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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
elfcape Classical music - what makes you listen? (302* d) RE: Classical music - what makes you listen? 01 Jun 07


This is really hard to describe but I'll give it a try.

What makes me listen to "classical" music?

First, it's my home place. I grew up in a place where it was ever present and constantly being made. By the time I was 2 I was participating in making it. My father played and taught the piano for a living and our whole life was centered around that. He lived in a very interesting and diverse musical world, but it began with Bach and more or less ended with Debussy who was still composing when my father started seriously being a musician.

But I think the thing that keeps me with it is the variety in the content.

First It has ideas and works them. Even when there's a movement of variations, the best composers play with the basic material in such a way as to spin it out for 8 or 10 minutes. So one gets to be with the music for a long time, compared to pop or folk or rock where everything starts, runs 3 minutes and ends. And the time is extended further when you have a multi-movement work. So the emotional effects are sustained longer and have variety within them.

Another form of content is harmony. There's very little to no sense of harmonic possibilities in any other genre except jazz. In modern rock and pop there's no harmony at all, no sense of being in a key and creating tension by moving away from and into another key. No return to the original key at the conclusion. Even Schubert's Lieder, which are little vignettes, explore harmonic relationships to create emotional effects. Contemporary singer-songwriters seem generally to be harmonically illiterate - they know nothing about how chords are related so chord progressions are nonsensical because they've been raised on pop music which has no understanding of harmony. Even the dance suites of Rameau and Couperin take advantage of the harmonic tension inherent in the relationships of chords by modulating temporarily into distant places instead of just to the dominant and back.

Still another form of content is imitation, which is widely used by the best composers of every period. Even Monteverdi, who was rebelling against the counterpoint of the late medieval church masses, and thus tried to write very vertical music, eventually realized that he could use contrapuntal and imitative writing to heighten tension and that bashing his listeners with chords wasn't going to work as a steady diet. This is where improvisers like the Dead ultimately fell down. They depended on the beat just heavily enough that they couldn't get loose, despite their basically contrapuntal improvisational style. And, of course, the Dead also suffered from very limited harmonic skills, as well as basing their improvs on music with a narrow harmonic premise to begin with.

Then there are all the colors - like flutes and bassoons, horns and 'cellos, solo passages and massed sections. Variety. High voices and low. True, some music is more limited - string quartets are not a colorful as a small orchestra. A single singer with piano may not have the colors of a small chorus with orchestra. But the entire genre does have that variety in aural color. And someone like Beethoven didn't allow himself to depend on the small range of colors in a string quartet when he could use harmonic color, modulation, counterpoint and structure to compensate for the bareness of the quartet. Brahms seems to have felt so limited by the palette of the string quartet that he had to add a piano or clarinet to hold his own interest.

Still another form of content is rhythm. First there's the meter - 2 beats or 3. Not much non-classical music has more than 2 beats. True there's a maverick tradition of waltzes in celtic dance music, and after a few hundred years of 2 beats some irish musicians discovered the irregular meters from eastern Europe. But, of course, Bartok did that back in 1910 before he fled the Nazis, and he transformed his collecting by composing his own really scary works using what he absorbed. But aside from the occasional waltz, non-classical music seems to be bound by 2s whereas "classical" music has had units of 3 since the 13th century and certainly triple time is normative from the beginning of the Renaissance.

In addition, the beat is often played with so it shifts, or conflicts with the harmonic rhythm (the rate at which chords change) - the other kind of rhythm.

And then there's enormous variety in tempo - the speed the music moves along at. Everything from frantic to somnolent somewhere in the repertoire.

Now I admit the comfort factor is really strong for me. I've been immersed in "classical" music for just shy of 65 years now and it's undeniably my home place as I said. And it is interesting to try to figure out why I continue to find it so satisfying.

And it's not the only music I listen to, I've passed through the folk scene seriously at least twice since college and done a lot of various kinds of folky dancing too. But the American singer-songwriter scene has pretty much lost me, and there's no way I want the pop and rock racket that people mistakenly call music in my ecosystem. I really don't like being beat over the head with that rhythm, nor do I find any sort of sheets of screaming reverb attractive. And if I want to listen to poetry being declaimed with an undercurrent of music I'd like to be able to hear the words, too, above the beat.

My quite a bit more than 2 bits for you!


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