; great settings of Genesis though).

All that to say, I think perhaps minimalism as a compositional school may be in fact a viable option for reinventing musical composition. It is in some ways quite aware of its modal, polyphonic tendencies and so in that sense I’m a huge fan. I still think Glass is watery and Riley is way too experimental to be enjoyable. Then there is the deeper issue that I still don’t know how to resolve: re-inventing Medieval music also involves the downfall of professionalism and this artificial distance between performer and audience (and composer and audience) given to us by the 18th century. Pärt and Reich and all of them still are implicitly working in a framework of music only performable by highly trained people. If we’re looking to recover specifically a Christian (a Protestant?) understanding of how music functions in society, certain aspects of the composition will have to change such that it is possible to compose both high and easily-peformable music. But that can happen and I think it will. When I look at how Medieval music emerges, it is actually far less organized than I might imagine given some of its later products. The rules in many cases come afterwards and the wild experiments that don’t always work come first. That’s something I’m interested to watch happen and, well, hopefully contribute to.

Trickle-down Musical Economics

In a music history class today, the professor was talking about subtle effects that render medieval and Renaissance music alien to our ears. He mentioned elitism and class as one of them. Medieval and Renaissance music, at least the sophisticated stuff that we have manuscripts of, was understood and sometimes even heard only by the clerical class, the educated class (which was—duh—really small). I writhed.

I’ll be interested in talking with him about this more, but I think that represents an inaccurate view of the relationship between popular music and High music in any culture. There will always be trickle-down. No matter what the class situation is like (here, I think, the analogy breaks down), whatever trend High music takes will eventually show up in popular music. I think this has always been true and continues to be.

(1) Chuck Klosterman talks about Elvis Costello’s critique of ’80s metal. “…[H]e thinks it’s a ‘facsimile’ of what legitimate artists already did in the past. What he fails to realize is that no one born after 1970 can possibly appreciate any creative element in rock ‘n’ roll: By 1980, there was no creativity left. The freshest ideas in pop music’s past twenty years have come out of rap, and that genre is totally based on recycled, bastardized riffs. Clever facsimiles are all we really expect.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta)

But isn’t that exactly what happened 50 years earlier—maybe even 25—in the world of Classical music? Innovation simply stopped with the second Viennese school. That’s a situation tracked heavily by musicologist and a constant theme of this blog. Classical music died, and innovation stopped. The only real attempt to compose High music now is in a sort of rehash of the pre-tonal (Arvo Pärt and co.).

(2) Coldplay, a ridiculously popular band these days (too popular for some total poseurs), gets that distinctive Coldplay sound from assiduously avoiding the leading tone. (Interesting to note: they don’t use a mode in “Viva la Vida”, but they do use a sus4-3 chord in place of a straight dominant, which means that “ti”, scale-degree 7, never appears.) To cut the music theory jargon, they never have Vs, dominants; they never use the crowning achievement of common practice tonal music. No, wait, I didn’t cut the music theory jargon, darnit. Anyway, take my word for it. They’re modal. (Agh. Sorry.) Why are they modal? Maybe because that’s the direction that composers in academia took a couple decades before.

Actually, let me get really crazy. Think of some of the iconic “classy” bands in rock history. Think of the British ones. What do all the British ones do? Rely heavily on modality. Think of the Beatles. Maybe this is an intangible throwback to what Ralph Vaughan Williams was onto, that the British folk spirit speaks through Dorian and Mixo-Lydian and Lydian. And when academia recovers that blessed tradition, perhaps so does the popular world, but less consciously (and maybe less artificially, too).

(3) And, more to the point, look at masses in the Middle Ages. If class is really such a big deal, why was the parody mass on L’homme arme the most popular thing in the world to do? If you take “Yesterday” and work the melody into some sacred piece, people in church who know nothing about music and composition will start to giggle. Giggling, I submit, is the first and most important sign of understanding a piece’s composition. They’re engaging with the music. So, can we realistically suppose that Dufay and Ockeghem and Josquin had other motives in mind when they wrote their pieces? Who were they trying to impress? Who were they trying to appeal to? The people who know L’homme arme. In other words, everybody. (Okay. Everybody in Europe in the 15th century, but you get my drift.)

