The Sounds and Stories of Musics

every piece has a story and every composer has a life.
Phillip Glass and a cat.

Phillip Glass and a cat.

Realism in Music

All of the arts have a history of realism and the copying the natural world except for music. It is something that is hard to define. Rameau claimed that tonality was inherent in nature, which can be backed by an argument of overtones and natural harmonics, but as John Cage would argue, none of the sounds of tonality in music can be heard in nature. Music is an art form that seems inherent only in humans (many would also point to some animals for music, but that’s for another time). Sure, tonality is what sounds natural to us, it sounds pleasant and it is ubiquitous around the planet. The problem is the words ‘natural’ and ‘realism’. We can either accept that music is not in itself a natural form of art, or find a way to prove that these sounds that we create is in some way related to the natural order of things. But how? The phrases “real music” has been a buzz for hundreds of years, and making something “real” is the goal of countless musicians, if not all musicians. John Cage’s use of sounds looked to mimic the literal sounds that he hears in nature, but his music is not widely appreciated like tonality, although one can make the case that some of his music was more real than anything that came before it. 

George M Cohan

George Cohan isn’t really a name that’s too familiar with people today, but at the turn of the twentieth century, there were few names as popular as his in entertainment. The remnants of his success has left us with only “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” In his time, there were several popular playwrights, songwriters, singers, and other performers, but none did it all like Cohan. Cohan was an actor, singer, dancer, playwright, songwriter, director, producer, publisher , and theater owner throughout the main part of his career. 

Cohan claimed he was born on the 4th of July, and while we have no proof that he did or didn’t, he made sure that everyone knew it. His productions always celebrated the United States. even writing a show named George Washington Jr. His career technically preceded the Broadway musical, and as such his shows lacked serious and sometimes even coherent plots, even claiming that “the masses don’t want it.” While to us, that seems almost insulting to his audience, his shows were far more popular than his contemporaries. His patriotism managed to bring the masses together while offending almost no one. North and South alike (although they all tended to be of European descent) the people loved his shows. 

What to Think of the Da-Da-Da-Dumm

What do we think of when we hear those famous first notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. It doesn’t have the same presence that the ninth symphony, even if it is just as well known in our culture. The two ideas that have been given to this melody have been the “fate knocking at the door” and the morse code symbol for the letter ‘v’ which was the “victory” signal in WWII. Neither of which have much of an impact to many of us. The idea of fate always being with you isn’t much of a burden on our lives these days. Victory isn’t the same in present war as media has shown the baggage that comes with victory. 

When I listen to the first movement, I get a feeling of an unstoppable force, but what it is I haven’t yet figured out yet. I don’t know how this piece of music connects with me. A basic element of music is to connect with the listener, but I just haven’t figured out how this movement connects with me, only that I know it does. Maybe the four note motive is fate, maybe there is something that’s always lurking at my life that I can’t stop or prevent. Perhaps we all have one thing that we can’t get out of our heads no matter what the situation is. I don’t know, so I keep listening. 

False Ideas in Richard Strauss

The opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra is labelled by Strauss as the “Riddle of the World.” It is a question posed that must be answered by the rest of the piece. Each section is an attempt to answer this question or the shame in the failure to do so. This was Richard Strauss’ idea of what his tone poem should convey. 

When the prelude to the tone poem is played in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is not Kubrick posing a question to the viewers. It is Kubrick’s statement of the big answer to life. It is the the statement of what is to come next and the statement of advancement through time. This newer, incorrect use of the fanfare is the way that it is most often used today for the reason that it fits today’s culture better than the original use. While those existential questions occupy our 2am conversations, they’re not at the core of what our culture wants. Our culture is constantly looking for what’s next, whether it’s the next car, president, or judge on American Idol. This is how music evolves in order to fit our culture. Had it never appeared in the film in a way that matches a newer culture, it would have fallen out of the public’s ear just as so many other great pieces of music.

