Special isn’t Better

I can trace my love of classical music from the moment, aged 11, I attended my first musical appreciation lesson and the needle of a badly battered record player dropped with a loud thump onto a scratchy recording of Holst's The Planets. Then I heard sounds that excited me in a way that somehow the recordings of Deep Purple and King Crimson my brothers played never did.

— Armando Iannucci, “Classical Music, the Love of My Life” (The Guardian, 13 May, 2006)

This is an old article (at least by internet standards), but it’s been making the rounds again recently, and it always gives me a lot of feelings. It’s an excellent speech, and there’s so much that could be said about it, from the importance of early music education to the non-judgemental openness of people who don’t know what they’re not “supposed” to like, from the sacredness of the paradoxically private experience of going to a live concert to not being moved by Mozart and so much more. But today I want to zoom in on that one quote, because it touches on an attitude that’s pretty common among classical musicians, and it’s one that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

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Songs and Sommeliery

If you ever have me over for dinner, don't break out the fancy wine.

I won't be offended by it — I don't have some strange and idiosyncratic vendetta against expensive libations — I just won't appreciate it.

I have four basic categories when it comes to appreciating wine: Undrinkable, Not My Favorite, Decent, and Wow This Is Good. Beyond the most rudimentary language of dry vs sweet, I have almost no way of describing what I like; my palette is unrefined and promiscuous, perfectly happy to lap up the cheapest grocery store offering or the fanciest private reserve — and completely incapable of telling the difference between them. The complex, florid descriptions on the backs of bottles, the earnest, enthusiastic recommendations in wine stores? Completely meaningless to me. I can smile and nod as the words go by, but ultimately I'd get about the same amount of comprehension from a lecture in advanced quantum mechanics.

This isn't the fault of some defect on my tongue. I have no doubt that, given time and training and bountiful samples to sip from, I could develop my ability to dissect all the nuanced flavors that expert sommeliers pick out. I might not be able to become the very best wine taster in the world, but I'm sure I could become decent enough to have strong opinions on what I should pair with my next meal. I could totally do that.

I just don't want to.

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This is probably not what Bach intended.

I'm going to be uploading the next movement of the third cello suite next Friday, and it's going to be . . . a little different. It'll still be very recognizably Bach, but I'm taking liberties with it, many more than I have in the other movements, and many more also than I'd take if I were playing the piece in an audition for judges who would doubtless know the score. Normally I'd just put it out there as-is with minimal comment, but this touches on a larger issue that I have a lot of thoughts about, so I'm going to take this post to justify what iI've done with the Sarabande.

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Taking IN the Trash

There's a scene in the movie Big Eyes where someone is nearly stabbed with a salad fork. It's a striking — even shocking — scene, and not the least because the surroundings are so very un-stabby. Elegant socialites in bejeweled cocktail dresses are standing around chattering in small groups. Fussy hors d'oeuvres sit on delicate china, waiting to be consumed. Antonio Vivaldi's "Spring" is playing in the background.

This scene reminded me of another scene in another movie, specifically the German art gallery scene from The Avengers. The tone is somewhat different — and the stakes somewhat higher — but once again a gathering of swanky people in fancy clothes turns abruptly into a scene of violence. This time, the accompaniment is a string quartet.

I can think of any number of scenes like this. Not scenes where upper-crust socializing is interrupted by unexpected violence, but scenes where classical music is used to imply classiness and sophistication. Put on a little Mozart, and we're swept away into a world of refinement, elegance, and charm. To be sure, it's overwhelmingly a world of surfaces — we're in the land of tittering laughter at an art gala, not raw confessions wrenched out in a private room — but there can be no doubt that it's a classy affair. (I'm primarily talking about diegetic uses here — times when the music is actually happening in the world of the story, instead of extra-diegetic uses where it's just happening in the soundtrack. Most movie scores would arguably fall under the classical umbrella, but you're usually not supposed to notice them consciously; here I'm dealing with moments where you're supposed to consciously notice the classical music as such.)

The flip side is that this is a very small emotional box to live in. It's polite laughter, not a bellowing guffaw. You might be melancholy, but there isn't enough room to be devastated. The most confrontational you can get is saying something arch. This is music you appreciate, not music you enjoy.

