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A Lesson in Musicality
Sunday, 12.12.2010, 10:55am (GMT-5)
It depresses me every time I hear that Classical music consistently fails to bring in new listeners. While it is true that orchestras and operas have found a certain degree of success in the theater venue, there remains the fact that recording equipment simply cannot contain the dynamics of a live performance. In an age during which people increasingly know less about diverse musical compositions and how much difference dynamic change can make in the way we receive a beautiful piece of music, these recorded theater performances seem another grand failure of an art desperate for listeners.
There is an unfortunate perception of Classical music as being a stuffy and high-brow art form which prevents the common man from enjoying the intricate play between and among the musical instruments of a Classical composition. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Take Erik Satie, for instance. Here was a man whom the critics held in great contempt for his use of simple repetitions and minimalist composition style. It may be interesting to note that the repetition and minimalism that the critics so hated in Satie is exactly the stuff of current pop compositions.
But there is something much more refined about Satie’s compositions that simply cannot be heard in today’s pop compositions. I won’t deceive you by saying that Satie’s compositions could not be easily grasped by an intermediate performer; in fact, I have heard a very strange rendition of one of Satie’s compositions in an equally strange Goth-Rock performance. But there is a great discrepancy between the classically trained musician’s interpretation of the composition and that of a pop musician’s.
It boils down to an understanding of tension established through dynamic variation.
Simply put, pop musician’s rarely exhibit any dynamic variation. I am wont to blame this on a recording industry which has consistently raised the volume levels during the final mixing process, but I’m not sure if that is really a cause or an effect of the level of musical appreciation on the part of pop listeners. Whatever it is, the fact remains that dynamic variation is lost in pop compositions. But I refuse to believe that this has anything to do with the lack of complexity of the music on the page.
I want you to search now for Satie’s Gnossiennes on Youtube. Listen to them—all of them. These compositions, as well as his Gymnopédies, are among his most popular. And they are perhaps his simplest. You will notice almost immediately that the structure is very similar to that of pop compositions in that there is a single melodic line played over a very simple chord progression. The first of the Gnossiennes consists of four musical phrases which are repeated a few times. It is a very simple piece of music, yet there is something incredibly deep within the music.
I urge you to listen to multiple performances of each composition because doing so will allow a much better understanding of how Satie’s music achieves the beauty that it does. I imagine that the image that the song conjures in the mind of the listener is fairly consistent; for me it is of a man or woman walking slowly through a rainy city. That part may not be consistent, but what will be is the idea of a sort of self-reflection that is conveyed through the music. In this first Gnossienne, I imagine the walker of the rainy streets to be searching for a cohesive identity for himself within the myriad images of painful, beautiful memories. Occasionally he’ll hit a bright spot, but usually they’re dreary thoughts of what he should have done. But the sadness does not derive from his lack of happy memories; no, it is a result of his inability to establish that cohesive identity. For, ass Wallace Stevens constantly reminds us, there is no consistent self but in death.
But I fear I have digressed.
The reason this Gnossienne moves us in ways that a pop composition does not, is because of the care that Satie has taken to allow an incredibly diverse array of dynamics to shine through the music. The score, or the piece of paper upon which the music is written, for instance, is devoid of time signature or any bars to separate the measures (for those unfamiliar with a time signature, think of any pop composition and how it lends itself to being easily tapped with your foot, where the beats of your foot are four each and the stronger beats are two each—one, two, three, four. It may be hard to conceptualize for those without much musical knowledge, but the body instinctively reacts to this sort of order, hence our inherent ability to dance.).
Although a time signature can be imposed upon the first Gnossienne, Satie very deliberately resists the temptation and, because of this, there is a great deal of flexibility regarding where the beats fall; a good performer will draw out these beats and give the listener a feeling of disorientation or hesitation before moving forward.
And this is why the music speaks to us as it does. There are no words, yet we are given an immediate feel for what the song means to us. This is something that pop music simply cannot do unless in the hands of an incredibly talented musician.
For those of you who do not listen to much classical music, I hope that you have listened to the compositions that I have asked of you. There is a much larger world out there than you and I have ever imagined; let us traverse it.