The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Relevance and applicability in music 

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Ach, go on then, here's something half thought-through. A little while ago, in this post-Dr Atomic world, Greg Sandow was defending his stance on 'relevance' and classical music. Greg makes some fine points, and I appreciate where he's coming from on all of this. However, by the end of his post, I started to wonder whether he actually did want to jettison all music that isn't new (yes, this is me questioning the wisdom of this), and therefore relevant. This is an unfair over-simplification of Greg's conclusion, but the simplification set me thinking: if we buy (as I do) the idea that 'relevance' of some sort is part of the complete musical experience, then how can the continuing performance of anything but the most contemporary, and politically explicit, music be valid? What does this 'relevance' actually mean?

Relevance I take to mean something that can be taken into real life outside the world of your headphones and the concert hall. Messiaen, for example, is a composer who is no longer up-to-the-minute contemporary, and who didn't generally worry much in his music about pressing political (or even earthly) concerns. Yet listening to it gives you an experince of pulse and time that very few composers in the West were even aware existed, or bothered to attempt. Even more so, this is wedded in Messiaen to a vivid holistic view of the world and its heavens. If you listen to Chronochromie, Des canyons aux étoiles, Eclairs sur l'Au delà or Quatour pour la fin du temps and don't take something - at least a question that you disagree with and need to resolve - into your life with you the next morning when you wake, you are, I'm certain, missing something. To name some others in my own experience, similar goes for Dowland, Purcell, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Chopin, Shostakovich, Cage, Feldman. There are things in the music of all these composers that can enhance my day-to-day life beyond the closed intellectual/aesthetic/sensual pleasure of the notes themselves as they are played or as I recall them. God knows what these things are all the time, and you surely have a list of your own, but it's something to do with the way in which these composers' approach to material, sound, time, form, intersects with and illuminates my daily experience. Amongst those big names who are still alive (or recently deceased), I have found analogous experiences in Berio, Ferneyhough, Kurtág, Max Davies, Birtwistle, early Penderecki, earlier Adams, Grisey and Murail, to name a few.

J.R.R. Tolkien said something useful on this score when defending Lord of the Rings against readings of it as allegory: it's not allegorical, it's applicable, he says in the novel's foreword. And I think that's what I actually mean by relevance: applicability. There is still something applicable to be found in Cage, or Messiaen, that carries meaning forward from the music and into life outside the score. Amazingly, I find it still in Dowland. Schoenberg, less so - and I think most of my generation might agree, no matter how much we may or may not appreciate the music itself, as music. Future generations might. It has less to do with contemporaneity - I could name plenty of living composers whose music, beautiful though it may be, evaporates as soon as it has finished - and more to do with a trick of capturing something in sound.

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