Simplicity- Complexity

This is an important dichotomy in order  to understand music of the XX century and classical music in general.  Many times there is a great simplicity associated with beauty. Some of Beethoven’s most beloved works are simple works, like the piano piece “Fur Elise”  or the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Bach wrote works of great complexity but the “Air for the G String” has been heard many times in all kinds of settings and arrangements. However,  complexity can make a piece more interesting if the listener agrees to commit to unravel the complexity of the piece and to make an effort to understand it..

I find that there is an optimum level of the ratio of simplicity to complexity for each individual. Too much simplicity makes the work boring. Too much complexity makes the work frustrating as the listener feels left out of the game. This is a very basic dichotomy and I think that much of  XX century music tended toward the complex and that is the reason that minimalism was able to thrive. People were so tired of complexity that when Phillip Glass appeared on the scene, the door was wide open for a more repetitive, simplistic approach to music making.

So these dichotomies are like swinging pendulums. Sometimes you get complex music, sometimes simple. This phenomenon happened also at the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Classical period. The complexity of Johann Sebastian Bach was such that the arrival of Mozart and Haydn, with their “galant style” which consisted mainly of a melody with an accompaniment  was very welcome.

But there is another factor involved here, another dichotomy:

Melody-Randomness

I am going to continue my meditations on music and on a framework to understand it better. I was going to abandon them but I will finish them before embarking on something else.

I have put a lot of thought a lot about what the opposite of melody is, or what I could contrast with it and I think randomness is the best choice. Melody is a unifying factor in music. It puts order in a series of sounds heard consecutively. It helps us remember the music.

Melodies are structured in different ways in different musical systems. If you heard an Arabic melody it would be different from a Chinese melody as well as  from an Occidental melody. But the concatenation of different pitches is a fundamental part of all the music we hear. When we cannot link the sounds, and we cannot put some linear order into the music, we tend to reject it. In fact, when playing classical music of the XVIII and XIX century, the performers have to use a considerable amount of judgement in their performance so as to bring out  to melodic lines, allowing the public to follow the logic of the piece. Some atonal melodies are linked by a concept or by an arbitrary numeric succession, as in serialism. This will either result in a person being able to link the sounds, in which case he may like the work, or will result in a confusion, which many times will also lead to the rejection of the work.

There is another key word which we should bring into the conversation here,  and that is “motive”. A motive is a short sequence of notes that repeats throughout a composition. A good example of a motive are the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. This motive is repeated many times in the first minute of the work in order to form a melody but the whole basis of the piece is a motive. Still, if the motives are not used to form longer thoughts, we might get melodically lost in the piece and start to perceive it as a bunch of random sounds. Which leads us to the next dichotomy:

A Recommitment to Contemporary Music

Before I continue to explain my framework to describe music, I have to share something that happened to me three days ago. I was composing a prayer for Sinai Temple, a cantorial, very tonal, piece,  and I decided to look into  the last piano pieces I composed before I started to compose choral music. I listened to my 12 preludes and to a piece called Melody,Harmony and Rhythm.  These pieces haven’t seen the light of day yet, nobody has played them. But something very curious happened. I loved the Preludes and then I couldn’t quite grasp the Melody, Harmony and Rhythm one.  I listened to that piece several times, its three sections, and it started to come back to me what I had been doing and I realized that piece was probably the deepest expression of myself I had attempted to date. I had been skipping concerts of new music because I didn’t like most of what I heard and I had been writing mostly tonal music. Sometimes in my choral music I would use extended harmonies (not your normal chords but different, more dissonant ones), bitonality (two scales used at the same time), modal harmonies (medieval scales) and I enjoyed doing that but after hearing my Melody, Harmony  & Rhythm I realized earlier I had been on a deep quest to discover my own music, something more unique, and that I had put it aside for a while to write music that more people could understand. However, I realized that when I left the search it had really started to get to a different level and that I could not abandon it any more than I could abandon music itself in my life. So I just wanted to let you know that whatever else I do in my musical life, I will keep this exploration going and, hopefully, I will get to where this journey has been taking me for many, many years.

