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On this we can agree:  there is music that sounds like melted caramel, and there’s music that sounds like shards of broken glass caught in a meat grinder.  Let’s discuss this a little.

You have your “Moonlight Sonata.”  It’s pure molten caramel crossing your senses and easing  you  into a state of well-being and calm.  You can almost hum along (if you can hit that second note without your voice cracking).  It’s the kind of music you can taste – and, for me, it tastes like something sweet and ineffably good, makes you want more and more.

Then you have your very modern, atonal compositions (some don’t consider them “music” at all).  Mostly recent compositions, they were created to grab the listener, evoke strident emotions,  even cause pain.  Why would anyone write such sounds and subject classical music audiences to them?

I think these compositions are like looking through a kaleidoscope:  the little shards of color constantly changing shape and arrangements as the viewer tries to make some sense of them.

I think these compositions are like looking through a kaleidoscope: the little shards of color constantly changing shape and arrangements as the viewer tries to make some sense of them.

And there’s the major difference.   The great classical composers of the distant past wrote music that was predictable.  The line goes up, the line goes down.  The phrase repeats, then repeats again in a slightly different form.  Always  predictable.  There’s no predictability in atonal compositions.  Keys change abruptly, scales are altered, what goes up may just stay up.  Strings screech sometimes, and you wonder if they will suddenly break.  The audience is uncomfortable, not soothed.  Could it be they’re thinking?  Maybe thinking, “When will this end?”

Think of this as a musical Rorschach test.  Everyone who hears these compositions has a different idea of what the composer is trying to transmit – and it’s worth your time and effort to make your own interpretation.  Remember that some of the most traditional composers, by our modern sensibilities, horrified their contemporaries with their unique turns of musical phrase.

Some of the most traditional composers, by our modern sensibilities, horrified their contemporaries with their unique turns of musical phrase.

Now consider the music of Gershwin:  is it classical?  That can only be the judgment of time.  But is it evocative?  You bet!  You just can’t listen to “Rhapsody in Blue” without seeing New York.  Let’s try something a little more difficult, say “Blue Cathedral,” by Jennifer Higdon.  Okay, they’re both “blue,” but Higdon doesn’t give the listener the same kind of clues as Gershwin.  Her music is abstract, but it grabs the listener’s attention nevertheless.   Up the scale of difficult enjoyment, you might come to Philip Glass.  I grant that some of his music makes your toes curl, but if you uncurl and just focus, you might just find understanding.

So why bother?  It’s all about attention.  You can just stay all comfy with your Beethoven and Mozart; nothing wrong with that.  Or you could reach your musical mind up to, say, Charles Ives, Alban Berg, or Arnold Shoenberg.  The music that crashes and slams against your sensibilities demands attention.  It says, “Sit up and listen to me.  I’ve got something important to say to you.”  It is definitely not “easy-listening” music, would never be background music for an elegant dinner,  but it can be remarkably clear.  This “ugly” music is an exercise for your brain to understand, to learn something new and, believe it or not, eventually, to enjoy.

– E Doyle

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