Sunday, January 24, 2016

Not Just a Pretty Face

We all talk about timelessness of certain pieces of music, particularly music from the baroque period. Can music be truly timeless? Certainly some music ages better than others, and it seems that our current aesthetic says baroque music seems to age particularly well.  However, musicians who lived in what we now call the Gallant and Classical periods thought baroque music was very much out of fashion. “Timelessness,” which is used frequently just as a synonym for “beautiful” is only a surface level description to a piece of music. We as musicians need to step it up a notch, and study the “untimeless” parts of baroque music, so that we can both better understand the music, and that we can make the music more relevant today, rather then just recreating pretty sounds.

We see these pictures of long dead composers, with their wigs and fancy clothes, and forget that they were actual living people, with rent to pay, with children to feed, and messy lives to clean up. They experienced loss, joy, and sore feet. They had times of unemployment, boredom, and too much work. White, dead, European males, they are just like us! It is easy to understand that composers who live today are humans, because they are right in front of us, they live, they breathe. We know them, we went to school with them, we talk to them, we make late night drunk decisions with them. They are not gods; they create music that is both sublime and crappy. 

When was the last time someone said “Oh, well that piece by Bach is a little weak,” or “Yea, the 2nd movement of Beethoven's new symphony just kind of drags on and on. I wish he would get to the point.” It is much easier to criticize living composers rather than dead, because we have lifted the dead so high, so that every note suddenly becomes divinely inspired.  We forget that a lot of the “perfection” of Bach’s music comes from him knowing the rules of counterpoint in and out backwards and sideways. We criticise Hindemith because he wrote a lot of duds, but he wrote some incredibly sublime music. Some pieces of music we have heard so many times, we know longer think with our critical minds, rather it is something we go back to like a comforting blanket. Which is doing the composers and the music of the past a great disservice. We cannot forget that no piece of music is perfect.

Bach wasn’t the first choice for Cantor in Leipzig. He wrote the first half of the B minor mass in order to curry favor with the elector in Dresden, not because he was inspired by some greater calling. It was a financial move. Telemann married a woman who gambled so much he had to create additional revenue sources for his family. Famously Mozart enjoyed scatological humor. I guess it is human nature to feel that the people who came before us aren’t real humans. But for people in the field of classical music, I believe it is part of our job to bring the music to life, to find ways to make it relevant today. When we elevate “old” music or composers to a godlike status, the music looses its humanness, the ability for it to resonate with our current life. It just becomes something pretty, something to decorate our wall. If we whitewash the music with instruments that are too perfect and implement romantic phrasings on the music, because music is “timeless...” then we are doing the music a disfavor. 

In a way we cannot fully appreciate the music of the past. We cannot possibly get into the past “earset” so to say. There is so much noise in our modern world, and we have so much access to music of all varieties. I am definitely not unhappy with this, but it means that we loose some of the sensitivity that is required to hear the real language of early music, the play of consonance and dissonance. The rhetoric, the gestures, of the music we play. For me, part of learning early music is to re-sensitize myself at least a little. To make sure the music isn’t just pretty, but that is says something.

It is much easier to hear the rough edges in baroque music on baroque instruments, as I have said before in this blog. For example, the f minor sonata by Telemann. OK, f minor, not the most friendly of keys, but I played this sonata for the first time when I was in middle school, on modern bassoon. It was probably wildly out of tune, but I could technically play the music. The key signature wasn’t a problem. Press down the keys, at least a close approximation of the notes comes out. Modern instruments are too exact for baroque music.  Now, take the same sonata on baroque bassoon. Infinitely more difficult. Four flats, while not as difficult as four sharps, makes the piece unstable in a way that cannot exist on a modern bassoon. Even when the piece is completely in tune on a baroque instrument, (and don’t get me started on what is in tune or not) there is a certain crunchiness, a certain feeling that one cannot create on modern bassoon. Dissonances become all the more relevant, all the more real, because they will never sound smooth on a baroque instrument. So in this way, we reintroduce the dirt of baroque music. Telemann’s piece goes from something slightly melancholy on a modern bassoon, to something so much more deep and meaningful on baroque. The piece is no longer washed over with a sparkly glaze, the piece becomes real and alive again, something that isn’t perfect, but something that is real.

For me, that is what playing baroque music is about, reintroducing the dirty parts of life back into the music, the imperfect, the messy. People lived, breathed, loved, and died just like we do today, and the music of the past that we play today should reflect this. The composers of the past were not gods; they were living, breathing, people, with the same hopes, dreams, and nightmares that we have. Well, probably not that nightmare about the carnivorous iPhones…

So no, I do not think music is timeless. There are aspects of all music that can have a sense of timelessness, but to simplify music this way I believe is to do it a disfavor. Music is so much more than the simple labels that we attach to them. Isn’t that the point, to create something that cannot be created with words alone?

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