Saturday, February 16, 2008

Remembering Music

Last night I attended the UK Symphony Orchestra’s concert featuring world famous cellist Lynn Harrell. As they opened with the dramatic and resonant sounds of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, I suddenly remembered why I loved music in the first place. I am drawn to the powerful, the emotional, the personal. The Elgar Cello Concerto was all too fitting, a work written just after the composer underwent a possibly life-threatening surgery. I wonder if Elgar was making a statement that life is precious, that it is worth living, even that music is life.
As I was leaving campus after the concert I ran into a fellow classmate and one of her adult students who had just picked up playing the cello about a year ago. We had a great conversation about his love for music and how he came to love the cello as well. I mentioned to him in passing that I had been steeped in music since 1968, so it was refreshing for me to hear Beethoven and Elgar again (not to say 20th and 21st music is not as good, but only to say it was nice to be reacquainted with those guys). His humorous response: “You poor thing. Just stick to the romantic period.” Funny as it may be to hear someone say this, it’s actually not an uncommon response even among many musicians. To be fair, we do live in a pluralistic age of musical creation, and it’s hard to find our bearings with so much going on. On the other hand, upon hearing some modern piece of music that is difficult to understand, the easy response for listeners is: “I just don’t like that modern stuff. I’ll stick to ___________ (fill in the blank). But there is much more out there, and it would probably take a lifetime to even come close to finding it all – especially with the constantly changing currents of contemporary music. So the question for me is (laying aside my sophisticated grad student mentality): What do I look for in a piece of music? To put it another way: What kind of listener am I? These questions help give me a certain clarity as I try to find my bearings in modern music.
Well, to go back to my opening statement: I think I can find the answers in Beethoven. Yes, that music is very different from today’s – but it has power, it has heart, and it is personal. So as I wade through the masses of modern compositions, that’s what I’m looking for. And I don’t mean I’m looking for the simplicity and unity with which Beethoven wrote – I am simply searching for that spirit of Beethoven which has a deep love for music, regardless of how the music is packaged. George Rochberg wrote at one time: “Why do you want to write music nobody can love? Do you hate yourself? Or do you hate them?...Why do you want to write music nobody can remember? Do you hate music?” As the Beethoven and all the other pieces were being played so beautifully last night, I felt a sense of naivety – that delightful pleasure and excitement in hearing music that I experienced long before I ever put on my smart music major cap. My intentions are to always pursue musical knowledge and insight, so I don’t wish to leave behind all the good things being a music major has taught me – I just hope I can continue on, always having that na├»ve perspective, always delighting in music.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Is there hope for musicology?

In Kyle Gann’s lecture, he discusses, at some length, Leonard Meyer’s three phases of development within musicological movements: Pre-classic, Classic, and Mannerist. However, simultaneous and pluralistic musical movements, coupled with a lack of historical perspective on recent movements in music, make it impossible to empirically categorize modern music using Meyer’s methods. Furthermore, this issue makes it impossible to use ANY pre-existing musicological method to categorize or quantify new music.

This is not, however, to say that musicological study of modern music is impossible. Gann, himself considered one of the foremost chroniclers of new music, admitted to me in conversation that he had little, if any, grasp of popular music, and imparted in his lecture that he did not purchase his first “pop” record until he was 22 (even then, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” is a pretty left-of-field recording for “popular music”). Gann went on to say that he is no longer an appropriate chronicler of new music, because he can not critique music from a holistic perspective; the convergence of “popular” and “art” music have made it difficult to undertake study of one without study of the other. The terms “popular” and “art” are, in my opinion, ridiculous and outmoded- “popular” music has been art music since the release of Sgt. Pepper’s in 1968, and “art” has been pop since the same time, since Yoko Ono decided to open her loft to “classical” musicians and take art music into the realm of rock and jazz.

The point I am trying to make, however discursive, is that there is hope for musicological study of contemporary music, but that musicology needs, in the face of continually subdividing musical currents, to become LESS concerned with sub-stratifying specific movements and more concerned with total, non-exclusive study of ALL forward-thinking music.