Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pitches and Everything After

When it comes to music theory, what do you think of? What is the first thing that comes to mind? Are you thinking: ugggghhhhh I hate theory? Or perhaps worse: oh, theory was my favorite subject! Well, what about subject matter? Perhaps roman numerals, voice leading, chord spellings and different pitchoretical treatments? (Yeah, made up word there.)

Looking back throughout music history, compositional “Innovation” (with a capital “I”) seems to have, in some capacity, either consisted of harmonic, architectural, or aesthetic expansion. After all, isn't that what defines the different musical periods – groupings of artistic aesthetic? Rebelling against the boundaries of traditional “forms”, playing with convention, and searching for “new sounds”?

Yes, okay, there have also been technical improvements made to instrument fabrication, the Mannheim school and all that – but what about the rest of music? What about rhythm, gesture, orchestration, technological integration, and correlation to culture? Where are the accounts of these elements of music? Why are these accounts not integrated into theory curricula?

Why are students still doing 17th century four-part harmony and realizing figured bass? Why aren't they analyzing rhythmic development in rap? Why aren't they analyzing the popular music of today? Is it because it's not “good” or “real” music? On Soundcloud, Bonobo put up a track five days ago, and it already has more than 65,000 plays. I wonder if even the venerable Beethoven gets 65,000 performances / plays in a week.

The larger point here is this: categorically throughout history, musicians have studied the current music of their culture and of those that came before them – both to learn from what was successful and in some cases not so successful (sorry Telemann.) Over time, the volume of created music on which to gaze lustily has ballooned to such an egregious size, it's almost silly to try and keep up. Meanwhile, the amount of current, popular music of our time being analyzed is inversely proportionate to the amount of music we've had our heads stuck in from 1500-1975.

Now, we (the “learned” ones) have sort of entered this myopic, rarefied existence. We've self-appointed ourselves as the harbingers of “true” musical culture – writing the “real” music, performing the “real” music, analyzing the “real” music. While we knights forge onward with our quest, music educators can't find jobs. Their programs and budgets are being cut, orchestras are disintegrating before our eyes, performers are working at coffee shops during the day and dreaming at night, and composers are clamoring, dancing like marionettes, pleading to be programmed on concerts.

Composers need to enter competitions, residencies, music festivals, commissions, collaborations, and get lots of performances. Why? To legitimize themselves to show others that we know what we're talking about. (So wait, what's the degree for?) But again, why would someone pursue all of this just to meet the status quo? So that we can get a university job and perpetuate this rarefied environment we've evolved into?

Yeah yeah, okay, I get the rant. Where are you going with this?

Well, I suppose the crux of all my questions is this: What are we really doing with ourselves?

The culture now is different than 1832.

A composer can't make a living just writing string quartets because no one has anything better to do except play string quartets. Less and less and less people are attending “classical” music concerts. Is music dying? How many people do you suppose attend Bruno Mars concerts? 30-40,000 a concert? Again, I have to ask, is music really dying or has the culture just changed?

There was a time when composers were seen as Innovators (there's that capital “I” again) being years, decades ahead of their time. Is it possible that over the last century we've been so happy patting ourselves on the backs that we've missed the fact that it's 2014?

Surely there are worthwhile things being written today by people we don't respect. Yes, we can all rant about how much we don't like a certain pop star or any other successful musician, (after all, they haven't put in the real work like we have) but at the very least, they're doing something that I'm not. After all, there's a reason why they're rich and going on tour and I'm just trying to connect ends.

Perhaps instead of looking at Bach to be the be-all-end-all of perfect voice-leading, we can think of Bach as being the best for his time period. Is it possible that voice-leading techniques are different now? Is it possible that harmonic treatment, architectural forms, and ensembles have changed? And after all, just what about the inclusion of electronic components!?

Wasn't it Beethoven himself that said, “the barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, 'Thus far and no farther.'”
When did we decide were were done learning? When did we decide we knew how music should be, what “real” music was?

It is important to ask questions. We cannot be aware of ourselves without them. More importantly, neither can we be aware of our future.