I recently read Virgil Thomson‘s book Music With Words: A Composer’s View, which has as its subject pretty much what you’d expect from the title. I was a little disappointed in the book itself, but he had two passages where he talked about the state of modern composition that I thought were interesting. Here they are:

Symphonic composition, either [in England or America], I have little faith in. And chamber music everywhere is chiefly tolerable today as an experiment in methodology. Writing more solo works for the pianoforte, the organ, the violin, or the cello is looking backward to the masters who by creating for these instruments with so comprehensive a palette actually patented, and exhausted, the gamut of feelings that anybody now living can find urgent in the sound of those instruments. There is still fun to be had with woodwinds maybe, just maybe. And the concert song in English is, I fear, a never-never land from which few invaders bring home booty.

But opera composed in English is still unfinished business, worth working at, and possibly, in view of what has happened since 1930 both in the United Kingdom and with us [in America], possibly alive and certainly wiggling. (page x, in the Preface)

Choral writing goes on busily everywhere with great expertness, with the best intentions, and with enough good musical ideas to keep the choirs a part of the modern-music establishment. Opera writing too goes on apace, though with little sympathy, I must say, from the great houses anywhere except in France, and occasionally in England. But opera is all the same the musical domain where music’s life is least nearly extinct. Symphonic composition? Dead as a doornail. Important piano works? Yes, there are many. Chamber music has still some life in it too, though not much liberty. Musical fun and games, let’s face it, are today in the musical theater. And I don’t mean the theater of dancing, where audiences avid for bodies pay little attention to sound. I mean the singing stage, both popular and classical. In both these domains activity is constant. Should miracles begin to happen there none need be surprised. And not just one miracle but a chain of them, a going-on phenomenon of the kind that happens somewhere in music about every half-century with seemingly no preparation, no reason for it, and no promise in it save for the fact that it does keep going on.

That I should like to see; and indeed I may see it, since it is almost the only door in classical music still ajar. (page 25)

Thomson wrote the book in 1989 (and thus did not live to see the miracles he wrote of, since he died later that year). Now, 22 years later, what do you think? Do you agree with his thoughts on the various genres alive and lifeless in classical music? Were they true at the time? Are they true now? I’ll share my thoughts in a future post, but first I want to hear yours!


The End of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:53 pm

The other night my lovely wife and I watched the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, the musical with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. It won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, the most Oscars ever awarded to a musical. My wife had seen it before but it was my first time. I enjoyed it for the most part, although both of us felt that the last third of the movie was a little weak, both dramatically and musically. But I was struck by the way that Leonard Bernstein handled the music at the end of the film.

In the closing scene, [SPOILER ALERT] after Tony dies, Maria tells off the rival gangs and they begin to disperse, there is a pause in the underscoring before Bernstein begins his final chordal progression. It consists of high woodwinds and strings playing a D-flat major chord, punctuated with a G-natural (the tritone to D-flat) in the low bass. (Incidentally, this is the same progression that Stephen Schwartz uses in the closing bars of the first song and the finale of Wicked.) It contributes to the uneasy feeling of the scene: peace has been achieved, at least for the moment, but it isn’t pretty and it wasn’t won without a terrible cost. In the end, the high D-flat chord is played and rings out before dying away, but the bass is not resolved to a D-flat as you expect, leaving the music hanging on a consonant major chord but without a feeling of satisfying resolution.

(Start the video around the 5:20 mark)

However, at the end of the final credits, Bernstein repeats the same progression–but this time, at the end, he resolves the bass to D-flat as well, so that the movie does close with a satisfying and grounded resolution.

(Start the video around 4:15 to see the slightly amusing way Bernstein highlights his own name in the credits; the final progression begins shortly thereafter)

It’s a great way to illustrate musically the emotion at the end of the movie, while still providing a satisfying conclusion at the very end.


… and we’re back! After 353 days of an unofficial hiatus, I’ve decided to start posting here on The Listening Blog again. I’ve had several ideas of things I wanted to post about recently, and I had an experience today that I wanted to write about, so I’m back. I still have little free time to myself, and what free time I do have is generally focused on making music rather than writing about it, so I won’t promise that I’ll write with any regularity; but I’m back for this post, at least, and I hope to post at least intervallically from now on, as I continue to try to encourage myself to listen to, think and write about music.