But! You say. That isn’t trickle-down, that’s trickle-up. But I’d say this represents some give and take altogether in the Middle Ages. Think about the popular tunes that get into the Piae Cantiones, things like Angelus ad virginem. Those whistle-able tunes are from chants monks would sing. They come from the Gregorian corpus, or antiphons, or whatever. In an age when folk music is molded so willingly by High music, I think High music is much more likely to cross that bridge itself.

There it is. I submit that whatever happens in High music will have an affect, seen or unseen, on popular music. The real battles lie in what is the philosophy behind both and how that philosophy conflicts with the musical assumptions of other ages.

A Slice of Canned Collins, for Keeping in Your Memory’s Pantry Somewhere

Forget Strauss
with that encore look in his eye
and his tiresome industry:
more than five hundred finished compositions!
He even wrote a polka for his mother.
That alone is enough to make me flee the past,
evacuate its temples,
and walk alone under the stars
down these dark paths strewn with acorns,
feeling nothing but the crisp October air,
the swing of my arms
and the rhythm of my stepping—
a man of the present who has forgotten
every composer, every great battle,
just me,
a thin reed blowing in the night.

Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room, “Some Final Words.” J. R. R. Tolkien put (I think) the same point somewhat differently:

Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.

Timeless

High/classical culture is also self-consciously multigenerational. While a composer wishes to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation, his goal is to find what is comparatively “timeless” in music, and his desire is to please many subsequent generations of listeners. Indeed, whenever an artist achieves this multigenerational success, we tend to refer to his work as a classic, for this reason. (T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, 80)

I want to do a review (or, rather, learn how to do book reviews so I can do a review) of this book, mainly because I want to combat the foolishness in its pages with every letter of my keyboard. But T. David Gordon is trying to do something worthy—honor God and solve the church music issue—and we’re on the same side, in that we’re both Christians, so I’m doing my best to be charitable. That shouldn’t, I hope, stop me from pointing out that Gordon has done grievous injustice to his subject matter. He points out at the beginning of the book that he’s no musician and goes on to talk a whole lot (and embarrassingly inaccurately) about music. The problem is not that he’s not a musician, or he’s not “qualified” in the credential sense—neither am I, I guess—but just simply that he’s done some very poor research, and it can be a credit to no man’s scholarship if I can identify some pretty horrendous historical whoopsies on many of its pages.

Hopefully none of that sounded snide. Anyway, the particular passage I quoted stumbles upon a different problem the book has, but that one is not peculiar to T. David Gordon, but is a symptom of a widespread disease propagated by many great men, like Van Cliburn and Ken Myers. I just don’t get it. When has Classical music ever been “self-consciously multigenerational”? What biography of Bach do you have to read to get that his goal was not “to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation” but primarily “to please many subsequent generations of listeners”? It’s almost as if you get the impression that by “timeless” we mean that this music is not a product of its time but just simply art with respect to nothing but beauty. I don’t think Classical music has ever been “timeless”, as if the compositions arose with reference to no zeitgeist but purely the genius residing in the composer. As Schumann once said, if Mozart had lived today (in Schumann’s time), his music would have sounded like Chopin, not like Mozart. How is that timeless?

If Gordon and Van Cliburn mean, when they say “timeless”, that Classical music will last forever or even a really long time, how would they know? “Classical music” is relatively recent. We’re still on a high from it. The length of time between Ockeghem and Bach is about the same as between Bach and us. Ockeghem was extremely popular in his time and with subsequent generations, even with Bach. You’ve probably never heard of Ockeghem. I suggest that this sort of adoration of specific Classical composers is born more from a sentimentality arising from our emotional response to the music than it is from an objective analysis of anything in the music. As evidence, I submit Exhibit A, T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, a 187-page long adoration of Classical composers that hasn’t a shred of objective analysis of anything in the music it adores. To my knowledge. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

This rant is not trivial. It’s really vitally important that we stop idolizing the music of dead people from a different country. It isn’t healthy, because it clouds our vision into seeing Classical music as Good Boy music, as compatible, allied with a Christian view of music. That is a dangerous notion and has gotten us into all sorts of trouble.

