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Music: Melting Architecture?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I’ve noticed more than once that some people perceive two distinct kinds of music, which one might call “emotional” and “intellectual”. For instance, they might say that Fauré’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are “emotional” and Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge are “intellectual”. They might use different words but they still see two mutually exclusive camps.

I think this is not a valid distinction. All too often it tends to be “nice music I like” that’s in the former category and “shit music I don’t like” in the second. Some people are even disappointed to find that music has structure; they want it to be a profuse stream of unpremeditated melody. They’d be surprised, if not unwilling, to learn that Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata and Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 have roughly the same proportion and density of melody and structure in them.

The idea that anyone would be disappointed to find that music has structure seems very stange to me, when those same people would presumably be less disappointed in the knowlege and acceptance that a painting, novel, building, play, sculpture, etc., has it – but there are all kinds of structures at play in a work of music anyway – harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, timbral – OK, some works are more overtly and consciously structured in one or more ways than others are, but that’s really rather beside the point.

When I compose the basic ideas just come straight into my head and for me it’s a highly emotional process, but at the same time you have to know how to put a piece together so, yes, the rational brain has to come into it otherwise what you write wouldn’t go anywhere and more likely than not would not make a satisfactory experience for the listener. The great composers have that special and rare ability to control and utilise both the emotional and rational and that is why their music is so satisfying and why it lasts.

I don’t accept that the composed and the constructed are somehow opposed categories. Unless one still buys into the ludicrous 19th century mythology of the composer waiting for some mystical inspiration, then simply committing this to paper – I doubt whether that could be said of almost any composer of note.

Both advocates and detractors of new music can frequently fall into the trap of judging new music in terms of how it was put together rather than what results.


Understanding Music

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I used to worry a bit about this business that, if you had it explained to you what was going on technically in a piece of music, it might lose its mystery or power. That if, say, a passage in Schubert which once broke your heart was explained away as a Neopolitan sixth or something (that old emotional trick), it somehow wouldn’t work its magic any more.

I still worry about it a bit sometime but increasingly I think the opposite is true. The more you understand technically (at however modest a level) the more you get out of the music altogether, and that includes the emotional content.

I’m definitely not of the “let it all wash over you” school. Nothing against those who are, I hasten to add, but my experience is that you only get part of what great music has to offer that way. The really mysterious thing, to my mind, is quite how it is that, in great music at least, intellectual control and emotional release support and magnify each other. The strange alchemy of our old friends Apollo and Dionysus, I suppose.

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