Classical music has gone from unlistenable to unchanging to sonic wallpaper. But it sure is relaxing. Conlon Nancarrow. Anna Meredith. Phillip Glass. Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Danny Kaye. White Christmas.
Roger CortonTo quote from your last e-mail “Music is purposely dull these days and has been for the past forty years. Speaking of ‘dull’, are you feeling re-energized?
JCHNice lead-in. I’m getting back there. Being sick is so boring. And as I wrote, that pretty much describes serious music for the past forty years. It’s the aural (a-u-r-a-l) equivalent of Ambien®.
RCOuch. Ironically, in our last rant, you railed against trying to do classical music in a populist way. It seems like you’re never satisfied.
JCHYou just figured that out? Here’s a question: when someone says “Modern Classical Music”, what are the first sounds that come into yer mind?
RCI don’t know exactly, but I can picture myself covering my ears.
JCHExactly! You’re imagining dissonance. Somewhat punishing to listen to. Like this…
RCMother of God.
JCHConlon Nancarrow won every major prize one can ever win in music. I personally find his stuff to be like Wasabi for my ears. Anyhoo, But your reaction is so twentieth century of you. The real modern classical music starting forty years ago is more like this:
…and today, it’s like this…
RCThe first one is minimalism, right? OK, I get it. But the second one? That’s not classical music. That’s Dentist Office music. Massage Music. Yoga Studio Music. The third one? It’s like a boy scout campfire activity.
JCHI assure you, this is the prevailing trend in concert music. Especially for the up-and-comers. It’s my belief that most classical musicians (and I guess ‘prog’ musicians) have gone this route.
RCIf you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?
JCHActually, that’s pretty close to the truth. What you hear over and over from composers of all ages is that there is simply no way to get works played.
RCBecause there’s no audience.
JCHWell, that’s a chicken-and-egg problem that is for another day, old friend. But it’s extremely tough to get any music played unless it is just super customer-friendly. And ‘ambient’ works for audiences. You just add a cello or flute to some forest sounds and… eh vee-oh-lah: Art music!
RCSounds relaxing. If the chairs have those Magic Fingers massage things? I’m in.
JCHAnd the beauty part? The customer gets to feel extra-special because, hey, they’re not listening to, what did you say, ‘Dentist Office Music’? They’re listening to ART MUSIC! It’s a win-win. Magic Fingers For The Mind plus high-brow brownie points!
RCYour cynicism may have reached a new hidden Super-Mario level I didn’t know about. A while back, you ranted on Structure. Couldn’t it be that this is just more of your sour grapes because the world hasn’t gone in your musical direction?
JCHMaybe. Said it many times: people like what they like. But I think it’s also important to understand why people like what they like. And if you say you like concert music or prog, I want to understand exactly what they mean by that. It’s like saying you love ‘America’. OK, so what is intrinsic to ‘America’? Is it a set of values? Laws? Shared history? Culture? What? With music, does ‘classical’ mean anything that has a cello or a flute or is it music that is notated? Guys in tuxedos? Or something completely different? To my mind ‘concert’ music is a line of thinking that stretches back to Bach. But when I listen to a lot of contemporary music I literally cannot find the connecting thread back to Beethoven or whoever you want to pick. At some point, the fabric frays and frays until there’s just no more thread.
RCSewing metaphors? Too abstract.
JCHThen let’s start here: people are in a concert hall. The musicians are playing the same instruments as Mozart. But to me that’s just surface stuff. It feels like the guys playing ambient music in that same concert hall somehow ‘legitimizes’ the music in some way; makes it seem more impressive than what it actually is.
RCThe tuxedos provide credibility. Got it.
JCHBut turn-about is definitely not fair play. You know I’ve worked on music for electric guitar quartet for many years. Basically a ‘serious’ version of the 1980 King Crimson format. That sound has amazing possibilities. You’ve heard demos, wouldn’t you agree?
RCAbsolutely. Never understood why you haven’t run with it.
JCHNumber 367 on the list of rants for another day. Anyhoo, you’d never get that sort of thing into a concert hall except as a one-off. Does that mean it’s not concert music? In other words, even if the music is much closer in form to the European art ideal than the hand clapping, the hand clapping gets programmed because the participants are in traditional dress.
RCAnd the composer went to Julliard and the instrument doesn’t require electricity. OK, I take your point. But may I ask how does this connect to progressive rock?
JCHWell, I fell in love with the English school that is basically built on western ‘art’ music. Some of it is more new-agey and ‘rock’
JCHRight. And some is blatantly classical.