Interesting-Boring

So why would a composer abandon beauty in a musical composition? Here we get to the second dichotomy in music: Interesting-Boring. If a composer used a very beautiful chord and repeated it 20 times, even if it was the most beautiful chord in the world, your mind would probably start wandering or you would change the track in your device. Music has to be interesting. The composer has to engage his listener. This might actually be the most important dichotomy. Throughout the history of music, changes were introduced in the most part to make it interesting. That is the origin of the language of XX century music. It got really dissonant and the structures were changed radically because the sounds that had been used in the XVIII and XIX century had been used so much that even though they were very beautiful, they were boring to the composers. They were also boring to parts of the public particularly to the true connoisseurs, and to some of the critics. That explains the rise of atonal music and the backing it received in some critical circles.

Now, in popular music the lyrics of a song contribute greatly to the interest of the song but in classical instrumental music, we have to create interest in different ways. And so we get to the third dichotomy:

Ugliness-Beauty

The first dichotomy we will use when talking about music is ugliness-beauty. This is a very important dichotomy in all the arts, as the achievement of beauty has long been a goal of artists. However, as Plato said: “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. I have found, nevertheless, that there is a general agreement in our society as to what constitutes beauty and what doesn’t, in music. We actually have words that describe sounds that go well together, or are generally agreeable to our ears (consonances) and sounds that clash when played at the same time (dissonances). The fact that there is some sort of agreement as to what is consonant and what is dissonant means that there is some sort of agreement on beauty. That is the first part of beauty I am going to use in my evaluations, “consonant-dissonant”. Now, the agreement as to what is consonant and dissonant has varied through time. I won’t get into technical details about that. Suffice to say that when I am talking about music I am doing so with the ears of a classical musician that is living at the beginning of the XXI century.

The second part of beauty-ugliness I will use is the quality of each sound itself. After much consideration I think the proper dichotomy to use would be: “Harsh-Mellow”. A harsh sound would be a violin used in its highest range, while a mellow sound would be a violin being played in its usual range. Harsh could also be a violin being hit with the bow in a lower range but giving us a disagreeable sound. This is judging each sound by itself, not in relationship to other sounds. We find harsher sounds being used in the 20th and 21st Centuries and mellower sounds in the 18th and 19th centuries. So we will use consonance-dissonance and harsh-mellow because I consider them more objective than beautiful-ugly.

Understanding Music

Music is a complex subject. How can we understand it fully without studying it professionally? I’m talking about classical music, of course, or as they call it in Latin-American countries, “serious music”. Of course, the more you know, the easier it will be for you to relate to this type of music, particularly to the contemporary brand of it; however, I think that we can communicate better about it and thus achieve a better understanding if we relate to music though the use of dichotomies. I mentioned this in my last blog post, almost a year ago, but I didn’t get to develop the concept. I intend to do so now. Paragraph by paragraph I will endeavor to post regularly until the basic terms and parameters are defined and then I intend to talk about the music of our times.

The dichotomies in music

I plan to write a series of posts talking about dichotomies as a mean to express my ideas about contemporary classical music and its future. A dichotomy, which is the division of a subject into two opposites, allows us to better understand a subject and coupled with a scale between the two extremes, it gives us a more accurate idea of where the subject currently stands. Some of the dichotomies I plan to use are: Beauty-Ugliness, New-Old, Interesting-Boring. And when I say contemporary classical music, I mean the music that is being composed in the present day.

On the need for ideas

We live in a time of great change in classical music. It is a fragmented time that doesn’t have one dominant philosophy or movement pushing forward in the development of new music. I have been hearing Spotify, the New Classical station and the Indie Classical station.  In the Indie Classical, I have found a lot of  music that strives to be different but that it strikes me mostly as different and ugly, without much form or with a form I cannot detect. In the New Classical, you hear new recordings of the old repertorie, of the baroque, classical, and romantic music as well as new recordings of 20th century masters, like Ligeti and Copland. In here I have found music that is fresh without having to go into great dissonance or plain chaos to create an effect. I have also heard, in other places, uber-minimalistic music, music which can go on for 30minutes, orchestrated with great skill but without much else happening,  making pieces that use to bore me when I was younger absorbingly interesting.

