Monday, December 7, 2009

What is Music?

The most common and accepted answer to this question is that music is organized sound, but many composers and philosophers of the 20th century have contested this answer. If music is organized sound, then where and how do we distinguish sound from music?

Music can be analyzed into four major categories; melody (the horizontal movement of pitches), harmony (the vertical orientation of pitches), rhythm (the durations for each pitch), and timbre (the sound color created by each instrument or combination of instruments). Along with dynamics (volume), tempo (speed), and meter, these major categories are the main focus for writing and understanding music. By asking “What is Music?” composers in the 20th century wondered how music would sound if it was written without all of these components and whether or not it would still be perceived as music.

Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote some music that only used one of the four major categories, timbre. By focusing on just pitch in music like Atmosphères (which you may recognize from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Ligeti created a soundscape of tone colors. Atmosphères, features an orchestra of just strings, with each performer playing a different pitch at all times. Although this description implies the music created is just noise, the effect and sound of it is quite the opposite and the piece is full of power and emotion. It’s still organized sound so it’s still music right?

Ligeti took this idea to the next level with his piece Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. Instead of using a string orchestra the piece uses 100 metronomes as instruments and nothing else. Instead of using just timbre like in Atmosphères, Poème Symphonique focuses on just rhythm, specifically tempos. Each metronome is wound up all the way, set on a different tempo, and they all start ticking simultaneously. The metronomes compete with one another, creating a sound texture similar to Atmosphères, until the last remaining metronome stops ticking. But Poème Symphonique raises questions such as, “Is it still music if there is no notation or performers involved?” and “Is this still organized sound?” If it isn’t considered organized sound then another question to ask is, “Is it still music?”

American composer John Cage made his career out of writing music that questions “What is music?” In addition to writing music completely through chance, he became famous for writing a piece titled 4’ 33”. By writing music with chance as the only factor, Cage removed the “organized” part from the definition organized sound. If he could create music this way that sounded musical to the unknown ear, how could the listener argue it wasn’t music? In the three movement piece 4’ 33”, the audience is exposed to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of pure silence. The point of this “composition” is that the noises produced by the audience during the performance is itself the music. Every shuffle, every cough, every seat creak, is a musical sound with pitch, timbre, and dynamics. This piece and John Cage’s philosophy proposes that all sounds are musical and that there is no way to distinguish a difference between sound and music.

This shows that melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre weren’t created in order to write music, but were discovered as ways to better understand and label musical events. The concept that music is everywhere inspired several composers to take everyday sounds and show how musical they are. American composer Scott Johnson used recordings of people talking in his composition John Somebody. By editing these conversations, repeating certain phrases, and adding instruments, Johnson shows how musical simple dialogue can be.

So what is music? Is it organized sound or are all sounds musical? Or maybe it’s somewhere in-between? Like all other forms of art, music is subjective and can be interpreted differently from person to person. I thought I had a good understanding about what was music and what wasn’t when I got to college but luckily I had a teacher like Dr. Barsom who forced me to listen to music that sounded like noise and nothing else to me. Eventually, I not only found myself appreciating this “noise” as music but even grew to love some of it. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then music is in the ear of the beholder.

One man’s noise is another man’s symphony.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Classical Frights!

Halloween is almost here and it is my favorite time of the year. Although I enjoyed the candy as a child, my favorite part of the holiday was (and still is!) the dressing up and spookiness of it all. To celebrate, here are some classical music selections to embrace ghosts, goblins, and All Hallows' Eve:

This tone poem, Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, depicts Death himself waking the dead at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. Death plays his fiddle providing music for the dead as they rise from their graves to dance while their bones rattle and crack. They dance all night and when dawn approaches they must go back in their graves and wait until next Halloween to dance once more.

In the 4th movement of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, the protagonist take a heavy dose of opium and envisions he killed his beloved and is executed for his crime. Thinking he is now dead, the 5th movement of the piece is the protagonist's vision of his doomed afterlife, and is titled "Dreams of a Witch's Sabbath." Those wondering what an opium induced vision of hell would sound like need to look no further.

