Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Music of the future

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 377:

The music of the future! What an intoxicating notion--and what a marvellous excuse for obscurity! No wonder it proved so popular. Yet its practical effects were surprisingly limited. To sloganize and pamphlateer was one thing; to put notes on paper, quite another. Composers soon discovered that being 'in advance of one's time' is more easily said than done. The real innovations were rather the outcome of stylistic cross-fertilization, mainly between east and west, than of any striving after novelty.

People are only 'ahead of their time' in retrospect.


Real artists

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 345:

The selfsame contradictions persisted into the twentieth century. Schoenberg was merely echoing Wackenroder when he wrote: 'I believe that a real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.'

Uh... thanks, Mr. Schoenberg...


Plausible but worthless

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 300:

In view of these associations, it was probably inevitable that these patterns should attract the censure of Authority: 'It will be quickly realized that sucha common formula... however plausible it may sound, has little musical worth; it belongs to the realm of "salon" at best, or the lowest type of popular dance music, or sentimental "sacred solo".'

Yuck. I cringe when I hear quotes like that. How can something sound plausible but have little musical worth? In my opinion, musical worth is based on, gee, I don't know... how plausible it sounds! Maybe I'm just reading it wrong... it kind of reminds me of that Mark Twain quote: "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." Please note, I think Mr. Twain was trying to be funny. If he wasn't, he's an idiot. And unfortunately his quote is only funny once.


The genetic fallacy

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 230:

Next to snobbery and ethnic prejudice, the greatest barrier to recognizing these patterns is what philosophers call the 'genetic fallacy', the feeling that everything somehow carries the taint of its origins. Compositions that draw on trivial sources must themselves be trivial; Oriental patterns must go on sound Oriental--or so we tend to think. The greater the composer, the more triumphantly will such notions be refuted.

Not that I've met anyone who actually disagreed with this, but I think it's an important thing to keep in mind, and worthy of being quoted for at least my own remembrance.


Evolution by nature

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 142:

Even today, our notions of causation are profoundly influenced by the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Newtonian physics gave such satisfying results that later thinkers gound it natural to apply its principles to biology. They assumed that nature--including human culture--must proceed by similar chains of cause and effect. One had only to trace the chain backwards to arrive at the ultimate cause: natural selection in Darwin, the economic motive in Marx, the sexual instinct in Freud. People argued about which was the correct 'driving force', but seldom stopped to wonder whether the whole system might be based on false analogy.

It now appears that no driving force is needed... Evolution is a process whereby parts combine into wholes, and this happens automatically.

Exactly. Also note that in some systems, like John Conway's "Game of Life", you can't work backwards, as deterministic as the future is.

I think this point is also touched upon in Taleb's The Black Swan which I hope to read this summer. Some composers look at Mozart's and Beethoven's influence and ascribe them entirely towards something like their innovations in certain pieces of music, when in reality their influence is most likely part of a much larger more incomprehensible system.

And, while an artist may strive toward innovation in his work, it is not only not a promise a success, it is also not needed to bring about changes in the art world as a whole. The artist's desire to innovate for its own sake is not a driving force. The art world will change and innovations will emerge without needing to be forced.



~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, pages 139-140:

... clichés are an inescapable part of the evolutionary process. Before a musical pattern can be elaborated, it must first become familiar; and this, in practice, means mechanical repetition, ready-made emotion, and cheap effects generally. If the word had existed in the fifteenth century, critics would no doubt have complained about the irritating new cliché of preceding the tonic chord with the dominant.

People should love clichés because it's cliché to hate clichés.

But, seriously, many composers vehemently reject musical clichés whilst trying to create new ones. I personally do not think they are inherently bad... in fact, they're quite vital! Without them, no film music at all would work. It's kind of a shame a 'cliché' is most often used as a negative word nowadays. I think clichés can come and go without any forced opposition. ("Forced opposition" being the choice to reject a cliché for mere sake of its being cliché instead of for some more natural reason, like honest cliché-caused displeasure.)


Defensive snobbery

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 132:

... popular music was especially highly developed among [the Germans]. Nowhere in Europe did it come closer to what we should now call 'art' music. This closeness, while encouraging beneficial cultural exchanges, also drove 'serious' composers (as they were beginning to think of themselves) into a defensive snobbery. It is easy to adopt an attitude of benign condescension to a popular musician when he is a peasant bagpiper or blind hurdy-gurdy man; not quite so easy when he is a prosperous bandleader in the house next door.

