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Listening to Classical Music                                            




First some parameters and definitions… to include other periods (subject area not restricted to period-based definition, eg., ‘classical’ as 18h-19th c):  So topic field is the art musics of the West; for many, a tradition now joined by the art musics of the world (the court or religious musics of the world, or musics evolving from such origins). So to include the other half of the phenomena often called ‘World Music’ (being the recent popular music of the world’s diverse cultures and regions… now -as the name indicates- globalised). The ‘upper’ hemisphere or ‘top’ half of the global ‘two halves’, the binary division of human culture into the mutually defining opposites of ‘art’ and ‘popular’ culture.


Also including the latest expressions, the latest experiments (so not excluding the avant-garde; such as it still persists… as a variety of styles, trends and fusions on the world arena). The art musics of the world appear to be a plural entity, similar in the range of musical languages employed, to the global post-conceptualism which has come to dominate the global art market (post-conceptualism with regional characteristics… so including various traditions, and culturally specific, or emblematic, concrete languages and image-referents…). In (art) music this has come to mean a variety of post minimalisms, degrees of complexity, simplicity and/or serial compositional techniques, whether electric (recorded and made) or acoustic, real or virtual, as well as a variety of neo-isms (neo-romanticism, etc). On the world stage this process would include the incorporation of national traditions in a variety of degrees from pastiche to suturing with advanced compositional techniques and including electronic and digital means of expression. So a combination (choice) of a range of compositional techniques and styles (‘-isms’) has arisen as the new global standard (along with traditional forms, and the mixing of all of the aforementioned in an ongoing ‘postmodern’ experiment – although in the 21st c we can perhaps now say that the postmodern stage has been superseded by, or, better, subsumed by, the global stage… history’s last word?).


So not excluding popular music? Yes: definitely, definitionly excluding ‘pop’ and folk (as well as the resulting sub-genres, ‘rock’, etc.), because to be structured by definitions taken from that ‘lower’ cultural level. An originary exclusion justified because initially taking its categories from popular music (which is the subject of another article, see ‘Listening to Popular Music’). Therefore the use of the term ‘classical’ here still implies the torn halves of a culture divided into two, or anyway analysed as such (not always the same thing, for example, much ‘classical’ music has become popular, whilst experimental music remains stubbornly ‘elitist’ or better, music for the ‘specialist’ or ‘enthusiast’). However, to look at the consumption side (the side that really matters), the use of classical music (writ large) is more plural and less a ‘pure’ indicator of caste (as observed, many ‘classical’ pieces are today consumed as popular music, witness the programming of ‘Classic FM’ in the UK and its many avatars worldwide); perhaps as the sign of cultural sub-caste as opposed to brute economic class (as a kind of ‘cultural capital’, or as part of an ongoing ‘identity exchange’ - as very few kinds of music today have an ‘organic’ link to their community of origin or consumption and not all acquired listening habits earn a material profit)? Thus the usual solution to the ‘torn halves’ analysis of culture (Adorno) is to describe the consumption side remarriage of the torn halves in actual everyday use and consumption. Very few people only ever listen to either elite or experimental sound worlds or bubble-gum pop, most live in between, in a constellative or pluralist cultural world, mixing and matching according to life-style or moment (generation, mode of leisure, as well an conflux of class, gender sexuality race, and other community identifications, often in conflict and collision as well as engaging in the fecund production of ever new mutations and hybrids).


So now to provocatively apply notions taken from understanding popular music (with film a backbone of popular culture), namely, the terms ‘anthem’, ‘lyric’, ‘dance’ and their combination, to the cloistered realm of ‘classical’ music (itself not singular, so in practice to the art musics of a given culture). Practically speaking, the application of modes of appropriation based upon phenomenology or the philosophy of experience to ‘actually-experienced’ music…


Or, in what might appear to be a ‘post-colonial’ critical inversion, we could apply a notion like ‘continuing variation form plus episodes and degrees of complexity’, the dominant form in world music historically speaking, differing from Western ‘Classical’ music in only one detail, the sonata tradition’s use of two contrasting themes (depending in practice on the tension between keys, tonic and dominant, product of the West’s system of harmony, which then held back its development of ornament and rhythm – at least until recently…). However this later, accompanied perhaps by some version of a ‘leading voice’, would already have appear to have been done as this technique of understanding music is a part of Romantic and Modernist (serial and post-serial) forms of composition.


