Monthly Archives: July 2015

“Bach changed him, working on him from one day to the next. Playing the suites invariably reminded him of discovering them: ‘That scene has never grown dim. Even today, when I look at the cover of that music, I am back again in the old musty shop with its faint smell of the sea’. At the same time, they evoked society: in Bach’s ‘infinite gradations of musical allusion’ he heard ‘the simple joy of the people, the popular dances, the elegance the perfume, the loving contemplation of nature and the rest’. They closed the gap between Bach and himself.”

– Paul Elie on Pablo Casals, Reinventing Bach

Pablo Casals’ insights sound serendipitous, as if all of a sudden the works breathed life into their humble Catalan servant as he carelessly caroused them one day.

What’s important to note here is that Casals worked Bach’s cello suites every day. He did this for twelve years before performing them in public with recordings and recitals. For Casals, it wasn’t accidental at all. Finding the beauty in these suites was an accumulation of the daily time he spent with them.

Sounds a lot like dating.

Like dating, Casals sure had his joys but also his frustration: Bach’s cello suites we’re considered throw away technical exercises, not music. Working from little to nothing, Casals had to find the music in them.

And this is where I think persistence comes in. Falling in love is a gradual process. It only seemed sudden but it was months and years in the making, good and bad, that ended with two people saying “I do”.

If we want to fall in love with our music, perhaps we need to go on more dates with it: practice. The opportunity is there to go on daily dates with our music. The opportunity is there to fall in love.

Then, like Casals with Bach, our performances can become not just music but public renewals of our vows.

In the beginning there was the storyteller. In an oral culture, stories were part of a communal activity and had morals to them.

Then came the printing press and along with that the novel. The communal activity of stories now became a private affair. Morals didn’t necessarily permeate through novels, more so the “evidence of the profound perplexity of the living”. It was what a reader made of it.

The novel then was superseded by information: self contained bits of narrative. No appeal to a moral, authority, religion, or any other preconceived notions. Information, on the other hand, makes the world understandable in of itself.

This is how philosopher Walter Benjamin explains the shift to modernity in his essay “The Story Teller”.

What worried Benjamin was the loss of the storyteller to information. In an oral culture, stories required memory and frequent repetition if they were to be kept alive. Information doesn’t rely on memory as it does on the impetus of looking something up. The storyteller memory, hinging on the culture and morals connected to the stories, is replaced with what Benjamin calls a mechanical memory: one that deals in isolated and often disconnected chunks of information.

Music is at such a crossroads. The storyteller is butting heads with information. Songs passed down from generation to generation, standards and traditional tunes, are isolated from their original context and meaning to be used as a play thing to show one’s virtuosity. Works that were meant to be heard in full, from sonatas to concept albums, are broken up to single song downloads and Youtube clips.

Is there a stronger sense of lineage, of reverence, of morality in music today? Has the banquet of information made these ties weaker or even make us forget them all together?

We have more access to music than ever before, but do we have a stronger connection with music than before?

Getting younger audiences to concerts is one of the problems classical music has these days. To dig a little deeper, the heart of the matter is getting a younger audience for classical music. The beginnings of creating an audience usually entail hearing the music first. And if the younger crowd usually refrains from listening to classical music in the first place, how will classical music develop a younger audience?

So why not bring the music to them?

Does that entail forcing it down their throats? Yes.

Playing at an open mic, getting the string quartet to be on bill at a house show, giving a Beethoven mixtape to a friend whose mostly into post rock, creating a zine dedicated to classical music and spreading it all through your town.

If it seems out of place then it’s a step in the right direction.

Because keeping classical music in its place, concert halls and wineries and weddings, doesn’t cut it. If we’re to reach a younger audience, getting classical music out of its place is mission critical.

Imagine a gallery where there is one painting. You sit and admire it for a couple minutes. As soon as you start to get into it the painting vanishes. Reappearing in its place is a different painting. Again you admire it and at the inopportune time it disappears. This process is repeated. Then the viewing is over. You go home.

Did you really have the time to see a piece in depth on a personal level?

That’s what concerts can be like. As soon as you start to feel a piece it’s taken away from you. This give and take compounds itself. In the end a couple fleeting moments we’re remembered from the recital.