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"Lo, body and soul" — "Beat! beat! drums!" — "Bearing the bandages, water and sponge"

Junior year, thru a convoluted chain of circumstances, I found myself in possession of an omnibus edition of Walt Whitman's poetry. Now that I actually have time to read for pleasure, I've been making my way thru the leaves, taking the opportunity to connect with a part of my cultural heritage.

Many of the poems, of course, are famous in their own right — this is far from my first exposure to "O Captain! My Captain" or the rambling "Song of Myself". Many of the others, unsurprisingly, are totally new to me, obscure outpourings from the nineteenth century. Some of them are striking, others forgettable, but they're all new to me. But then there are the ones I know thru a sideways route, the ones that composers have set — in whole or in part — to music that I know well.

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I've written before about how pieces of music written outside of the European-American common practice umbrella (roughly speaking, music written for churches, concert halls, and theatres from around 1600 to about the end of World War One) can seem completely unintelligible to people who aren't familiar with it. Since I'm not only familiar with but actually quite fond of a lot of this music, today I'm going to zoom in and explain how some of it works by giving a breakdown of the construction of a piece that's near and dear to my heart.

One of the big differences between western art music from the 19th Century and that from the 20th is a general decrease in the focus on melody. Now, plenty of 20th-Century composers missed this memo — I could rattle off dozens of composers who never stopped writing evocative, sensuous melodic lines — but plenty of them got it, and there's a lot of art music out there that doesn't have melodies that most people would recognize as such. But these works still have pitch content (well, except for 4'33", I guess), and still need some way of organizing it. Often, the way in question is a tight network of carefully controlled motives.

What is a musical motive? For our purposes, a "motive" is a short musical phrase that is used to generate musical material. This shortness is key: Unlike a melody, which can usually be broken down into phrases and subphrases, motives don't typically have meaningful subunits; if you cut them into pieces, you're working at the level of individual notes. (Many motives are in the three-to-four note range; very few are longer than six.)

The most famous motive, hands-down, is the one that kicks off Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth symphony. (BA NA NA NAAAAAAAAAA!) Careful readers might note that Beethoven was not, in fact, writing music in the 20th Century, and this is an important point. Motives are not something public-scorning modernists invented out of whole cloth; they have a long and rich history in the western art music tradition, running right back to the music of the late Medieval Catholic Church. But there's still a shift in the 20th Century. Whereas before, motives were typically derived from larger melodies, in the 20th Century we increasingly see motives treated as complete entities in and of themselves; they're building blocks instead of fragments*.

Enough with these generalizations. Let's talk about some actual music!

I'm sure I could use any number of pieces for this exercise, but I'm going to go with the one where I first learned to hear this way: Vincent Persichetti's Pageant, a piece for wind ensemble written in 1954. Besides sheer familiarity, Pageant has another great thing going for it as a learn-how-to-hear-motivically piece: It begins with an unadorned statement of the primary three-note motive. You might want to listen to it a few times just to really get it in your ear. (Thruout this analysis, I'm going to be referring to time markers in that specific recording on Spotify. I'm not going to reference the score because a) I don't have a copy of it, b) even if I did, I assume most of the people reading this don't either, and c) if you want to learn a new way of hearing, you're going to have to listen.)

After the little horn solo, there's a long slow lyrical passage (0'08" to 4'19"). (I tend to think of it as an introduction even tho it's more than half the length of the entire work — the precise nature of this chunk of music is irrelevant to this post, so we're just going to call it "the slow bit".) The instruments here are all moving very smoothly and connectedly, but there isn't a strong sense of melody. The lines float and they're beautiful, but they aren't really broken up into discrete, self-contained chunks; they blur and blend into one another, and it's not always clear whether what you're hearing is a new melodic line or a continuation of what you were just listening to — the color shifts dramatically at 0'35" as other instruments enter to join the clarinets, for example, but the clarinets don't stop before that happens; they run right into it.

Instead of melodies and variations on them, what we essentially have here is a long-range spooling out of that opening motive. The first three notes in the clarinets (0'08"-10") are exactly the motive, and little variations start piling up fast. When the highest clarinets hold out a note from 0'18"-19", the lower voices introduce a slightly squished version — the high note in the middle isn't quite as high as when the horn did it, but the shape is still very recognizably the same. The highest clarinets pick up on this and make a similar gesture from 0'23"-25", then again from 0'28"-30" before melting away as other instruments join.