Part 2: Brushing Your Cultural Teeth

This is about bad breath.

C. S. Lewis talks about the value of reading old books. He says in the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” This is where bad breath comes in: you know when other people have it, but you don’t know when you have it. That should make you terrified. You’re enslaved to your ignorance about whether you have the cultural blight of Bad Breath. How do you remedy that? Choose some honest friends.

On the cultural level, every culture has its peculiar flavor of bad breath. We have our cultural blindspots. How do we identify them? Lewis wants you to choose your friends wisely. Choose old books. They’ll tell you where your blindspots are and are to you as a rear-view mirror. They can do this because no age has the same outlook on the world. Liberal education frees you. When you get a liberal education, you get freed from your slavery to ignorance. That’s why “liberal” comes from the Latin for “free”. That’s why people read old books.

I don’t know what generation you are, if maybe you’re a Boomer or maybe you’re, like me, a product of the baggy-jeaned 90s, or whatever, but I remember pretty vividly the first time I watched the Bee Gees’ music video for Stayin’ Alive. It was scarring. If we’re talking bad breath, somebody had smoked about three cigars and masticated several cloves of garlic. The most disturbing thing is that everyone then thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But this will happen to us, since we all think we’re the cool people, or even just think we’re normal. Zoom out 30 years and you’ll find our skinny-at-the-ankle jeans are as revolting as the ones that appear to limit Barry Gibb’s masculinity. It’s as if our cultural moment is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and a few of us know it and are terrified of how our incipient senility will appear to our children. Every age does irrational and arbitrary things and every subsequent age snickers, one senile nursing-home patient to another.

So, the task of reading classical examples does not endow mere intellectual freedom. Reading ancient drama of Aeschylus or The Holy Grail of the Middle Ages gives you, almost magically, a clean, objective look at our cultural clichés. It’s like the touch of cool metal on a hot day. Aristotle said that the mark of an educated man was to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. (Educated, by the way, was for him the opposite of enslaved.) When most of us watch movies, we get so entertained that we don’t notice what we’re accepting or that we’re accepting it. But when you read old literature, you’re forced to entertain foreign cultural concepts―how Achilles deals with women, how Romans execute their justice system, how the Medievals viewed justification―that you would be revolted at the thought of accepting. But you entertain them anyway. Classical examples are training in the ability to entertain cultural ideas without accepting them. If you have this ability, it will end up accomplishing two things.

First, when you apply this ability to your own culture, you will find that many things of our age which you had previously accepted without noticing it are, on a second look, not worth accepting. Once you can strip that Maroon 5 song (if it has any clothes on anyway) of its catchy riffs, you may find there wasn’t as much there as you thought. A spoonful of clichés makes the shallowness go down. Or it did, before you read Aristotle.

Second, applying this ability will allow you to cherry-pick the best from classical examples. That’s why academia is still called upon (probably mistakenly) to present original solutions to current problems. That originality is supposed to come from a keen understanding of what’s being missed by those embroiled in contemporary events. That missing something can often be found by perusing antiquity, which more than likely has dealt with the same issue and done so in a way utterly different from common contemporary ways of thinking. To bring this down to earth, if you’re an indie band and you really want to market your sound as something new and different, try listening to some Mozart and some Oscar Peterson.

It turns out that this is the other side to the coin I mentioned in the previous part. We do idolize Classical composers way too much. By “we”, I mean lovers of “Classical music,” a repertoire chosen by people discontented with the music of the present, but not interested in writing music themselves and so contented with the music of the past. I still think that if you don’t like current music, you should write better music. Don’t insist that we all listen to old music on the basis that the new stuff is terrible. I still think that writing better contemporary music is far more normal thing than listening only to past efforts.

But. Writing better contemporary music is the hard part. How do we get our music better than the schlock and kitsch out there now? We’re back to our Bee Gees problem. And our solution is the exempla classica. It is the true traditionalism, the secret weapon that has rid almost every composer of schlock status and given him posterity-enjoyment value. So, going back to the two applications of Aristotle’s observation, studying older music should give you an accurate view of how silly certain current music is (or how worthy it is) and it should give you all sorts of ideas about how you could break the limitations of the field and employ unusual ideas. Does it really do this?

