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January 8, 2006

Episode Four: Structural Delights

(The summary of past episodes comes at the end of this one.)

As I start the fourth episode of my online book improvisation, I want to step back for a moment, and say some things that belong in the book’s introduction, whenever the book is finally finished.

And it’s because I didn’t write an introduction that I have to these things now. I’ve been talking a lot about what I might call a theoretical view of classical music—how I think classical music should be defined, and what Julian Johnson thinks classical music is, and how Christopher Small thinks classical music functions.

There are reasons for all of this. First, I’m not the only one who’s explored these issues, and I ought to acknowledge what others say, especially people I’ve learned a lot from. That certainly includes Christopher Small, and also the “new musicologists,” as they’re called, scholars who emerged in the 1980s and who look at classical music not simply as a musical phenomenon, but as a part of the culture that surrounds it. I’m especially grateful to my old friend Susan McClary, who’s still most famous (and sometimes, absurdly, still notorious) as a pioneering feminist in musicology, though there’s much more to her work than that. I started raising my classical music questions more or less in isolation in the 1980s (apart from support I’d get from friends), and soon enough learned that Susan and Christopher Small had been moving down similar paths. But they did it in their own ways, so I’ve learned a lot from them.

And their rise to prominence—Susan’s, I mean, and Chrstopher Small’s—shows that their ideas have gotten traction. Susan won a MacArthur prize, and now is a leading member of the musicology department at UCLA, which she used to head. (The current department head is her husband and coconspirator, Rob Walser, author of a terrific musicological study of heavy metal.) Small’s books are widely quoted; a few years ago he gave a keynote speech at the Chamber Music America national conference.

And of course my own surprising influence is yet another sign that new ideas about classical music are catching on. (They have to catch on; as I’ve been finding out firsthand, the field—or at least the classical music field as we know it—might well die, if something isn’t done.) So I’ve also got to give a shout to more recent voices, especially including Alex Ross, the New Yorker classical music critic, whose visionary piece on the future of classical music back in 2004 was an inspiration to all sorts of people. (It was quite literally photocopied, before it was available online, and passed from one person to another.) Plus—and it’s very important to mention this!—I have to acknowledge (and just about hug) a small army of mostly unsung people who work in the classical music biz. They’re at big institutions, and at smaller ones; they’re musicians, administrators, board members, radio broadcasters, marketers, presenters, composers, critics, schoars, bloggers, publicsts, you name it. They’re honeycombed throughout the business, and they keep on contacting me, new people every week, encouraging me, trying out my suggestions, sometimes hiring me to help out with their projects, and—best of all—feeding me information and ideas. I’d be a churl if I didn’t thank them, or if I didn’t thank the people who’ve made comments on my book, or if I didn’t thank Susan, Christopher Small, or Alex, and so many other writers. Nobody is an island, and that’s especially true in any cultural movement. Nobody changes a culture all alone.

As I start the fourth episode of my online book improvisation, I want to step back for a moment, and say some things that belong in the book’s introduction, whenever the book is finally finished.

And it’s because I didn’t write an introduction that I have to these things now. I’ve been talking a lot about what I might call a theoretical view of classical music—how I think classical music should be defined, and what Julian Johnson thinks classical music is, and how Christopher Small thinks classical music functions.

There are reasons for all of this. First, I’m not the only one who’s explored these issues, and I ought to acknowledge what others say, especially people I’ve learned a lot from. That certainly includes Christopher Small, and also the “new musicologists,” as they’re called, scholars who emerged in the 1980s and who look at classical music not simply as a musical phenomenon, but as a part of the culture that surrounds it. I’m especially grateful to my old friend Susan McClary, who’s still most famous (and sometimes, absurdly, still notorious) as a pioneering feminist in musicology, though there’s much more to her work than that. I started raising my classical music questions more or less in isolation in the 1980s (apart from support I’d get from friends), and soon enough learned that Susan and Christopher Small had been moving down similar paths. But they did it in their own ways, so I’ve learned a lot from them.

