Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What Music Means

By Drew

I meant to write about this a while ago, back when it was more topical. I suppose other things got in the way, and now I'm just coming back to it. I'm glad I waited though, because I've come up with another angle to it.

It starts with this comment by Ray from MN on a previous post. In respose to one of Mitchell's pieces on opera, Ray wrote:

You write on opera and music in a way that stings in that I have ignored it for most of my life. I've missed out on a lot of what it is to be human. [Emphasis added]

Undeniably, there is something in music that touches us in that way, that issues a subtle comment on "what it is to be human."

And so we come to the death, early in December, of the contemporary classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. Alex Ross describes Stockhausen as 'a giant of late-twentieth-century music," a composer who "released sounds of mind-opening and mind-bending power." Andrew Clements, writing in the Guardian, says that Stockhausen "was part of the generation of composers who had seen the old order in Europe come to catastrophe in the chaos of the second world war, and had determined that artistically they had to begin again." Ivan Hewett, also in the Guardian, says that Stockhausen "was one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music." The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen called Stockhausen "the rock star of my youth." Stockhausen's influence was said to stretch from the Beatles to the avant-garde composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.

Amidst all this praise for Stockhausen, David Pryce-Jones, writing at NRO, comes to a completely different conclusion:

[Stockhausen] preferred not to communicate, to ignore melody and rhythm, and simply to ambush his audience with strangeness and discord. His work is a gigantic gimmick. Much of it is electronic, or consists of the abuse of instruments and people. Players are often left free to begin or to stop, interpreting as they choose. Players are advised in one instance to “Live completely alone for four days, without food in complete silence.” One of his pieces lasts for an hour with six vocalists “meditating” on a single note. In another piece, the members of a string quartet played from an airborne helicopter, their sounds relayed through screens and loudspeakers. It is the musical equivalent of conceptual art. The degradation of the man’s character was shown when he described 9/11 as “a work of art.”


Egomaniacs like Stockhausen are meat and drink to promoters and sensation-mongers, and nothing much can be done about it except to endure and wait for them to be gone. Unfortunately he and so many like him pass as “artists,” when they are nothing of the kind, but only destroyers of the culture they inherited.

So which is it? The weight of truth seems, to me, to side with Pryce-Jones. I say this not only because of Stockhausen's excreble comments on 9/11, but because so much of Pryce-Jones' charges against Stockhausen's legacy speak to my own opinion on the meaning of music. As Pyrce-Jones says, music "is perhaps the most direct and beautiful of the possible means of communication. Pretty well all of us recognise melody and rhythm, and these correspond to something deep in our common humanity."

In that sense, Stockhausen's music appears to fly in the face of the relationship between music and nature. Rather than harmonizing with our natural rhythms, it would seem to contradict it, and with that our humanity as well. It is destructive, driving apart rather than synthesizing. Hewett himself, in his obit of Stockhausen, is completed to mention "the accusation levelled at Stockhausen's music as a whole, that the vast ideas it contains often sound chaotic or merely ugly."

And there, I think, are the key words: chaos and ugly. Does it not say much about the way we view humanity, and life? There is our constant struggle against the order of natural law, the order given us by God. In place of that order we seek to insert chaos - or, if you will, relativity. Chaos, as seen through its struggle against nature, is not a good thing.

Nor can it be said that there is anything naturally ugly about humanity, although many aspects of it may be thought ugly; just as there is nothing ugly about human beings, even though many of them appear to us that way. In fact, nothing which is created in the image of God can be said to be ugly, except through self-choice. Choices, perhaps, that Stockhausen reflects through his music, fighting the natural instinct toward beauty that exists in the human soul and manifests itself through human creativity.

I don't want to go too far down that road however, because I don't want to fully pass that kind of personal judgement on Stockhausen. He was said to be a man of God, who said that God gave birth to him and called him home. And so perhaps, in his own way, Stockhausen meant to explore some of that mystical relationship through his music. But there have certainly been many ugly explorations of religion in contemporary art; we are constantly exposed to the ugly: ugly churches, ugly religious music, ugly theology.

And so we're left with a continuing plea to remember the relatonship that is supposed to exist between art and beauty. For if, as we've written before, there is an element of truth essential to art, then also there must be that relationship between truth and beauty. Stockhausen's music has been called many things; I'm not aware that beautiful was one of them. And, as Ray reminded us in the quote that began this peace, true beauty is a lot of what it is to be human.

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