Music is about what? It’s hard to say, exactly. What there is about good music seems to me to be a fluency of expression, a continuity, within massive variety, of theme and feeling, and carried within all this lives a crie de coeur; resonating, as it were, in the form of something pretty elemental in us, as us being in the first place instinct animals, and in the second place, in us being rational thinking human animals.
I believe certain genres of good music are able to display these different aspects of what I believe make for good music. In general one genre is able to display one aspect better than most other genres. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
We have the genre of blues. Most of us who appreciate blues know something of its antecedents and their origins. We tend to know that blues arose out of Southern US slavery of negro populations kidnapped from the African coasts and trafficked to The New World and to The Caribbean as an unpaid forced labour on plantations which were labour intensive by their natures. Tobacco, sugar, cotton, some rice, etc, were the main crops.
These enslaved peoples did not leave their cultures behind them when they were forced aboard ships taking them westwards. I’d imagine they sang together in the holds, in the darkness and dankness of the ships; and just to keep up some kind of spirit and morale. I know many many died on the way. I know that, as Sir Walter Scott mentions in one of his Waverley Novels in his footnotes, that slaver masters on ships would have crews fire off pistol shots at the feet of the slaves during the few minutes each day the slaves were allowed on deck for a short exercise and some air. The aim of firing the shots was twofold it appears – firstly to give some ‘entertainment’ to the shooters and their the crews, and secondly and ostensibly the received prime reason, to get the slaves to ‘dance’ and so give exercise to their limbs and circulations.
These African peoples sang. They carried with them, along with much else of great value, their songs and their musical traditions across the Atlantic to the plantations; where new influences affected them as people and so changed their musical modes and developed their timbres and moods.
Being a subject race, under ownership, and often also under duress and pain; and bearing hard lives of hard work and long hours and little comfort; what else might be expected to have become of any African roots in music brought across the ocean with them, than for it to express sufferings and long-sufferings, and to brood and to tap into the depths of the wells of human emotional endurance?
And so, one amongst many genres of ‘Black’ American music, blues became a formal musical expression. There subsists in many blues songs, especially in the blues artists’ songs of the earlier 20th century (I have been able to find nothing before this on record) with their thin haunted carols in their rather tinny and distant-sounding voices and supporting instruments – sound recording produced by the state of the art technology of the time – there subsists a lamentational mode which is able to and does conjure up in one’s breast a great movement of sympathetic sorrow and an acute awareness of some of that pain of the music as a palliative to us and expressive of our own woes.
There is a feeling carried in these old and unremastered disks of blues which is well-conveyed by likening their musical desolations to a person who is listening to a broadcast of The Shipping Forecast late into the night on a radio which is carrying an amount of white noise and static interference. A friend of mine once called this experience ‘like listening to the end of the world.’ It works in our imaginations an impressive and powerful sense of otherness, of a presence of some of those things in earth and heaven which Horatio never dreamed of; an imaginative widening of horizons to a place we’d perhaps rather not go physically in the flesh and blood.
Blues can and often does carry this sense of otherness; and that strong pungent taste of listening to experience recorded which we have never had in such power; and God forbid that we should ever have. I liken it to a wail; not an amorphous anarchic wail of sheer horror and pain; there is no beauty in such, but only distress, and even for a listener. In regard to wails which are sheer and unadulterated coming straight from the bowels of a suffering person and so being red raw and harsh and alarming; one might agree with the poet Matthew Arnold who called suchlike expressions experiences in which ‘everything is to be endured, and nothing is to be done’. Arnold on the basis of this his comment excluded certain of his own works from his own artistic canon deliberately because he felt they were conveying only an unrelieved suffering and no solace.
Blues then as an art form of some greatness is able to transubstantiate an absolute and singular suffering into a mode of music which is blissfully affecting and cathartic of pain to hear and to appreciate. Despite its ‘otherness’ on the crackling thin-sounding player, it connects; and it connects at a level very hard to put into words because it is essential music and so bypasses words and goes to as place deeper else and straightway.
A parody of such a ‘direct-hit’ on one’s sensibilities might be the hackneyed Tarzan-like cry of ‘the natural man’ as portrayed in the movies, which tries whilst remaining in a comfort zone to express something beyond organised institutionalised society; and something which is prior in the psyche in human life. This reaching of good blues numbers into the soul and breast and heart, and them grabbing a person thereabouts, is in fact I believe a chief means of blues providing a certain relief and soothing to a listener.
Sigmund Freud’s ideas on our daily regular regulated lives were ideas which centred on the concept of trade-offs for lives lived in human societies. We as a society trade-off certain good and even beneficial things from our individual selves and in return we obtain the social benefits of the rule of law, the regulation, the standing in queues, the waiting for a bus, the keeping of our temper, the obeying of the speed limits, and a million and one other curbing items which we might quietly call ‘bugbears’ but they are each an item by which society functions and survived; and to lose them would mean for us all catastrophic disorder and a common free-for-all. Freud’s specific book on this topic is called ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’.
