Sunday, August 28, 2005

Relevance and Music ...

The word relevance keeps cropping up in posts, conversations and essays on programming music. Composer Ned Rorem was compelled to write to the New York Times about it today. And many are bristling with the first breezes of the oncoming Mozart storm, wondering about the relevance of his music in our time.

Ned Rorem's letter paints a dismal scenario of highly practiced, empty-minded virtuosos playing to score points with incurious audiences. Both are apathetic toward the new. Both have a disdain for the relevant. And they have developed a comfortable distance from the exuberance and freedom that comes with the intriguing shock of the unfamiliar.

The complaint is complicated. It begins with the problem of selling. Marketing music can mean working in the Devil's workshop, or at least setting up office just a couple of dangerous doors away.

The ongoing and furious experiment of using irrelevant visuals to lure a profitable number of ears is not working. While there is great fantasy and possibility in the visual realm, and while that realm is now astonishingly easy to pass on to thousands of people, the thing being marketed is not a thing meant for seeing. It's a thing meant for hearing.

In radio broadcasting, there are often stories of really marvelous intersections of the visual and the aural realms, confessed by listeners. A driver drenched in Mozart navigates a crowded city street in the fall ... a solitary soul with Messiaen in his earbuds shuffles through a snowy campus at dusk ...

The driver, stuck at a stoplight, is compelled to focus for a moment on the pulsing, longing gestures that are unfolding in the clear air of a Mozart slow movement. His eye catches the tempo of some perfect and oblivious cloud crossing silently above the chaotic throbbing of the crowd in the crosswalk ... and he has a moment of altered perception. Elevated sensibility. An inexplicable tenderness pours through him ... a feeling of oddly removed involvement -- of being human.

I would say that this is relevance.

The solitary walker, pushing through the wind, feels the brittleness of ice under his feet, and as he plods, the bright whistle of Messiaen's piano birds fills the blue air of his consciousness. His eyes scan the shapes of the naked trees and his perception of them changes ... he sees their shapes as hauntingly beautiful. He has an inexplicable sense that he and the landscape belong together.

In these cases, the listener's perception of his own, real world is dramatically altered by music.
It's not using visuals to lure the listener.
Rather, the listener has listened, and the world has changed.


artmath said...

I agree. Music is extremely important to me while I'm painting.

Kristjan Hans said...

An intriguing entry
and well set forth.

Music has magic to it
and matters a great deal.
At least it's important to me.

Imogen said...

I've just begun searching for intelligent and interesting classical music blogs and feel very lucky to have come across yours, and this beautiful entry. It is, I think, exactly right about what the experience of listening to music actually means and it's also very beautifully written. A wonderful thing to read at the start of my day.

Mike Z said...

The main problem is dwindling audiences. And I believe that one of the reasons audiences are dwindling is that so few people get to hear music, starting with their childhood. Instead, they get a steady diet of loud brutish music.

I'm not sure how to understand "relevant", in terms of music. How do we measure the relevance of something by David Diamond, Stockhausen, Mozart, Hildegard of Bingen,...?

I think that to a naive audience, it either sounds good or it doesn't. Atonal music doesn't.

I believe that music is a comunication medium: transmitter, channel, receiver. Music is like any other art - you need to understand the basics, the simple stuff, before you can get to the more complicated. I read a long time ago that audiences of the 1800s could easily hear key changes and modulations. We've lost a lot of that ability.

Most drivers I've seen around here, stuck at a stoplight, are sitting in cars whose very frames pulse to the angry beat of an immense drum.

Marketing is part of what makes careers possible for the next generation of artists, the driven teenage violinists who would have fit in perfectly in Vivaldi's orphanage, the pianists who hustle for competition medals,... Marketing is what gets the outsider to sample some of this odd music that's been laying around for a century, and some of the new odd music from composers like Bolcom, Schickele and Paart.

Charlie Tee said...

People listen to music for what it suggests to their minds...