04 October 2018

Who is Music? What is She?

Long ago I came to the conclusion that music is indefinable.  Everybody knows what music is, but when you ask them to define it they either offer you their emotional response (“music is beautiful”), define the kind of music they like (“harmonious sounds”), or use such a wide-ranging and generalistic description that, while it encompasses what most people regard as music, goes on to describe things which most people do not consider to be music (“music is organised sound”). I have my own sense of what music is, which I occasionally attempt to contain within words, but since I can identify innumerable flaws in my definition, I certainly do not wish to share it with anyone.

One thing we can all agree on is that music, at the very least, is communicated by means of sound.  Which is not to say that music can exist without sound – following the beliefs of the ancient civilizations in Greece and China, I subscribe to the notion that music exists without sound and that the desire to contain music within sound places considerable limitations on the scope and range of music.

Proof of this comes in the music of Bach.  Nothing annoys me more (well, actually, an awful lot of things do, but let’s put that to one side for the moment!) than people who describe Bach’s music as “beautiful”.  To reduce some of the highest artistic achievements of human civilization to the level of bikini-clad females parading on a cat-walk, or the visual appeal of plate of pork sausages and mashed potatoes, is, in itself, little short of outrageous.  But we must know that, were we to be transported – Dr Who and Tardis-like – to 1730s Leipzig, we would be absolutely appalled by what we heard.  Shambolic music making, grotesquely out of tune, ill-balanced and largely swallowed up in an acoustic haze and obscured by the noise of people both in and outside the church, (and let’s not forget the distractions of the dreadful stench of unwashed people and unsanitary conditions, and the innumerable open sores and disfigurations of a people yet to be subjected to systematic health care), it would strike us as anything but beautiful.  In our time, carefully tended and respectful performances of Bach’s music put it on a high pedestal and wrap it up in highly-manicured sound so that to our 21st century ears its beauty is so arresting as to be its dominant feature.  Yet even if 18th century ears had a wholly different perception of beauty, I remain unconvinced that Bach ever intended his music to be beautiful.  Indeed, I am absolutely certain that he would be horrified to feel that the sound of his music was regarded as so beautiful as to obscure (even annihilate) the fundamental message of Christian faith he was trying to promulgate.  We like our beauty in the 21st century; I tend to feel that for most people in earlier ages, beauty was a luxury so rare that many never thought to appreciate or even identify it.  But, of course, that’s open to debate. What intrigues me is the relationship between music and sound. 

Attending a programme presented recently by student composers, I was very conscious that what these students were doing was not writing music so much as experimenting with sound.  And since sound is the means by which a composer communicates musical ideas, it is absolutely right and proper that they should be encouraged to experiment and explore the possibilities of sound without necessarily attempting to harness it in the service of music.  Each student stood up and outlined their intentions.  (Unfortunately, while they had all been taught to use an amazing panoply of actual and computerized sounds, nobody had told them how to utter words down a microphone so that they were discernible amongst the audience in the body of the hall.)  From the often garbled collation of indistinct vowel sounds (Singaporeans avoid consonants with the same steely determination that left-wing British politicians avoid sounding the letter T) I was able to make out that these students had very different objectives in their various sound explorations.  That being the case, as a colleague confided in me afterwards, it was astonishing that they all sounded more-or-less the same.  But the fact remains that here were some intelligent and fascinating experiments in sound which, if applied to a musical composition, would certainly open the way for a more wide-ranging channel of communication.

It is usual for those with little musical understanding to dismiss any music they do not like as “noise”, and we can point to innumerable examples through history where great musical works have been so disparaged (Pravda describing Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “Muddle instead of Music”, Hanslick describing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as “giving off a bad smell” and  “does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would not write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff, if he could invent a melody?" from an American review of La mer).  But to describe any music as “noise” is to reveal a fundamental ignorance as to what music is; and since nobody is quite sure what music is, perhaps we are all guilty of such ignorance.

However, I am delighted that in our conservatory, at least, we are inculcating an understanding that sound and music may be related but are by no means synonymous.  Budding composers need to work with sound, but if they can appreciate that sound is a tool, not an end in itself, we are breeding a better crop of composers than many of those who came through the 1960s and 1970s where experimentation in sound became the very raison d’etre of a musical composition.  Many back then agreed with Beecham’s famous quote about Stockhausen (“I’ve never heard any but I think I may have trod in some”), seeing in his flippant words a deeper awareness that sound in itself does not create a lasting or valuable work of art. 

Perhaps the most intriguing consequence of this attitude comes in the figure of a recent alumnus from the conservatory, a young man by the name of Mervin Wong, whose fascination with the properties and uses of sound have led to him carving a special niche for himself in the outside world as a self-proclaimed “Sound Alchemist”. Overlooking the awful pretentiousness of the title, Wong has it right.  You can play around with sound and use it to create golden effects without ever quite crossing that invisible and debatable border between sound and music.  That indefinable thing called music is by no means the same thing as that definable thing called sound.

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