I caution from the outset: this is one of those rambling, thinking out loud sort of posts. Actually I’m planning to break it up into three parts. And at their heart are a couple of questions on which I’d really like opinions. So, whether you’re a musician, a music lover, or a music hater – and yes, I’ve more than one of these in my life – I am interested in what you have to say.
I should mention – though my response is mostly tangential, this train (wreck if you prefer) of thought was prompted by a post on The Staggering Ferret on what he termed Deconstructivist Music . What he describes parallels something in some historical music that I find very compelling: specifically, ‘way of composing to “deconstruct the hearer’s assumptions about music.’”
I started wondering about what music I find compelling, and what about specific pieces draws me to them. I can posit answers that hold true for me, but I’m curious – what music do others find compelling, and why? I suppose I could just as legitimately inquire into the music I find repulsive – there are things that are positively excruciating to me. And there is the morass in the middle – neither repulsive nor attractive – the music that is just there, sort of like cream of wheat.
I should also mention that personally I am most focused on classical music at this time. That is partly a preference, but it mostly a function of the fact that when I focus on one thing it is often at the expense of others. I teach on a very limited basis, and I have had to deal with a couple of fairly advanced students. This practice (however limited) has required that I spend a lot of time breaking apart pieces, contemplating them, analyzing them. It isn’t enough to instinctively play them – as I might be tempted to. In order to teach something it has to be a much more conscious process: why do I play this this particular way and not another? How do I produce a particular effect? What features are emphasized, and why? This is different from the concerns of beginning students – where you’re teaching them to read music and to refine their motor skills enough to play it. It is a lot more intricate. As a side effect, it has made me a much better musician … but that’s quite by accident.
I am certainly interested in and have performed other genres of music. My attention to them has, however, been eclipsed by my recent focus on this.
My first big question: what do you think is happening when you listen to music? I’m not talking about lyrics here as much as the music itself. (The relationship between the two is a worthwhile discussion, but one I’ll have to defer for the moment.) It’s not about the sound. Some sounds are pleasant in themselves – rain, wind blowing over a bottle, a bell or chime; some sounds are unpleasant in themselves – fingernails on a chalkboard, the high-pitched bark of small, overly excited dog, the buzzing of florescent lights that once you notice, you can’t unnotice. Most sounds are neutral. They don’t really have any effect outside of a specific context. Depending on that context, they could be good or bad.
Something more is happening in music than a series of pleasing or displeasing tones. It suggests that perhaps the context is important. I would tentatively say that it is the meaning that is important. There is a meaning that exists quite apart from the sound. It is a meaning you experience through the sound, but it seems to be the thing that makes a sound music and not noise. The sound by itself doesn’t do it: if you can’t perceive the meaning, you aren’t really hearing music.
This misses the mark, of course. I don’t really have words to describe the phenomenon. But it seems to me that there is a meaning a composer intends, the meaning a musician brings to it (even when performing his or her own work – performance is distinct from composition), and the meaning the hearer brings to it. All three have to be present, or the song doesn’t work for you. Like anything aesthetic, each party (composer, musician, audience) is dependent on the others.
I’ll give an example from classical music. The thing I was working on today was a prelude and fugue from the first Teil of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. The fugue has five voices and (I would argue) three distinct motifs or themes. I wanted to break it down to show my student exactly what was going on. I also wanted to explore the relationship between the prelude and the fugue – the claim is that the prelude “prepares the ear” for the fugue, so the two pieces are related to one another by more than just being in the same key.
Two things occurred to me while I was working on this. Bach is somewhat open-ended in the sense that there are clearly performance that don’t work, but there are multiple possibilities that do work. A Bach performance is extremely dependent on what the musician brings to the table. His or her assumptions, perspective, obsessions all color the piece. In a sense, the endeavor tells you more about yourself than about Bach. The reason I was breaking down into pieces is the fact that a performer has little hope of actually playing it unless understands exactly what is going on. A hearer will not hear it unless the performer hears it first in his head. It is far more a question of hearing or knowing than of technique.
So what is really happening here? When you play it, you relate the voices in such a way that they are first related to themselves, and then to one another. If you don’t do this, the effect is more like typing. You as performer are interacting with Bach. You are not carrying out his intent; you are bringing your understanding of it. The hearer is the third factor (completely aside from things like technique and instrument). You are not producing pleasant sounds for the hearer. If done rightly, you are giving the hearer hints – you are helping the hearer assemble the song. This exchange is only complete when the song acquires an existence of its own. It is a living thing behind the notes, in the notes, through the notes, around the notes – that is also independent of (or at least distinct from) the notes.