And their rise to prominence—Susan’s, I mean, and Chrstopher Small’s—shows that their ideas have gotten traction. Susan won a MacArthur prize, and now is a leading member of the musicology department at UCLA, which she used to head. (The current department head is her husband and coconspirator, Rob Walser, author of a terrific musicological study of heavy metal.) Small’s books are widely quoted; a few years ago he gave a keynote speech at the Chamber Music America national conference.

And of course my own surprising influence is yet another sign that new ideas about classical music are catching on. (They have to catch on; as I’ve been finding out firsthand, the field—or at least the classical music field as we know it—might well die, if something isn’t done.) So I’ve also got to give a shout to more recent voices, especially including Alex Ross, the New Yorker classical music critic, whose visionary piece on the future of classical music back in 2004 was an inspiration to all sorts of people. (It was quite literally photocopied, before it was available online, and passed from one person to another.) Plus—and it’s very important to mention this!—I have to acknowledge (and just about hug) a small army of mostly unsung people who work in the classical music biz. They’re at big institutions, and at smaller ones; they’re musicians, administrators, board members, radio broadcasters, marketers, presenters, composers, critics, schoars, bloggers, publicsts, you name it. They’re honeycombed throughout the business, and they keep on contacting me, new people every week, encouraging me, trying out my suggestions, sometimes hiring me to help out with their projects, and—best of all—feeding me information and ideas. I’d be a churl if I didn’t thank them, or if I didn’t thank the people who’ve made comments on my book, or if I didn’t thank Susan, Christopher Small, or Alex, and so many other writers. Nobody is an island, and that’s especially true in any cultural movement. Nobody changes a culture all alone.

And now for those theoretical questions. Why should I haggle so much about the definition of classical music—don’t we know it when we see it?—and all the other sometimes abstract questions I and others have been poking at? Answer: Because theoretical discussion is important; it can really change the things we all go out and do. We know that there’s a crisis (the shrinking audience, the mounting evidence that classical music, as it’s functioned in the past, may soon become financially untenable). We know that things are changing. We know that people debate the changes that are happening, that some people resist them—and that their resistance is based on their ideas about what classical music ought to be.

So right away we’re talking theory. Not long ago, I led a day-long discussion with a group of presenters from one region of the US, people who produce performing arts events, and can’t get enough people to buy tickets when they offer a classical concert. (The shrinking audience, I’ve found from talks with people all over classical music, isn’t something we’re not completely sure about, like global warming, which still needs further scientific proof; it’s a reality for nearly everybody in our field. Just today, as I’m writing this, I saw projections made by one of America’s leading classical music institutions. Their long-time audience, the people who’ve been buying tickets for many years, has been getting smaller, and is projected to get smaller still in coming years. But this is the only reliable audience they have! To make up for its decline, they need to find new ticket-buyers, and these are bravely anticipated in the projections that I saw. But where, exactly, are these new ticket-buyers coming from? The institution doesn’t know.)

With these reigonal presenters, I talked about the people who don’t go to classical concerts, especially the fabled missing younger audience. One woman said that younger people might never come to classical events, because what they want is visual stimulation. Of course I’ve heard that before, and I’m sure most people reading this have heard it, too. I disagreed—citing both rock criticism and my own experience—to suggest that many people listen to pop music with attentive concentration. (Only, I think, in the classical music world is this still news.) So then this woman—who, to be fair, was both sincere and very open-minded—said that classical music needs a different kind of listening, because its musical forms are complex and demanding.

I disagreed with this as well, but what’s important here is that these were disagreements with real-world consequences. If you took my view, you’d think we have a shot at attracting a younger audience. But this presenter thinks that we can’t do it, and that’s in part because of what she thinks classical music, in its inmost essence, really is. Which shows why it’s important to discuss these inmost essences, these lofty theoretical ideas (which turn out not to be so theoretical) about what classical music really is. They keep popping up—and affecting what we think we ought to do—even if we think we maybe aren’t interested in them.

