Friday, March 18, 2011

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways - Part 1

Before I start reviewing some of the less…conventional…albums I’ve come across, I think it’s time for a bit of an informal essay on the subject I’ve been putting off for a while—to the point that it’s prevented me from writing about a few different groups and albums whose style requires a proper introduction.  Since this piece is more a collection of thoughts on a rather intangible subject, I won’t be providing a whole lot of references.  More likely, I’ll make reference to certain aesthetic components mentioned here as I review more albums, providing aural examples that correspond to the concepts.  Most of what I’m going to discuss here is old news from a music history perspective, and I don’t pretend to have said anything for the first time, though I am using my own words.  Rather, I intend to express a subjective opinion as a music lover and musician regarding music’s full aesthetic potential and argue against the deliberate limitation that seems to dominate the musical landscape as much as a century after these creative advances have been made.
This piece is not meant to systematically map the aesthetics of music with words (a fool’s errand), nor is it an attempt to confine musical pleasures to the topics and categories I mention.  Instead, I hope it will identify and illuminate some of the facets of music in which we habitually (but perhaps unconsciously) take pleasure.  Words will always be an inadequate tool when it comes to completely describing something as elusive as music, but an attempt at articulation can only make for clearer communication and a better (if imperfect) understanding of the subject.  From there, I’ll explore the slightly different but equally compelling
aesthetic principles that progressive, modern classical, free improvisational and so-called “experimental” musics employ to stretch aesthetic enjoyment to challenging but often otherwise-unreachable heights.  In other words, I’d like to argue that these kinds of music can be just as pleasurable as more conventional genres, but that conventional standards and expectations breed misunderstanding about them—they require a different kind of listening before being deemed beautiful or ugly, successful or unsuccessful.  Beginning with the more easily-apprehended aesthetic principles, I’ll tread inward, past the strictures of popular form to the more primal, paradoxically inaccessible-yet-elemental principles that experimental music explicitly engages.
First, I’d like to define the basics about some of the most common aesthetic elements in music.  To me, the most accessible, least “pure music” aesthetic component is lyrics.  Words in music offer a direct portal to ideas, emotions, concepts and narratives that is immediately accessible for anyone who understands the language—no familiarity with music theory is necessary.  It is even possible for a song to succeed primarily by virtue of its words—when I think of a novelty song like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” it’s easy to remember the lyric’s humorous story (written by Shel Silverstein) and even some specific lines, but I’m hard-pressed to describe anything about the actual music.  Lyrics have become almost compulsory in today’s popular music, and it’s true that their ability to directly convey ideas—especially when successfully integrated with the music in a way that makes them radically different from the same words simply written on a page—gives them an undeniable power.  However, the aesthetic colorations possible in music run much deeper than the words that might happen to accompany it.  
Next I’d like to move to some of the most basic aesthetic music elements—to link some of the common ways we enjoy music with a more specific description of the musical characteristics that produce that kind of positive reaction.  Easily the most dominating aesthetic element in Western music is melody—the “tune” of a song or piece of music.  Melody is what you hum when you think of a song; the element that makes a whistled version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” just as recognizable as one sung with a full orchestra accompaniment (wouldn’t that be something).  While it’s difficult to say what exactly it is that separates a “good” or memorable melody from the opposite (some are simple, repetitious and cover a span of few notes and small intervals, while others are more complex, jumping across much wider intervals) it’s quite reasonable to say that melodic content is a key component in reaching a broad audience—a melody is most often the part of music that may be described as “pretty,” and most verses and choruses (arguably, most hooks as well) in popular music succeed or fail based on the unquantifiable quality of their melodies—it’s quite possible (and often the case) that music will contain identifiable melodies but not be particularly “melodic.”  The subject of melody and the knack for creating a good one is vast and deep.  For the purposes of this essay, though, let’s just think of it as a deliberate, linear arrangement of notes that comprises the focal point of most pieces of music.  