Good blues then, short-circuits, bypasses these ‘discontents of civilisation’ to some degree (I am not calling blues primitive or uncivilised; no, not at all; all art, all good art, does this same thing in its own discrete way) and blues thus provides a route for us for some of our deepest feelings of anguish, angst, and existential sorrow within to become recognised; recognised by us in ourselves in the first place; and in the second place recognised by way of a sympathy with the singer whom we recognise as one who has ‘gone before us into the darkness of the terrible night’.
And so words like ‘elemental’ and ‘instinctive’ can come into play within such a context; because in each of us there is that rebel who in the final instance bucks at the burdensome fardles life places upon him or her; and who recognises s/he needs some company who likewise wants ‘that hair they are tearing out to be let down a little’ and for a while to be, to exist, to live, in another easier mode than as the regular, official ‘me’. It’s a beer taken as medicine to do you some psychical good.
Sorrowful blues reaches into a person and like the hands of a skillful surgeon does healing there. It being crafted, it being art, it at the same time carries the elemental, in such a mode as for to make it contact, but not destroy the catharsis, as a raw and uncrafted elemental cry might. Thus it is not a ‘primal scream’ but in many ways it is sophisticated and polished, made and deliberated made for such effects; yet, by utilising his/her artistic magic its creator creates it, in such a way that at the same time allows into play that depth of cry which comes from a person directly in touch with baseline pressure-points within themselves.
Now this character is the same in general for all song; all song bears an element of this being able to reach inside a listening or performing self and to bring out from there and so present qualities in such a way as to captivate and enthral by way of imaginative sympathies, so that listeners benefit in mental health from having heard such a performance.
I have heard singers of mainstream pop, of classical music , of many other genres of music, who have possessed that intangible quality which in its turn possesses oneself as listener; yet I find it very difficult to say in words what it is that I am connecting with in their voices and the song. As near as I can get is to say that it feels ‘God-given’; that there is no mediation, but direct connection with the foundational sober joy in the spirit of life; whether the song is joyous itself or else sombre or sorrowful.
Now what I am calling ‘this connection’ and ‘direct connection’, is often harder to discern in non-vocal musical performances. I think this is because the voice is the first and most natural instrument of humankind. All other instruments, as being physical objects, are artefacts – the guitar, the viola, the harmonica, the trumpet. Yet the singer, as artist makes his/her natural voice an artefact, one which can bring sorrow and joy and pleasure and pain and laughter to one’s heart, and all at once together; and who works in an sublingually sublimated, articulated manner. Articulation is a key word here. All good music, whether song or by instrument must posses assured articulation of some kind.
Articulation is not a simple straightforward tempo or beat or rhythm; not simply rock-steady or – a waltz – or the wall of sound, whatever; articulation is immensely various and can be amazingly complex; so that finding out the articulation in a piece of music, especially when the music is a new trend and is also intellectually challenging. This ground-breaking stuff can often require listening to again and again; so that in a sense a musical artist who breaks new ground has to create (re-create) her/his audience as well.
It is said of Mahler that his music significantly required a good amount of ‘bedding in’; that those few orchestral conductors who saw early on the greatness of his music when it was first being played in concert halls, they decided to make a point of regularly giving it exposure by way of performances. Thus-wise Mahler’s works, as new style music, became able to reach a point where it began to carry itself on its own merits in the concert going public’s ears.
There is articulation in Mahler, but for the new-to-Mahler listener it has somewhat to be dug for.
Stravinski is another composer whose articulation in his music is not immediately obvious at first; but yet is a wonder to behold once one has one’s ear in for him. And new discovers abound on every re-hearing of it.
Articulation is this special gift which artists, musicians, posses; and by which they are able, as it were, to ‘speak as if in words by way of musical notation’. You might have heard mathematicians say now and then that the ‘numbers, the figures, speak to them’. It is an expression which in part is hyperbole; but in part it is also an attempt to express the sharp definition, and the exact affinity, which the numbers, the figures, have within the mind of a mathematician. Just as there is a fluency of affinity in language, and also in numbers, so too in musical composition and performance there are particular kinds of fluency of affinity which are what add peculiar ‘personality’ to a musician’s music played.
I mean by this not merely a listener being able to say: ah, that’s Mozart, or, oh, that’s Tchaikovsky; I mean more so that there is always in good music which is well written and well played, a great amount of information which tells you indubitably that here is a discrete living characterful person on the other end of it; and it tells you also considerable detail about the person and about her/his temperament and outlook also.
So these concepts of articulation and fluency and personality all add up to a conclusion I believe, that a composer or a performer when artists of special skill are able to put themselves into their music-making, and so embed their inmost intimate thoughts and feelings, items of treasure peculiar to themselves, to place these out there in the public domain, for general appreciation, assessment and purview.
And in this regard of putting oneself into one’s music we come to Beethoven. I guess the idea of putting oneself into one’ s music is a Romantic idea; and that Beethoven was a Romantic composer; yet nonetheless, in Beethoven’s music I think more than with any other composer, we get the most of a composer’s self being put into the works he made.
Beethoven’s music for me has articulation, fluency, and personality, par excellence; no-one matches him for generosity and bounty here. It is a forceful giving of himself; but not necessarily aggressive or noisy or anything at all like ‘look at me!’. It is not a Paganini-type virtuosity then; but it is an in-depth immersion in the very self-hood of the man. It is seen in the fact that he could write music in no other way because, in a figurative sense, the music was the man, likewise and the man was the music. To have taken away music from a life and a spirit like Beethoven’s would have been to destroy the man; as likewise vice versa to take away the man would have destroyed the music – so that we would not now have had it.
Certain pieces of Beethoven’s music I dare to suggest go ‘beyond music’. They head into that elemental area of being I was harping on about finding in good blues music earlier on. Again I find words hard to use about what I am trying to convey. Three certain pieces of Beethoven’s oeuvre come to mind as excellent examples of what I am attempting to say; that he goes ‘beyond music’. These examples are: 1 The opening movement of The Ninth Symphony: 2. ‘The Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Creator’ in The Late String Quartet; and 3: the finale of The Appassionata piano sonata.
Whenever the Ninth Symphony begins playing, one experiences its initial movement seeming to construct itself in an unorthodox manner, and out of a purity and focus of thought rather than out of what one might term ‘tunefulness’. Not only do the opening bars represent a ‘girding up of his loins’ as it were, they are introductory, almost beckoning, and also declarative, announcing a half-formed thematic idea, but not trivially to merely catch one’s attention, but more so as if the music and the movement’s structure are in the act of being built before one’s very attention – as if the creative act of composing the music itself were being laid out for the benefit of a person listening.
Thus the movement appears to be creating and developing in real time as the music builds and develops. But it is also music, as Captain Kirk might say, ‘not as we know it’; as if it is doing something other than handling melody and harmony and thematic development. This something else, as near as I can express it, is a ‘talking to the listener’ in a psychical language of emotion, passion, mood expression. Yet again it is not just mere ‘feeling’ one gets from listening to this first movement; there appears to be cerebral cognitive thought carried over into the music and being communicated, although this claim of mine would be a difficult one to substantiate.
Certainly expressions of building up a sequence, perhaps intentionally piecemeal and hesitantly at first; in an abrupt and even speculative manner ( I am talking about the effects on a listener and not about the act of the actual crafting of the music here). There is power, as there often is with Beethoven; and there is resolution in a declarative apotheosis. During the opening section of the first movement the strings act as if bringing to bear enormous question-marks, so as to beg the question of a listener as like Our Lord asks the crowds following him:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”
There is this same play of interrogative informativeness in the Beethoven as Christ here is using in his speech. Asking and yet offering answers in the very act of asking the questions. More than mere rhetorical questioning, the words having an implied answer embedded in them in the very manner of laying out the questions. And because of the expansion of one’s mind, the educative, the new experience aspects of such a catechism, it is being carried along in and by the flow of Christ’s thought, or else, by Beethoven, in and by the the flow of his catechistic introductory bars.
And in his Ninth, Beethoven carries these initial tacit questionings upon the strings, in such a way that he develops them quite rapidly, abruptly even, into a forcible resolute statement. This occurs as the first bars reach a crescendo into full power. Much of the first movement consists of this flow between tentative even unsure-seeming queries, and their evolving into different ways of stating affirmation and resolution. In the process Beethoven ‘grows’ some fluidity and rhythmic continuity to the flow of this amazing early opening music, developing it from a place where it had previously been staccato, and almost, as if falteringly, broken up.
The overall effect then is of a struggle to formulate thoughts and to face down difficulties or qualms; about stating the developing themes as certainties. This is occurring initially. But yet here and there the music flashes bearing bursts of assured assertion; and amongst all of which struggle is gradually pieced together a music whose passage becomes melodically rather more connected and continuous than it had been previously. And so thereby, it seems to me, the music is conveying a sensation of progression against obstacles and at last into a final penetration; and so holding a firm grip on assurance by way of Beethoven having as his goal established a fluency of thought and purpose.
I am going to bring to a close this paper now, since it is beginning to get over-length.
I want to say finally that Beethoven is for me the master at expressing musically his thoughts and feelings with an (apparently) marvellous ease of facility; just as if he were talking to us, as we all do, by ‘second nature’; and we all do so not by thinking pedantically beforehand about what we are about to say; but instead our thoughts and our words are synonymous, synchronous. Beethoven’s massive musical ‘vocabulary’ matches Shakespeare in English language; he seems to be addressing audiences on a discrete topic of his choosing and drawing out its implications and adjunct issues just as if it could have been done by an extremely able wrote the same way but by using words. This sounds fanciful; but its the impression one senses.
There are two great English poets: Shakespeare and Milton. Beethoven compares better with Milton in that he, as is Milton, present in every line/bar he wrote. A strong sense of who this person is who is writing and composing this verse or this music is common to them both. Both noble characters; both strong and even opinionated, but informed, informative, characters; both with matchless genius and both with an urgency, a sense of destiny, and will and desire to pursue their art to the highest heights of expression. And giving all the glory to God