Music Labels

November 16, 2016 at 10:30 am

We humans like to organize, categorize, and label things. This is usually a good thing. Organizing food into specific groups (meat, vegetables, grains, etc.) helps to prepare our tongues for what we are about to eat. Labelling a piece as “French Baroque” helps us know what sort of sounds we will be hearing. On the other hand, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how social categorization of human beings can cause huge damage.

So, what about the word “modern“? Does it mean turn-of-the-20th-century, or just current/contemporary? When exactly was (or is) “modern music” written? Is it an intellectual concept rather than a time period? Or perhaps it’s just coded talk for “ugly”? I offer no answers here – the best I can do is point out that the context of the conversation changes how we use the word.

I’m imagining your average high school or college level music appreciation class. The time comes for the 20th century – “modern music”! Without a doubt, the Rite of Spring is played, and enthusiastic discussion ensues. If it’s a high school class, the performance is probably accompanied by the dancing dinos of Fantasia, while college students get to hear stories of riots, orgies, human sacrifice. What ends up happening is that the Rite ends up becoming the piece that defines what modern music is supposed to sound like. Later, when these students hear Stravinsky‘s later works (labelled “neoclassical” and “serial“), they are shocked that it sounds so completely different.

There might have been a riot at the premiere of the Rite, but not because of the ground-breaking modern sound. Five years before, Arnold Schoenberg (who, as a Jew, was labelled by the Nazis as “degenerate”) wrote his Five Pieces for Orchestra. Knowing this piece came first, the Rite almost seems like a step backwards toward romanticism. Fifty years later, Pierre Boulez would label Schoenberg as not modern enough.

Be careful with labels.

This is just the first movement. Listen to the full 5 pieces here.



Four hands are better than Two

September 24, 2016 at 10:00 am

This week, I wanted to listen to a certain piece of music on the way to work. I didn’t have it on CD, but I pulled it up on my phone … but my phone refused to connect to my car’s Bluetooth! I was furious … my desires weren’t instantly gratified. Poor me.

Before recorded music, there was only one way to hear music – either you made the music yourself, or you listened to a live performance. This also meant that if hearing the newest, hottest music meant a lot more than turning on a radio, TV, or computer. You had to get a score, then you had to get it performed. And often, that meant you heard the latest symphony played not by an orchestra, but by on a keyboard – very often, a piano-duet (often called “piano four hands”  – one piano, two players; not to be confused with two pianos, two players, popularly called “dueling pianos”).

Four-hand piano music makes a ton of sound, and can cover the many moving parts of a complex symphony. Besides getting new music heard, four-hand scores are often the first thing a composer writes when preparing a large-scale opera or symphony – this way s/he can hear the piece and make edits before s/he takes the time to write out all the orchestra parts (a long and laborious process.) However, four-hand music is more than just playing orchestral works – many composers have written pieces specifically for this genre. Franz Schubert wrote his Fantasia in F minor in his last year (he died at 31). It was a gift for his student, whom he loved; she didn’t love him back. The gravity, weight, and maturity of this piece is a regular part of Schubert’s late works (like Winterreise), as he was preparing himself for a death he knew was coming (he suffered from late-stage syphilis.)


Music for your Existential Crisis

September 13, 2016 at 11:00 am

So you’re having an existential crisis. Naturally, the first thing you do is ask yourself, “what music should I listen to while I ponder the absurdity of my existence?”

This isn’t just melancholia – there’s plenty of music for that. And the catch-all-word “sad” simply doesn’t cover it. Maybe there’s an intense longing in your heart, but your head tells you that your longing will not be satisfied. You tried praying to God, even though Nietzsche told you God was dead. And other people are no help at all.

Don’t settle for second-rate despondent ditties – you’ve tried the rest, now try the best – Anton Webern‘s expressionism.

Webern was a member of the Second Viennese School and a student of its founder, Arnold Schoenberg. They was a group of Germanic composers in the early 20th century who worked valiantly to break away from traditional systems of tonality. Webern stands out among his fellow composers because his compositions were ultra-organized; because of this, Webern, not Schoenberg, became the inspiration for serial music movement. Serialists used mathematical structures to create pieces that left no room for foolish human errors such as emotion. Boulez, one of the champions of serialism, criticized Schoenberg for allowing a little humanity (IE romantic tendencies) into his music, whereas Webern’s is cold, stark, and empty – just like life!

If one-and-a-half minutes isn’t long enough to cover your crisis, the whole six-movement suite can be heard here.