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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Is it Music?

page 17

Is it Music?

To a Lot Op People, modern music means about as much as modern art. The two have been equated : the painter Mondrian made more than one translation of the rhythm and colour of boogie-woogie on to canvas. But the similarities in the popular view stem from the 'rejection' of classical forms in both cases, replaced by a kind of controlled disorganization. Neither can be understood; artists and musicians vie with each other to produce the most garish blobs or discordant screeches. The artist, they cry, has grown away from the public. At least some of them cry, and the rest of the public believes.

Could it not be rather that the public has grown away from the artist? Just think how a child of today is taught to play the piano. Everything he learns corresponds to the rules. Major keys are happy, minor keys are sad. All chords which are not discords are good, and all others are bad. The correct approach towards teaching a love of music that of cultivating in the pupil the sense of the inevitability of the progression of a master melody, is almost completely ignored. And the pupil grows up in a maze of rules and regulations, shunning the music of today which does not conform. John Thomson's Piano Primer and 'Dolly Dear' continue to thrive, while Bartok's Microcosmos Book I is left by the wayside. Those ghastly little parodies of Wagner and Tschaikovsky sell over and over again, while the children's pieces of Prokofiev and Shostakovic grow dusty. The Alec Rowleys of this world have a strangehold on our musical future which must at all costs be broken.

This rejection of modern art is something rarely based on experience. For modern art seems to demolish a cornerstone of our civilization : the cultivation of a 'classical' beauty, and the fear, perhaps, that our way of life is not founded securely, may, together with the desire to conform, defiant ignorance, and the self-importance induced by Welfare State conditions here, combine to make a solid front against its followers.

A charge made by no less a person than John Ritchie of Canterbury University against Victoria's Music Society's concert of modern works in the last Arts Festival, was that we were blindly (that was implied) trying to keep up with the Joneses. It is an accusation frequently laid against followers of modern art; by those, I fear, who do not like to admit that their tastes are restricted to sixty years ago — and backwards from there.

There is frequently aired, too, the statement that lovers of modern art are a small, snobbish clique. This may afford some consolation to the utterer, but is it a fact after all? Those people who complain about modern paintings never seem to be offended by modern cartoons or modern press advertising. Nor do those who object to dissonance in a concert piece ever seem to make a fuss over the background music to murder serials on the radio.

The gap between the modern artist and his public is not, strangely enough, very wide at all. And despite certain pessimistic views, this new music is created to be enjoyed by others: the larger audience, the better. But to enjoy it the workaday listener must revise his standards of judgment. It comes as a shock to find that a page 18 Beethoven sonata may appeal to many listeners for the same reasons as rock 'n' roll does to its younger fans: for the form is comfortably predictable — in the former, clear-cut sonata-form; in the latter, the tonic-subdominant-dominant-subdominant-tonic grid. Then again, those who look for a tune in the former find it, and the rock 'n' roll fan bleats out a tune for any hep number whether there is one there to start or not. And thirdly, the chords and progressions in both extremes are usually straightforward and untaxing on the ear. So it is quite possible that the paucity of mental effort expended on ex-private-first-class Presley may serve, for many, to justify reverence of past masters in real music. Is their art as superficial, of as little value, as that? Yet the commonsense that rejects modern serious music on criteria of that kidney has wittingly debased all good music of the past. Was Mozart so naive as to conceive a symphony as a decoration of a fixed pattern? Of course he was not.

The sound is the justification of all music, not the three formal aspects of structure, melody and harmony. None of the latter can turn a bad composition into a good one, or even give a composition coherence, just by themselves. How it strikes the ear is the thing, not only at the first hearing, but at the twentieth, and the two hundredth. All art must become familiar to the critic before it is evaluated: it must not only be seen or heard, but experienced. 'All art is communication' — this is well known, but to experience the beauty of art does not necessarily mean that everyone must be an artist. People understand and enjoy a performance of Carmen without needing to know a word of French. And today, with records and gramophones in abundance, the ordinary man, with a little application, can find a similar satisfaction in music much more easily than the serious student of a few years ago.

I will try to describe now the meaning of the term experience' in relation to the two most avant-garde schools of thought in Western music today. In Europe, under such leaders as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and composers of musique concrèteand electronic music, the trend is towards an utter systematization of music. In actual fact, this trend goes right back, at least as far as 'Sumer is icumen in', the twelfth century round. The music these men are trying to produce can best be described as 'organic' music, or music which seems to undergo a living growth.

As an example, let us take one of Pierre Boulez's most well-known compositions — 'Le Marteau Sans Maitre', a chamber work scored for a great and varied collection of solo instruments. Play a record of this work, and you will seem, at the beginning, to have started at the middle of side two. But there is no side two — the effect is merely that the composer has arbitrarily selected a point in a much larger work from which to start. It is the same at the end: the music stops short. Select any two points in between, and the same kaleidoscopic pattern of sound and timbre seems to greet you. What is 'living' about such music? Where is its movement?

