Monday, October 29, 2007

Music and Silence

One of the attractive things to me about what we call "classical" or "serious" music is that it is carefully constructed (most of it) in ways that can be analyzed, dissected and intellectualized. I lost my snobbishness about popular music long ago, but quite frankly a popular song, even one as good as "Night and Day" or "Someone to Watch Over Me" or "When I'm 64" has a fairly straightforward and simple structure. Eight bars of melody, maybe a secondary melody, perhaps a bridge and then back to the initial melody. Often there's a repeatable "hook" that's easy to remember and catchy and repeated, sometimes a few times too many. Even "art" songs are fairly simple in structure even if their melodies may not be the kind you start humming the first time you hear them. But the structure even of a simple opera overture is much more complex, and a symphony more complex still. Sonata structure? Theme and variations? Surprising detours? Discourse and argument? It's there if you want to analyze it. So the "serious" music not only gladdens the heart but if you want to delve into it more deeply it can challenge the intellect. The best music reveals different facets when different artists, using the exact same notes, interpret it differently.

There's a danger of over-intellectualizing music and taking much of the joy out of it in the process. Here's a piece that comes close but to my mind doesn't cross the line. Andrew Waggoner is a composer who teaches at Syracuse and whose music has been performed by orchestras in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Denver and the Czech Republic. He has a notion that at some level he should be celebrating the proliferation of music but worries that we are forgetting the value of silence. "When music is everywhere, it is nowhere; when everything is music, nothing is." So he celebrates silence in Webern, for example, arguing that his music uses silence so effectively that: "This form-giving potentiality of silence, that is to say, the active memory of silence as an agent in the musical discourse, is so important in Webern's music as to be generalized as a basic principle." He goes on:

"For us to be able to enter the world that music creates for us, we need a silence within which to listen." He also laments the decline of music as a shared experience. Recording is wonderful and makes available a variety of music that the richest aristocrat 200 years ago could never have had access to, but when we isolate ourselves with headphones we lose some of the magic.

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