Yes, it does. As I said, the exempla classica is the real traditionalism. Every great composer has done it. And, I’d say, every great pop musician has introduced time-honored musical traditions into a flabbergasted commercial recording industry with blistering success. Bach, on the one hand, was immersed not just in contemporary music but the music of 50 and 100 years before him. He took an idea from Buxtehude (an older generation) of a fugue whose countersubjects stay consistent throughout the whole thing. That’s the model he used in the Well-Tempered Clavier, and he consequently redefined the genre. On the other hand, Coldplay’s distinctive sound comes from their use of phase music (innovated 20 years ago in Classical academia) and that curious British modality (championed 80 years ago by the Vaughn Williams crowd). If you want to get right down to it, this is how you get a marketing edge.

So, then. Here I am, advising you to listen to music of the past, when earlier I said it was weird to do so. I’m still right. There’s a difference: getting a Classical education in music is not for its own sake. You are no longer listening to Beethoven just for the love of Beethoven. Shocking as it is, the noblest goal of becoming acquainted with Classical music is not to enjoy it for its own sake. At least, I suspect that Classical composers would think you were really odd if you told them so. The noblest goal is to use composers as an exempla classica for new music.

If this annoys you, I can guess why. Probably you’re thinking that using Classical music at all, instead of simply enjoying it, is crude pragmatism and that it will destroy a deep love for the music to use it as a means to an end. But maybe, like me, you’ve noticed something: at the height of your love for Classical music, when you’re listening to Fanfare for the Common Man or glorying in the climax of the “Ricercare” from the Musical Offering or the prelude to Tristan und Isoulde, there’s always a little frustration. There’s always a little sense of isolation. There’s an unfulfilled desire to have everybody enjoy this music, but, ridiculous though it is, some people find their pop music better. The music is great, but not as great as the number of people who think it isn’t. And that is frustrating.

I think lovers of Classical music will find that, when the music becomes an exempla classica for new compositions, the frustration goes away, but the love does not. Maybe even the love deepens, because instead of viewing Copland or Bach or Wagner as gods, you converse with them. You are unequal to them in wisdom, but peers in profession. I don’t think anybody would accuse you of disrespecting a venerable, wise woman by taking seriously her wisdom as a pattern for your own life. Nobody would say you were using her as a means to an end. Maybe they would, but they’d be stupid. If you’re paying attention to her, it’s her venerability, her wisdom, her beauty that will inspire you to model yourself after her. That’s the way to think about the exempla classica.

Do I make it sound like everyone should be a composer? Maybe I do. Yes. I think I do.

(Which will be explained in what follows.)

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

Part 3 is forthcoming.

A Program of Living Composers (Surely Not)

A History of Western Music notes that “one of the most remarkable developments in the entire history of music” is the shift from concerts that performed living composers to concerts that performed dead ones. This shift represents, to the authors, the emergence of “Classical music”. Performing mainly dead composers in concerts is, as they acknowledge, a strange phenomenon, whether or not we take it for granted.

“In concerts of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, for example, about 85 percent of the pieces performed in 1780s were by living composers; by 1820, the percentage had dropped to about 75 percent. Over the next fifty years, the situation reversed completely, so that by 1870, fully three-quarters of the repertoire was by composers of past generations, chiefly Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and the early Romantics.”

It’s important to note that this is from Leipzig. In Paris, to the best of my knowledge, the premiere of works by eminent living composers continues to take center stage as late as 1912 and the famous riot that accompanied Stravinsky.

So, what accounts for this strange phenomenon? The book gives us a couple options: (a) it could be the popularity Haydn and Beethoven received in their lifetime, or (b) it could be that sheet music was cheaper from the older composers and therefore easier to access from amateurs. But the authors’ personal vote goes to this: “influential musicians and critics actively promoted the music of the past as a counterweight to that of the present.” Critics have always done that, of course, but to this extent is pretty unprecedented.

Apparently the Academy of Ancient Music from the 17th century rejected modern music because they thought these new composers were just silly. Their definition of antiqua musica was over 20 years old. Yeah. 20 years. That’s why our fascination with 300-year-old music (at the expense of modern music) is strange.