This next passage, the one that begins at 0'35", doesn't start with a statement of the motive, but it isn't far away. As before, when the top voice holds out a note from 0'45"-47", the lower voices swoop in to fit the motive in the gap, and the upper voices echo the move from 0'53"-55".

The first big break happens when the brass chorale begins with three stately chords from 1'03"-09". The top voice here isn't playing the exact motive, but it's very close; the only change is that the third note is a little lower than in the original form. When the woodwinds get their turn again (1'18"-24"), they stretch it out, but the overall shape, three notes low-high-not quite as low, remains clearly recognizable.

After this bout of mimicry, the music ebbs back into flowy-floaty land. (I would put the transition around 1'44", tho I could hear arguments for an earlier demarcation point.) I'm not going to point out all the instances of the motive in this section because this is a blog post, not a Russian novel, but some of you may be starting to hear them on your own by now. The chorale section returns at the two-minute mark, this time including an unaltered statement of the motive in the trumpets at 2'14"-18", and this ushers in a return of the opening clarinet melody, such as it is.

What follows is essentially a spruced-up version of the opening sequence, including a return of the brass chorale at 3'26", this time with more voices playing along. Everybody gets in on the act with a perfect statement of the motive from 3'40"-46", but then things peter out as this big opening chunk (i.e. the slow bit) draws to a close.

Now for the fast part.

At first, we might appear to be safe on more traditional ground. After a brief snare drum tattoo, we get a peppy theme in the upper woodwinds (4'23"-27"). The brass play around with this, and we get a lovely swoopy transitional bit (4'38"-41"), followed by another pretty distinct theme (4'43"-50"). And that's pretty much it. There's very little that happens from 4'50" to the end of the piece that doesn't get laid out in those twenty-seven seconds. So we could switch over and start doing a more traditional thematic analysis of this part, and it'd be pretty smooth sailing from here on out.

But let's take a closer look at the themes we're working with. Remember how the clarinets had a squashed version of the motive near the beginning? The first three notes of the first melody of the fast section are a similarly squashed version . . . but upside-down. So instead of going low-high-medium, these three go high-low-medium. The next four notes are right-side-up, but they dip back down to the low note before going to the medium: low-high-(low)-medium. Digging a little deeper (and getting correspondingly harder to hear): If you take the first note of this melody, the last note of this melody, and the highest note, you get the original motive! (If you take the lowest note instead of the highest one, you get the motive upside-down.) (Don't worry if you can't hear all of these right away, or even after several listenings. Picking out motives by ear is a skill, and like any skill, it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. I've been living with this piece for more than five years, so I've had a lot of time to dig into every nook and corner of its musical fabric.)

The swoopy transitional bit goes even further — it rearranges the motive to be essentially high-middle-low, then muddies the water further by filling in the notes in the middle**. The third theme combines this displacement idea — having the highest note not be in the middle — and combines it with the "adding an extra note" thing from the first fast theme to get low-middle-(low)-high for its first four notes, and elaborated still further for its next five. Once again, if you take the first note, the last note, and the highest note, you get the original motive. (This time, it doesn't work if you take the lowest note, altho there are other ways in which that note is structurally significant.) So when you're listening to these themes bounce around for the rest of the piece, you're hearing variations on variations of the fundamental motive***.

There is, of course, even more than this. Tracking down every single instance of the motive in this gleefully chaotic fast section would take far more space than I have here, but I would be remiss not to draw attention to the glorious passage from 6'27"-33" in which Persichetti piles up statement after statement of the motive, overlapping the ending of one with the beginning of the next to corkscrew his way from one place to another. This suggests a realm that I haven't even touched on — collapsing the motive onto itself and playing all three notes simultaneously as a chord instead of a melodic fragment. This kind of usage is harder to hear, but trust me, it's there.

I don't want to overstate my case here. Pageant is not only comprised of this one motive. There are other motives at work thruout, and as I said, the fast bit can be analyzed very comfortably in terms of traditionally-construed melodies. (Altho remember that melodies are almost always themselves built from motives, and that even way back in the 18th century (and before), composers were playing with these motives to make their music.) But still, I think Pageant makes a lot more sense if you can hear the ways that Persichetti is using the primary motive to generate his musical material, and I hope I've given you a window into how I hear this kind of music.

