Saturday, January 9, 2010

Towards Defining Great Music, Part Four: Modern Music

I heard there was a secret chord,
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don't really care for music, do you?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

Popular music throughout history has found itself both indebted to and in conflict with so-called "art music." There was a time when the conflict was essentially religious; popular music was vulgar, meaningless, and the work of peasants while art music was composed almost exclusively for the church. Gregorian chant fits this model, of course, but much of the medieval polyphony that followed was likewise devotional. Giovanni Perluigi de Palestrina was probably the most prolific and famous composer of his time, and it is no accident that he was also deeply religious.

It is not my intention to trace the history of popular music, as such, but rather to point out that art music and popular music have always shared a reciprocal relationship. Though the more deliberate forms that make up symphonies and operas have always had a kind of aristocratic preference over the more streetwise popular forms of every era, innovations in either one almost always became innovations in the other. Over time, as the distance between art music and popular music has decreased, those innovations have been shared more and more readily. But even during the classical and romantic eras, folk melodies became the rage, and the eerie dissonances heard on the streets and in brothels began to make their way into the music of Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and especially Dvorák.

It is impossible to discuss modern popular music (and modern art music) without confronting jazz. Though it has been waning in popularity since, frankly, the 50s, jazz is perhaps the single most influential genre in the history of Western music. Though of course it is based upon European harmonies, it transformed the formal and rhythmic essences that those very harmonies had always existed in, and therefore also began to transform the harmonies themselves. As a result, even recent composers of art music - such as Bernstein, Copland, and Gershwin - have written a kind of "classical jazz," extracting the solo, but leaving the remainder of jazz form, harmony, and rhythm.

Modern art music, however, is even more marginalized than jazz, occupying a small niche among musicologists and the "pretentious for the sake of pretension" crowd that makes up our modern aristocracies (though we tend to prefer gentry, or "upwardly mobile"). I could say much about some of the better modern composers, like John Tavener or Arvo Part, but they don't really constitute what I mean by modern music. Judgment as to the greatness of their music will not come any time soon.

Modern popular music, on the other hand, is an interesting case. My object here - as I spiral towards (or away from) a definition of great music - is to consider whether popular music can be great. Because that question is unanswerable, I fear, for the time being, I expect rather to address what the purpose and effect of modern music is, and whether that seems to befit greatness.

The quotation with which this posts begins comes from a piece you have probably heard in many versions. Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah may not be the most harmonically complex piece of music ever, but to me it captures the essence of what modern music is. There are many songs we could look at, of course, but Hallelujah straddles them all: it is about music, it is a love song (like so much modern, and indeed historical, music), it has a simple and repetitive harmonic structure, it has lyrics which are probably as important as the song itself, and it is immensely popular. The first of these qualities should not be overlooked. It is always informative to look at music which is about music itself when trying to understand the work of an era.

Cohen calls attention, from the beginning of his piece, to the simple harmony he's using. "It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth." Those words could be in just about any modern song, and in many that would cover the entirety of the harmonic variation. In Cohen, however, there are a couple wrinkles. Hallelujah fluctuates continuously between C Major and A minor, keys which share the same scale, but which have very different harmonic qualities. His "fourth" and "fifth" indicate that the piece is in C, ultimately, but the minor twinge is unavoidable. What's more, besides the four, five, and six ("the minor fall," which is also A), there is a guest appearance from E minor, the three. In classical music this would not happen without a modulation as well, but here it works because E is the dominant of A, meaning that the presence of the E minor - though it is minor and not the expected Major - reinforces the sense that either C or A could be the tonic.

Ok, harmonic hand-wringing aside, Hallelujah is much more complex than most modern, popular music, but not be a lot. The form repeats itself over and over, and what variation occurs in the melody or harmony is the work of the individual performer, and not the intent of the piece. Nevertheless, the harmonic "trick" here is to inspire a kind of restless wandering in the listener's ear. Is it Major? Minor? How ought I to feel, when listening to this piece? Of course, the lyrics reinforce that confusion, answering with a resounding "both." Hallelujah is desperately joyful, but defeated. Its title and lyrics are not ironic so much as reflective. Hallelujah - and you can't avoid the comparison with this title - is not what Handel thought it was. It's not a chorus of angels, "It's not a cry that you hear at night, it's not somebody that's seen the light."

Whether the message connects with you or not, the song is incredibly persuasive because of its harmonic workings. That it tries to access a basic human experience - love - and that it acknowledges not just the stereotypical emotions we experience therein makes it all the more powerful. So many love songs are about wanting: I want you back, I want to hold your hand, I want you to live forever, and so on... Hallelujah expresses neither the pain of lost love nor the expectation of unrequited love. Rather, it tries to access the inexpressible desires - spiritual, musical, human - that cannot be fulfilled. It dashes the expectations of those naive love songs which believe that "happily ever after" means dancing every day: "Love is not a victory march." In Hallelujah, there is melancholy of the truest form, the unrequited, unspoken desires of being that are not good or evil or even in between.

I have chosen an exceptional case, however, for this reason. While Hallelujah accesses that essential feeling - doing it through both words and music - it does little more than alert us, or remind us, that it is there. How much modern music can even say that much? We may associate music with certain emotions and memories, but our own associations do not therefore make that music great. Even Hallelujah falls short, to my mind, of greatness because it feels so ravaged, so Orphic, so uncontrollable.

Modern music is almost always about the lyrics. Unfortunately, the result is that modern music has more complicated and sophisticated lyrics than the music of almost any other time, whilst having simpler harmonies, rhythms, and melodies. That doesn't mean modern music need not be enjoyable, but it does mean that, when you strip the lyrics away, you also strip the meaning away. Music without meaning is not, to me, great. Even Hallelujah - one of the closest things I can find to a piece of great, modern, popular music - is repetitive and essentially meaningless without its lyrics. Compare, again, Handel's Hallelujah. Take away the lyrics - which most people don't know anyway - and the meaning is still clear. The piece doesn't change without the words.

Perhaps modern music should be judged by the standards of poetry? That's fine with me. I'm certain a great deal of it is good or even excellent poetry. But that does not mean it is great music. Music is far too sacred an art, and far to complicated a craft, to strip it of its complexity and hope that it might still be great. Modulation (changing the tonic from one key to another during a piece) is not a necessary condition of greatness, but a piece without it has to work extra hard. Why? Because modulation helps to give a deeper, subtler sense of meaning to a work, and deep, subtle meanings are the especial purview of music.

Put it this way. Remember from a previous post what Arnold Schopenhauer said. Music is, essentially, the mind doing metaphysics. He argued, in short, that music is the only possible route to understanding what things really are. I don't know that I agree with that, but I do like the sentiment. Music is not a language, it is beyond language. Music expresses things which are beyond language. Poetry tries to do just that, but, in my opinion, music has preference over poetry because it does not merely try. It is hard to go beyond language with language, and so a music built upon lyrics is a music that has artificially limited itself. On the other hand, a music built upon music - even if that requires a little more study and effort on the part of the listener - is destined to express something a bit more essential.

Of course, you might hold that music does no such thing. Perhaps you say, "It's a vehicle for words, and without them, it is meaningless." Fair enough, but it doesn't sound that way to me. That, however, is the subject - or at least a part of the subject - of our next and final post in this series. While there are many possible avenues available, expect my rebuttal to your "music needs words" argument to come in the form of Beethoven.

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