In my last blog post, Music from the Inside-Out, I spoke about classical music and its unique ability to touch the listener on a deep personal level. My contention was that the best composers shared their unique stories and their view of the world through music. As a result, their music was able to stand the test of time.
I also lamented the fact that many (but not all) pop idols sadly sell themselves and their music short because they rely on an artificial stimulation of the audience without really appealing to the soul. In other words, rather than telling their own unique story that lies within, they look to get a reaction out of the audience that appeals to their base desires. This is what I call music from the outside-in.
Both classical and popular music can and do succumb to this, just as conversely, both genres can speak from the "inside-out". My contention is that what makes music great is that ability for the composer, singer, or songwriter to tell us his or her story in such a way that we feel an affinity with his or her yearnings, struggles, or desires - this is what I call "music with a message". That message might only be relevant to one generation or, in the greatest of music, transcend our lifetime and join the canon of musical history for multiple generations. In my opinion, this was the genius of Bach.
Now that I have stated my beliefs, I would like explain why I believe that the future of classical music will rely on the ability to tell a musical story from the inside-out.
Quite simply, what I am proposing is not a radical break from the past but an examination and cure from "where we went wrong". Let me elaborate:
In classical music concerts today, the "greatest hits" still predominate. These works might be as old as Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G Minor (1788) or as new as Shostakovich's Symphony Number 5 (1937). We "recycle" these works which span roughly three centuries because they are masterfully created and span a range of emotions. Even the Shostakovich work cited above, although not so singable by the average listener, speaks to the heart. Its musical language, although not completely identical to the tonal system of Mozart, is still close enough to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Shostakovich led a difficult life and no one would argue against the fact that that the dissonance and nervousness of his music are indicative of this. For many reasons (often personal to the listener), the raw passion, anger, and anxiety of this music also speak to us in our time today.
What we have then, in masterpieces by both composers, is a communication across the generations between the composer and the listener. As long as the listener will find it meaningful, pleasurable, or even therapeutic, he or she will continue to listen to this music.
What we lack, unfortunately, are modern works that speak to the sensitivities of today's listeners. After WWII, many composers became so academically and intellectually obsessed that they forgot about the need to speak to the hearts of the audience. My theory is that in the first part of the Twentieth Century, when Germanic composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg were desperately looking for new languages, they turned away from the audience in favor of a thoroughly academic approach. What they did, in effect, was to idolize the intellect out of a desperate yearning to find a new language. This is interesting, considering that Schoenberg felt very strongly that his music was a natural evolution from the tonally saturated chromatic music of the Romantic era. Schoenberg and his contemporaries were so caught up in not trying to sound like the masters of the past (this is not new since Beethoven's time) that they forgot how to speak to the people in the present. As a result, many true geniuses fell by the wayside of popular culture into what I refer to as the "listening library-elite" - ie: composers who create amazing pieces that the average person cannot readily comprehend, for understanding takes careful study of the works in question.
A stunning example of this is the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg (1935). Berg's highly emotional piece was certainly written with a story in mind but it was written in the new musical language of Twelve tone and Serialism. The problem is that still very few people can relate to it today because it is not inherently singable - this despite the waltz motifs and other Viennese rhythms. Therein lies our biggest problem. The music is interesting but not relatable. Stravinsky also delved into this world in the 1950s and 1960s in his own programmatic works.
As classical musicians, we need to step down from our academic pedestal and return to the roots of what made our music great - the ability to transcend the boundaries of culture through a universal language that everyone can sing and appreciate. What I am advocating is a return to the musical truths of the ancients.
Standing on the shoulders of the ancient Egyptians, Pythagoras discovered the mathematical foundation of harmony in sound. He discovered (or more exactly uncovered) that two sounds played together cause us to feel a certain way. The feelings of ease or unease are directly proportional to the degree to which the two sounds are consonant or dissonant While to a musician and a musically-inclined "layman" this sounds obvious, to the ancient Greeks, it was never yet understood from a mathematical perspective. This mathematical perspective that Pythagoras discovered opened up a world of harmony based on the proportions of string lengths simultaneously vibrating next to each other.
For instance, when two sounds played on a violin string are an octave apart, the lengths of the two strings are at a ratio of 2:1. In other words, one string is half the length of the other. Likewise, the perfect fifth, the bedrock interval of Western Civilization is created when two strings are in a ratio of 3:2. Strings a perfect fourth apart are in a ratio of 4:3. Because of these laws of nature, it is no coincidence that when two sounds are played together, our ears universally perceive them as being pleasing or discordant.
What I mean by this is that when we hear pleasing sounds and discordant sounds, the emotional reactions will more often than not be interpreted no matter what our cultural background. In order to understand this, one must merely look at how music is most often transmitted across the generations - from mother to child. For the most part, our first musical experiences have come from our mothers. This has been universal since time immemorial. It is almost as if from practically the day we were born many of us were taught (or perhaps instinctively knew?!) that a soothing melody makes us feel good. Whether this is nature or nurture is an interesting subject for another time!
As an aside, while non-Western cultures use and used different scale systems to make music, I have yet to find an example of a dissonant sound being perceived as pleasant (the author respectfully requests correction in this matter if he is incorrect).
So what must we do today? My contention is that we must support composers in our community who espouse the values of musical universality above. We must challenge them to compose with three key parts to the musical experience in mind - the composer, the audience, and the performer(s) (these should really be called interpreters). Since we live in a capitalistic system, meaning that composers and musicians need to eat, it is not reasonable to say "My music is only for the future generations." It must be for the present and the future. When all of three above elements are united in harmony, even music that is dissonant, but within the canonic tonal framework, will both resonate with our times and speak across the generations.
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.Maestro Musicians, LLC
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