Friday, March 03, 2006

The monothematic principle

My favorite exponents of this are Bach and Haydn, not in any particular order. Bach's innovation, if certain un-named musicologists are right, is introducing or cementing the innovation of the single subject fugue. I'm not sure how clearly a case can be made for that but I like the idea that Bach expanded the art of fuge-writing by limiting the range of thematic options from which a fugue could be spun. He would not generally start a fugue with a subject and then suddenly change to a new subject at some point in the fugue for the sake of musical drama. No, to be honest, I have not heard ANY fugues in which that sort of stunt was either attempted or achieved but I can't assume it hasn't been done merely because I know of no examples of a fugue having more than one subject.

But I feel most fond of Haydn as an advocate of the monothematic principle because of his symphonies and his handling of sonata form. I generally don't like Mozart. He feels too facile and cheap. He wears his facility on his sleeve and draws your attention to it too much. I feel that Haydn's music is more intellectually robust and emotionally honest. I, of course, don't expect any Mozart fans to agree with me about any of this! But I agree with Robert Craft's observation that if Mozart's music had never existed Western music would have progressed to Beethoven just fine without him. But even though I don't like Mozart, for the most part, I do feel his contyribution to Western music is immense and deserves respect. I just don't have to actually LIKE most of it.

Because for me Haydn is the real father of Western music after Bach, the one who opened up the most interesting pathways. If Haydn is not entirely appreciated by modernists I think this is not just because Haydn's flaws (like self-repetition) seem easy to spot compared to Beethoven or Stravinsky who have more scholastic credibility with a 20th and 21st century musical world. I also feel that Haydn is not fully appreciated because we listen to him only as musical history. We don't listen to him as a way to hear how we might be able to work in our own time. Of all the composers in the Western world besides Bach the only one I can think of who could synthesize the highestt and lowest elements of a global musical culture avaialble at their given cultural/historical moment is Haydn.

So I hear Haydn as a musical fulcrum from which one could swing back and forth between popular and academic musical styles. Haydn's handling of monothematic sonata form, particularly, offers at least one possible way to fuse the performance customs of jazz or blues with the art music tradition. If you employ a single theme in a sonata form this enables you to improvise freely without having a musical structure that breaks down due to a surplus of ideas. And if you employ the monothematic principle in a way that doesn't limit you to merely reiterating the same theme over and over again you can apply the principle quite liberally without breaking the principle. For instance, I might have a theme in the exposition of a sonata that is resolved in the recapitulation by way of being played backwards. It's still the same theme but it's being presented in a new and unusual way. This is another aspect about haydn's appraodch I admire, he would continue developing his ideas even in his recapitulations. The resolution is the beginning point of new growth and change.

For this reason I feel that detailed study of Haydn might provide musicians with the patience for it a path to the fusion of jazz and classical styles that goes byeond what might have been accomlished by, say, Claude Bolling. Bolling manages to synthesize styles in a way but I feel, at least at an intuitive level, that Bolling does NOT manage to synthesize the aesthetic. I feel as though there is a deeper, almost conceptual element missing that prevents his work from being a complete amalgalm of jazz and classical music. The ideal for me would be a work that can be played as EITHER a jazz suite or a straight piece of chamber music. I think that if people listen to Haydn not merely as "papa" from the past but as a musician who's conceptual framework and practical understanding is applied across styles as a prototype for future music that Haydn's real greatness as a composer will be easier to appreciate.

I read somewhere that Bach said a way to write music is to take an existing idea and improve it. I find Beethoven and Stravinsky are not helpful role models for me as a composer partly because their work feels so self-assured and complete unto itself. Haydn's music is self-assured and in some ways complete but there is something about his music, when I hear and study it, that invites: Here, I've started the ball rolling what do YOU want to try? There is good music that presents itself as an end unto itself and there is good music that invites you to pick up where it leaves off. I sometimes feel that too few people who like classical music seem to hear Haydn's invitation or understand it.

Stevie Wonder

I like this guy's music. I own just about everything he recorded between 1972 and 1976. He is, regardless of style of music, a pretty exemplary musician.

I mention him because I often feel that my friends who listen to just rock or pop or jazz should listen to classical music, too. And I also feel that people I've met who listen to just classical music should listen to more than one era, branch out to at least some non-Western musical styles, and give Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Johnn Cash a shot. To put things in theological terms, if all things belong to Christ then all things can be enjoyed in light of that understanding. This means that while I am not exactly a fan of rap or hip-hop I am still willing to listen to it if friends play it for me or are playing it for their own enjoyment. One person I know introduced me to music by Cee-Lo Green and while I'll admit the language is coarser than I prefer there's cool stuff in the music.

