Monday, 12 December 2016

The elusive climax.

Can you remember your teenage years? Perhaps you are fortunate enough to still be young and the memory is fresh, or perhaps you are still in the second decade of your life. Whatever your circumstances we know that those years are times of upheaval and excitement, great highs and depressing lows.

In my teenage years, living far away from the large towns and cities, the “serious music” I encountered was through vinyl or radio, and this was restricted mostly to Classical or Romantic music. The joy of listening was enhanced when the orchestra played tutti, fff and the musical motif shone out in complete clarity. When I was introduced to musical analysis I understood this to be the musical climax of the work, the term was added to my vocabulary and there is stayed as some sort of fixed object for many years.

As I had time to read as well as listen I came to enjoy reading plays and came to understand that drama shared with music these moments of intense activity, there was a specific design relating to the number of acts and the point at which a climax was to occur. Gustav Freytag created a chart which became known as Freytag’s pyramid. Most musicians will feel comfortable with the design and I would encourage readers to explore the parallels with music. The basic design is as follows:

The “exposition” where characters and their environment is revealed. This is followed by “inciting incident”, where a single event triggers the start of the engagements and conflicts which is defined as “rising action” on the pyramid. The climax follows, revealing the moment of greatest tension in the play or novel. After this apex comes “falling action”, often revealing the consequences of the engagement. The final parts are the “resolution” where a solution is found and the “denouement” where the author may leave the audience to contemplate the theme and potential outcomes for the character.

Now let us consider the elements of a musical climax as it might occur in the Classical and Romantic music I listened to in my teenage years.

The climax is part of a continuous process of intensification and the realisation or working out of the potential in the musical figures presented in the exposition. It is designed to result in an emotional highpoint (both in terms of the structure and for the listener). Musicians consider the process as a three part strategy of preparation, climax and the release of tension. Many composers are of the opinion that the longer the preparation stage the greater the intensity of the climax. If so the great works of the late Romantic period should have greater points of intensity than a Classical symphony, a point which seems instinctively correct.

On the matter of tension building this has been covered in previous blogs under the title “Composers Toolbox”. At the climax point itself one would expect the greatest intensity of rhythmic movement, loudest dynamic, richest texture and usually an unambiguous statement of the theme. The music may then rapidly diminish in intensity or make a more gradual reduction. Again some musicians take the view that the longer the release the greater the sense of peace and rest at the close. While this scheme works for many works composers from the 20th century onwards were willing to challenge the format, an example is the last movement of the sixth symphony by R. V. Williams, which undoubtedly has a point of intensity but is far removed from the design suggested above.

When considering the musical climax in its usual definition it was suggested that it reveals the emotional highpoint for both the planning of the music and the response from the individual. There is a problem with the second part of this suggestion. In the first place if there was a simple trigger for our emotional response to music it would occur each time the music plays. For me, and I would suggest for most listeners, this isn’t true. In my voyages through symphonic writing I came to understand that the symphonies of Mahler had the potential to evoke powerful emotional responses. All the planning is there for this type of engagement, yet there were times when my anticipated response failed to arrive. Was this a result of a weaker performance, lack of involvement with the music, poor attention, distractions?

Listening to reviews of record releases where the finest performance is suggested should help to find the ideal choice for the best emotional response, particularly when played on your new sound-reproducing equipment, but this is not guaranteed. Perhaps the situation is better when attending a concert, a good listening position is taken, the hall is excellent, and thankfully the audience in good health. One could add to that the anticipation and the sharing of the experience which we know through the blog on laughter has a profound effect on our response. Experienced listeners know that this should make a difference but the emotional response can still be elusive.

Even more problematic for the definition of the climax is the ‘failure’ of the individual to respond to the composed climax point, and the discovery that the moment of frisson may occur at points of lesser stimulation, perhaps the introduction of a particular texture, an unexpected event, change of harmony, an unexpected variant on a melodic shape, the possibilities are numerous. Cassius’s famous quotation comes to mind:

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves

The frisson we sometimes experience is sometimes found in music that doesn’t follow the accepted scheme applied to Classical and Romantic music. There are shortcuts to exciting the listener which may be applied in a three minute popular song; unexpected harmonies, sudden changes of dynamic, discordant notes against the melody, innovative textures from unconventional instruments or sampled sounds. The power of association with text or image is perhaps the most powerful tool, though the question of how well the effect is retained with repeated listening has to be asked.  

There are many subtle ways of reaching a point of intensity in music without assailing the listener. Much of the serious music today appeals to the intellect but composers retain an element of showmanship, and enjoy keeping their audience on the edge of their seats. In featuring music of different nationalities on G+ pages it is easy to hear that the Japanese have retained the inclusion of emotional cues in their music over and above many other Western composers. Some works, e.g. those presenting changes of texture as the main composing intention, can be fascinating to hear, but engage us on a primarily intellectual level. This may be part of a gradual evolution, such as we have heard in e.g. the music of Philip Glass, compare Music with Changing Parts to the 9th Symphony.

This blog has been a general introduction to the matter of emotional response and requires examples of the alterations to methods of creating a climax in the modern age. This matter will be considered in the new year, until then please accept my wishes for a pleasant and hopefully not too exciting Christmas and New Year.