The documentary for fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is fantastic. One thing that Bill said which struck me was probably the most quoted from the film: “Fashion is the armor to survive everyday life”.
Is music an armor? Oh sure, the grandiosity and noblesse of some music has armor written all over it. But I think that armor has some chinks, letting the air seep through.
Music strikes me as porous more than anything. Protection from life is the last thing music needs. Music needs life to work from, whether its Mozart or Mudhoney. It reacts to the world as much as creates one.
Music isn’t an armor, it’s a skin between ourselves and the world.
A Handel flute sonata is a handrail. The performer approaches it like a skateboarder takes on a handrail. Multiple angles and approaches: some more obvious than others, some more complementary to the rail than others, some more insane than others. In the end the skater goes for it as the performer does. A scraped knee and a flubbed note doesn’t stop them.
Oh to be as playfully curious and patiently persistent like a skater! To look at the classical repertoire like one giant skatepark that is just waiting for us to explore.
Maybe skaters have something to teach classical musicians. If only we just looked for a moment.
Avante garde music is intimidating; mainly because it can seem so damn confusing. Most listeners don’t know what’s happening. All it appears to be is random noise. It’s no wonder most criticisms amount to declaring that a piece sounds like someone banging her hands wildly on a piano.
But we were never intimidated at first. We always listened to the avante garde when we were kids. Cartoons anyone? Take away the picture and what do you hear? My money is on some erratic music. Hell, cartoon music composers have used the musical language found in the music we find so challenging.
So what’s the difference?
With the picture, everything the music is doing makes sense. That ascending chromatic passage is Bugs Bunny climbing up the stairs. The music shifting from a slow waltz to a frantic atonal burst is Sylvester pouncing on a Tweety Bird who was relaxing peacefully in a warm bath. We don’t mind how crazy the music is as long as its connected to what’s on the screen.
What if that’s what we need to do with the avante garde in concerts? No, not putting Bugs Bunny on while we play Webern. No, but presenting a better picture to the audience: explaining what the music is going for and how it achieves said goal.
We have to give them the picture to connect the frantic dots, the atonal dots, the serialist dots. Then people might understand it and from there, well, possibly start liking the stuff.
The internet gives us an infinite means of listening to music. Yet all it can take is listening to one piece in a recital to change your life.
The internet gives us an infinite amount of people who make music to for you to listen to. Yet all it can take is three people at the local bar, drums and bass and guitar, to change your life.
While technology has given us so many opportunities for music, some things remain the same. The impact of music in person is second to none.
Of course, however, it’s all about getting people to get out and hear music in person.
Social critic Neil Postman has said that with new technology we should always ask what problems it solves before blindly accepting it. If it solves no problems and just takes space then issues arise.
The Internet, then, can be looked at as a means of solving the problem of getting people to see music in person. From Facebook events to Bandcamp, technology can at least help music in this regard.
But what other music problems could it possibly solve?
Peter Mendelsund designs some stellar book covers.
As a matter of fact, some of those books I recall reading exclusively because of his cover. While the subject matter was appealing, the cover sealed it: I had to check the book out.
A book cover is more important than we imagine. At its best a cover not only complements the book but encapsulates its ideas. And even further, it not only encapsulates its ideas but even influences how we interpret the book.
Song titles can be just like book covers. This is especially true with instrumental works. Lyrics cannot help us along that kind of sonic journey. The only suggestion we receive besides what the music gives us is the title.
The Bad Plus is a band in particular that really nails song titles. They range from tender (“For My Eyes Only”) to straight up comic (“The Empire Strikes Backwards”). And the most profound part, like the book covers, is that these titles influence how I listen to the piece.
With, “For My Eyes Only”, I think of marriage or seeing a child being born: your loved one’s body or seeing your child born are only for you to witness; personal momentos that only you can cherish. With the already great music the song becomes this powerful ballad drenched in pathos.
And all with just four words…
“I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans”.
This statement by William Blake is so profound.
With being in a conservatory, it resonates even greater. Conservatories are a system that we are a part of. While “enslaved” might seem extreme, we are indoctrinated with all the red tape that a conservatory has to offer. We have to jump through the hoops to get the degree.
Yet making an impact in music isn’t about jumping hoops. It’s about creating projects that matter.
In my time at school, I’ve found it’s the side projects, the open mics you organize and the DIY shows you perform at, where I’ve grown the most as a musician and person. Learning how to create our own systems is one of the most important things we can develop for ourselves.
Maybe that is what conservatories could teach. What if one class required you to organize a concert outside of school for a grade?
Theater director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski stressed the idea of theater being in a constant state between apotheosis and derision. Apotheosis is the elevation towards the sublime. Derision is bringing things back to earth. An audience will lose patience submerged in the sublime for too long. This is where derision comes in. Humor is just one example. Think of the comic relief in Shakespeare: Dogberry, Falstaff, Sir Andrew Augecheek. And too much derision can lead to banality. That’s where apotheosis jumps back in. It’s a never ending tag team.
Apotheosis and derision are also what makes music engaging and memorable.
Franz Schubert’s second movement of his String Quintet is a perfect example. If apotheosis had a sound byte, it would be the first section. The clouds part and gates of Heaven swing out. But as soon as we were getting used to it, derision takes place. No gags here. Schubert brings us back to earth with an aggressive and mournful minor theme. Then the gates of Heavens reopen and we enter for the last time. Never mind this one movement: the whole Quintet tugs between apotheosis and derision. That is one quality for me that makes it so memorable.
And what about The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds? That album just about alternates between apotheosis and derision song by song. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” opens with the lightness and gaiety of derision. Later in we get apotheosis in the serenity of “Don’t Talk” followed by the grounded, cheery, almost pep band like “I’m Waiting for the Day”. The album wasn’t exclusively derision: what we’d expect from pop. Pet Sounds infused derision with apotheosis, creating the album we cherish today.
Lest we forget Alban Berg too: someone who practiced cerebral serialism yet infused it with passionate feeling. No wonder his music touched so many outside of the ivory tower.
I don’t think it’s a secret. Composers, musicians, and listeners alike know it: the best music, the music that moves us on a deep level, balances between satisfaction on a guttural and spiritual/intellectual level.