The motivic games in Pageant are relatively clear and easy to follow, believe it or not. There are other pieces out there where the motivic relations are subtle, buried, and difficult for even an experienced listener to track. I know it may seem hard to believe if you're not used to listening this way, but once you start to wrap your head around a few pieces like this, it really does start to become an automatic, intuitive process. (If you're looking for another piece with a clearly defined motive to practice on, I highly recommend Ralph Vaughan Williams's fourth symphony.) And if you can train yourself to hear this way, a lot of contemporary music (and heck, even a fair bit of music from the 17th to 19th centuries) will suddenly make a whole lot more sense. Who knows, you might even start to genuinely like some of it!

So don't be afraid of music that runs on motives instead of melody. Give it a listen. See what you hear.

*If this sounds like a bit of a hedge, it is. For every crisp, clearly defined stylistic break in the history of western art music, there are things like this: general, loosely adhered-to trends that different composers at different times have engaged with to different degrees. What can I say? Art is messy.

**At this point, some of you may suspect that I'm just making these things up, cherry picking notes and techniques in whatever way I have to to magically procure the motive out of every bit of music in this piece. As with so many things in music, this is a judgement call. If this were the only link to the opening horn solo in the entire piece, I'd be pretty sympathetic to the argument that it's an unrelated coincidence — heck, I'd probably even make it myself. But given that the entire piece is so saturated with the motive, I'm inclined to say this one isn't a spurious coincidence; there's a real motivic link going on. Ultimately, it's not terribly significant — if you think that this particular "instance" of the motive is unconvincing, that's fine. It doesn't take away from the fact that the motive is all over this entire piece, from beginning to end.

***This, incidentally, is one of the reasons it works to have the first and third melodies played simultaneously starting at 6'45". Their important structural tones have the same fundamental relationship, so they live in very similar harmonic worlds. (It's also very possible that he wrote that section first to make sure everything would work — pro tip to any aspiring composers reading this!)

On Snippishness

I don't really like cleaning dishes. (No one is shocked, I know.) Up until last weekend, I had been making scrambled eggs for myself for lunch on the weekends, but this tends to leave a fair bit of egg residue in the pan, and while it's not too hard to get out, it does kind of clog up the sponge and drain, which I find kind of annoying. So last weekend I decided to try poaching them instead.

I had never poached an egg before in my life. (In fact, I'm not even 100% sure I'd even eaten poached eggs before last weekend.) So I did what I'm wont to do under such circumstances, and looked up a recipe online. I found several YouTube tutorials, including this one. And watching that one, I had a funny realization.

At around the 1'18" mark, the host, Jamie Oliver, mentions that some people add vinegar to the poaching water. He makes a vaguely disgusted look at the camera, and says "Really? Why? Yes, it does firm up the egg, but it tastes like vinegar, so I would suggest don't bother.". This instantly reminded me of many of the authorial asides in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, especially the numerous herbs and spices that he brusquely advises readers not to even bother buying pre-ground.

Some people, I'm sure, find this kind of snippish dismissal off-putting. I find it immensely comforting.

In part, this may be because I do it myself. As anyone who's gone to many concerts with me can attest, there are scads of places in the literature where I'll go "Ugh. Why would anyone play it like that instead of this?", often over objectively minor issues. For example: I can't understand why anyone would ever take the middle section of the second movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Folk Song Suite as briskly as this group does. It should be dignified and restrained, a noble dance instead of a frisky one*. I will freely admit that, objectively, this is not that big a deal. It's less than a minute of music, and it's not like a questionable interpretation does anyone meaningful harm, but I still make disapproving noises under my breath whenever I hear a recording that takes that passage fast.

So part of it may just be like-mindedness, recognizing myself in other people and gravitating towards that. But there's more to it, as well.

This kind of snippish dismissal works to establish authority in an informal context without breaking out of a chatty tone. I don't think this is conscious — certainly I've never done it deliberately — but consider what it manages to convey:

First, it tells us that the speaker has a great deal of experience with what they're talking about. Jamie Oliver doesn't need to offer a cautious defense of vinegar-free poaching; he's tried it, he doesn't like it, he says so, he moves on. This radiates the kind of confidence that only comes with spending a great deal of time with something. I've heard lots of arguments against my position on any number of aesthetic things, and I know I can counter all of them to my satisfaction.

