“If Bach could still see in harmony a metaphor for God, Goethe was already speaking from the other historical shore—from the world in which metaphors are all we have. In this new world, our world, it is God who has become the metaphor for harmony.” Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity, 129.
You know, I can’t tell you how excited I get hearing a newly composed sacred choral composition hot off the press, written in the slow, modal style of Pärt or MacMillan or Whitacre. Fast, upbeat, cheerful music with texture and forceful rhythm and gripping harmony—it just doesn’t fit Christian texts, you know?
It was great the first time Pärt did it, but it makes me wonder, what happens when someone commissions a sacred song with more than one verse of the Bible in it? Given how long it takes Whitacre to get through one verse, I’d need some popcorn. Imagine what would happen if Whitacre decided to set three verses of Paul from Romans 5. I might have to bring a little ethanol eco-friendly stove with French press, a “shade-grown, ethically-produced third-world roast”, and maybe a tent and sleeping-bag too, just to keep me going. I don’t know, over the course of four verses, what emotional turmoil I’d be in by the end or how many Kleenex boxes would be trashed. If he ever set five verses, why, undoubtedly the length would justify his choir unionizing. Maybe in between certain teary-eyed pan-diatonic chords he could allow for lunch and bathroom breaks.
But, hey, if composers of sacred texts decide to cheer up any time soon, maybe we could actually not make it sound like the world has just experienced nuclear war. Maybe even get through one verse of the Bible in a record-breaking 15 seconds of music and be upbeat about it too. But, hm, I think you have to be a reform Jew to compose with that much regard for the text. It’s unlikely reformed Christians or classical Protestants would ever think to be text-centered and joyful in their music.
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.
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.
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.
It is a warm, late-winter morning. Or a cold, early-spring morning. But I’m an optimist and I am wearing shorts. The breeze and spotty sun coverage makes that slightly uncomfortable, but it’s the principle of the thing that counts: I’m walking along a street, listening to my iPod and wearing shorts. People see me and they stare. They begin to hope for spring. At least I hope they begin to hope. Maybe they just think I’m strange.
Or maybe they’re staring because I make weird faces when I listen to Messiaen on my iPod. Messiaen is so strange. At first he’s like a horror-movie soundtrack with these random bursts of happiness that are way too rare. After you’re able to strip your ear of a silly cultural connotation, his music really becomes like club soda or some palate-cleanser. There’s a minty sting and freshness about his dissonances. The feeling your sinuses get after too much horse-radish. Perfect for washing out the icky aftertaste of too much Chopin, like bits of butterfinger caught in your molars, or the muddy cigar saliva of Brahms.
All these thoughts are strange. And the music I’m listening to is strange. I mean, how many people are walking on a sidewalk now with earphones jammed in their ear, and they’re listening to Messiaen? Let me tell you: not many. You probably don’t even know who I’m talking about. There you go, you prove my point: not many. But even stranger than that is the iPod.
See, I can rub my thumb lightly along the surface of the iPod and be listening to the Beatles (British, 1960s). Then I can rub my thumb more and listen to some Solstafir (Icelandic, 2000s) if I really had them on my iPod, which I don’t. And then I could rub my thumb deftly the other direction and hit Herreweghe’s recording of St. Matthew Passion (German, 1720s) or a little less and listen to Paul Hillier’s interpretation of how hoquetus (French, 1200s) would have sounded.
And then some theologian who should know better tells us that we’re the first generation not to have great respect for the music of the past. What absolute tommy-rot you talk, O theologian! We’re the first generation who can have great respect for the music of the past.
Obviously composers don’t know the future, but most composers haven’t known the past that well either. Everyone knows Bach didn’t know about Brahms or the Beatles, but it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that Bach didn’t know about hoquetus either. Or Leonin. He may not have even known about Obrecht or Josquin—just like you probably don’t—and he probably wouldn’t have cared if you told him. And doubtless worried Christian social critics would have come along and told him he needed a healthier respect for the music of the past, at which juncture Bach would have taken some snuff and abruptly left the room to go compose more of his impudent, contemporary, modern junk.
Right now I’m listening to Messiaen and then I’ll jump over and listen to some jazz, maybe Antonio Carlos Jobim. I’m jumping from 1960s France to 1960s Brazil. And the funny thing is that I think I’m at home in both of them. Then maybe I’ll go listen to some Middle French or a weird dialect of Hungarian in some Joel Cohen CD of Renaissance music. I don’t think any of this is weird. But I should.
Joseph Addison is famous for his social criticism. He was, incidentally, not a big fan of Handel or the other music of his day. He criticized the English opera because it was all in Italian. He thought, What’s the point of having English opera if it’s not even in English? That’s just stupid.
The funny thing is, the most likely person to say that now is a punk teenager bitter about spending his Friday night at the opera. Apparently it’s the most natural thing in the world to go to an opera in New York and hear unintelligible (but faintly reminiscent of German) syllables uttered from Wagnerian females with gratuitous vibrato. That’s considered decidedly more high-class than going and hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical travesty. And maybe it is, but Joseph Addison would have chosen Cats or Jesus Christ Superstar before some foreign tripe.