RCLike ELP or Gentle Giant.
JCHAnd then there’s the whole story-telling zone which is Genesis and Jethro Tull. They’re basically little musical plays; micro operas.
JCHI’m more in that last group, I suppose. I like music that tells a story. I think that’s what western music is about. Whether it’s abstract like Beethoven or operatic like Verdi, it has story lines that develop and get resolved in a way that people can understand.
RCAnd you’re saying that modern music doesn’t do that?
JCHOh, I actually think it does. But it does so in a way that isn’t understandable for the audience.
JCHThe noisy Twentieth Century classical music was the most structured sound one could imagine. It’s just that it used all these structures that only matter to the composer. There are all these mathematical constructs–as with that Nancarrow piece that are either so abstract or so complex that the audience can never hope to perceive them. It’s like watching a sporting event where the rules are so complex you can’t follow the action.
RCSo the easy listening stuff is a reaction to that?
JCHIt’s a reaction to the ‘unlistenability’ of late twentieth century music. The younger generations ears were just as overwhelmed as yours. It was a running joke you’d see in movies and theater all over the place sixty years ago; modern music is ridiculous. If you recall from the movie White Christmas…
RCWhat a laugh. I forgot that was even in the movie. I’ve heard you sing ‘The Theater. The Theater’ any number of times but I had -no- idea what you were talking about.
JCHThat’s OK. Nobody remembers great culture anymore. Anyhoo, the current state of affairs, either minimalist or ambient also consists of structures; usually elaborate mathematical formulas of repetition, which again aren’t comprehensible to the listener. But the actual sonic effect is much more soothing. They’re more like those Islamic art mandalas where one only sees the overall effect of thousands of repeated swirls. The idea is to appeal to people on a level other than consciously.
JCHPartly. But in this music, you’re either relaxed or mesmerized. Or maybe it’s some grand comment on the complexity of the world. But what you’re not meant to do is follow a story line of musical themes
RCOr be thrown by all that nasty noise!
JCHDefinitely not that. To summarize, the one thing that almost all modern concert music shares is that it’s pleasant to listen to. And in that way it kinda reminds me of Mozart.
RCThe bombshell blonde who just happens to be a rocket scientist. Easy on the eye, but deep layers underneath.
JCHEXACTLY! We live in an age where music is much more decorative than in previous generations. Music isn’t meant to be this serious romantic pursuit. As they would say about Mozart, current music is meant to be ‘refreshing’. When it’s very good, there are layers of meaning that a serious listener can check out, but good or bad, the surface is almost never confrontational.
RCAnd that’s definitely not you.
JCHDefinitely not me. However, one footnote. I actually (cough) ‘wrote’ a piece of music very like Anna Meredith’s hand clapping thing back as sophomore in college.
JCHI was so terrible at the mechanics of music so I used to always be looking for (cough) ‘creative’ ways to write a composition that would pass the class but that didn’t require much actual musical knowledge! This sort of thing has the side-benefit of being a real crowd-pleaser. Everyone (including the prof.) laughed them self silly just trying to perform it. So I got a good grade.
RCSleight of hand. I love it. Maybe that’s why you’re so derisive?
JCHThat’s part of it. It doesn’t feel legit. Looking back, I’m 99% sure I didn’t ‘invent’ this technique, but honestly I haven’t heard anyone do that technique before then. Maybe it’s one of those things like calculus and jerking off that people around the world inevitability discover.
RCMaybe at the same time.
JCHThat would be the ULTIMATE Dr. Who moment. If you could go back in time with that contraption and see Newton and Leibniz. And you find out that both of them got that ‘Eureka!’ moment while whacking off.
RCAnd I was worried we were getting too highbrow. We could, or rather you could, go on like this all day, but…
JCHAnyhoo, so much modern classical music feels like LTE doing Rhapsody In Blue. That Anna Meredith piece was an extreme example but it’s not an outlier by any means. To me they’re both crowd-pleasers and not real music.
RCNot ‘music’? That’s pretty over the top. If they’re not music, then what are they?
JCHI dunno. I actually struggle with that myself. The furthest I’ve gotten so far is that the above are flavours of what I think (although I could be mistaken) Frank Zappa used to call ‘music-like-substances’.
RCWell if he didn’t, he should’ve said that. Rest his soul. OK, I think we’re done.
JCHWorn out, huh? Why not put on that Phillip Glass piece and take a nap. You’ve earned it.