Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Praise Of Good Music

Musical Structure

We welcome a new contributor, Lorna Salzman, who offers a thought-provoking article on what defines good music. In her estimation too many individuals do not enjoy modern music, but do so without knowledge. Such lack of understanding might also make them miss out on some wonderful classical composers.  While this point is debatable—persons can protest that they know what they like, Salzman's article does raise a number of interesting questions, notably, what makes for good music. "All music has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not a trivial statement. Putting aside bad structure and a paucity of musical ideas (Minimalism being the prime example), bad music lacks the meat of good music, the connective tissue, in other words, the middle."
by Lorna Salzman

Most contemporary music gets a bum rap but not for the right reasons. People find it puzzling, dissonant, disconnected, tuneless, shapeless, even ugly. Some of it is, of course. In fact, most of it is. But the real faults of bad contemporary music are not recognized by most listeners.

Why? Because I contend that most people don't even know the difference between bad CLASSICAL music and good classical music. Why not? Because they never learned how to listen to music in the first place. If you never learned to play an instrument or didn't grow up hearing music regularly in your house or at concerts, you probably still don't know how to listen to classical music, much less contemporary music. You probably are one of those millions of people who love the Estonian composer Aarvo Part but find John Adams unlistenable. You are probably one of those people who think Schoenberg and Stravinsky are "modern" composers. You are probably one of those people who love Tchaikowsky but hate Wagner. You are probably one of those people who love Bach, but can't sit through his Musical Offering or Goldberg Variations.

Hearing a short piece on the radio today by Aarvo Part suddenly gave me some insight into why people like his music. It isn't bad music compared to most other music being written today. Part goes out of his way to avoid being musically "in your face". There is nothing offensive about it; on the contrary, it is quite pleasant and soothing, a kind of upscale "New Age" music without the ethereal mindless doodles, the kind of music you hear when you are getting acupuncture or a massage. It is technically and instrumentally competent and professional. In other words, it's a crowd pleaser that pleases without being patronizing. The guy is probably the most successful and most remunerated "serious" composer alive, which is fine; I hate hearing about composers starving in attics. Composers deserve respect, though not quite as much as performers of music, the most self-sacrificing, hard-working and generous of all professions extant.

But his music is not good music. Those who still can't distinguish bad music from good music will take issue with this. So I will have to define what makes music good. And it was hearing Part that gave me the answer, or a part of it.

Putting aside opera for now, we shall focus on instrumental and orchestral music. These reached their peak of perfection in the 19th century, though preceded by some exemplary and complex baroque music by such composers as Purcell, Couperin and Rameau (as well as Bach and Handel, whose wonderful operas I have discovered late in life),and earlier composers like Monteverdi and Pergolesi. The Romantic period in music gave rise to the most complex musical expressions, which, through the works of Brahms and Wagner primarily, opened the door to even wilder, more imaginative creations of the early 20th century by Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Ravel, Ives, Weill, and later Varese, Cowell, Ruggles, Sessions and Copland. Thanks to two world wars, the best composers from Europe ended up in this country and left their mark on American music permanently.

But back to the romantics and the definition of Bad Music. All music has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not a trivial statement. Putting aside bad structure and a paucity of musical ideas (Minimalism being the prime example), bad music lacks the meat of good music, the connective tissue, in other words, the middle. We tend to think of the middle as being the most important. But the middle has no meaning unless you have heard and remembered, to even a small degree, what came before it. And the end has no meaning unless you remember what preceded it.

Listening to classical music requires an important part of our brain: memory. The "persistence of memory" has relevance to all aspects of music: harmony, modulation (key changes), rhythmic patterns, melody. Anyone who has attended Peter Schickele's marvelous PDQ Bach concert series will instantly understand this; you can't laugh at these concerts unless you have a good musical memory for the traditional classics, especially those of the 18th century. But much contemporary music, especially the experimental kind, does not require memory because it lacks connective tissue....or maybe one could say that it is ALL connective tissue with no beginning or end. You can enter into it anywhere and you will not be puzzled by the music, because it is all in the here-and-now, with no before and after. It is an undifferentiated tissue with a single function and no structural or melodic complexity.

