Monthly Archives: December 2016

To our modern understanding, opera is opera. What was it to those first listening?

Carlo Magni, an Italian nobleman, was interested in attending an early opera in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.“It should be the most unusual”, Magni wrote. “[A]ll the actors are to sing their parts…No doubt I will be driven to attend out of sheer curiosity, unless I am prevented from getting in by lack of space…”

How else could opera be explained then by an odd combination of what Magni already knew of music and theater? It would be curious to see how opera become “opera” in the full sense of the word: when its reception as a sung play transferred into an independent art in of itself.


The appreciation of music would not happen without technology. Most of our experiences with music are mediated by a device of some sort.

This is taken at a subconscious level. We sometimes ignore that an intermediary action happens before we engage with the music. The gravitas of it easily slips away in the face of everyday use. Youtube and Spotify are the forks and knives of musical consumption. One gets to the point where she concerns herself with the food more than the utensils. It becomes a priority of musical object over the system that lets one listen in the first place.

Maybe a goal of music appreciation classes should be awareness of these systems. Because at some point we were fully aware of our forks and knives. We had to experiment and play to understand. Then they became second nature.

The question would then become how we can become conscious of these musical systems (Internet, Spotify, Itunes, etc.) again through experimentation and play.

When you search ‘beethoven string quartet op 131’ on Youtube there are 33,400 results. That spans to about 28 pages worth of video.

From the search, plenty are  the quartet in full or individual movements. Nothing else competes for my attention in these videos save for an album cover or additional information. They act like program notes more than anything.

The farther one gets beyond these first pages, however, the less obvious the results become.

Two are of particular interest.

First, there is a video of the quartet as backdrop to slow motion shattering and breakage (here). I had never seen a bullet go through objects in slow motion. It left me in a sense of awe. The other is a movement accompanied by conga drums (here).Classical and conga was not a combination on my radar before that video either.

What these videos beckon go beyond Beethoven’s music. True, it is because of his quartet that I found these videos, but their appeal is not limited strictly to the music like, say, a video of the recording is.

A deeper search yields videos where this supposedly simple function, a presentation of the piece as is, is turned on its head. Nobody was looking for Beethoven with conga drums but behold. It is unique in of itself.

With these videos we shift from the realm of interpretation from performer to performer to re-contextualization from video to video.

‘Insert genre here’ now sounds like ‘insert genre here’ then.

Claims like this get bounced off modern artists all the time. Often it is in lament, a cry for the creative to replace redundancy. Is this a fair assumption?

There is a zoological concept called neoteny. As Stephen Jay Gould describes in The Mismeasure of Man, neoteny is when the “rates of development slow down and juvenile stages of ancestors become the adult features of descendants.” Animals of many stripes are neotenic, including humans. “Many central features of our anatomy,” Gould writes, “link us with fetal and juvenile stages of primates: small face, vaulted cranium and large brain in relation to body size, unrotated big toe”, etc.

Music can be neotenic too. In music, it could range from symphonic form to distorted guitar, from a funk groove to opera. These are early characteristics that remain a part of a vein of a genre or style.

Neoteny in nature can be an evolutionary plus. The retardation of features allows an animal capabilities and opportunities that an otherwise mature form would not. Gould implies this in regards to our mental state: “In other mammals, exploration, play, and flexibility of behavior are qualities of juveniles, only rarely of adults. We retain not only the anatomical stamp of childhood, but its mental flexibility as well.” One could argue that our mental flexibility has lead to being able to type out these thoughts in the first place.

Benefits abound in a similar manner with music. Neoteny allows music the same expansion of capabilities and opportunities. Take hip-hop. One of its neotenic traits could be its tried and true use of samples. This retention comes at the expense of babel: “Hip-hop is not original. Why don’t they play their own instruments? Why use music that has already been used?”

But sampling, as a neotenic trait, allows flexibility for artists. For one, without the hassle of getting a band together, sampling makes production swift and efficient as need be. There is also the chance for one to stake his or her own claim: take from any second of any track and edit accordingly. The possibilities are endless. Sampling can even allow a more steady focus on cultivating unique talent as a rapper.

One can try this exercise for any trait of any music deemed neotenic. More often than not, its presence is there for a reason: to create space for other capabilities and opportunities. It is just a matter of finding them.

“We are talking about the schools’ cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument—the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits…”

-Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Students already appreciate music before they enter a music appreciation class. So is the point to teach students how to appreciate better?

Students already appreciate music. Let us start there. Instead of better, approach the student where she is coming from, as a part of her own culture. Music appreciation, then, is a student exploring her own music appreciation by learning to be on the outside looking in: the anthropological perspective.

There is so much going on in how a 21st century human being appreciates music already. Why not turn the magnifying glass on ourselves rather than on methods from other times?

Music appreciation can be broken down into noun and verb. The noun is the music being appreciated and the verb is the appreciation. If one were look at the syllabi for these classes, most focus the first few weeks on the verb: pitch, rhythm, melody, timbre, etc.

After these weeks go by there is an immediate shift towards the noun: an overview of the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, 20th Century, and what have you. Noun outweighs the verb in regards to time spent. One could also argue that the time on the verb, no matter how little, is foundational for what attention is placed on the noun.

Either option stems from a general question: what is music appreciation comprised of? Because, come to think of it, all noun would be like a music history class and all verb would be a music theory class. Music appreciation invites both noun and verb into the fold. It operates from a different ratio, a different recipe.

And yet is there a golden mean for music appreciation? Can we even quantify it? An answer seems inconsequential to the fact that everyone appreciates differently and appreciates different kinds of music. There is truth to that. Maybe a music appreciation class should be centered on examining and exploring the student’s own kind of music appreciation, whatever that may be.

The ‘New’ old fashioned can deal with something that has recently become indoctrinated into the old. What do we mean by the old? Classic rock, classical music, classics, the (fill in the blank) canon. The question has always been how does this process happen, how does a composer become a part of the canon, etc. What does not get asked as often is when. When does this process even occur?

One reason is obvious: it is taxing to put a timestamp on these things. Is there a date and time when Mozart was a new old fashioned? How many performances did it take? Of what pieces?

We can see that knotted into this inquiry is that frequent question of how. If we knew the process we could gauge a time table on, say, Mozart’s inclusion into the canon. Lo and behold, we don’t have exact knowledge of how this happens. There is not a definitive science as of this writing and there will probably never be.

Things become even more confounding because we are then stuck with these classics, not knowing their exact origins. It is not that we are clueless either. Historical and theoretical examinations gives us more reasons than not why Mozart is exemplary. That, however, is not our concern. The historical and theoretical take Mozart as a given, as old fashioned. Our concern is that transition from pre-old fashioned to new old fashioned.

Why take up such a mantle? Well, the move from the ‘pre’ to the ‘new’ is something that happens around us all the time. A band gets big, an artist is inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, such and such is now a staple in classical concerts everywhere, the list goes on. In attempting to understand these moments of emergence, we can get at the heart of how musical information spreads, calcifies, and fades.