What can one say but... Salieri?


The sad minor mode?

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 127:

The truth is not that early composers were unaware of the mournfulness of the minor mode, but rather, as in the case of the more extreme discords and dissonances, that they had yet to exploit it. In fact, from the strictly scientific point of view, minor intervals were a form of discord and dissonance. The emotions expressed, depending on the context, might be gloom, melancholy, tension, resolution in adversity, wistfulness, and a host of others. But they were all in a some sense negative, and nothing could entirely erase the negativity. A jig in the minor mode may well express merriment, but never quite the same unclouded merriment as the same jig in the major.

This seems to be a large point of discussion in the music world... is how we hear the minor mode conditioned? Could the major and minor mode be reversed in regards to the feelings commonly associated with them? I think only to a certain degree. I think all human brains will naturally here the minor third and major third intervals as fundamentally different, but to say that one is 'happy' and one is 'sad' depends far too much on the context of the actually music than the interval itself. So, in a sense, it is conditioned by what music one has heard previously, but it is more strongly conditioned by the context of the piece.

I've heard people say that Javert's suicide song does not sound sad because he is singing in the major mode, and that the ending of "O Fortuna" is too happy because it ends in the major mode instead of the minor. But whether or not a piece is in the major or minor mode has more to do with what degree it's perceived at. No piece (that sounds good, at least) will be composed entirely in the minor mode; there will always be some major mixed in, and vice versa. What makes a piece be in a minor key is the degree to which those minor intervals are percieved.

So, in the end, I think to just associate major and minor to happy and sad in general is to, well, over generalize. It's never really been that way.


Ugly thirds?

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 111:

The level of discord does indeed rise in medieval music, largely because of increasing polyphonic complexity (though it is a myth that twelfth- or thirteenth-century composers were afraid of thirds and sixths), reaching a peak in the Ars Nova of the fourteenth century.

I'm not quite sure what the author means by 'afraid of thirds and sixths', but I, unlike some, do not believe anyone from those centuries heard such intervals as dissonant, though this depends on how you define 'dissonant'. What I mean is, it is my belief that no one heard such intervals as unpleasant. Did they hear it as strange? I don't know, maybe. But some people seem to like to think that back then people heard such intervals as disgusting then as we might hear some random cluster nowadays, and that, in the future, if put to good use, that cluster will sound as good as a third someday. I reject this notion, and think it absurd.


What the public wants

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 85:

Historians owe a great debt to Joan Ambrosio Dalza... We should be thankful that his intention was not to be clever or original, but merely to turn an honest penny by giving the public what it wanted.

Oh, how many 'serious' composers loathe the idea! Heck, I might loathe the idea too, but I am in the fortunate state of sharing at least a portion of the modern public's tastes, so I believe my work suffers considerably less...

Still, it seems interesting that many 'serious' composers would rather shun the public's tastes in this day and age when it's rather doubtful any of it will be forgotten by history by its merely being shunned by anyone. Then again, maybe that's why it's shunned.


All music is pentatonic

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 50:

In a way, the word 'pentatonic' is unfortunate. It is incidental that there happen to be five notes in the scale. The real basis of pentatonic melody is consonance, and, ultimately, that 'sound in nature', the major triad. This primordial pattern is so powerful that it provides a frame of reference for all the more elaborate types of melody and harmony, whether heptatonic, chromatic, or, for that matter, atonal. In the end, all music is pentatonic.

I just thought that was an interesting perspective! It certainly seems true when you think about it... but it's not something that pops out. Quite interesting!


Harmony and melody

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 21:

Chords are melody, behaving in a special way... Harmony is an 'emergent' property of melody, in the same way as life is an emergent property of matter, or mind of life. And, just as one can have life without mind and matter without life, so one can have melody without harmony--but not harmony without melody. There can be no explanation of harmony that does not take into account its melodic component.

This seems to be an important point. Harmony and melody are often thought of as perpendiculars; the melody is the horizontal and the harmony is the vertical, which is, in a sense, still true when it comes to looking at notes on a page. But chord progressions, harmonic shifts, and such, which are usually implied by the use of the word 'harmony', are definitely based on melody. They're not opposing forces. Any good chord progression is melodic by nature, though probably much simpler.