The principle here is this: we nowadays aren’t normal. None of this is normal, carrying our musical attention here or there, jumping over times, turning the accomplishments of many years into a series of mp3 files. No other age has felt at home in another age’s music, but nowadays we scarcely feel at home unless we’re listening to other people’s music. And the most refined of us, apparently, are those of us who listen to Classical music: the music of dead people from a different country. Americans like their Classical music, music which is 90% of the time geographically and chronologically foreign to them. We don’t just love our foreigners, we love our foreigners dead. (You know what I mean.)
All this is so normal, apparently, that worried Christian leaders just keep reminding us that we need to be using old music in Church because that’s the respectful thing to do. Actually, basically at no point in the Western tradition have Christians thought being musically regressive was a good idea. There was one, though, I can think of. It was called the Council of Trent. And where is the American Catholic church now? The exact same place Protestants are. We all sing clappy, happy little songs. All of which leads us to the great conclusion of our theologian-critics, the idea that I will refer to as the Retrospective Principle:
If you’re discontent with the music of today, use older stuff.
(…presumably older stuff that’s better, that is. There was plenty of crappy older stuff but, hey, in a fire people save the good stuff, and time is like a refining fire. We get mostly the good stuff from past ages and not the crappy stuff.)
Now, take a look at our Retrospective Principle. Seems like the fairly standard rallying cry of a traditionalist, right? Once we can inspire in you a similar discontent that we have with the music of today, then you’ll be forced to see the reasonableness of using Bach in worship! Yes?
Uh, no. See, not that I’m against Bach in worship all the time, but that’s not actually an intuitive leap there. Let’s make this clearer: you’re a general and you’re losing a war because of malfunctioning firearms. So, the key is clearly to find some really good longbows made by the English. After all, those won at Agincourt, and you’re losing, so you should use the winning weapon. That’s not really intuitive, if you think about it. If you’re discontent with today’s weapons, you don’t use the weapons of the past.
Oh, was that a bad analogy? I’m sorry! I can see icicles beginning to form on your eye-lashes: did I just compare Bach to out-of-date weapons technology? Well, yes, but I didn’t mean that he’s inferior. The longbow is definitely not inferior to the machine gun. It’s actually way cooler, in my humble opinion. Anyway, the point is that Bach was a winning strategy in his time, but that doesn’t mean he’s a winning strategy in ours. We’re fighting a different battle than he did.
And, honestly, let’s face it, past ages didn’t have the luxury to “use older stuff”. Bach didn’t have unlimited access to manuscripts from Dover or IMSLP.org. He had a total paucity in comparison to what we have. Bach did the much manlier thing to do. It’s an idea I’ll call the Pragmatic Principle:
If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music.
And if you still have any doubt that this is the more intuitive principle, take a look at what all past ages have in common: they all have the music that we’re so jealous of. Why? Well, hm, maybe because they wrote music rather than moping around using older music. Maybe we should stop complaining about today’s Church music and try writing something better. If you think contemporary music is crappy, write better contemporary music. No, I’m serious. If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music. If you really want to be traditional, do what the traditionalists did and write and use new music. Be traditional: don’t be a traditionalist. Care enough about these traditional composers for them to inspire in you discontent—that’s good—and then once you’ve learned their secrets, run away and do it yourself! Don’t look back! Make weapons for your own battle, not theirs.
So, once I’m done walking along the sidewalk and I arrive at the coffeeshop, it’s time to put away the iPod, that wonderful invention that fuels marvelous discontent. Now is the time to pull out manuscript paper and call my bluff. Time for an egg to hang on its side from one of those five lines. So, how do I do this?
(Which will be explained in what follows.)
Given James Gaines’ sharp portrayal of the battle between counterpoint and the galant in Evening in the Palace of Reason, it’s possible to see an entirely new take on Bach’s secular works:
- Bach is using incredible counterpoint all the way through his English, French, and (best of all) Italian-style works.
- The English, French, and particularly Italian styles were marketable because, while counterpoint was old and bumbly and awkward, the new styles in England, France, and Italy were nimble and easy to listen to.
- Bach writes with their forms, but uses counterpoint, and he makes them just as nimble and easy to listen to. Essentially he’s adding insult to injury: the whole point of the new forms and their galant style is that they offer a light, enjoyable alternative to counterpoint. Bach uses the new forms, subverts them by making them thoroughly contrapuntal, and proves their entire assumption wrong: counterpoint can be light and easy to listen to.
So Bach is really declaring war on the Enlightenment and its divorce of the sacred and the secular. He’s bringing the sacred battle into the public square. His “secular” works are sacred guffawing that ends up being more elegant and gorgeous than any of the music he’s guffawing at. Perhaps the reason we fail to notice it is that he so surpassed his opposition that we don’t remember them any more and take his paradigm as the norm. But his paradigm is really the parody.