Monday, October 05, 2009

Aaron Copland's "What to Listen For in Music"

A basic and helpful introduction to music for someone like me, i.e., no music training beyond playing the pianica in primary school, and strumming the guitar round campfires in high school. In this book first written in the 1930s, Copland distinguishes between listening on a sensuous plane (mere enjoyment of the quality of sound) and on expressive and sheerly musical planes. While not slighting the first, he contends that a better understanding of music increases our pleasure in it. Knowledge enhances passion, as I try (rather vainly) to persuade my students about poetry.

A chapter is devoted to each of the four elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony and tonal quality, and the succinct discussion, giving just enough detail, builds clearly on what has been explained before. There are also chapters on traditional music forms, such as sections, fugues, and sonatas, as well as on free forms. Short passages of score illustrate the point made. They are often from Beethoven, probably because he is most familiar to the reader, but also because he ranks very high in Copland's pantheon. Other composers mentioned more than once include Palestrina, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Roy Harris. As to be expected from a contemporary composer, Copland makes a pitch for modern music: it is difficult, he acknowledges, but it is continuous in its use of musical elements with what has gone on before.

To illustrate "free" forms, Copland, rather surprisingly, refers to Bach.

Bach wrote a good many preludes (very often followed by a balancing fugue) many of which are in "free" form. It was these that Busoni pointed to as an example of the path that he thought music should take. Bach achieved a unity of design in these "free" preludes either by adopting a pattern of well-defined character or by a clear progression of chordal harmonies which lead one from the beginning of a piece to the end without utilizing any repetition of thematic materials. Often, both methods are combined. By these means Bach engenders a feeling of free fantasy and a bold freedom of design that would be impossible to achieve within a strict form. When one hears them, the conviction grows that Busoni was quite right in saying that the future problems of handling form in music are bound up with this Bach-like freedom in form.

There is a chapter on opera and music drama, in which he lines up the composers on opposing sides based on whether they exalt the word or the music. Wagner he praises for his music, but deplores for his ideas and words: total art was a failure. A chapter on film music, a genre Copland himself wrote, focuses on the process of composition and collaboration.

A good part of the book's fascination for me lies in this insider's point of view, the perspective of the maker. In an introductory section, Copland defends the "expressiveness" of music against the proponents of "pure" music. That defence seems to rest on the idea of authorial intention. The composer hits upon a musical theme and develops it the way he does because he wishes to express "something" through the music. Though that "something" is necessarily general, like an emotion, it matters as what the composer wishes to communicate to his listeners.

Copland urges the reader to listen for "the long line," the path along which a piece of music develops, and finally coheres. He describes la grande ligne this way:

It is difficult adequately to explain the meaning of that phrase to the layman. To be properly understood in relation to a piece of music, it must be felt. In mere words, it simply means that every good piece of music must give us a sense of flow--a sense of continuity from first note to last. Every elementary music student knows the principle, but to put it into practice has challenged the greatest minds in music! A great symphony is a man-made Mississippi down which we irresistibly flow from the instant of our leave-taking to a long foreseen destination. Music must always flow, for that is part of its very essence, but the creation of that continuity and flow--that long line--constitutes the be-all and end-all of every composer's existence.

In his references to the evolution of musical forms, he highlights the trend, without reifying it, towards the blurring of boundaries between sections, movements etc., and therefore a greater organicity. The "dissonance" of modern music lies in our unfamiliar ears, and is not so very different from the dissonance of earlier innovative music in the ears of its own contemporary audience. The difference is a matter of degree, and not of kind.

Because music is more "amorphous" than, say, words, Copland explains, it needs repetition to establish itself in the listener's mind. I think music's "amorphous" nature is also its advantage over the word. Anyone can enjoy a musical note for itself, but most people would not enjoy a word for itself, but demand it means something. This need for "meaning" in poetry determines, in part, I think, the art's conservatism. I don't think that is necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a fact to contend with, if one wishes to create a new music in poetry.

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