Monday, April 25, 2016 12:34 PM
Earlier in Western history, composers did not become famous as pop stars do today. Music in general did not get broadcast by any media. You knew the nursery rhymes of your neighborhood, the work songs, the dances, lullabies, love songs—folk music—but it wasn’t ‘folk’ to you, it was all of music, as far as you knew. Musicians had to spread their works on foot, like Johnny Appleseed, and many of them were popularizers of music, as much for their careers as for their love of music.
That is why there is a national flavor to each Old World country’s music—there really wasn’t a great deal of interaction between musicians who lived hundreds of miles away. We see composers, and later on, virtuoso performers, travel farther and reach more people, causing more concert halls and opera houses to be built, as transportation improves—until the invention of the phonograph and the radio begin to act as distributors of music, separate from the musicians themselves.
We think of classical music striving towards a greater freedom of expression, from the confining rigors of Gregorian chant to the wild liberty of the expressionists and the modernists—but that freedom was as much forced on them as fought for. Religious, political, and technological revolutions all caused upheavals in the norm, creating spaces where composers worked without the confinements of a generation earlier. That’s why we call the great composers geniuses instead of revolutionaries—they didn’t battle their way into new music, they discovered it within their imaginations. The tawdry battle between conservative and progressive music critics always lagged behind, creating a sense of resistance to change—but the musicians always simply filled a vacuum and left it to others to sort it out.
I’m always aghast at the contrast between old and current music—all those centuries of seeking the magic formula, the series of sounds that would thrill the audience—finally adding syncopation, blues notes, and latin rhythms to drive the excitement-level ever upwards—until the electric guitar came along, with that electronic buzz that satisfies people in a way that an entire symphony orchestra or big band never could, regardless of the composition of notes. Amplification added something unnatural as well—and suddenly four boys from Liverpool could fill Shea Stadium with adoring listeners.
It’s not that I hold it against rock and roll—I love the Beatles as much as the next member of my generation—it’s just so easy, it seems like cheating. The greenest beginner on an electric guitar can enthrall a roomful of music lovers—meanwhile a hundred musicians have to study for a lifetime to play a Stravinsky ballet suite—and it doesn’t have the drawing power of a Jimi Hendrix solo. People just love the alien sound of electronics—they can’t get enough of it. I think the “Switched-On Bach” album is probably Bach’s biggest sales hit of all time—and it’s because it was all performed on a Moog synthesizer.
It’s not as if electrification was the first music tech—keyboards were invented—bellows-driven organs, steam-driven calliopes, cranked hurdy-gurdies, paper-roll pianos, and spring-driven music boxes. And there’s the subtle plumbing that turned a pan pipe into a modern flute, a bugle into a trumpet—and all the mysterious varnishes and the carpentry of resonance that goes into making a fine string instrument—those Stradivariuses aren’t worth a king’s ransom for nothing. The modern piano-forte—what we call a concert Steinway these days—was such a masterwork of technology that many people link its emergence with the greatness of Beethoven’s piano sonatas—he was the first composer to have access to the modern version of a keyboard. He certainly makes use of its dynamic possibilities—no one could’ve written all those triple fortes and triple pianos for a harpsichord—or, at least, no one could play any dynamics without a hammer-action to control the volume.
Even today, music drives tech innovation—no musician is satisfied with what has come before—they’re always searching for something new—both in the music and in how it is played.
Have a good week.