Anyway,  it seems to me that an exchange of ideas and the clear exposition of new concepts it highly desirable at this point in time so that we can start making, as a group, interesting music that would be fresh and different but accessible to people that are currently classical music fans but are not trained musicians. And through my blog, I am going to present some of my own personal ideas, the concepts I use to write my music in the hope of making my music more understandable to listeners and also hoping to find other like minded composers for dialogue and an exchange of ideas. I will explain my ideas in short blog posts using dichotomies, two opposite poles that can help us understand all the levels in between, using a logic that contains many shades of gray as opposed to a black and white pattern. I will see you soon.

 

 

The Modern Classical Composer

This is my first blog entry. It coincides with the first of the year, so happy 2015!

I have been meaning to write this blog entry for a while.  It deals with the situation of the contemporary classical music composer. There are several elements involved in the writing of music. You have the composer and what he wants to say,  you have the musicians that are going to play the works, and you have the public that is going to enjoy the works.

There has never been a time in the history of music in which the new works that are heard in the concert hall are so divorced from the music that the great majority of the people like. Many pieces that Mozart wrote were based on dances of his time. Chopin wrote a series of waltzes and polkas, which were the kind of music that people danced to, both in the high society and the middle and lower classes.

Right now, many people would not even recognize as music some works that are performed in concert. Besides the fact that music appreciation is seldom taught in schools anymore and many people have not even heard a Beethoven symphony from beginning to end, the new works many times don’t have any relation to Beethoven or Mozart anymore either. I have quite a few friends that go to symphonic concerts often and they endure through the new works in order to be able to listen to Beethoven and Dvorak.

So the public, even the concert-goer public, has soundly rejected a very large percentage of the music written in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.  However, when a new composer wants to write music that would appeal to that public, he finds himself with reluctance from the musicians  to actually play it  as well as with a very cold  reception from the press.  I am told by a friend that in Vienna, if you present a new piece that is not atonal the critics will shred it to pieces. Daniel Barenboim has berated the public in Chicago because they didn’t want to hear new music.

So instead of new classical music being able to spread out and grow through all the new media, it has become the province of academics, critics and a small public composed of musicians, music students and devoted music aficionados that have been willing to immerse themselves in study and familiarization with new ideas and new languages.

Meanwhile, orchestras are disappearing. I hear that it is becoming more and more difficult to keep orchestras going. But what can one expect?  There is no excitement to new music in the classical world. If you see pop music, people are always looking for new acts, new songs. And with the amount of  media we have in our lives, word can spread in hours, even minutes, about something worth listening to.

But in classical music, you have to chose sides. If you chose to write music that is more accessible to the public, that is based in the traditions of Beethoven and Chopin and Liszt, even though it might have some twists to it,  you will have a harder time getting it in front of the public because many musicians won’t touch it.

However, if you choose to write music that is atonal or written with an obscure system that only a few people understand, your music will be played in some small venues and be, thereafter, probably condemned to oblivion. A composer friend of mine says that un live in an era of premieres, because few pieces get played  a second time. I wanted to reply (although I was too polite to do so) that we live in an era of failed pieces,  the only problem is that musicians  and critics both haven’t realized it yet.

A composer has to serve his public and we have to figure out a way to serve the concert-going public in such a way that excitement is created, that our music draws more people in and generates enthusiasm instead of alienating listeners and creating boredom with and sometime abhorrence of music. Of course, any composer has something  to say and he probably wants to say it in a different way than his predecessors, but the composers of the past had to appeal to a public and that  was always a factor in their careers.

So i am throwing my hat with the public and trying to write music in the classical tradition that I hope will appeal to people that frequent concerts, even though it might not be embraced by my more revolutionary colleagues. So I will thrive to compose new music that is fresh but accessible, music with personality that de-emphasizes the originality. I am not trying to reinvent music. I am just trying to communicate to the broader possible  public  with the type of music that I love the most.

All the best,

 

Sergio Barer.