More importantly, tho, it tells us that the speaker is passionate. It tells us that the speaker cares deeply enough about the subject to get bees in their bonnet about the smallest details. The video on poaching eggs is my entire exposure to Jamie Oliver, but I have zero doubt whatsoever that he is supremely, consummately passionate about food. And that's really what I'm looking for when I'm looking for expert advice. Because people who are consummately passionate about things usually care about getting those things right, they care enough to get bogged down in the hairsplitting details, to do the painstaking work of sorting thru myriads of open-ended possibilities with enough rigor to form a specific, grounded opinion on all of them. I may not always agree with that opinion (I can't speak to vinegar in the poaching water, but I'm not bothered by pre-ground allspice, sorry Mark.), but at least I know it's coming from a place of having done the homework.

My feelings about music are not rational. I did not sit down one day and decide after calm and considered deliberation to have the deep and overwhelming reactions to this art that I do. (To be honest, that would be a . . . pretty questionable decision.) And yet I have them. Indeed, that's what I mean when I say I'm passionate about music: I mean that I respond to it in an obsessive, irrational, hotwire-to-the-hindbrain way. That's why Jamie Oliver's comments about vinegar made me feel so at home. Passion resonates with me on a very deep level, and that kind of snippish dismissal is a giant flashing sign that passion is at hand.

*While we're on the subject: I also don't understand the attraction to the outer two movements to this suite. Like, the first one is OK, but the last one is so annoying, and doesn't even work that well as a conclusion, it just kind of stops. I get that you need the last one for balance if you play the first, but given how much better the second one is, just play it as a standalone and don't bother with the other two. Anyway . . .

Making Up and Making Over

Western concert music, with its centuries-old tradition(s) of scholarship and study, has some very specific terms for very specific things: Essential Structural Closure, a modulation to the flat submediant, and my go-to bugaboo hexachordal combinatoriality — these all refer to pretty specific things and those specific things only.

Western concert music, being a rowdy and living tradition practiced by untold numbers of people with wildly different levels of formal education, also has some terms that can pretty much mean anything you want.

"Arranging" falls decidedly into the latter category.

I think most people, even non-musicians, have a pretty firm grasp on what it means to compose something. The specific process will vary from person to person, but at its heart, you go into a room with a blank piece of paper, and you come out with a piece of music. For some people, that involves literally sitting at a piano and plugging away, for others it involves fiddling with audio samples in a computer program, but either way, the result is much the same: The composer is the person who decides what sounds happen when*.

Arranging is much more nebulous.

At one end of its possible meanings, you have what can also be called transcription: Taking a work originally scored for one ensemble and scoring it for a different one, as with the concert band version of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide compared to the orchestral original. Calling something a transcription implies a high degree of fidelity to the original source material. The instruments change, but the form remains the same. If you run across something labeled as a transcription, you wouldn't expect to find different harmonies or new countermelodies, at least not in the way that most people use the term today.

At the other end of the scale, you have things like Jimmy Mundy's arrangement of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" for Benny Goodman, which alters almost every aspect of the original**, up to and including the melody itself. (Few arrangements take this degree of latitude in the concert music world, what with our general reverence for scores and source material, but it's absolutely common practice in jazz and other less score-based musics.)

A lot of things fall somewhere in the middle. When William Schuman arranged his New England Triptych from orchestra to wind ensemble, he transcribed the first two movements with minimal alteration, but completely revised the third, nearly doubling it in length from its original incarnation. Gustav Mahler's piano parts for the piano-vocal versions of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs are not simply reductions of the full orchestral score from his orchestral arrangements.

Then, too, there are cases where the orchestration — the determination of which instruments play which notes — is so striking, so specific that, even tho the melodies and harmonies of the original are preserved in every detail, it seems misleading to call the new work "just" an arrangement of the previous one. The most iconic instance of this is probably Anton Webern's arrangement of one of the fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach's Musical Offering — Webern's meticulously detailed and relentlessly modern scoring transform Bach's exacting counterpoint into a psychedelic whirlwind of motives and fragments; it's an arrangement, sure, but one so strongly marked by the arranger's aesthetic that one almost wants to give them co-compositional credit for the resulting masterpiece. (You don't need two different people, either. The end of Igor Stravinsky's Svadebka (aka Les noces aka The Wedding) is another place where "the notes and rhythms being played" and "the instruments playing them" seem impossible to separate; orchestration and composition become one. (The passage in question, where frenetic energy gives way to the purified ringing of bells, begins around 8'17", but the whole thing is worth a listen if you have the time.))

Given this nebulosity, it might be tempting to dismiss "arranging" as a useless term. To the contrary, it's precisely this nebulosity that makes it useful. I can say that I'm "arranging" some of the music from Window Full of Moths for wind ensemble, and I don't have to clarify that, while the second movement is essentially a transcription of "Beside You", the third is a mixture of the opening of "Hey" and a radically altered version of "Stop Dreaming", with some new material thrown in to stitch them together, and then —

Arranging encompasses all these things in a way that gets at the core of what I'm doing: This music existed before. I'm changing it in some ways so that it exists in another form as well. Some of these changes are small, and some of them are big, but for the most part, we neither need nor want to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty specifics of which are which. Having a catch-all like "arranging" lets us get away from worrying about arbitrary distinctions on a continuous continuum and gives us more time to spend actually making art.


*There are, of course, exceptions where composers leave room for other people or things to make some of these decisions. For now, I'm simply ignoring this type of composition, but I think it can be subsumed into this framework with little difficulty.

**I am not actually 100% certain that this is the original arrangement given the sheer number of recordings of this tune and Spotify's spotty bibliographic information. If someone could confirm this or provide a link to the actual original arrangement, I would greatly appreciate it.

Four Days and Counting

So in a little over four days’ time, I’ll be sitting in a room with a panel of judges playing my audition for the American Youth Symphony. 

There is not much left to be done in these four days. I will, of course, be making the most out of the time I have left to practice, but these things are incremental. Between now and Tuesday, I may go from nailing the first entrance in the Rite of Spring solo eighteen times out of twenty to nineteen, but I’m not going to be able to radically alter how I play anything. I am, effectively, in the land of the most subtle refinements; where I am now is where I will be Tuesday.

I’ve spent a long time preparing for this. I mean, of course, the roughly two months I’ve been working on the audition repertoire, but I also mean my life as a bassoonist before this point. I didn’t start from nothing in the middle of June, I started from years and years of intense, dedicated work, and a familiarity with most of the material I’ll be performing. With the exception of the solo piece, I have been working on everything I’ll be playing on Tuesday since high school.

In some sense, tho, the preparation goes even deeper than that. The way I turn a phrase, how I conceive of musical lines and larger forms — these things will be on display in the audition room, and I’ve been learning them for much longer than I’ve been wrapping my fingers around the awkward mechanics of the bassoon. The cassette tapes I fell asleep to when I was a toddler, the piano lessons I took in elementary school, the mp3s I listen to as I go about my day job — all of these are training grounds for the more fundamental tasks of making music.

Given this, it’s easy to see an audition as a kind of summation, an evaluation of who you are as a musician. This can be thrilling and affirmational when things go well, but it can also be a crushing source of disillusionment when they don’t. I try not to think of it that way.

For starters, everyone makes mistakes. This is true even at the highest levels. I have heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra slip up during Stravinsky, I have seen the Metropolitan Opera nearly come apart at the seams playing Wagner. I am not a machine; I will not and cannot be perfect every time. Even if I only muff an excerpt 1% of the time, there’s still a chance that Tuesday at 6:30pm will not be in the 99% I’m happy with.

But it’s also true that auditions are not a perfect measure of musicianship. Indeed, I think many of my finest qualities as a musician are not those that are tested in an audition room. My ability to blend, to match pitch, to play a supporting line underneath the primary voice, to internalize a score and snap back into place when things go wrong, to keep my cool and blithely continue after stumbling, to follow a soloist doing … expressive things with time — none of these will be clearly on display. Certainly, an audition will measure much of what I can do on a bassoon, but much will go unaccounted for as well. (Many groups have a probational period for just this reason.)

All of which is immaterial if everyone else happens to be better than me this year. Or if the audition committee has preconceived notions about whose students they will and won’t accept. (Music, alas, is not some magical fairyland where human pettiness is banished.) Perhaps they’re looking for a different sound, or a different sensibility as to how to build to a climax. I can control how I prepare, I can control how I play, but I can’t control any of these things, and many more besides.

So I try to let them go.

I try, as much as I can, to think “Hey, let me show you this!” in the audition room, not “Oh no, what are they going to think of me?”. I try to play first for myself, so that I can walk out of that room thinking “Yes. That is how I sound. That is how I play. That was a good representation of what I have to offer.” And if they’re not interested, well, they’re not interested. Sometimes there will be obvious mistakes, but often not. Often, you can only guess as to why the committee passed you by. 

And so it goes. If I get in, I will be thrilled. The AYS is an excellent group, and they have an exciting season lined up. If I don’t, it won’t be the end of the world. There are other ways I can keep making music. And hey, there’s always next year. If they pass me up at this audition, I’ll have that much more time to get in shape for the next one.

I may have been preparing for this all my life, but there’s always room to improve.

Not So Universal

If you spend much time listening to people talk about music, sooner or later you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear someone tout music (especially western concert music from, say, 1600 to 1945ish) as a “universal language” that can transcend temporal and cultural boundaries and speak to people with very different personal backgrounds. Now, to some degree this is obviously true. People who are not 17th-century Italian aristocrats can enjoy Monteverdi; Beethoven’s ninth symphony did not die with the last audience member at its premiere. 

But take a listen to something like Vincent Persichetti’s Parable IX for concert band. It’s an acerbic, uncompromising work full of jagged motifs and harsh edges. If music is a language, most people would say this is sheer gibberish.

And yet we’ve only gone a very small way outside of the concert music canon. Persichetti was trained thoroughly in classical composition, and Parable IX dates from 1972, within thirty years of such popular pieces as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and Copland’s third symphony (1946). If our goal is to plumb the depths of musical diversity, we’ve barely dipped our toes in, and we’re already running into incomprehensibility.

Seems like a pretty dismal prospect for universality, no?

At this point, some of you may be thinking to yourselves “well, of course not all music has universal appeal, only some of it does!”.

I think we need to go further. None of it does.

No one is born with an appreciation for Beethoven. No one comes out of the womb tapping their foot to Sondheim or Porter. These tastes have to be acquired.

If Beethoven’s fifth symphony seems to resonate with “everyone” today, it is only because we have never stopped teaching people to understand Beethoven. Even ignoring the (considerable) play time for his actual works, the underpinnings of his language are everywhere, from muzak to movie scores. Music works by setting up patterns that listeners recognize and then either fulfilling them or tweaking them in surprising ways. If you don’t have an intuitive understanding of the patterns, you won’t be able to make head or tail of the music that uses them. This is why the Persichetti from earlier is so nonsensical to so many people — He’s using patterns that are far enough outside the average listener’s experience that said average listener can’t tell when they’re being fulfilled and when they’re being violated — they can’t feel the forces of expectation and surprise that make music tick. Beethoven is universal only insofar as the patterns he uses in his music are.

(Lest anyone argue that prevalence of western musical patterns is due to some inherent superiority on the patterns’ behalf: These patterns were in vogue among the European elite at a time when they were colonizing as many other parts of the world as it could and systematically destabilizing and attempting to eradicate indigenous cultural traditions. This is … not a coincidence.)

That you have to know the patterns to understand the music, however, offers some hope. Recognizing these kinds of patterns is a matter of familiarity. You don’t have to know what a Perfect Authentic Cadence is to get the emotional impact of one; you don’t have to study theory and scores, you just have to listen. If you want to “get into” a new style of music, from modernist works for wind band to traditional Indian ragas and beyond, all you have to do is listen. Studying the theory may help if you have the background to make sense of it, but listening is the key. At first, things will sound like an undifferentiated wash (and possibly a pretty unpleasant one at that), but in time, with enough exposure, your brain will start to make sense of what’s coming at it — you’ll start to pick out islands of difference in the sea of sameness. You’ll start to understand what you’re hearing. It will start to mean things to you. (Whether this payoff is worth the amount of time you’ll have to spend with confused ears is something only you can answer.)

No style of music is universal, but the tools to understand it are available to all who can hear.