The notion of experiential genres taken from popular music offers sung forms (further divided into collective and individual, the ‘anthem’ and the ‘lyric’, the hymn and the love song, and their combination) and the unsung (the varieties of the dance, now allowed to be faster and slower than the speeds or rhythms suitable for the voice); together with their combination in complex forms. Most obviously, the pairing of lyric and anthem in the song’s verse-chorus structure, is maintained, as in the Chanson, the Lied, and beyond, into the modernist art song - if with more ambiguity of voice (the alternation with another point of view may not be collective… but may retain its force). More curiously, this pairing, of verse-chorus, can be found persisting as ‘topic and comment’, statement and counterstatement or ‘question and answer’ in all the available binary forms of ‘pure’, un-vocal, music; a binary relation further surviving in the contrast of lyric line or fragments with choric unison or sonic explosion in modern or ‘New Music’.


Let us take a look at these three ‘kinds’ as they apply to the experience of listening to classical music…


Anthem. Hymnal (proto-typical). Ur-form of/from religious music; but perhaps not the ‘Lamentations’ genre (as the lyric tends to be the favourite mode of expression of the complaint). Or found combined, as in the earliest (folk) song as verse-chorus (lyric and supervising collective chorus). The anthem provides the dominant mood of first movement form, from baroque to classical sonata with their varieties of tonic–dominant relationship, the further contrast of the themes they generate (often echoing the contrast of anthem and lyric, an inversion of  the verse/chorus of song), and their expansion as form (ABBA, ABABAB, with theme and key separated and inverted in the final pair of the classical sonata). Key is the tonic-dominant movement, with its ever-increasing ‘ romantic’ tonal expansion, yielding an ever-diminishing range of return as the basic relationship of the two keys becomes ever more clouded, mediated, so replaced by insistence, volume, colour and the ‘bump’ of ‘exotic’ key changes. Contrasting (groups of) themes exploit the lyric /anthem difference, even exchanging the ‘voice’ with their colour, reconfiguration or re-entry. 


Freed from the limitations of the sung, we find the freedom of increased speed, but this tends more towards the ecstatic drowning of the dance form. Rather there is a weight of assertion, a force of recognition or assertion… (usually coupled with the force of the return, the weight of the choric voice). The problematic relation to dominance, or the apparent intolerance of the sonata form is clearest here. In fact the persistence of the choral voice in the instrumental sound world of the sonata offers a range of expressions from ‘survival’ (in the world of the music, ‘real’ or ‘imagined’, in the later case we have a memorial, or ghost…) to the brute assertion of ‘dominance’, of victory, of the (literal) sonic drowning out of all other thematic material, of the in-audibility of all else (as when the brass section collectively enounce…). The sonic expunging of all others (and the ironic exploitation of this, the ambiguity of these meanings in Shostakovich).


Beyond the sonata, the spirit of the choral, a would-be unifying of the divided self, of the fragmented postmodern individual, a unifying assertion of collective survival and identity, or the plea for such… lies in the anthemic moment found in much modern music (Birtwhistle, early Rihm). Yet as with the sonata, all assertions, re-assertions, and other musical acts of witness, may be read negatively (as exclusive, excluding). The modern instrumental choric moment or hymn, even if reduced to a fragment or motif, is never quite free of the barbarism that attends all positive statements. In the politics of music, as in the politics of culture at large, it is the guardian of the absent that is the guardian of the weak and those without voice.


At the further end of the choric voice and its echo in instrumental music, we might find a wall of noise, a curtain of sound, an overcoming of all else by sheer sonic insistence, an insistence which suggests the merging, the reunion, the return to unity with the other modes; as ecstatic, a climactic moment in dance, or as a lyric outpouring of emotion…


Lyric. Song of songs. Endless melody. Realm of the slow, unhurried, unfolding; the slow dance, the slow movement; emotional, introspective, meditative… space (time) given over to thoughtful expression and experiment. The lyric: perhaps above all musical home to the complaint, which albeit a vocal genre is nevertheless accompanied by a music whose mood may be that of stridency, a plangent whining, the expression of loss, the invocation of an inner wound, or the mourning attendant upon such a hurt. From the sing-able in the sacred and secular art music of the world to the un-sing-able; to the instrumentally sung (including the apparently percussive forte-piano, a musical illusionism fit to match anything attained in the art of the image). A song ‘without words’ sustained and supported at times by the entire means of the modern orchestra, and including the shrieks and outpourings of modernism in languages apparently beyond the world of the human voice - but not beyond the human heart (nor the comprehension of the head). A song beyond that which can be sung.