You have no doubt seen one of those nature study films which makes use of a speeded-up series of shots to show the growth of a dandelion or the opening of a flower. Imagine what such a film would look like if it concentrated upon a blade of grass in a lawn. Just one blade, although the same result would be apparent with any other in the patch — you can see it grow, and seed, and die, and another grow in its place.

page 19

Now apply to this film the treatment we gave Boulez's piece. The patch of grass does not seem to change right through, individual frames of film are to all intents and purposes identical, yet, in seeing the whole film, we have been made aware of the movement of life. And if you equate the blade of grass with Boulez's tone-row, the meaning of his work will become immediately clear.

Composers have been trying to do this from very early times: the round (of which 'Summer is icumen in' is our earliest known example) is a simple effort towards this end. This aim was the driving-force of Bach himself, in all his works; it can be sensed wherever variation-form or fugue is used in music; in Beethoven's 'victory' motif in his Fifth Symphony, or Berlioz's leit-motiv in his Fantastic Symphony. Stravinsky, in his Sacré du Printemps, was aiming at this effect when he interrupted and repeated his thematic ideas, shaping them audibly for his audience, so that they might feel the gradual flowering of his genius like a living thing. The sense of progress is not necessary, nor is it true to life. What have we, at the end of the first movement of a Haydn quartet, but a repetition of what we started with? 'Beginning' and 'end' in music, as in our grass film, have no meaning. Ma fin est mon commencement, as a Frenchman said a thousand years ago, and which echoes words of thousands of years before that. There is no progress, only constant renewal.

Turn now from the complete systematization of the Continent to the reverse situation among some avant-garde Americans. These men are attempting to abandon all artifice in their music, striving rather to reproduce the sounds of everyday life in as haphazard a way as we hear them. Again I must ask you to draw on everyday experience, the more easily to understand the way these men's minds work. Imagine yourself sitting in a kitchen in the middle of the day. You may hear all at one time a radio playing, sparrows twittering outside, the clock in the hall chiming, the step of a passer-by, the toot of a motor-horn, and the rumble of an aeroplane. Is your ear troubled, if none of these sounds is oppressively loud? No. The immediate sensation one feels is of life sounding around. You may have heard the record Peaceful Street', a song once popular on 2ZB's Sunday request session, in which road-drills, shunting-engines and Boy Scout bugles vie with singer and orchestra for the listener's attention. The high spot in this particular number occurs when an orchestral rendering of 'Rule Britannia' is superimposed upon the rhythmically and harmonically alien chorus of the song, also played by an orchestra. Cacophony? The result is instead acceptable and amusing aurally, as it was intended to be.

The free association of timbres and rhythms which represents the basic aim of these forward-looking composers is as valid a concept of music as its Continental opposite number, and for reasons I will make clear later is similar in many respects to this opposite trend.

The element of chance and improvisation, which played an important part in early Baroque music, and which is one of the fundamental ideas of jazz, is now to an even greater degree than formerly being re-introduced into this music, whose writers are now reluctant even to write a definite note for the performer, devising instead elaborate signs and symbols to show approximate pitch, intensity, and duration. This trend, which acknowledges Charles Ives as its prophet, produces sound-pictures of a page 20 completely static quality. The performer no longer transfers a written note into sound, but responds to the command to pluck music from the ether.

No two performances of such music would ever be the same. The point, however, is immaterial, for the composition as such would be endless. Every time it was played again, one further aspect of the composer's pattern would be translated into sound. So that the piece would undergo over a number of performances the same organic change which we hear in Boulez. Only (to return to the 'film' image again), one performance of the American work would represent one frame only, and subsequent performances would add more frames; while the other's work would represent a length of film, but it would not grow of itself no matter how many performances were given.

One need not exaggerate the difficulties with which performers of this music are faced; on the Continent, with the intricacy and fiendish difficulties of the most accurate writing, and in the United States, with the creative difficulties brought on by the freedom of choice of note. The demand from the former is technical skill, that of the latter imagination, but in either case the highest musicianship is absolutely necessary. And there are many musicians today of sufficient calibre to play and enjoy this music.

I have dealt only with the two extremes of musical thought today, leaving for the time being the tremendous backlog of music — sixty years, almost — which is still to receive general approbation. But once the composers' concept of music is shown to the amateur as not something glorifying ugliness, but a struggle, easily comprehensible, towards the truth in all things, I have no doubt that our twentieth century masters will find willing and enthusiastic acknowledgement.

R. J. Maconie