As music listeners, we are predisposed to enjoy melodies based on a familiar structure.  Certain notes follow others in such a way that is pleasurable—a way that sounds “natural.”  Likewise, certain simultaneous combinations of notes are also considered aesthetically pleasing when sounded together.  This is harmony—be it two singers singing the same words on different notes, a symphony composed for dozens of instruments, or an instrument like a strummed guitar sounding a chord.  Whether our predilection for certain harmonic structures comes completely naturally or is socialized is still up for debate (though, like most nature-versus-nurture debates, both preliminary evidence and common sense would suggest it’s a combination of both), but what isn’t up for debate is that, for better or worse, is that Western harmony (stacked intervals of thirds based on eight-note scales) has by-and-large come to dominate the world’s expectations of harmony.  The pleasure we receive from hearing the “correct” notes played simultaneously is one that has evolved over time.  What constitutes dissonance, the sound of “incorrect” notes simultaneously sounding, is a concept that has changed much in the past two centuries as composers have pressed the boundaries of orthodoxy and rewritten the rules of appropriate harmony—an easy example is jazz, which utilizes subtly dissonant chords based on as many as seven stacked thirds, compared with the three- or four-note chords that make up the bulk of pop harmony.  Regardless of where the line is drawn between consonance and dissonance, though, harmony is the logical companion of melody in musical aesthetics.
Structure, the third major pillar of basic aesthetics, is more diffuse and less easily pinned-down than are melody and harmony.  To start with, basic structure or form starts where harmony left off—certain chords sound good in sequence, and to some extent there is orthodoxy in chord progression.  From there, structure’s primary aesthetic virtues are in repetition, predictability and organization.  Blues is a hallmark example, utilizing just three chords in a repeating pattern over a specific time period (usually twelve measures).  Blues is predictable, well-organized and harmonically orthodox—the feeling of reaching the dominant chord at the end of the progression creates a tension that is resolved by returning to the tonic chord.  This gets at the pleasure of basic structure quite well—we enjoy hearing a pattern whose changes and separate parts we can anticipate.  Even with less rigid and orthodox chord progressions, the verse/chorus structure of pop music allows for the statement and repetition of melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, and other aesthetic elements of a song in a way that we can easily notice as organized, memorable and pleasurable.
Beyond basic structure are many miscellaneous but oft-experienced aesthetic elements, some of which I’ll mention here.  Dynamics, the variation between loud and soft, plays an integral role in subtly communicating emotion and is extremely useful in shading the patterns of basic structure—a quiet verse and loud chorus has been the bread-and-butter of numerous pop and rock groups, and the ebb and flow of volume and energy is utilized by everyone from orchestra conductors to bands looking for a big finish of a song’s final chorus.  Likewise, rhythm and tempo present other fundamental pieces of the puzzle, with slower and faster tempos connoting certain distinct emotions and experiences—for example, we often find fast, energetic music enjoyable in certain situations but completely inappropriate in others.  Third, counterpoint acts as something of an anti-harmony, describing the fitting-together of two or more melodic lines across time.  That is, two lines whose notes do not necessarily sound simultaneously, but connect more like jigsaw puzzle pieces.  The concurrent contrast and cohesion produces an intricate effect where it is possible to enjoy multiple melodic phrases in roughly the space inhabited by one.  Finally, virtuosity and improvisation add another distinct facet to aesthetic enjoyment.  Hearing a virtuoso violinist play Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” at a frantic tempo can inspire the special type of pleasure that comes from experiencing a person’s exceptional, specialized skill.  Additionally, we can receive a certain amount of pleasure from hearing an improviser play lines of melodic or technical skill spontaneously in a live setting (usually within a fixed harmonic and rhythmic structure).  This kind of virtuosity can be particularly exciting because of the unplanned aspect, the possibility of “error” and the energy that comes with spontaneity.

Part 2 tomorrow...

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