False Ideas in Mahler

The Andante movement of Mahler’s sixth symphony sounds like a lullaby with gross, crude interruptions of dissonance and painful cries. Mahler’s five year old daughter died around the time of the first performance of the piece so audiences have always listened to this movement as the sorrow of Mahler’s exploding at the grief over the loss of his daughter. The problem is that his daughter was alive and well at the time he composed the movement. To say that it is his grief over the loss would be demonstrably false, but audiences do not seem to care about the facts when it comes to this piece of music. The myth of his daughter’s death inspiring this terrific movement destroys the truth of the sound of innocence being attacked by harsh sounds of reality. 

Audiences want to hear the pain of loss in this movement, not because they get a giggle out of Mahler’s struggles (like I do), but because deep down, people want to connect with the composer on a personal level. The loss of a loved one is an experience that most people understand and the feelings are easily provoked. The soul crushing story of Mahler’s daughter allows the audience to hurt in a way that brings the listener together with the music and the composer. That connection is what the audience needs to keep listening to this music and to love the music. If that connection is not there, then it remains far away from the audience, behind the glass cover and next to the “do not touch” sign. It is because people have connected with the music that it is able to survive in this commercial world. 

My opinion is to allow this myth to burn into the hearts of the masses. Our job is not to give the audience the facts if they don’t know better, our job is to connect ourselves to the audience, to communicate something that can’t be done any other way. If by doing that we lose the truth, then so what? If we are able to bring together an audience of complete strangers through a historical myth, then we have created something more meaningful than historical fact.

deutzel asked: hi there! if i may ask, who is your favourite composer and why? also, are there any composers that you would recommend and maybe highlight some their works to check out? thank you so much and have a wonderful day!

Hi! Sorry about the late response here; school is rather hectic these times. So, I always have trouble answering “favorite” questions, because I have a hard time picking favorites for anything. I’m not above having favorites, I’m just a little indecisive with most things in life. That being said, the composers I’m generally the most interested in are the ones I’m currently thinking about or writing about. For right now, that would be Richard Strauss, because I’m writing a paper on the changing receptions of Also Sprach Zarathustra from before its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey and after. Strauss is a great composer for most of the genres that he attempted throughout his life. He’s also a breath of fresh air when you study him from the angle of romanticism. When you go through Brahms, Chopin, and Mahler, it’s rather refreshing to study a composer that didn’t try to unveil the inner workings of his soul into the music; he tended to compose things that centered around whatever he was fascinated by at the time he was working on it. This isn’t a black and white thing, however, he would compose his feelings every so often. He would also employ small bits of atonality and polytonality but only for color purposes and I think he was very tasteful in doing so. I’m not against either, but his use is among my favorites. 

For your other question: I think you should check out any modern day composers. Some of the more prominent older ones are John Adams(Transmigration of Souls), John Luther Adams(anything), Tan Dun(water passion), and Chen Yi(anything). I don’t know your feelings on Eric Whitacre(Water Night), but I think he’ll go down as one of if not the most important composer today for garnering interest in classical music, and especially choral music. Check out the New Music Box blog and Alex Ross’ blog as well. They will direct you to so many composers past and present better than I can. For past composers, check out Louis Moreau Gottschalk (Banjo and Caribbean Nights),John K Paine, George Chadwick, and Amy Beach. You’ll find that each of these are American composers from the 19th century, it’s sort of my favorite time. 

Let me know if these work out for you, or if you want me to recommend composers from other parts of the world!

Myth Vs Reality

Most of us don’t remember when we first heard of Beethoven. He’s been a figure that’s been present our entire lives like George Washington or Dracula. We know he was deaf and we know he wrote the "Ode to Joy" but most people don’t know all that much more about him. 

The most important thing about Beethoven is that our image of Beethoven isn’t correct, but that’s why he is so important. The heroic god of music Beethoven will forever be more important to society than will the old jerk that played his music too loudly in a duplex. Mahler was not intimidated by the man that wrote music constantly to make a living, he was horrified at having to compose with the god of all composers looming, casting a shadow on all future attempts at writing music. 

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JS Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Almost always done on the organ, the Toccata and Fugue was popularized by Leopold Stokowski and his transcription for orchestra. It raises the question of whether this is a creation of Bach’s after it has been changed so much.