OK, so some music may not be God-stuff
Friday, April 27, 2012 2:56 AM
I could attempt to create a contrived consistency with an earlier article (wherein I stated that all music is God-stuff) by saying that Stravinsky's work is not really music; or I could hide behind Emerson's thing about a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds. But the truth of the matter is, some quirk of genetics enables me to hold two completely opposing viewpoints without walking into lampposts.
Why does "modern" music sound like crap? I don't mean Plain White Ts or Taylor Swift. I don't mean vocal music at all. I mean, why did melody desert the symphonies and chamber pieces? I'm talking Shostakovich. I'm talking Schoenberg. I'm talking Stravinsky, who said, "I consider that music is by its very nature essentially powerless to express anything at all ... I evoke neither human joy nor human sadness."
Stravinsky was only half-right; it is not music in general that is powerless to express anything, but Stravinsky's music; indeed, it evokes nothing but bloody noise. (This is really going to tick off some musicians, I just know it. One man's crap is another man's avant-garde.)
In a desperate counter-measure, we over-compensated in the other direction, and thus did we tread "so far from the chasm" that we fell "into the ditch on the other side." Behold the meringue of the musical world: New Age music. It's equally tuneless and un-hum-able, but oh-so-sleep-inducing. It sounds a lot better than Schoenberg, and it's OK to have on at work, as long as you're not operating heavy machinery.
So light, so vapid, so utterly unsatisfying, with all the auditory nutritional value of a Twinkie. It's like the old cliché about Chinese food: It's tasty, but you're hungry again 10 minutes after your ears have ingested it.
I told someone just the other day, "Movie soundtracks. That's where all the melodic instrumental composers have gone. They're just not in the symphony halls anymore and haven't been since 1900."
Listen to the CD of Schindler's List. I cannot hear Itzak Perlman playing those haunting solo violin strains without getting choked up. Check out the CD from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. (Purchase it, don't pirate it, dammit. Never cheat a musician or a composer. It's as bad as robbing the poor-box. Even the biggest names once had to put in their time scrubbing floors and waiting tables, you know. And they probably made more in tips than they do now on their cut of the CD sales because of all the cheap-skates stealing them blind.)
Check out the first cut on the X-Men: First Class CD: Its opening high strings maintain the quickly sawing yet smooth rhythm of a hovering bird. Then underneath, there appears a broad, expansive brass line, and as it broadens and expands even more, the opening high strings become more agitated and staccato, and the underlying brass grows in volume and power until the whole thing is slammed into you by the percussion section and a pulsating synthesizer. And that's followed up by slow, soaring, middle-range violins and more brass, making you feel like some high and noble hero-king about to get out there and save the world or something.
Then there's the unrelenting metallic menace of Magneto's theme.
Tell me, in God's name, why does music like this have to be hidden under a movie based on a cartoon, fer cryin' out loud? (Don't get me wrong, I loved the movie. But still.)
I'm sure that music scholars probably think movie scores are simplistic and lack intellectual sophistication. Indeed, a lot of them have the driving percussion and repetitiveness of theme that rock 'n' roll has, but because they have melodies that are more interesting than "If It Makes You Happy, It Can't Be That Bad" (gadzooks, but I hate that song), and an orchestra to back them, they have, in my opinion, greater power to "rock you" than a guy with a guitar and huge amps.
Movie soundtracks can't hold a candle to Bach partitas, but at least they can move you, and do not - as happens with "atonal symphonies" - make you wonder who the devil is strangling the cat.
Opinionated, am I? Darn right. Some people get worked up about politics. Some people get worked up about religion. I get pissed about atonal dissonance.
No worries about that with these guys: Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings). John Williams (Star Wars, most of the Harry Potter films, Schindler's List). More recently, Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class). Michael Nyman (The Piano). I'll toss in Philip Glass's score to The Illusionist, just because I think it's the best thing he ever wrote (though that ain't sayin' much).
The weird little tune in Tarantino's ghastly little movie - Inglourious Basterds - I don't know who wrote it. Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, II and III, The Last Samurai, and The Dark Knight - what does it tell you that the nausea-inducing dissonant sounds in this last work signify the psychotic Joker?). And for all you WWII people or children thereof: Rogers and Bennett (Victory at Sea). This one's probably the closest to painting with music I've ever heard.
It is the old war between head and heart. I feel that those who think music is all about logic and intellect probably gravitate toward Shostakovich and his ilk. But if you are stirred in the depths of your soul by sound itself, it is melody you crave; not something to analyze or parse, but something to make your heart sing. If music is the air that you breathe, you'll feel suffocated for want of harmony in those "modern" symphonic pieces.
Maybe the harmonies of the baroque and classical eras can't come back any more than can the innocence of the pre-industrial age. We are a cynical species now, in our humor and in our politics. What else can we be, in such a world as this?
And yet, still do I have hope, because you see, just like the grass in Malvina Reynolds' song (see below), melody never dies. It may go underground, as it seems to have done in our dissonant world, but, like the still, small voice, it never disappears completely. You just have to hunt for it, listen for it, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. Movies. Even beer commercials. Whatever. It's there.
"God bless the grass that grows through the crack
They roll the concrete over it and try to keep it back
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through...
God bless the grass, that grows through cement
It's green and it's tender and it's easily bent
But after a while, it lifts up its head
For the grass is living and the stone is dead
God bless the grass."