 

And that makes a useful segue into the real beginning of this episode, in which I want to talk about (or start to talk about) classical music’s form and structure. I may depart from current orthodoxy when I say that classical music isn’t inherently complex (and certainly isn’t so very complex that nobody can follow a classical piece without special education), I do think that form and structure are important. In fact, as I said at the end of the last episode, I think that what defines classical music as something different from music of any other kind is its form, or more precisely the way it moves from one point to another, evolving over spans of time. Or as I wrote in the last episode,

A classical piece can start in one place, and end in another….It can play with its material, contrasting and developing various ideas, the way a novel or a film can juggle many characters, many settings, many ideas, and many plot developments. Or a classical piece could veer wildly from one thing to another, but the point would be the same; it’s doing something during a span of time, maybe a long one, and I don’t know any other music that works in quite this way. It gives classical music a special richness, not a greater richness than any other kind of music, but a richness unique to itself.

So how does this work?

Let’s take our old friend the Pastoral Symphony. It begins with a gentle scrap of melody that rises, falls a little bit—and stops. A classical music geek might tell you that it pauses on a dominant chord, which would be true, but isn’t something anybody really needs to know, except for people studying music theory. In fact, it’s precisely considerations like this—technical considerations, dumped in front of listeners who won’t know what they mean—that encourage people to believe that classical music is so deeply complicated. If you can’t understand the Pastoral Symphony unless you know what a dominant chord is, then damn—you’d better learn before you try to listen. Really, though, a dominant chord isn’t even a complicated concept. I could explain it to anyone who isn’t tone-deaf, in about five minutes, as long as I had a keyboard to demonstrate what I’m talking about. Anyone who plays guitar can understand it instantly. The Pastoral Symphony is in F; that first phrase begins on an F chord, and ends on a C chord, pausing there before it moves on back to F. And even without any music terminology we can talk about the way the music stops, invoking punctuation as a metaphor. The music pauses on a colon: It stops to gather breath, instead of rounding off its sentence with a full, firm stop.

But let’s not get hung up on all these complications. What really matters is that the music pauses, no more than five seconds after it begins. A pop song wouldn’t do that. A folk song wouldn’t. Balinese music wouldn’t. And I might add, for accuracy’s sake, that a lot of classical music wouldn’t do it, either. Bach would never start a piece like that. But let’s not go there, not just yet. No need, right at the start of this discussion, to unfold a separate lecture on classical music history. What matters, once again, is that Beethoven, writing the Pastoral in 1808, starts unfolding his ideas in the very striking way that I’ve described. He plays the bare beginning of a thought, then stops. What’s going to happen next? Where’s Beethoven going to go with this? If you measure his discursions by the length of the entire symphony, he takes more than 40 minutes to reveal his destination. Or maybe 10 minutes, if we wonder where he’s going only in the first movement alone.

But let’s leave this, too, and just focus on that simple melody, which closes on a colon. Having put it out there, Beethoven could now do almost anything. He could continue from the colon. He could jump to something different. He could state the melody again, but leaping to a suprising different key. (Which he does at the beginning of his Fourth Piano Concerto). 

And speaking now as a composer, I want to say that I love the expansion, development, contrast, and diversity of thoughts in music. One thought leads to another. Often thoughts digress; then they can return from their digressions (or, if they’d like to, keep digressing through an entire piece, which then would end very far from where it started). In a string quartet I wrote as a surprise birthday present for my wife, I started with a phrase I stole from the middle of another piece of mine. I couldn’t tell you how I thought of doing that. Here I had a little stretch of music that, as I’d originally conceived it, came after many other thoughts, and seemed, when it appeared, to slow time down, to stretch the thoughts that came before it. So now I found that it could work as a beginning. Now it ambled into view, and ended with a very drawn-out colon, or maybe an ellipsis, stretching forward toward whatever I might want to happen next.