Back to Stevie: I first heard his music when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. I had been raised up to that point on Slavonic dances, bits of Amy Grant and eventually I got exposed to DeGarmo & Key (yikes, in hindsight), Genesis, Talking Heads, and Wonder. Of the whole lot Wonder still holds up in a way the others don't. But then the first songs I heard were "Superstition" and "Living for the City". Musiquarium.

I eventually moved on to Pinkfloyd and Bob Dylan and back into classical music again but I noticed that it wasn't until I had studied music theory for at least two years and dug into counterpoint and form that I began to actually understand what was going on in "Living for the City" or could even notice what musical significance there was to Wonder ending on an unresolved Neapolitan chord at the end of his pop epic of urban distopia.

Ending with an unresolved dominant wouldn't make any sense. It would invite a resolution that the songs lyrics recognize can't happen yet. You can't end the song where you started and you can't end on the subdominant after having vamped through it so many times and each time having proceeded to the dominant. Intuitively and yet analytically the most compelling way to end the work while suggesting a lack of resolution with a potential for resolution is the neapolitan, a subdominant substitute and an extension of the plagal function the neapolitan to tonic resolution has in all the preceding choruses. The fancy theoretical term for this is ending by means of prolongation of a phrase or harmony. And it works wonders, and since the pun is unavoidable in a post about Stevie Wonder I'm not going to avoid what I would normally consider an incredibly stupid pun.

There is a sense both of spontaneity and strict control in Wonder's music. This is what sets his music apart for me, among many, many other reasons. Wonder seems, at his peak, to have been able to work on minute details of a song for months or perhaps years and still be able to perform that song in the studio or a concert as though he dashed it off. Whatever herculean effort he may have employed (or not employed for that matter) in writing music he gives the sense of being at ease. It certainly shows in his lyrics, which are often not so sublime as the music his words are set to. Oh well, Schubert set some amazing tripe to music, too. :)

In some ways I'm both a musical snob and a sort of populist. If I actually ever taught music composition or music theory I would hope to be able to explain functional harmony with Bach songs or with Bob Dylan or John Lee Hooker. It seems to me the chords and intervals are the same whether purists on either side of the divide admit that or not.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Albeniz and Rodrigo

Well, here are two composers who are Spanish and whose music gets played a lot at guitar recitals. Having recently heard Manuel Barrueco at Seattle I am considering the legacy and perception of these composers. In the guitar world they're basically sacrosanct and for a simple and good reason, they have very memorable works. Outside the guitar world, say, if you're reading the pages of The Guadian on-line, Rodrigo is considered masterful but fundamentally retrograde in his musical stance. Whether this is even a good or suitable attitude to have is the subject of an entirely different debate.

I've seen it said by people in music journalism who are obviously NOT specialists in guitar repertoire that the instrument has just a few works, and that the stand out are often by Spanish composers. Only a truly lazy music journalist would actually think this and some local music journalists like Chris DeLaurenti are pretty well aware that there's a lot more to guitar music than Sor or Tarrega.

But Rodrigo and Albeniz are going to stick around and the great irony of these two composers whose names are inextricably linked with the instrument is that neither of them played a note on the instrument. Albeniz spent all his days writing piano music and a few operas and no one performs the operas anymore (that I know of). There aren't even that many people who play the Iberia suite and it's not because the ambitious cycle isn't worth playing. It's just really, REALLY hard to play.

I'd encourage all guitarists who admire Albeniz muysic as played on the guitar to check out his work on the piano, maybe some of the reissued recordings of Estaban Sanchez, for instance. It should give us some pause as guitarists to consider that Bach and Albeniz transcriptions play such a prominent role in guitar concerts when neither composer wrote for the instrument. With Bach we can make a case he wrote for the lute but so far I haven't seen an overwhelming case that Bach specifically wrote for the guitar.

I've been forming a very rough theory about why Bach and Albeniz' music fares so well on the guitar compared to works by Turina or Tarrega. For me the most plausible explanation is that both composers were intimately acquainted with a fairly wide range of genres and styles. You think about music differently if you play more than one instrument or perform on more than one instrument. In short, it seems that if you spend your days studying more than solo repertoire you come to music differently.