One would never dream of picking up a novel and starting it in the middle, or going to a movie an hour late. Similarly, one would never go to a classical music concert and take a seat in the middle of a symphony or piano piece. The composer is offering a whole piece with a beginning, middle and end. His expectation is that you not only have heard it from the start but that you will actually REMEMBER what you heard. He trusts you to connect the connective tissue to what preceded it and what comes after it. These are of course high expectations of an audience, but then again, so are great novels, plays, and films. Why should you listen to music any differently? The composer is trusting his audience to be attentive. In return he is presenting what he hopes will be an effective and moving experience, coherent, interesting, complex. He has a right to demand this, but in turn he will be judged as to whether he succeeded in his intention. Only a minority of composers succeed.

Possibly the most demanding—of himself as well as of his listeners—was Brahms, who was not only one of the greatest romantic composers but an inspiration to Schoenberg. Anyone who knows Schoenberg and his serialism will understand why he loved Brahms. A Brahms symphony is not only chock full of some of the most glorious musical ideas ever written but is tightly and methodically organized and unified in its motifs and overall form. It is hard to realize that Brahms refrained from writing his first symphony until his forties, possibly because of Beethoven's ghost. Brahms will take a simple melodic or rhythmic phrase, and then let his imagination run wild, inverting it, reversing it, modulating it, deconstructing it, with musical and rhythmic permutations that only a superior musical craftsman would dare to do. Brahms goes out on a narrow ledge, wedges himself into a tight corner, and then, when you wonder how he will get out of it, comes up with the solution, the exit from the musical and thematic maze he created, that makes you say out loud: of course that's right; that's the ONLY way it could have come out. The composer provides what seems to be the only POSSIBLE solution. This inevitability is a major determinant of musical greatness.

But while many people love Brahms, they probably are unaware of these complexities of structure and content. This is not to say that it is impossible to enjoy a Brahms symphony only by analyzing its structure, not at all. This is to say that the very complexities and permutations contribute to the greatness of the music. Brahms did not intend to dazzle us with his technical genius alone, however, because the connective tissue is so rich in musical blood supply, and because he has put his music together in a readily perceived way. When you return for the second or third hearing, or more— I never tire of his symphonies—you begin hearing all those things that hold the work together. And each time you hear more and more. You are listening to not just the middle but the whole piece. You are listening the way good composers intended you to listen. The bad composers will make no such demands.

Fast forward to Aarvo Part and the minimalists. While it is true that the minimalists (Glass, Reich, Riley) do write subtle changes into their repetitions, nonetheless you can enter into their pieces anywhere and still know what is going on. When I heard an Arvo Part piece, I was struck by the fact that wherever you listened, what came before it didn't matter a bit. It is music written for an isolated instant; you could listen to two minutes of the middle (or beginning or end) and understand the piece. The composer was making no demands on you. He was not saying: now listen to this whole piece or else you won't appreciate it. Any part of it can be appreciated on its own. Your musical memory is unnecessary. It is not good music. It is just music.

There are of course bad classical composers who write music with a beginning, middle and and end. My bête noire is Tchaikovsky, a composer of bluff and bluster surrounding a "plentiful lack" of good musical ideas, but there are other Russians (mainly of the 20th century) who give Tchaikovsky's lack of talent a run for his money...surprising since there were Russian precedents of great instrumental and orchestral works, such as Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as Borodin and Glazunov. The worst piece of music that I have ever heard, bar none, was a Paderewski piano concerto, perhaps the patriarch of today's New Age music. I once suggested to Peter Schickele, when he was still doing music programs for NPR, that he do a special program of Bad Music, with the Paderewski concerto as the prime suspect. Then there is the beloved Rachmaninoff.....and Prokoviev.......add your own. (Second and Third Place in the Worst Music Ever Written category are the Yellow River Concerto and Richard Strauss' Burlesk.)

How do you learn to listen to music? By listening to music. By listening to all kinds of music, of all origins and all composers. Bring your memory along. Listen to entire compositions, not parts. Listen to pieces you never heard before. Turn on your radio to a classical music station like WQXR [in New York City] and listen to whatever is being broadcast. You will hear some tedious repetitions, some war horses, some cliches. That's fine. You will also hear lots of good music you never heard before. I do, all the time. I discovered some of the wonderful Liszt piano transcriptions of musical classics, the piano arrangement of Ravel's La Valse, which is usually broadcast in its orchestral version, and the Ravel orchestral arrangement of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. You will hear glorious period instruments playing Couperin and Bieber. And they all have beginnings, middles and ends. Soon you will know which music is good and which is bad.

In time, you will enjoy more "modern" music too. Try John Adams' chamber piece, John's Alleged Dances, for starters. It's terrific.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal,
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2012. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.