And later on I brought this music back, to introduce the final section of the piece. This time it seemed to pull the piece together. At the beginning, its signal might have been, “Now something’s going to happen.” But now it said, “I’m here again, to introduce the end.”

So I should fully out myself as a form and structure geek. I’m writing an entire opera full of structure games. I write a melody, and then I write an independent piece of music—something that could be played entirely by itself—to accompany the melody. I write a theatrical episode in my opera, a complete musical and dramatic unit, and then I bring it back as the orchestral accompaniment to a completely different scene, which unfolds with brand-new music in the voices. This is fun. And to the regional presenters I’d insist that it doesn’t matter whether many people hear the games I’m playing. This is just the way I like to work. (Though maybe, in some deeper, not quite conscious way, it makes my music sound as if the parts all fit together, which is not to say that they also couldn’t fit together in some freer, far less structured way.)

But I want to return to the Pastoral. The music starts, then pauses. Then it starts again, and expands into something that’s very quietly lovely, but still quite simple, though it goes on longer than the first phrase did. (Some other composer might have just repeated what he or she had started out with. But now we get to ask—and even answer—some questions about what makes certain music wonderful. One great thing about Beethoven is that he never has to repeat himself, unless he wants to. He’s fabulous at finding new directions for his music, without any fuss or strain or change of gears. Because he left a lot of sketchbooks, we know that he worked long and painful hours to make his music seem so effortless, but he succeeded.)

So now we have music that:

starts

pauses

starts again, and goes on longer

and then finds another way to pause.

How does it pause this second time? Instead of stopping on a colon, it winds down by repeating the same little fragmentary musical idea, a little rising scale, that maybe sounds like someone walking. It repeats this fully 10 times, getting louder, and then falling quiet once again.

And so now, at this point in the piece, we have a little gallery of musical ideas. First, the melody the music started with. Then whatever new thoughts Beethoven might have offered in what we heard when the music started up a second time. And then the more abstract idea of starting something, and then pausing it; we’ve heard that happen twice, so already it’s started to play a more than casual role in how the Pastoral develops.

These abstract notions can be wonderfully productive, over long and thoughtful spans of time. In another string quartet I’ve written, the music often stumbles to a halt, as if it can’t quite figure out where it wants to go. Then, near the end, there’s a silence whose exact length is up to the musicians, but which should last at least a minute. This turns out to be the climax of the piece. The first time the music stumbles into silence, the silence doesn’t mean much. It didn’t mean much to me when I composed it. But each time they return, these silences grow more important. At some point, when I realized that silence would be a recurring feature of this piece, I added a motto to the title page, a famous line from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And once silence was recurrent, it could bear more weight; it could even grow into a climax. So finally, in Beethoven, in the short span of the Pastoral that we’ve explored so far, there’s one more idea, the little walking figure that repeats 10 times—which after it becomes established grows into something wonderful and unexpected, my favorite passage in the entire piece.

Next, on January 23: more on the structure of the Pastoral, and a look at structure in some other music, new and old—music that isn’t like Beethoven at all.

In previous episodes:

Episode 1: Classical music is in trouble. Ticket sales are falling, the audience is getting older, classical music organizations have trouble raising money, and could conceivably go out of business. I myself, a life-long classical music professional, find myself drawn away from classical music. Other genres do so much, especially with rhythm, that classical music never touches. What have we shut ourselves off from? And classical music can be hard for outsiders to approach, even if they like to listen to it. Mark, the man who’s been cutting my hair for almost 20 years, loves jazz, especially jazz piano, but sometimes goes to the classical department at Tower Records to look at classical CDs. He’s confused by what he sees—CDs that feature composers and performers he’s never heard of, CDs with all their information written in foreign languages. Someone else I know, a therapist named Jed, never goes to hear classical music. But he loves Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and once, when he was walking by Lincoln Center, he saw a poster for a concert where the Pastoral was going to be played. Impulsively he bought a ticket. But he never went back. There was nothing at the concert that made him feel that he was welcome, nothing in posters for any other concert that seized his attention, nothing in any part of his experience that drew him back again to Lincoln Center to hear anything else. And then there’s the music itself. I myself love the Pastoral Symphony, for its tunefulness, for how free it is from any strain or striving, for its loving craftsmanship, and for the way it breaks apart the normal frame of any symphony, connecting its last three movements in a single sweeping narrative. But in performance, the narrative can lose its force, because the symphony (like every classical masterwork) is performed too often. And the conclusion of the piece—in which Beethoven gives heartfelt thanks because a thunderstorm has ended—might, to a modern audience, seem naïve. What are we to make of a classical music world that spends so much of its time and energy on music from the past?

Episode 2: I want to ask how a classical concert might have felt to Jed. And I might start with this: The concert would of course have seemed quite formal. The musicians wear formal dress, and the audience—mostly older people—also dresses up. This formality can put the music in an odd, blank place. If the musicians are wearing formal dress, then the concert is a formal rite. But is the music formal? Is performing it a rite? That seems at odds with the nature of the music, some of which was even written to be entertainment. Before the 19th century, people talked during concerts, and applauded whenever they felt like it, right in the middle of the music. And the formality is inconsistent. The musicians, as I’ve said, are wearing formal dress. But typically they stroll  on stage at any random time before the concert starts, and sit there noodling at their music, all of them at once, cacaphonically, never looking at the audience. And there are other contradictions. Classical music is almost always advertised with blank superlatives. But the program notes at classical concerts often go to the opposite extreme; they’re often so scholarly that most people won’t be able to understand what they’re saying. Meanwhile, there are important things that no one ever tells the audience about. No one tells the audience what the musicians think about—what their goals are in any piece of music, how the performance we might hear tonight could be different from any other one. And so a veil of blankness descends on classical concerts. Behind the formality, who can tell what’s really going on?

Episode 3: The formality has still more consequences. The audience becomes passive, and in fact is expected to be. Musicians, too, are often passive. Orchestral musicians have very little control over the music that they make. They aren’t  treated as co-participants by most of the conductors who lead them; they’re simply asked to do as they’re told. And almost all classical musicians these days are circumscribed by their training, since typically they’re taught a lot of rules they have to follow, including rules about what kinds of playing have to be forbidden, because they’re too original, or take too much freedom with the music, and hence are thought to be excessive. People who work for classical music institutions also can be passive; especially in orchestras, they rarely talk about the music. In the end, classical concerts proceed without much human contact, which helps explain why the audience is shrinking: No one is speaking to it. Some people, though, believe that the audience is disappearing because classical music is no longer taught in our schools. I don’t buy that. It’s allied with another idea, that classical music inherently is abstract, and therefore complicated, or at least that it depends on abstract musical structures that people need to learn about. But in past centuries, nobody needed to learn about classical music; they simply responded to it, because it spoke the language of their time. And in any case, it wouldn’t be enough to teach people about the music, to make them want to go to classical concerts. We’d have to teach them to accept what happens at those concerts—we’d have to teach them to be passive. And how can we do that, in an age when people actively make choices on their own? So before we can attract the new audience that everybody talks about, the classical music world will have to change. Before we can discuss that, though, we need to ask what classical music really is. This question is trickier than it seems. Is classical music what we hear at classical concerts? Is it defined by the instruments it uses, or by the way the audience behaves? It’s easy to find classical music, by living composers, that doesn’t work in any of these traditionally classical ways. Can we define classical music as serious and complex, and as musical art? That also doesn’t work, because other forms of music can serious, complex, and artistic. To me, classical music has just two definitions. First, it’s the musical tradition of developed western culture, which among much else means that it needs to survive, and that anyone who reads Proust or Jane Austen should be able to understand it. Second, classical music develops over spans of time. That gives classical music a special kind of richness, and if it disappeared from our culture, I’d be desolate.

Posted by gsandow on January 8, 2006 11:47 PM

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