Monday, 16 January 2017

Be serious for a minute.

Some months ago I bought a copy of 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger– Pol Droit.  The experiments are challenges to our way of acting and thinking about matters that we take for granted, as in “Try on Clothes”. Some might seem familiar to John Cage and Zen enthusiasts: “Encounter pure chance”, “Listen to short wave radio” or “Be aware of yourself thinking”. "Be serious for a minute" takes a similar approach but its intention is to explore some musical considerations.

Be serious for a minute

Duration 1 minute

Props None

Effects critical

If you have made the effort to be serious you may have encountered some problems, perhaps one of these:

What am I going to be serious about? How can I be serious, I am in no mood to be serious? There are far too many pressing problems for me to worry about making an effort to be serious.

Given that our attention to everyday life is forever mercurial exercises like this are quickly put to one side and we move on to the real concerns of the day.

Having imitated Droit’s style let us move back to familiar blogging territory. Many years ago in my early teens I listened to Tchaikovsky’s final symphony and asked myself “how does he sustain a particular mood for such a long time”? At that time I held the view that one’s artistic work reflected the emotional state of the creator as he/she worked, I imagine it is a view that has been shared by a number of people.

So what is “serious” and why do we regard it as a value so highly? Two useful definitions can be applied:

That which is demanding and requires careful consideration and application.

Acting or speaking in earnest, rather than in a humorous or light-hearted way.

The first definition seems to be perfectly suited to musicians. Without stating the obvious we all agree that there are many demands on performers, composers and listeners when approaching a great work of art, several of these demands have been considered in our blogs, most recently that of attention which is particularly problematic for the physically less active listener.

Art music (the opposite face of folk music) makes great play of the application to detail, organic growth requires step by step logic and serious listeners delight in how subtle the alterations can be in developing musical material.

From Classical times onwards the separation of the composer’s music from his hands to those of the performer placed new demands on the detail required in a score to show musical intentions. In our own time this problem has resulted in many scores being prefaced by pages of instructions as each composer explores a range of new approaches to texture and rhythm in particular. In the light of these comments are we to consider the work of La Monte Young as wholly unserious in the "Compositions 1960"? Here are the instructions for #4


Announce to the audience that the lights will be turned off for the duration of the composition (it may be any length) and tell them when the composition will begin and end.

Turn off all the lights for the announced duration.

When the lights are turned back on, the announcer may tell the audience that their activities have been the composition, although this is not at all necessary.

The arguments for the serious side of such compositions are well known, but at the time the humorous presentation here (as with a number of Cage’s writings) must have created mixed feelings amongst critics and audiences.

The second definition is particularly important to the music of the 20th century. Being serious is a matter of constraint. Musicians love working with restrictions, they can offer types of scaffolding that enable rapid progress. Educationalists also like scaffolding in early stages of learning, but are wary of their being over used and retained for too long. The development of the 12 note system may have seemed like a blessing to scaffolders, but that view is fraught with danger. The system is not a form nor is it a formula for expression, yet the view held by many that the two are inseparable, with the emotional content expressionistic. The association of 12 note music with expressionism reads like an inescapable chain of historical events; brutality, industrial growth, inner conflict and neurosis all have their part to play in the voice of the serial style, and these are among the dominant concerns of the first half of the century.  

If we listen to the music of Webern we are presented with some interesting considerations regarding seriousness. He is methodical, and his music is associated with structure, so much so that his work was adopted as the source of educational study for serialism by many, if not most, universities. Yet Webern’s music is not expressionistic, it is abstract in the sense that it draws on design, canons and palindromes in particular, these arising from his studies of medieval music. Here we have beauty in form. The PDF “Anton Webern and the influence of Heinrich Isaac” makes interesting reading for the above named sources of Webern’s composing style, a development from his earlier involvement with Romantic ideals.

The last accusation one could make against Webern is not being earnest (2nd definition), but it is one that was often made against the British composer Malcolm Arnold. Arnold had the gift of presenting humour in music, and his film music makes great use of parody and instrumental colour as in the “Belles of St. Trinians”

as Kenny Everett used to say, “all done in the best possible taste”.

It seems to have been a problem for many that Arnold could write light-hearted music and symphonies. There is an implication that one cannot be humorous and intellectually rigorous. This of course was not a problem for the first Viennese school. Not only are Arnold’s symphonies logical, sometimes employing 12 note music techniques, they can be intensely dark and serious. The first symphony is remarkable in contrasting the two sides of his personality, particularly in the first movement which is driven by the aggressive opening rhythm. The movement presents a kaleidoscope of emotional changes bordering on the psychotic. The music has many features in common with Nielsen’s 4th and 5th symphonies both in design and quality. Interrupting the darker side of the music there is a violin and harp episode in the fourth minute which is akin to an offstage comment in the theatre, it has a cheeky character, but this evolves from the pianissimo level and light scoring to a full attack on the ear. The symphony is played in full here:

To conclude, for the composers who read these blogs I shall paste some further instructions in the style of Roger-Pol Droit.

Be serious for two minutes

Duration: 2 minutes

Props: An instrument/voice

Effect: instructive

Improvise two contrasting pieces, the first serious the second humorous.

Having followed the exercise determine which was easier. Try again and sustain the mood for longer.