28 November 2014

A Pleasing Music

“In every known culture, the ordering of sound in ways that please the ear has been used extensively to improve the quality of life.”  These words appear in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, The Psychology of Happiness.  Prof. Csikszentmihalyi has devoted much of his life to studying the psychology of happiness and creativity, so we should expect this to be a true statement.  Certainly it sounds as if it could be true, and the notion is an enticing one for anybody who wants academic support for an argument promoting the value of music in human existence.  But is it true and, more importantly, does it properly reflect the function of music?

(As it stands, this statement does not refer specifically to music, but as it comes at the very start of section in the book headed “The Flow of Music” and is followed by a statement that “one of the most ancient and popular functions of music is to focus the listeners’ attention on patterns appropriate to a desired mood”, it is certainly to music, rather than the organisation of sounds into a spoken language, that Prof. Csikszentmihalyi is addressing his comments.)

My few and feeble ventures into the realms of ethnomusicology have taught me that in many cultures music is functional rather than enriching.  Music intended to ward off spirits, to scare birds at sewing time, to mourn the dead or to accompany a sacred rite was never intended to please the ear, and in many cultures that is the only music which has been created.  Audience reactions at “world music” festivals when the functional music of differing cultures is performed, rarely touch on how the sound pleases the ear; “fascinating”, “exciting” and (I regret to say as often as not in my case) “troubling” and “incomprehensible” are the usual responses, and on those occasions where words like “beautiful” and “enchanting” crop up, it is tinged with surprise; as if nobody actually expects world music is to be immediately pleasing to the ears.  I know of many cultures in which the struggle for daily existence leaves no room for the idle and time-consuming search for something which merely pleases the ears. 

The matter of whether or not music written deliberately to please the ear is found in “every known culture” is certainly open to debate.  I am sure it is an incorrect statement, but Prof. Csikszentmihalyi (and his editors) would certainly have checked his facts thoroughly, so I am open to persuasion.  That, though, is not the real concern I have with his original statement.  What offends me most is his failure to grasp the true function and purpose of western classical music; a music certainly born of a “known culture”, even if it has now become essentially multi-cultural in both its creation and dissemination.

Western classical music can exist without sound.  It uses sound as its medium of transmission, the means by which it is communicated to the listener, but for those who create, and for a great many who are involved in it, sound is not essential to its appreciation.  On the most obvious level, how else can one explain the significant involvement in the creation of music by the deaf (Beethoven and Smetana were by no means the only composers who created great music while completely unable to hear sound)?  Logically, therefore, music must have some more important driving force behind its creation than merely to “please the ear”. 

I would suggest that only in our own time has music been written with the express purpose of pleasing the ear.  I may be wrong, but I suspect that this a (if not the) primary objective behind the music of such composers as Eric Whitacre, whose music is lovely to hear but does not stand up to closer scrutiny.  Making beautiful sounds is clearly a 21st-century thing in music; hence the proliferation of best-selling albums and high-earning artists who promote their concerts with the word “beautiful” prominent in the publicity.  But where beauty - or at least “pleasing the ear” - occurs in earlier music, I would suggest is by accident rather than design.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is deemed beautiful. It is, but I cannot accept that it was composed with that aspect in mind. I am certain that much of Bach’s music was specifically designed not to please the ear, but to satisfy the intellect and, to a certain extent, confuse the ear into feeling that the music was beyond the full appreciation of ordinary mortal man; appreciated and understood only by God, for whom it was written as an act of homage.  Hence the emphasis on complex textures – polyphony and counterpoint – which cannot be properly grasped by any human ear in one sitting.

Mozart is frequently proclaimed as the penner of beautiful tunes, audiences sit attentive in concert halls lapping up the gorgeous tunes of Johann Strauss, Berlioz is cited as a composer whose music is lovely to hear and people lap up the soothing tones of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt.  But not one of them wrote music simply to please the ears of passive listeners.  Mozart was writing for performers, aware that as often as not few people were actually listening to his music.  Berlioz had profound and burning ideas to express, and stretched the bounds of what was acceptable in order to express them; more than any other composer before the 20th century he deliberately set out not to please the ear but to shock it.  Strauss wrote his music to accompany dancing, while the music of both Tavener and Pärt is a manifestation of their deep religious convictions – music intended to express the inconceivable rather than titillate the conceived.