Now imagine a gallery where there is one painting. That’s it. This painting won’t disappear on you. It will patiently hang, waiting to be looked at. And not just a fleeting glance, but an intense stare into what every stroke has to say about the whole. You have a while. Get acquainted with this painting.

When you leave this gallery, will the one painting you saw be better than the five or six from the other? Not necessarily. What can be said is that you had more of a chance to develop a relationship with this painting, absorbing what it had to say to you, than the experience in the prior gallery.

That’s what we need in concerts: a chance to develop a relationship with the music that could continue outside of the half hour in the concert hall.

But how would this operate in a concert setting? One piece performed repeatedly? Interspersed with commentary, comments, questions? To some degree it seems stupid.

Though stupid enough to work?

John Donne wrote that “All mankind is one author; and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language”. The hope, taken for granted by Donne, is that we are lead to a better language. It’s quite a wager, especially when we’re dealing with translators of all sorts. What could come out of it might be messier, not necessarily better. But the process of translation is a necessity. It is how we comprehend what came before us, which might as well be a foreign tongue.

Exploration of translation is Matthew Guerrieri’s task, taking Beethoven’s chapter and focusing on the paragraph of his 5th symphony. But he zooms in even more onto the opening sentence of this paragraph: the four note motif: da da da dum!

There have been many who have taken Beethoven’s 5th, from revolutionaries to totalitarians, as the subject of translation. And these translations have translations of distant chapters that orbit around them: a strain of music theory relating to the 5th for instance. It’s no surprise that the accumulation of translations can make up a book in of itself. Guerrieri elegantly aligns these translations in a way that creates a web of relations, an expanding universe of, as the subtitle states, “Beethoven’s 5th and the Human Imagination”.

This book leaves one in a dizzying state of awe. How a sentence of a paragraph of a chapter can send a ripple through the volume of all mankind…

Between 1928 and 1942, NBC offered a radio series called The Music Appreciation Hour. Its task was to present classical music in a way that would make a young audience enjoy the music through a better understanding of it.

Theodor Adorno, a philosopher at the time, was a skeptic of The Music Appreciation Hour. There was a difference between its expectations and reality:

“While apparently urging recognition in order to help people to ‘enjoy’ music, the Music Appreciation Hour actually encourages enjoyment, not of the music itself, but of the awareness that one knows music”.

Music, in this sense, is a set of cues for the listener to comprehend. If one can follow the music, it can be understood. That’s it.

Adorno, however, saw musical understanding as an intensive relationship. This involved digging deep within the music, finding the transcendent qualities of, say, a Beethoven quartet. It’s a messy understanding of music but rooted in individual freedom.

This is key for Adorno. It’s what The Music Appreciation Hour was missing. That type of understanding is cookie cutter, neutering any meaning the music had and leaving a shell of motifs and sections in its place. Adorno’s understanding retains the music’s soul.

What’s conflicting here is that analysis a la The Music Appreciation Hour is still an important part of understanding music. It’s what studying music theory is all about. Yet Adorno saw that leaving one’s understanding of music at this check list analytical level only nips the bud of music’s power: the freedom of individual nourishment.

Music can be analyzed but we have to realize that it wasn’t composed for that exclusively.

With Beethoven there’s the mystique around his deafness: that he composed in spite of this. Part inspiration and part miracle, he could choose the right notes and make them beauteous sound.

But Beethoven could most definitely (and did) compose in his head well before the height of his deafness. With the rigorous work and study, surely into the stratosphere of the Gladwellian ten thousand hours, it would only be natural that Beethoven could work out his music mentally.

It’s like a grandmaster chess player going blind later in his life and yet still being a chess champion. High level players intensively sift through past games, problems, and strategies. Sooner or later a player’s memory works in such a way that a game can unfold without a chess board. Therefore a blind grandmaster doesn’t seem as farfetched.

Though the crux here is that there was intensive work before the permanent alteration. It wasn’t someone just pulling sound out of the air. Would Beethoven have composed the Grosse Fugue if he was deaf at an early age? Would he even be composing? Probably not.

And yet would Beethoven have composed the Grosse Fugue if it weren’t for his deafness? That’s even a more unanswerable question.