Der Erlkönig is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about a sick child being chased by a mythical figure as his father drives their horse carriage quickly. Franz Schubert's Lied (song) based on the poem features a piano and a singer who sings what the three characters say and the narration.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky is about a witches' sabbath like in Symphonie Fantastique and also features unearthly beings having freedom for one night only like in Danse Macabre. The animation made for Fantasia visually enhances the fear Mussorgsky created musically.

Although Toccata and Fugue in d minor by Johann Sebastian Bach has no story, I associate it as a spooky and appropriate for Halloween piece. This is probably a result of the dissonance used in the piece as well as it being used to represent fear in pop culture.

György Ligeti's piano etude, L'escalier du diable (Devil's Staircase), uses Shepard's scale and incredibly loud dynamics to represent a staircase in hell that is impossible to escape. No matter how far you climb it, you can never escape hell. Those who have played Mario 64 will notice that the music for the "eternal staircase" in the game uses the same technique and was probably inspired by this piece.

I saw Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in theaters when I was 8 years old and it made me love Halloween even more. Long before I began listening to classical music and knew any of these other pieces, the music from this film made an impact on my taste in music. Is it okay to label this song as classical music? Der Erlkönig is a song and is considered classical. The composer of This is Halloween is Danny Elfman who started as lead singer/songwriter for the band "Oingo Boingo" but became a film scorer for several films which requires a "classical" approach. So in response to my question; does it matter?

I hope these "Classical Frights" help put you in the Halloween spirit and that you have a fun and spooky time on October 31st.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why So Serious?

Music is great for so many reasons. It can allow you to feel emotions that words can't describe. It can tell a story. It can be relaxing and cerebral. But people often forget that it can also be funny, sometimes in addition to these other reasons.

Here is a piece titled Failing: A very difficult piece for solo string bass by Tom Johnson. The video and piece explain everything:

Not only is it a funny piece, but it's enjoyable because of the virtuosity involved in playing.

Not all of these jokes are as clear as they used to be but they're still there. One of the most important composers of the Classical period, Haydn, was very clever and would often stick some humor in his music. Here's the 2nd movement of his symphony no. 94 in G Major known as the "Surprise" symphony and is the movement that contains the "surprise.":

Did you catch it? It's not very surprising to our 21st century ears but that loud burst that occurs about 30 seconds in was a real shocker at the time. Symphonies were well established and audiences knew that the 2nd movement would be slower and peaceful. To play on their expectations Haydn threw in that surprise to wake up anyone who might be nodding off.

Charles Ives was a 20th century American composer ahead of his time. He also had a very good sense of humor. Here is his variations on America (My Country Tis of Thee):

The piece is fun and exciting. Seeing the feet move for the 5th variation is impressive and funny. Ives even said that playing the foot pedals in that variation is "more fun than baseball." Ives was an excellent organ player which is why he was able to compose and perform such a piece.

Even late romantic music can include some humor while still maintaining the same sound and feel. In Richard Strauss' tone poem Till Eulenspiegel's Marry Pranks, he composes the events involving the German peasant folk hero. The music describes the trickster as he impersonates other people and gets in trouble:

The music itself might not make you laugh but it's playful and clearly represents humorous events.

Some composers write music that isn't just written in a classical style but actually parodies it. Professor Peter Schickele and his alter ego P.D.Q (which means Pretty Damn Quick) Bach is probably the most well known composer of such music, think of him as the Weird Al of classical music. Sometimes he imitates classical music styles with humorous lyrics like in The Art of the Ground Round:

It's not just the lyrics that make the piece enjoyable. Peter Schickele's compositional talent and understanding of classical music mean a lot of thought goes into what he writes. Some of his pieces are more visually humorous like Sonata Innamorata:

Peter Schickele is also a musicologist and radio host and produces other humorous classical music related projects like New Horizons in Music Appreciation that treats Beethoven's 5th symphony as a sporting event:

He isn't making fun of the piece but showing a way to better understand and appreciate it. For those who don't study music, this is a nice fun way to show what happens during a symphony and shows how Beethoven played on listeners' expectations and moved the symphony forward.

It's important to have a sense of humor when it comes to classical music, even when the music is emotional or intellectual. There's no reason to think that all classical music has to be serious or that something humorous didn't require a lot of thought and talent

Bonus Video!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Overcoming Elitism

Being considered boring isn’t the only negative connotation associated with classical music; it also suffers because it is considered elitist. This is a problem that a majority of classical music advocates of the 20th century and today perpetuated.