Different audiences take different things from performances of Western classical music, often driven by their particular cultural background, and the very universality of music, the huge variety of responses it produces, is testament to the fact that it is appreciated on a multitude of different levels.  Some listeners, certainly, enjoy it merely for pleasing the ear; these, presumably, are the shallow creatures who glibly dismiss music which does not have nice sounds as “noise”, and write off the works of some of the 20th century’s more adventurous composers as “not music”.  But enticing as it is to accept Prof. Csikszentmihalyi’s statement at face value, it is not only wrong, but represents a dangerous misconception of what music really is.  He belittles the culture which developed music to stimulate the senses, fire the imagination, focus the emotions and, in short, not just enhance the quality of life with its pleasing sounds, but to affect the very purpose of existence

16 November 2014

Musical Irresponsibility Australian-style

“It’s very irresponsible of me, I know, but I can’t resist playing this to you.  So my apologies as, for the next 13 minutes, office productivity drops and those heading for work arrive late.”  The lady presenting the breakfast show on ABC Classic FM in Australia was very certain of the power of the music she was about to play.  “Our researches show that whenever we play this, there is a marked reduction of productivity in factories and offices and our listening figures rocket.”  Even a manic radiophile such as myself finds this difficult to believe; and, if true, it only goes to show how much more involved in listening to “classical” music the Australians are than any other race on the face of the earth.  (But there again the same lady – or a different one with a very similar voice – told us on yesterday’s programme that “staying with Baroque music, here’s an aria by Mozart”, which may imply a casualness in correctitude amongst the presenters of ABC Classic FM.) Taking the statement at face value - that there is a single piece of music which, when played over the air, brings Australia to a standstill - it might tell us even more about Australian musical sensitivities when we discover what that piece of music is.

Even as I sat, with bated breath, waiting for the rambling preamble to give way to the music, I started guessing what it could be.  Knowing the amazing parochialism of ABC Classic FM (every performance involving an Australian player – even if it’s just third flute in a foreign orchestra – is associated with words like “brilliant”, “dazzling”, “wonderful”, while aged recordings of unexceptional music by long-forgotten Aussie composers are heralded as “gorgeous”, “lovely”, “amazing”) I guessed it might be some Malcolm Williamson, Don Banks maybe even Percy Grainger.  That, though, might be stretching a point even for ABC Classic FM; so perhaps more likely contenders would be Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Pachelbel’s Canon or the slow movement of the Mozart “Elvira Madigan” Concerto (although that last one gets so much airing on Australian TV where it accompanies a nasty little advert for Lexus cars, I doubt even it has the power to stop a nation any more).  Tchaikovsky, Bach and Grieg could all be relied on for potential nation-stopping moments, and, for my part, there are chunks of Stravinsky (the “Alleluias” from Symphony of Psalms), Mendelssohn (the “Baal choruses” from Elijah) and Monteverdi (the opening of Orfeo) which never fail to stop me in my tracks. 

Perhaps, though, the most likely contender would be the “Adagio” from Schubert’s String Quintet; a movement which always seems to catch you unawares with its instant ascent into the realms of the ecstatic.  I remember when it cropped up playing in the background of an episode of that wonderful UK TV series, Inspector Morse it suddenly became everyone’s favourite piece of “classical” music, in much the same way that the “Adagio” from Khachaturian’s Spartacus was when it provided the signature tune for the TV series The Onedin Line and Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela in an earlier era captured the hearts of viewers to Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night.

Oddly, though, the piece which stops Australia – or at least measurably reduces productivity – is a Schubert Trio.  Odd, because while it is certainly pleasant enough, it certainly does not have the kind of “grab” factor which makes you stop what ever you are doing to listen.  Some music has that “grab” factor, but I don’t recognise it in the Schubert Trio.  For the record, I think it was the E flat D929 they played but, frankly, I had other things to do and was not sufficiently taken by the recorded performance played over the air to listen through to the end and hear precisely which one had been played to us so irresponsibly.

I accept totally that playing certain pieces of music over the air can verge on the irresponsible.  The connection between certain pieces of music played whilst one is involved in potentially dangerous activities (notably driving) and the ability of the listener to carry out those functions safely is well researched and documented, and programme planners should (they certainly used to in my days of broadcasting) bear such things in mind when setting out playlists.  It was certainly a clever piece of presentation for the announcer to build up the Schubert in that way, but I can’t really believe it was anything more than that.