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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Life, death, and music

I happened to hear part of a program on NPR this afternoon that caught my attention.

This is what I heard:

George Rochberg used to be one of America's best composers in a not-very-popular style: 12-tone music. Developed by Arnold Schönberg in the 1920s, 12-tone music was an attempt at a new musical language in which all 12 pitches of the scale were used in a complexly rotating order. Though the technique promised theoretical unity and consistency, the style was usually dense and dissonant and difficult for nonmusicians to follow. Rochberg was one of our major composers in that style, but his music had a lightness and lyricism to it that was attractive. Pieces like his Serenata d'estate, or Summer Serenade, of 1955 used the 12-tone idiom with a rare and delightful lightness of being.

However, in 1964 Rochberg's 20-year-old son Paul died of a brain tumor. Devastated, Rochberg did some soul-searching, and found that the highly technical 12-tone style wsn't sufficient for the emotions he now needed to express. As he put it, "With the loss of my son I was overwhelmed by the realization that death... could only be overcome by life itself; and to me this meant through art, by practicing my art as a living thing (in my marrow bone), free of the posturing cant and foolishness abroad these days which want to seal art off from life." (italics added)

Already well known and with a prominent position at the University of Pennsylvania, Rochberg underwent a highly visible and controversial change of mind. To the horror of his colleagues, he abandoned the official atonal style of musical academia and started writing tonal music, romantic music, music with hummable melodies. First he worked quotations from other composers into his music. But by the mid-1970s, he found himself writing in older, obsolete styles, the styles of Handel, Beethoven, Mahler. For instance, the beginning of his String Quartet No. 5, written in 1977, sounds very like a Beethoven scherzo, though written 150 years after the death of the composer it evokes.

Innocent-sounding as it is, within the profession this music was a slap in the face. Rochberg's fellow composers raked him over the coals. Prominent music critics like Andrew Porter of the New Yorker dismissed him as "irrelevant." For all his music's continuing undeniable craftsmanship, Rochberg had abandoned the one most essential core belief of 20th-century music: the idea of progress. Rochberg had turned away from the future, and was looking, through his music, back toward the past.

Nevertheless, after a few years of grumbling, other composers turned on their heels and began to follow: David Del Tredici, William Bolcom, John Adams, John Corigliano. By 1982 the New York Philharmonic gave a festival of what curator Jacob Druckman called "the New Romanticism." Looking backward became not only acceptable, but hip.

This raises an interesting question: is there an inherent reason that certain music affects us in certain ways? Certainly education and exposure factor in, but when you get right down to gut-level, why is some music a lot harder to listen to than others? Is taste merely subjective or is there more to it?

Of course, as a musician, this question is very intriguing to me, although I’ll admit I haven’t explored it much.

But I found Rochberg’s quote above quite telling. There is music that is academically or intellectually interesting, but – does it speak to the total person? Does it speak to the heart? (In asking this, I am not suggesting that music be gratuitously sentimental in order to do this.)

There is a physical reason for musical harmony: the frequencies of pitches in a harmonic series are related mathematically. Some philosophers, from Pythagoras on down through the middle ages, even thought the planets’ orbits were related in such ratios that produced the “music of the spheres.” (I have no idea whatever became of that idea but it’s a lovely one to think about :-)) For a simple illustration: The frequency of a pitch one octave above another will be double that of the lower pitch, or a ratio of 2:1. The pitch one octave below the starting pitch will have a frequency ½ that of the starting pitch. The frequency ratio of a major fifth will be 3:2; of a major fourth, 4:3, of a major third, 5:4, and so on.

On a stringed instrument, the octave is achieved by pressing on the string at its halfway point. The octave above that will be at the 3/4 point. And so on. For those with little musical background, if you have a keyboard handy: an example of an octave is middle C to the C above it. A fifth is from that higher C to G (4 white keys up). For a fourth, go up 3 more white keys to the next C. A third is 2 more white keys up to E.

Non-harmonic tones do not have related frequencies, hence these are often used as “color” tones or “angst” tones in musical expression. However, if you base a piece of music on a 12-tone row, you are basing it not on inherent harmonic qualities of the pitches themselves in relation to one another, but on a system where the pitches are abstracted from these inherent qualities. Hence, the music sounds dissonant. It can be interesting, and even expressive. But there is obviously a missing element, and a pretty big one at that.

In an age where so many things are abstracted from their essential elements (like relationships, sex, and the gift of life itself, for example), though, it’s no surprise that people might want to separate music and other art forms from their essential elements.

I’m not saying all abstraction is bad; I think it can serve a purpose. If certain elements are isolated from others, they can be drawn attention to and people can be led to see things in a different way. But if the abstraction actually fractures something, then that’s more damaging to the actual forms themselves and the thoughts and feelings associated with them. I.e., too much abstraction is more representative of death, or things which lead to deaths of various kinds, than it is of life.

So – should art celebrate death? Or life?

I encourage you to read the rest of the transcript. There’s more interesting material in there; perhaps I will write about it in another post.

Addendum: I'm aware that the mathematical relationships of pitches in a harmonic series are indicative of science themselves; therefore, a distinction needs to be made between "methodological" science and "philosophical" science, LOL. The scientific discoveries related to the interconnectedness of physical phenomena (excuse the alliteration) are profound, but they shouldn't be abstracted from those related phenomena that can't be measured; i.e., the way our unquantifiable selves are affected by quantifiable things.


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