As interest in popular music increased, classical enthusiasts responded by not just rejecting the new style of music but claiming it was inferior to classical music. This encouraged the belief that classical music is only for wealthy, intelligent people and that you had to “understand” classical music in order to enjoy it. (Although I personally love learning about classical music, it was the result of enjoying classical music from purely listening to it first.) Instead of classical concerts being an activity the majority of people would do to be entertained, it became a “cultured” activity for the upper class to dress up and prove they were sophisticated.

Going to classical music concerts (just concerts at the time) used to be considered a social activity. People would show up, have a few drinks, and would even talk to one another while the music was playing. When hearing a new composition for the first time, audiences would often cheer after a movement they greatly enjoyed and demand it be replayed (and the orchestra would usually oblige). Orchestras would even mix and match movements when playing popular works which at times could even mean each movement played originating from four different symphonies. These movements were also spread out through the concert and separated with shorter pieces played in-between. Many composers disliked concerts being treated this way and as music became considered more important as a form of art, concert hall behavior became important too.

When going to a classical concert today, the environment has varied dramatically. We now politely (and more importantly, silently) listen to every movement of a piece before clapping and/or cheering at the very end. Talking while music is playing is definitely forbidden and you better pray you don’t have to cough or sneeze. If you thought clapping was the appropriate action in-between movements, be prepared for a group of angry scowls to be staring at you. How can we expect more people to find a passion for classical music when we condemn them for not enjoying the music “the right way”?

Somewhere between these two descriptions lies a happy medium; a concert experience that welcomes new listeners while respecting the music and other listeners. Opera succeeds in doing this because the theater aspect of opera tells the audience how to feel. When a sad event occurs we feel sad, when we hear a joke we find funny we laugh. Unlike concerts where the audience is expected to save all emotions and cheers at the end, opera encourages the audience to show their emotions during the action and audiences cheer in-between scenes. Another major problem is even if concert hall etiquette changes, the damage has already been done. How do we convince people they should listen to classical music because it is enjoyable without making it sound like a requirement?

A year and a half ago I was fortunate enough to go to a concert that attempted to fix these problems. It was the final concert of a 17 day event known as “Berlin in Lights” in New York City. This final concert was called “The Rite of Spring Project” and it featured the one and only Berlin Philharmonic, a group many consider to be the best ensemble in the world, performing the Stravinsky ballet The Rite of Spring. The Berlin Philharmonic were not the only performers that night and were joined with 200 students from various public schools in Harlem. 120 of these students were involved in dancing the ballet and although it was choreographed by Royston Maldoom, no professional dancers were used for the performance. I am not an expert on ballet and although these students weren’t “professional” they did an amazing job equal to any other group of dancers in my opinion. The other 80 students worked together to write a new composition inspired by the Stravinsky piece and their own lives.

It was possibly the greatest concert I’ve been to so far in my life. It was the first and only time I’ve listened to the Berlin Philharmonic in person and the audience experience made the concert even better. Half the crowd were people like me, all dressed up and excited to see the world famous Berlin Philharmonic. The other audience members were family and friends of the student dancers in just T-shirt and slacks. No one looked down on them for not dressing up because the orchestra members were dressed the same way! I would have preferred less candy wrapper sounds, children talking, and babies crying, but it’s a small price to pay if it encourages more people to discover an interest in classical music. I don’t know if that concert led to more classical radio listening, classical CD buying, or classical concert attendees, but it definitely impacted the lives of everyone in that concert hall that night, especially the students involved in the performance.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Music: A Window into History

Like every other form of art, music is a product of the time it was created. For this reason, music is important because it provides a window into the past and helps us understand the world we used to live in and how it became the world we know now. This is why people can identify what period a piece of music is from even if they’ve never listened to it before and how the labels for these periods were created. This is also why we associate the 80’s (1980’s of course) as having a specific look as well as the popular music of that time having a distinct sound.

As society advanced, so did music. What started as single melodies sung in unison (monophony), evolved into multiple melodies occurring simultaneously (polyphony), which resulted in the creation of harmony and the tonal language we know as Western classical music. Composers of the various times would continue the tradition they were living in while advancing new techniques and sounds inspiring their contemporaries to do the same.

