Friday, December 3, 2010

Sprachkunst and Musical Expression

Music critic and author of "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century" Alex Ross has an interesting article in this past weekend's The Guardian in which he ponders why so many people seem to dislike modern classical music. I would like to elaborate on a few of his points.

He seems to suggest that music is, or people who listen are, by nature more conservative. Why is modern art in other fields like literature or painting better received? He seems to praise the propaganda put forth by museums for other arts, but this translates only into popularity at best. Of course popularity is what he is talking about, but surely he would want to suggest modern music is as good as older music, not just that it is potentially as good. We'll talk about popularity again in a bit.

Ross properly notes that people are not inherently hostile to dissonance. Yet this is rather incomplete. All music makes use of dissonance, the question may simply be of means or degree. As when he writes that he learned to "acknowledge the force of dissonance" we can only beg for clarification. 

Most interestingly he writes, "All music is an acquired taste; no music is everywhere beloved." which I don't quite agree with. It seems to me to be the extreme end of a rather old debate on the nature of music. On one end of this debate is the concept of music as affektenlehre, i.e. that it is of a sort of rhetorical nature. In this theory there are stock musical components which are arranged to elicit particular reactions. It is not quite as mechanistic as it sounds but that is the essence. On the other hand is the concept of music as wholly autonomous and understandable only on its own terms.

Perhaps it would be fruitful to consider music more as sprachkunst, a term typically but not out of necessity associated with musical hermeneutics. Perhaps we can consider music as a language, one of great power but lesser ability to communicate specifics. It seems to me that the aforementioned extremes are ideologically consistent but most unhelpful. In contrast the analogy to spoken and written languages seems quite natural. In this line of thinking, some few musical tendencies are common to all people at all times, some more to particular ages, some more to particular regions, and to individuals.  Thus you might categorize a piece of music as Baroque, but you might also specify Italian or German, or you might specify further Bach or Vivaldi. So yes there are Baroque styles, Italian and German styles, and features particular to Bach and Vivaldi. The analogies to linguistic roots, families, and dialects seems to apply here also.

This framework also leaves room both for general rules about music and how we listen and for individual taste. Music is neither wholly mechanistic nor wholly esoteric. It is possible to write in Baroque style, but it is not possible to write Bach. This approach also seems more sensible when you consider that an artist, no matter how unique he is and how unusual his idiom, has to use a language of expression which is partly inherited and partly shared in order to express himself. It seems rather incredible to invent your own language and then complain no one understands you.

Ross writes, "By the time Schoenberg, Stravinsky and company introduced a new vocabulary of chords and rhythms. . ." Let me ask you this: if you met someone on the street and spoke a language of new words would you be able to understand him? Worse, what if there was no dictionary to turn to because he made them up himself? That's not really the fault of the listener now is it? Now of course and individual should have some musical education, but 1) it is not acceptable to consider "dissonant" music to be somehow inherently harder to comprehend or beyond other music, 2) one must have an incentive to learn the new language. What incentive is there? Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart have reputations which precede them as do many of their pieces. For my part, I have never heard a champion of 20th century music say, "I understand you don't like this but listen to X, it will change your mind." In contrast champions of earlier music say, "Listen to Beethoven's 5th, Don Giovanni, et cetera." If someone asks me why they should learn say, ancient Greek, I would say because you can read Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristophanes, and so forth." In the absence of those great works, would you take up an esoteric and complicated language, new or old?

Perhaps, if you are a composer. Yet still you must consider if the old one inferior or if are you unable to use it with the skill of your predecessors. Is the new language as capable of expression? Different languages have different rules and present different challenges and possibilities. How should the new and the old get along? We certainly want our musical culture to be alive and not simply preserved, and to achieve that the new and the old have to vie a little. Many artistic movements, musical and otherwise, came and went, never really catching on. Sometimes it is hard to say why something catches on somewhere and sometime rather than another. Take two of Mozart's operas for example. Figaro and Don Giovanni were hits in Prague but not in Vienna. Why? On account of taste, or because they were said to be complicated?

Mozart's father cautioned him against harmonic progressions which would go over the heads of listeners, but the composer maintained a balance between the esoteric and complex and the need to get people in the seats. Still his music was considered difficult. Bach was considered to have written in a depreciated or archaic style even though his harmonies were bolder than his predecessors. Both were in some respects more famous as keyboard performers than as composers. What aspects of their styles went on to be popular with audiences and emulated by composers, by whom, and when?

Maybe modern composers simply lack the cultural cachet of their predecessors. Maybe people simply don't think of classical music as a contemporary genre. Maybe its problem isn't its language but its message.

Overall I am in sympathy with Ross' complaint that good music is overlooked without good reason. I'm not at all saying modern music is bad, rather I am just saying there are understandable, unextraordinary, and probably as yet unknown reasons why it's not as popular as some people think it ought to be.

N.B. There are number of insightful thoughts in the comments section so I encourage you to take a look there.

Also, Ross writes, "What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty." Now I appreciate his sentiment but I think he has misstated it. I think he means music should not be palliative or therapeutic, that it should enliven not dull. Indeed! Yet using the word beauty rather implies that beauty only consoles, and that being beautiful prevents a piece from being arresting. It also sort of implies that what is arresting,  purportedly "modern" music, is arresting but not beautiful, which I don't think he means.

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