The impetus for this post is the book I’ve been reading over the past week, Kyle Gann‘s No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″, published by Yale University Press last year. I’d read William Duckworth’s book Conversations With John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, And 5 Generations Of American Experimental Composers a while back, and been surprised to discover just how influential Cage had been in the latter half of the twentieth century. I don’t think there was a single composer interviewed in the book who didn’t mention Cage at least a few times. So when I saw Gann’s book at the library, I thought I’d pick it up. And it’s proved to be, as the same William Duckworth claims in his laudatory quote on the back cover, “an outstanding book.”

4’33″, for any of my readers who don’t know, is probably the most famous (or perhaps infamous) piece of American music composed in the twentieth century. It consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, either of music manuscript paper without any notes or just the word “tacet,” depending on which score you look at. It’s been maligned and mocked by scores of critics both inside and outside musical circles, and branded as a joke, a hoax, a prank, the typical trash that passes for “music” in the modern world and worse. But I highly recommend Gann’s book, which is excellently written as well as being insightful. He thoroughly traces all of the influences in Cage’s thinking and music, from Erik Satie to Zen, to show that 4’33″ was not a whimsical gesture by a crackpot or a provocateur but a carefully thought-through and even inevitable outworking of Cage’s musical (and general) philosophy.

In broad strokes, as Gann puts it, the piece is an invitation to (or, if you’re not aware of what’s coming, an imposition of) zazen, the Zen practice of meditation, and is among other things a philosophical statement that there is no such thing as silence. By framing the piece in the context of a concert music performance, Cage focuses the attention of the listener, not on sounds that he’s composed, but on the environmental and ambient sounds of the space in which the performance takes place, opening the listener’s awareness to sounds he or she would otherwise ignore. It’s a particular practice similar to Pauline Oliveros‘ “deep listening,” or what I’ve called elsewhere on this blog “comprehensive listening.” But for a more in-depth explanation, you’ll have to read the book.

In any case, on my way home from work this evening, I didn’t feel like listening to the audiobook I’m currently “reading,” nor could I think of any music I particularly wanted to listen to. So, several minutes into the drive, I decided to “perform” 4’33″ for myself until I got home. And it was that experience that prompted me to write this post.

I’ve done comprehensive listening exercises before, but usually sitting down and with my eyes closed, so driving was a different experience. It certainly opened my ears to a number of sounds I normally wouldn’t hear, or hear every day but don’t listen to; but my experience of the sounds was different as well. One of the Zen ideas of the piece, as I understand it, is that the listener should be passive and receptive to the sounds one hears, without trying to impose any of one’s own thoughts or structures onto them. (Cage spoke of the purpose of music, quoting an Indian writer, being “to sober and quiet the mind and thus render it susceptible to divine influence.”) This was a struggle for me at first, as I tried to quell my thoughts, quiet the music playing in my head, and avoid thinking things like “That sounds like it could be played by a contrabassoon!” Early in the drive, in a moment where I feel like I succeeded at those things, I felt suddenly vulnerable–opening myself up to any and all of the sounds around me, putting up no defenses or filters. That was a strange and interesting feeling. But it also changed my perception of the sounds I heard. I was sitting at a stoplight as a truck turned in front of me, and the bed of the truck and the chains holding whatever was in the back squeaked loudly, a sound that normally might annoy me. But as I focused on it and really listened to it, instead of just hearing it, I realized it was actually a really cool sound that was pleasing to my ear and unique and interesting in its own right.

At another point, when I was on the freeway, listening to the whush of the air flowing past my car, the whirring of the engine, and the percussive punctuation of the bumpy road beneath me, a particular sequence of those sounds and others reminded me of the type of modern music where musical events seem to happen completely at random. That type of music is hard for me to listen to most of the time. But listening to the sounds around me, I wondered if that type of music is not so much random as just an attempt to imitate the sound environment that surrounds the composer.

I felt that by “performing” the piece myself, I did achieve a “higher consciousness” of a sort–not in a spiritual or mystical way, but simply a more heightened physical and mental awareness of what was around me. I’m not sure that I could draw any direct parallels from experiences like this one to being a better musician or composer; but certainly being a more active listener can’t do me any harm. Reading about Cage’s philosophy and the influences that led to 4’33″ has led me to appreciate much more fully the thought processes behind the piece (though I still cheerfully and wholeheartedly disagree with his philosophy, and his assertion that all sounds are music). I’ll have to perform this piece more often.

(Thanks for reading this return post! I hope you’ll come back to read more–and I promise, they won’t all be this long…)