Learning Bach Experiment

“As an organist and keyboard player, Bach had studied everything he could lay his hands on, from very old repertories—his library eventually contained three copies of Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach’s Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur of 1571 and a manuscript copy of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali—to works of German, French, and Italian masters from the previous generation, to compositions by his own contemporaries.” Christoph Wolff, Bach: The Learned Musician

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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.

Money Sings

The church music debate has reached a sort of cease fire recently where people are largely so sick of talking about it that they’re willing to just get along grumbling. Articles are still appearing claiming to have the solution. So, here’s mine. My solution is correctly identifying the problem. The problem is money.

It isn’t really about the music. It really is about the money. Think about it this way. Your options are

  • A band that requires little maintenance, little rehearsal, and produces music that the congregation is more familiar with
  • Some hapless organist who has a PhD and expects a salary that befits 10 years of slavery toward becoming professional, and who produces music that congregation will probably be less familiar with.

Which one is a church budget in America going to go with? The valiant defender of traditional church music (whom I have tried my best to critique here) has two options: he can leave the Church and go to a place that can actually give him money, like the concert hall, or he can accept the pay cut. But if he chooses the latter option, inevitably, he will start playing the way he gets payed.

This has actually happened for decades, to the place where Americans no longer even have traditional music. They have low-payed professionals playing the notes according to their paycheck. It in no way resembles the way the music is supposed to be—so shockingly short of the mark, in fact, that Americans are always incredulous when they hear European church music. There’s a reason the European youth are more tolerant of traditional music (again, check out my critique: I hasten to add that traditionalism in music is oftentimes the devil in church). Europeans still know what traditional music is like, because they have no sense of budget cutting and consequently pay their musicians and do everything else they want.

Imagine if churches in America recovered a robust understanding of worship and decided to start prioritizing it as such. Priorities aren’t really priorities until there are dollar signs by them, so let’s say they start a music budget at $50,000 a year. First of all, a contemporary band isn’t even going to know what to do with that (maybe more smoke and lasers). Second, all of the sudden your traditionalist musicians will start sounding different. Think about it: you get bored going to your local community orchestra playing, but it’s harder to get bored at a Michael Tilson Thomas concert. And it’s not because somebody’s crowd surfing. It’s because musicians are getting payed competitive rates.

Mere thought experiment. But in the Reformation era, it was no mere thought experiment. Good churches had whole orchestras—well, more like an almost-chaotic multitude of ensembles with an insatiable desire to improvise and show off—along with their choirs and organs. But that’s not the best part. They also had new compositions every Sunday. This was pretty normal. How does that work?

There were two things at play. (1) The cultural center of music was at Church, especially in Germany (less so in Italy). That meant that the professional musicians were anxious to play in church. When you became a professional, you didn’t look for a job at a university or with an orchestra, but with a church. (2) Paying 40 people to play their hair out every Sunday gets pricey, but the Church back then had a ministry to orphans: put a violin in their hand. It’s really a brilliant observation, but when you’re poor, having one thing of value in your life that you can invest your future in is the best gift you can get. The Church provided a music school education for orphans from very young. You essentially got work in the field every Sunday, once you were good enough. The system back then oftentimes abused the orphans, of course, but there could be a modern-day analogy that would work.

I suggest churches start budgeting money to hire 5 or 6 professional musicians for church, but also providing an umbrella (facility, overhead, studio expenses) for all of them to teach kids from the church who otherwise couldn’t afford it. On top of that, they could run their own studio out of the facility. Not only would you have 5 or 6 professional musicians on your hands, but soon you’d have them wanting to put their students in the church service for field experience.

The key ingredient would be competitive prices for the teachers. Money ends up defining where the cultural center for musicians is. This is not crass or pragmatic. If you really prioritize music in church, give your musicians a way to feed their families.

One more thing. My ethos. I am, after all, a musician. I’m writing a polemical post vying for money. And I’m doing it in a theologically charged way. Does that begin to look suspicious? Well, maybe it does, but I can’t help that. The case needs to be made. The simple fact of the matter is, churches are paying their musicians far less than the market dictates, and, for what it’s worth, the market does not pay exorbitant prices anyway for the musician’s 10,000 hours of work.

What is musica mundana?

I think musica mundana has been misunderstood both in antiquity and today. The point is not, I think, to redefine our conception of the heavens into our predefined concept of music, but the other way around, at least, or maybe a redefinition of both. Mostly our conception of music needs redefining, though. It’s interesting to note that Boethius in De Musica registered himself as something of a skeptic of the idea of musica mundana and made fun of people who thought the music was actual music, music that you could hear.

Clearly we can’t hear it, and the usual explanation is that the music of the spheres is something so fundamental to our surroundings that we have ceased to notice it for its ubiquity, but were it to stop, we would immediately notice its absence. I’m not sure where this idea has its origins, but it may be clouding us as to exactly what the ancients thought about the subject.

This is just guesswork, but I think the idea comes from a few observations about music and about astronomy:

(a) Motion through air creates sound.

(b) That sound can be manipulated into music by combining two motions whose movements span certain ratios (2:1 being an octave, 3:2 a fifth, and so on).

(c) The heavens also move.

(d) They can be explained in terms of similar ratios.

(e) Consequently, the heavens are engaged in the same sort of activity.

Music, then, is a genus—the genus of objects in motion according to whole-number ratios—which subsumes the species (a) heavenly bodies (musica mundana) and indeed also (b) what we now call music (musica instrumentalis).

Repetitive Hans Zimmer

It’s interesting that in an age that is obsessed with musical repetition—Hans Zimmer, rap loops, phase music, etc.—we often object to older music, particularly Baroque and pre-Baroque, on the basis that it’s repetitive. And it’s totally true: think of the passacaglia, the ground bass, ciaconne, theme and variation, and, going back farther, rondeaus. If you listen to these older forms, it often takes one musical idea and repeats it over and over in different slightly permutations.

Which leads me to wonder, we all find “Time” and “Dream Within a Dream” by Hans Zimmer to be really effective. But is that simply the zeitgeist working its magic? Maybe 400 years from now, people will find that music as tiresome as we find Italian baroque. Or, if you like Italian baroque, now you know why.

You also think of the more boring Italian composers who were still really popular in their time. Then there’s Henry Purcell, who takes repetitive forms and goes crazy. Can you take phase music and do the same to it as Henry Purcell did to the unimaginative forms of his day?

Filioque

“And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…”

This is one of those ideas that, I’m sure, is totally unfalsifiable. But is it total coincidence that contrapuntal music developed in the half of Europe that embraced the Filioque?

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.