Saturday 29 November 2014


I mentioned in an earlier posting the idea of obviousness in contemporary music, and I have been realizing lately just how important it seems to be to many people.  And not just for contemporary music, but for many kinds of musical experience.

To summarize, in that previous entry, I mention the fact that there are people who simply can't accept that a work of music is contemporary unless it is obviously contemporary, which always translates (for these particular people) into atonal, or ugly, or conceptual.  Looking at a work like the 4th Symphony by Tippett, I am amazed at the rhythmic complexity, which passes so easily by the ear.   Tempos apparently modulate, but in fact, the modulations are worked out in one tempo only, giving the impression of far greater flexibility and making the music extremely difficult to perform.  The Fugue from Corigliano's String Quartet is another example of contemporary complexity which is not immediately obvious-- the various strands of music all unfold in simultaneously different meters, but the group has to stay together.  But these works are not "contemporary" to many people in the new music world, certainly not as "contemporary" as the quartets of Carter, presumably because the rhythmic complexity of Carter is accompanied by aggressively atonal music.  It sounds "contemporary" to people who, apparently, can't actually hear what is going on in the Tippett and Corigliano.

But it is more than new music that is afflicted.  Recently, a colleague, who is one of the finest musicians I know, dismissed Mozart as being "simple".  He commented that he could hear "that kind of music" in his head "anytime."  If he can, he is truly a far better musician than I am.  I no longer argue with people about Mozart, because I have realized that they are simply not listening past the obvious.  Yes, there are some passages built with 4 bar phrases and periodicity, but the astonishing thing about Mozart is how completely unpredictable he is while remaining superficially fairly simple.  No composer until Brahms used rhythm in such a sophisticated way.  There are 3 1/2 bar phrases, where ideas start again in the middle of bars, completely naturally.  Ideas expand and contract without calling attention to the fact.  A few years ago, when I taught phrase structure to undergrads, I taught the concept of phrase extensions.  I took some Bach 5 bar phrases and deconstructed them to simple 4 bar phrases.  I took some Mozart 5 bar phrases and, much to my surprise, found that they simply cannot be deconstructed back to symmetrical forms-- the extensions are so sophisticated they defy "correction".  Mozart's magic is his ability to fool the ear into thinking everything is very simple, but it usually isn't.  I remember coaching a conducting student once in an early Mozart symphony, and having to point out that an apparently minor inner voice in the violas ended the first phrase on an 8th note, but ended on a quarter note the second time through.  These are not random.  It is sophistication like this which makes Mozart sound so eternally fresh-- the ear may not hear anything "obvious", but the brain responds unconsciously to the rich detail.

I had a student recently tell me that he had heard something for orchestra which didn't have interesting orchestration.  I pointed out that the piece he had heard had excellent orchestration, it just didn't slap you in the face with eccentricity.  The fact that it didn't sound like Stravinsky apparently made him feel that it wasn't creative.  To my ears, it was extremely well done and the orchestration was perfectly allied with the musical content.  But it wasn't "obvious".

The same problem with obviousness pervades programming, in a slightly different way.  We can programme the obvious without hesitation-- Beethoven 5 or 7.  If we programme Beethoven 4, audiences stay away.  We can programme music by Joachim Raff and know that, if an audience came, it doesn't matter that his language is pure Romantic, they will not like it because they don't know who he was and are not familiar with his music.  It's obvious to them that Brahms was a Romantic, but they have never heard of Raff.

I don't want to believe that most people really don't listen carefully, or that, if they do, they really don't hear much.  It's a depressing thought.  But even among musical professionals, it seems that most things need to be very obvious to have an immediate impact.