During the Romantic era, composers broke away from forms and wrote more chromatic and dissonant music. Embracing these new chords and harmonies, the musical language kept growing. The Romantic period is also unique because it was the first time composers were aware they were writing music differently than their predecessors and labeled them as classical for the first time while naming themselves as Romantic. It’s hard to believe but one of the most recognizable composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, was all but forgotten until Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in 1829. While Antonio Vivaldi, famous for his concerti The Four Seasons, was completely forgotten and unknown until the 20th century.

The Romantic technique of advancing music in new tonal ways continued even after the philosophies behind Romanticism ended. This was accomplished by not just advancing the tonal language of music but creating new tonal languages. Instead of using major or minor keys, Claude Debussy and other Impressionists used “exotic” scales like whole tone, octatonic, and pentatonic towards the end of the 19th century. The Modernists of the 20th century employed many new techniques like polytonality (using more than one key simultaneously), atonality (music with no sense of key), twelve-tone music (music that assures each of the 12 pitches in Western music are used exactly as often as the other 11) microtonality (adding pitches between the existing Western classical music 12 pitches), and many others.

In addition to being logical next steps from a tonal perspective, each of these advancements in music coincided with the history and philosophies of their times as well. Debussy hated the fact his music was labeled as Impressionistic (named so because of the art movement occurring simultaneously), but because it’s helpful and important to think of music as a product of its time we keep this label. The 20th century is very unique because of the emergence of popular music. The term classical music has two different meanings now. Classical (with a capital C) means music written in the specific period 1750 (the death of J.S Bach) to about 1827 (the death of Beethoven) and “classical music” (lowercase c) which refers to Western music that isn’t popular music. The distinction between what is classical or popular can be hard to make and is a topic for another time. Because of the popularity of popular music during the 20th century combined with the harder to understand language of “classical music” of the 20th century, a majority of people began to neglect classical music. Popular music received more media attention which increased the number of listeners which in turn increased the amount of media attention thus creating a viscous cycle. To make matters worse, because society has become so accustomed to popular music now, there’s much less interest in any classical music no matter when it was written.

Popular music has become the music people think of first as a part of our current history and I see no problem with viewing it that way. However, classical music has a lot to offer and it shouldn’t just be considered an art of the past when it can still provide entertainment that popular music can’t. Popular music and classical music are two separate yet equal worlds (with some overlap) and should be treated as such.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Purpose and the Problem

Classical music is my entire life. I could never get tired listening to it, reading/learning about it, thinking about it, or talking about it. There was no other topic I could conceive going to college for let alone devoting my life to. I created this blog for the purpose of discussing various aspects of classical music in an entertaining yet informative way in the hopes of encouraging others to be more open-minded about music that has been branded as “elitist.”

I discovered this passion for classical music somewhat late. In fact, listening to any kind of music did not interest me at all until I took a class titled “Foundations of Music” while a sophomore in high school. I owned almost no CD’s and never listened to the radio. Luckily, I went to a school that strongly encouraged music at an early age and offered an impressive theory curriculum. This combined with a 24-hour classical radio station nearby fueled my interest and knowledge.

Unfortunately, not many people (especially teenagers) share these feelings. Already being ridiculed for not listening to or knowing about current popular music; society made me feel embarrassed for my musical taste. Like most people, I was also under the impression classical music was boring when I was young and often hear people make the statement, “Classical music is boring.” Even a majority of my music major peers in college would complain about listening to or learning about classical music, viewing it as unimportant for their careers and lives.

How can this single word describe someone’s opinion on hundreds of years of music? Without exploring the world of classical music, people dismiss all of it in one fell swoop. Gregorian chant, Johann Sebastian Bach, opera, Beethoven, atonal music, electronic music, and contemporary “classical” music; all of which differ dramatically from one another yet still fall under what we consider classical music.

This blog will attempt to figure out how what used to be just known as music became so neglected by the general public and how to hopefully reverse this sentiment. The first step in doing this is making sure no one feels embarrassed about listening to and enjoying classical music. Whether you only know a few pieces and composers or you dedicate your life to it; let the world know.

My name is David S. Bowers, and I LOVE classical music!!!