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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.

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita No. 2

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann, said about the Chaconne:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Hans Zimmer: Classical Composer?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Someone asked me if the soundtrack to the film Gladiator could be regarded as classical music. Seriously. The conversation turned to the similarities between the battle scene and Mars from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. But he also asked if the zither/vocals and the charismatic droning of a woman’s voice in the closing titles was also derived from older music.

I have a CD entitled “Music of the Post-Byzantine High Society” by Christodoulos Halaris, and there appear to be some superficial similarities to the two works.

The music for Gladiator also features the extraordinary Jivan Gasparyan who is probably the greatest duduk player in the world, and there is an obvious nod to Armenian music.

To get back to the question: “classical music” is unfortunately a term applied so widely and loosely that it’s impossible to arrive at a consensus. For instance, some people would say it is music written in the idiom that predominated in Europe between about 1750 and 1828 (i.e. from the death of J.S. Bach to the death of Beethoven), while others seem to think that anything played by an orchestra including violins is “classical” , even if it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. So, subjective taste influences the use of the term.

Music composed to accompany films and TV programmes is often written for orchestras similar to those used in 19th and 20th century symphonies, and the musical idiom used often incorporates features of the “classical” music that might have been used in the period in which the film’s story is set, e.g. the Napoleonic Wars or Edwardian England, such as Patrick Gowers’ music for the Granada TV “Sherlock Holmes” which emulates part of a romantic violin concerto.

But “part of” is an important consideration, I think. Film music rarely needs to be a convincing or extended structure, because it is usually heard for a minute or so and then faded out for dialogue. This, and the fact that it often deliberately imitates the music of a previous century, may explain why many people consider it in a separate category from what they call “classical music”.

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Sibelius: Pure Cold Water

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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I find that I can clog my arteries with certain pieces of music, so every now and again I’ll need to listen to something that may not necessarily be a favourite but will re-invigorate my listening ears (and not necessarily a piece I know).

I’ve found that playing some unknown Janáček (angular music with a touch of sugar) or an unknown Bach cantata, can really freshen things up. Or even some Schoenberg, such as the Piano Concerto – like cold mineral water splashing onto a metallic surface.

Since we have a hot summer to look forward to, two pieces I have always found remarkably refreshing for those days when we might feel like jumping head first into the deep freeze are Debussy’s Gigues from the orchestral Images, and the first movement of Honegger’s Fourth Symphony “Deliciae Basiliensis”. There’s something to the orchestration of these two works which, when listened to, is like a delicious cold refreshing drink.

A bit of Webern tends to help one to focus, I find. That’s why I always take Webern’s music with me on winter holidays in the Alps.

Dvořák’s American Quartet comes to mind, too. Also Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony – always very fresh, but I can’t work out why, as it’s not a favourite work for me, by any means.

But the ultimate palate cleanser, for me, is Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony. No padding, no note spinning – just good old Finnish gloom. As the composer himself said of this work:

“Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water.”

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