Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Music Project

I cannot tell you how many times I've started to work on my Beethoven-Wagner post and stopped, unsure as to how exactly to proceed.  You see, the problem is, every time I try to put the thoughts together, I end up falling back to all of the work I did for my undergraduate thesis, tracing the spiritual and political motions of Beethoven's 3rd and 9th Symphonies.  More importantly, I reflect on how many holes I left in that project.  Even though the result was a nearly 40 page paper (cut down from a maximum of over 50 thanks to the wisdom of my advisor), it was a synopsis of what I really wanted to accomplish.

In reality, what I wanted to write was a book and not an essay.  Not a normal book about music, either.  Like the St. John's music curriculum that I went through three years in a row as an assistant, I wanted to think about and write about and talk about music at the intersection of rigorous music theory, simple music appreciation, real music history, and, perhaps above all, music philosophy.  I suppose you could call all of that, in short, "musicology," but that only obscures the particulars.

The problem is, my Beethoven-Wagner post - which, really, could be a one paragraph long "isn't this cool?" - hinges upon at least some semblance of musical knowledge from all of the above fields.  On some level my perception of the link between Tristan und Isolde and the 9th Symphony is merely "feeling," but there's so much history, music theory, and, perhaps above all, a philosophy of how to understand the meaning of music tied up in my understanding of the two works.  That makes it impossible, as T.S. Eliot says in Prufrock, to say exactly what I mean.

Does all that sound pretentious?  Perhaps, but this is one area where I don't care about sounding pretentious.  I respect that musical tastes differ, of course, but I also think that the ad-hoc dismissal of the project of understanding music - and especially classical music - smacks of willful ignorance.  Too often I have heard - from people who love baroque music to people who love hip hop - that to study music is to rob it of its life, its passion, and its power.  To me, that is an excuse.*  It is a shameful agreement to disagree.  For example, the tired "classical music is boring but I'm ok if you like it" argument strikes me as being lazy, principally because even a cursory study of classical music will demonstrate that it is certainly not boring.  Perhaps classical music concerts are boring, and the stuffy culture surrounding the music is often boring, and writing about classical music is frequently boring, but the music itself is intricate and complex, full of (objectively) more harmonic, rhythmic, formal, and melodic variation than the vast majority of modern music.  That means it might be more difficult, more complex, and thus less immediately accessible - all legitimate complaints - but hardly more boring.

*Furthermore, it misses the point.  One's appreciation of music increases with its study, just as in every other field.  It is difficult to find a cosmologist who is not even more awestruck by the universe than an amateur stargazer.  There are few sabermetricians who are less avid baseball fans than the RBI-junkie.  Few musicians, composers, and even music critics are not violently passionate about music, despite, and indeed because of, their knowledge.**

**OK, total tangent on this one.  Have you ever noticed that "despite" can usually be substituted for "because of," even though the two are, in principal, opposites?  It is an interesting quality of the narratives we build about success and failure that the two are so often interchangeable.  For example, "despite his speech impediment, the child grew up to be a successful politician."  Perhaps true, but "because of" fits well, too, because it is often the case, in such stories, that overcoming the speech impediment is what gave the child the confidence and drive to become a politician in the first place.  At the very least, the "victory despite impossible odds" story gets told because of the impossible odds.  Which is perhaps more to the point; that "despite" is the reason the story exists in the first place, and thus, while it may not be that success owes to the thing being overcome, that success is noteworthy at all is.

Phew, where were we?

All of which brings me to the project: learning to listen to and talk about classical music.  Now, I have already begun that process - a process which inspired my thesis, and which was a significant factor in my decision to apply to UCSD's Communications program (with the aim of studying the learning and cultural acquisition of music) for my PhD - but I am no expert.  I am, I would argue, an expert learner, however, and that means that maybe, just maybe, I can drag someone somewhere along with me.  Or, at the very least - and more precisely, in any case - I can chronicle my learning so that it is traceable.  The project, then, is to listen, and in listening, to learn to listen, to Beethoven's 3rd.  If all goes well, then we can launch into the 9th and Tristan und Isolde, and perhaps other pieces as well (indeed, I have already done this with other posts on Bizet's Farandole and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and even Sacris Solemnis, a setting of Beethoven's 7th, but not as well as I would have liked).

Now this is not a one post project, or even a five post project.*  The Eroica's first movement, alone, might take a half dozen posts.  Nor will these posts be continuous.  You can still expect political wranglings, game reviews and observations, philosophical or literary musings, and of course, now that the season is coming, baseball analysis in this space.  Some might say that's a weakness of this blog: it lacks focus.  But I consider it a strength: it is vast, it contains multitudes.

*Indeed, the secret goal, here, is to write a book.  Perhaps a book no one would read, or - more importantly in our commerical age - no one would publish, but a book nonetheless.  Ambitious?  Perhaps, but you have to start somewhere, and whereas aspiring writers used to toil in anonymity for years before having their writing rejected by publishers, modern writers at least have the benefit of toiling publically.

Regardless of the number of posts, or the amount of time, however, we'll be forming a narrative.  Perhaps not a perfectly linear one, and perhaps not a perfectally literary one.  Rather, I'm hoping to build - for myself and for my readers - a mythology of music, a philosophy of music, and, most importantly, a deeper understanding not only of how music works, but why it works, and why, above all, it matters.  That's no small goal, I realize, but it is a goal I believe in, and a goal that I think we forget too easily in a world where music is everywhere, and largely unexamined.  Let us examine it, friends, that we might more joy in it that way.

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