In the realm of experiment and the expansion of this mode to the limit, we have the slow music of the 20th century, from serialism to post-serial layers of thematic a-tonality, from serial reflection to sound sculpture, to the reductions or change of focus of miniaturism and minimalism (from Gubaidulina to Reich, and from Morton Feldman to Rebecca Saunders - from minimalism to sound object). A freedom tending to the unsingable: So in the avant-garde; so slow music when freed from the voice is permitted even slower and more ‘harsh’, more ‘difficult’, as well as more simple, colouristic, rhythmic and thematic treatments.


And at the far end, the extrapolation of the lyric in art music tends to sustained notes or silence; to inhuman wailing, a keening fit for the memorialisation of the disasters of the 20th century -a complaint for our times- or to the sound worlds and absences of meditation and metaphysics.


Dance. Rhythm first. Simple insistence on the most basic form of the return: the rythmic. Insistence of the return of the beat. Movement. Movement of final movements: medieval, renaissance and baroque dance forms; the world of the Rondo (ABAC…A, by any other name). The final movement of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ as of so many final movements in the sonata tradition. Source of ecstasy in the avant-garde, noise and un-listenability (also found in experimental fusions of art and popular music). Lyric and anthem, this difference (of voice in the sung) in dance becomes the difference of slow and fast mannered music. Qualities which in art music, may, as in the case of slow music, tend back to the lyric, but may further allow the exploration of rhythm to configure non-lyric forms of meditation… or even stasis.


Which at the far end offers us silence… with its metaphysical, or anyway rhetoric of profound emotional import, and its immediate inversion in Cage, where musical silence is found permitting natural sound to be read, experienced as such… or read itself as the presence of religion, as a qualitative appropriation of the sounds of the world…


And others, unclassifiable due to their versatility of use:


Variation form, usually found in dance music, in the spirit of the dance, as in Baroque and classical (sonata form); if Romantic (monothematic) and serial, then possibly as anthemic (also arguable at base a monothematic, variation form…); if slow, then lyrical… revealing of inner landscapes and expressing meditative landscapes, unspeakable emotions… Or as in the fugue capable of all modalities… of a range of emotional expression whilst maintaining its complexity of form, its returns by turn capable of anthemic and lyric meaning. (Similar perhaps to serially inflected musics, but equally difficult to dance to…).


‘Program’ music as a combined form: as with opera, or music theatre, and ballet; where dance is an actual program consisting of all the three forms of musical experience - obviously also true for forms of music whose quality is that of an accompaniment, ‘obligato’ or background (whether mapped or aleatory).



The musical return, the repetition we have been waiting for (and what is music but patterns and levels of repetition drawing attention to themselves, like verbal art, the return of that which we await) is the moment of the return of ritual in music, the moment when repetition turns into recognition. A turning which reminds us that identity is the ground of return. A return in music that takes place in three modalities: desire and loss; recognition and the assertion of the found; and movement, the ‘voice’ of the body after the obsessions of the ego have finally been dismissed – pure physical pleasure. So if the lyric mode offers solace, a re-imagining, and mourning as opposed to the anthem’s claim to cure and resolution, both working on the long cycle, the level of the phrase and its return, then these may be opposed to the visceral nature of the dance, whose nature is to be found in the ‘short circuit’ return of rhythm, the insistence of the beat:


Dance, except in the most formal and ordered of genres, lies beyond all witness and confession, a performance of the self in which the performance of self obliterates self (even as it forms and expresses it). Whilst in appearance the closest to traditional ritual, the individual mode of expression (free of mythic constraint) renders this visual analogy void – only in the delirious persistence of the eternal presence, the eternal moment of the self in rhythm does the eternal guarantee that lies at the heart of ritual obtain’.


This quote is taken from this article’s companion piece, ‘Listening to Popular Music’; and much else stated there could equally have been quoted in this article and so applied to its very different -indeed putatively opposite- subject matter. A partial redemption of the torn halves in our listening and response? A partial redemption occurring on the ‘meta-level’ of the critical? Perhaps… even if the specifics remain rendered in colours said to be untranslatable.





Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk