Posts in Category: Musing

Rhinos and Culture

Tonight I went to see Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco in the Brian Friel Theatre (Queen’s Film Theatre) because I knew one of the people involved. I had never heard of the work or even the writer but I’m glad I went. The basic outline of the piece is, to quote the QFT website, ‘When a rhinoceros charges across a town square and tramples down an innocent pussy one quiet Sunday afternoon, Berenger is unconcerned. However rhinoceroses start popping up everywhere, putting Berenger’s world, as he knows it, under threat. What will it take for Berenger to stand up to the increasing threat of rhinoceritis?.’
The idea of people turning into rhinos is absolutely absurd but also, as is intended, very symbolic (just change the word rhinoceros into sheep). First one character turns into a rhino then his boss before being followed by his workforce, apart from Berenger, who feel a duty towards the boss and follow his every whim. Eventually rhinoceritis takes hold to such a degree that Berenger picks up his telephone to be confronted by the grunting of a rhino, I didn’t ask how it dialled the number, and turns on the radio to hear the same sound.
The most effective part of the work, for me, was not this scene, but the first scene. The first scene consisted of Berenger sitting in a bar with a friend talking about him, essentially, not conforming to the norm. At some point through the scene a rhino stampedes past with all the characters running in to exclaim ‘look a rhino!’, or something to that effect, with Berenger sitting uninterested at the table. Berenger’s friend, Jean, after the rhino has passed says three or four times ‘well what do you make of that?’ to Berenger before Berenger takes the topic away from the subject of the rhino. The rhino or a different rhino, a subject of a little debate within the play, then returns and tramples on a cat. The owner runs into the bar screaming, mourning her cat, everyone clusters round talks and Jean says, yet again, ‘well what do you make of that?’
The reason I see this section of the play as the most effective and thought provoking part is that, to me, it sums up modern popular culture. You have the outside event (the rhino), people wanting to comment on an essentially unimportant event (‘well what do you make of that?’) and an outside event becoming the topic of conversation for a whole bar, and in the next scene an office, full of people (rhino trampling cat, woman coming into bar mourning and whaling). Scale this event from an absurd play into a real life situation. An outside event, say a cat stuck up the tree, becomes front-page news people talk about it because it is front-page news. Another situation, big brother, x-factor etc reality tv series, when they are on are all people talk about, they even somehow manage to get decent sized articles in respectable newspapers. So far these are two very banal examples but how about changing the example to a murder in a town 100 miles away or even in the same town? People still seem to react in the same way even though it does not directly affect them, though all sympathies go to any family that has been involved in such an event.
The problem is there seems to be no sliding scale of reaction; it’s either all out bitching, indignation or not caring. This is the reason I do not follow popular culture and news bulletins religiously, though I admit I look at a news site once a day to get an idea of what’s happening. I feel you are as likely to find out that the UK is at war as X celebrity has married Y. People seem inclined to follow the crowd, to become a rhino, in order to talk. But what is the point in conversing if what you are conversing about is ultimately pointless? Why not have a debate about which philosophy is better to live your life by, why string theory doesn’t work or which composer or writer is the greatest to have ever lived? These are ultimately as pointless as the banal subjects mentioned earlier but they require more knowledge than a 5 min read in a crappy 99p celeb magazine and they might in fact lead to a great idea or actually learning something new and interesting.
To me popular culture can be summed up as an oversaturation of utterly pointless information. I need to know and learn enough stuff without filling my mind up with useless things about someone who I have never met and who has probably done nothing of real worth or something that doesn’t and will probably never affect me. I sometimes feel like Berenger lost on a sea of rhinos but unlike him at the end of the play I have never debated becoming a rhino, I have always and hopefully will always just be me. Popular culture doesn’t interest me and do you know what? I don’t care.

As for the play and acting it was very good. If you read this, are about Belfast and are free either tomorrow or Friday head to it. Its only £6 and I think it would be worth it.

Consonance and Dissonance

It was Schoenberg that said there is no such thing as consonance or dissonance any more. This seems like a reasonable statement to make but after almost 100 years those terms are still used with regard to music within that time period. Why? Why do these terms stick with such ferocity into the musicological repertoire? These terms make sense when used of music from before 1900 but with music after 1900 they should barely be mentioned in the same paragraph let alone the same essay! With this said they are still mentioned, even used as points of conversation within an analysis but why? Is it because musicologists do not want to be removed from their familiar phrases or is it because from a young age the musician is taught that consonance is nice and dissonance is harsh, major is happy minor is sad?
I completely agree that the young musician should be taught the fundamentals of harmony and the development from plainsong through to today but the teaching seems to concentrate around Bach and Mozart before commenting on Wagner’s chromaticism it doesn’t push forward any more than that. This in turn means that people try and explain contemporary music in out of date terms. Messiaen’s Les Offrands Oubliées is beautiful but in no way consonant, going on the younger musician’s teaching it is dissonant but its not harsh and unpleasant so this makes them question and leaves them confused. This is a fine example of why these terms should not be used but what can replace them? Unfortunately I believe the only words that can replace them are words that belong to feelings, words such as harsh or pleasant. I have been lambasted in essays for writing ‘such and such a passage feels pleasant’ yet I continue to write such terminology because I have not found anything else that will satisfy me. Feelings are the only true way to describe music, trying to distance the emotion from the sound is not right or even possible in the same way that trying to build a house without adequate foundations. Music is art, art is for emotion so is the best way to describe it not in emotional terms? Music today just is. If it has been written by the composer either with a specific idea or emotion in mind, why try and label it constant or dissonant?

If that Music or Just Another Radio

The sound of silence is the sound of nature, but the sound of nature is not silence. Silence will stretch on eternally while each sound no matter how long or short is only a micro-sound in the time scale of nature. Does this mean that it is pointless to produce a sound or that sound itself is unnatural? That is like asking is existence pointless or unnatural. Some will say yes to both, some will say yes to neither yet there are some who will argue both yes and no. It is an unanswerable question but all will agree that if something that exists infringes on something else’s existence then the infringer should be reigned in, but not destroyed. This can apply equally to sound as it can to existence.
The cacophony that is modern life infringes on existence. It infringes on nature’s silence because it is pointless. Modern life has become just another radio, tv, mobile phone ring tone in the middle of the street. It has become so cacophonous that people require these constant stimuli, but why? Why can people not sit back and listen to the sound of nature? The cacophony that is produced is, on the grand scheme of nature, pointless. What is wrong with a whispered conversation over a shouted one? A whispered conversation requires more attention but have people become so used to shouting that a whisper is inaudible? Whisper a person’s name in a crowd of screaming people and you will be heard by that person, yet scream their name and you wont be. This I admit is a slight embellishment of the truth but it has a grain of truth in it. Someone will pick out the nuance of their whispered name in noise because they are attuned to the voice, the whisper and their name yet a shout would just blend in.
The world and all its noise is but a flash in the silence of nature. If we must interrupt it it should have a point, a well-defined reason for the interruption. Would you barge into a wedding, a funeral or a family sitting together eating in their own home without a reason? No, that is common courtesy. So why should we break the silence of nature unless it is with good reason? There is no need for ring tones as long as a phone as a vibrate function, there is no reason to shout at the person you are trying to talk to if everyone else is talking in a whisper.
The point of this short essay is not to preach but for me to lay down my own ideas, ideas that have changed massively over the last year. I originally wanted to write bold loud music but I have gradually been turning away from that and I think today I have come to see why. Silence is what will become and what has always been. We are a brief cacophonous noise in the midst of this silence. If I break this silence it is to create something, something that I find beautiful or pleasurable not harsh and bold but quite and delicate. This idea has not only become apparent in my dynamics but in my pitches, but in hindsight I feel that it has always been within my pitches. A move of a semi-tone makes me shudder yet a tone feels distant, I think it is my desire to create something that only just fractures the silence bleeding into my pitches but then maybe it is the other way round. Maybe it is the pitches bleeding into the silence. A note is nature and a semi-tone, or smaller, is nature but a third is artificial.
People expect the cacophony of the modern world. This expectation has bleed into music in all its forms. Electro-acoustic music takes sounds from this cacophony and re-interprets them, sometimes successfully but rarely, while main-stream music enforces in someone the desire to turn it up, listen to the drums and ignore the subtly. Would a semi-tone change of one note be noticed in a track by Lady Gaga, Stereophonics or Metallica? I think not. There is a place for this music but it is not at the forefront. The nature of these is full of volume but not full of thought. These voluminous sounds are not constrained to mainstream music but are also in many classical works. Again, there is a place for it in some cases, but not in all.
What I believe I am trying to show myself and any who care to read is that nature should not be broken. A sound should come from nothing and go to nothing; that is the natural order. A sound that is there for the sake of itself has no place in the world. Unfortunately modern life seems to be filled with these sounds. Is that music or just another radio?

Music for Musicians

My first blog in a while is more a musing on art and culture than a random babbling on what I have been doing. This was inspired by a conversation on twitter between @jamiebullock and myself from the question “contemporary classical music = university music?” from @laputean.

This is a topic that has concerned and worried me greatly over the past year or two. Is contemporary classical music simply producing music for musicians (a large number of whom don’t respect it anyway) or does it have a wider cultural place?
In the world we live in everything seems to need a price, seems to need an explicit benefit or educational advance but how does contemporary classical music fulfill this? It has nothing tangible to give other than a pleasurable experience, but because of the musical language used people without understanding or even without the desire to learn to appreciate the tonality manage to let this music pass them by. The price of art can be extortionate or less then the cost it was to produce. The rich will pay thousands for an original piece of art by a famous artist but many will squabble over paying £30 or less to attend a concert. When anyone goes to a concert of modern do they go with the tools to understand it or do they just go to say to their friends in a form of one-upmanship? Even those that go with the tools to understand the music still may not because surely the only person who understands the music is the composer. Anyone that listens will take something different or nothing at all away from a piece.
When Feldman rejected the audience in writing his 2nd string quartet (I believe it was the 2nd) he received the best reception of any of his pieces. Does this then mean that the audience wants to be rejected rather than pandered to? That is something I cannot decide the answer to. Maybe a composers thought process changes to when he thinks like this allowing his own experiences to filter in.
The composer is the only one who understands their own work whether accepting or rejecting the audience, though sometimes not even the composer understands. Music as an art that is there to broaden the mind and be the pot in which ideas coincide whether these ideas be it maths, physics, poetry, philosophy or even another piece of music or art. Every piece is the sum of experience of the composer. From this I feel music can be described as a condensed encyclopaedia or even a wiki where different people can add their spin on it but the essential meaning and experience of the composer is still there.

This was just thrown together tonight. Hopefully I will come back and revise it. I know it probably posses more questions than it answers but I felt the need to put this down and have no problem showing it to anyone that might be interested

The Mirror of Art

The arts are the mirror on society. Is this why society can never accept contemporary art? Art that shows the truth that people don’t want to see. When looking back at history the music of each period perfectly fits the period’s image, to a modern viewer. The music of the renaissance and Baroque periods were reserved and followed strict tonal rules, mirroring the reserved nature of the aristocracy and the control exerted on the population. The reserved nature was mostly driven by a desire of the commissioners for music to dance to. The reserved feeling continued into the classical period but by the time of Beethoven the link between commissioner and composer had diminished. There were fewer court composers and so less commissions for music to dance to. This left composers free to do as they pleased but still kept the tonal rules, though stretched quite excessively.
Composers such as Beethoven almost completely threw away the ideas that music had to be small and reserved. During the classical period the French and American Revolutions occurred showing a breakdown of aristocracy’s dominance over the population. This is quite obviously mirrored in the music of the time in things such as the diminishing use of dance rhythms and the larger freer motivic and harmonic development. These ideas though freer than before still have more than a little semblance of tonal structure, implying that the control by the ruling class is still very much there.
Then we get into the romantic period, of long flowing free melodies that seem to wallow in their own art. This art was being imported from all over the world such as Debussy being influenced by oriental oils and carvings. The world was getting smaller, society becoming more homogeneous, different ideas imported and exported and the influence on the music was again obvious. When Debussy started playing with the colour of notes on the piano he was scoffed at by his teacher. Like all other composers before he was criticised for ‘bad’ music simply because it did not conform to previous expectations and the rules used by previous generations. He was showing freeness in composition that was unheard of 50 years ago yet the freeness was a sign of the freer nature of society.
Very swiftly after we get Vaughn Williams who was a massive patriot and used English folk tunes of the time as the basis of his music. This mirrored English society’s longing for older times, as the colonies were definitely gaining freedom at this point. Though at the very same time we have the second Viennese school. A school of thought and composition that encouraged untold of control over music through serialism but also the complete breakdown of tonality. Even though serialism was a massive controlling influence Schoenberg taught that a composer should create the tone row and then compose as before. In other words write what you like within the confines of the tone row. These two completely contrasting ideas again mirror society at the time of their fruition. Vaughn Williams the nationalist, showing the nationalistic feelings of Europe leading up to WW1 and Schoenberg the serialist showing the increased mechanisation of the time. After WW1 the control in serialism and the nationalism of Vaughn Williams can then be combined to show the ideologies’ of the Nazis this time leading up to WW2.
Skip ahead a little and we get into the domain of Boulez and Messiaen. Boulez is experimenting with total serialism and Messiaen is playing with colour in the same way as Debussy. The control has become great with Boulez and the colour more vivid with Messiaen. This again is societies mirror. Messiaen is showing the colour of the 60s while Boulez is showing the control the state is beginning to have.
Listen to the music of today, what does it say about today’s society? Does the music imply stately and reserved, happy, bright, controlled, dark or sad? Has the control that was once serialism bled into music so much that even if society is totally free the music is now unable to express it or is the new harmonic language of this generation generally darker than previous generations? The world seems to be slipping into a state of more control and anguish and this is reflected in the music. Atonal music can be beautiful but it is also almost always angular. Look into the mirror that is music and the arts, what is the world today?

The idea for this came to me earlier when I was reading the first lecture in Orientations by Boulez. I’m sorry if it rambles a bit but it is very much a stream of thought I wanted to get down there may be edits done sometime soon but not tonight. Its almost 3! Any comments are more than welcome I would quite like to get other peoples views on this.