Twilight of the gods: why pop music is so darn corny

5 Deutschmark coin dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn
Five Deutschmark coin dedicated to Berlin composer Felix Mendelssohn. A tribute to German romantic music.

Back to the Future Part I

Imagine taking a trip back in time, 200 years, to be precise, and moving to Berlin. With a bit of patience, suppose you walk unseen into the studio of Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847), whose eclecticism ranged from composing music, conducting, painting, and, not least, administering a concert hall.

You might witness the scene: Mendelssohn paces up and down the room, speaking in a thundering voice to two collaborators, “The audience is demanding new music!” the composer vehemently exclaims while his friends nod their heads. Yes, because amid the Romantic era, whether it seems strange to you or not, people were tired of hearing the same operas repeatedly, and impresarios’ investments risked being dry losses.

At a time when there were no recordings, to hear a symphony, it was necessary to have an orchestra. People were tired. How can you blame them? Who wouldn’t be? “We?” shouts the crowd (ed. I am optimistic about readers), “Certainly,” I would answer without hesitation. If we pick up the 1.21 GW time machine and return to the present, we can do a simple experiment.

Back to the Future Part II

One only needs to open Spotify and Apple Music (Classical) to find that, for example, there are about 630 recordings of Beethoven’s 9th. If we then consider all the unrecorded performances, the number could become so large that it could be said that, from Beethova’s departure to the present, her memory has been honored by “celebrating” a ritual based on her music regularly every week!

It is enough to put together Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, etc., to arrive without much effort at a non-stop that goes on with more than religious regularity. So much for new music! We live in the age of immutability, where theaters and concert halls are more properly museums housing mummies of all shapes and sizes. Of the cemeteries, it is always November 2, and the slurry of prayers rises to the imperishable memory of the totally unknown deceased.

The Trial (without Kafka)

But far be it from me to point fingers indiscriminately! Therefore, I ask myself, “Who are the culprits in this?” The conductors? Indeed, a large cohort of them are dead-tongued cultists who enjoy, like children announcing that for the opening of the musical year, they will be conducting Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and it matters little if those who are going to hear it (at least, a small portion amid a crowd of model gougers who want to parade down the catwalk) know it by heart and, if they want to, can find hundreds of recordings in the comfort of their own homes.

But the fault does not lie solely with the conductors. I am convinced that many of them think just as I do. Then who to center in the crosshairs? Artistic directors? In a sense, the latter might well be candidates for the role of managers, were it not for force majeure reasons that they are forced to obey willy-nilly. If, by chance, it should occur to one of them to open the concert season with Tōru Takemitsu or Arnold Bax, immediately a profit and loss account in the red would materialize before their eyes!

Yes, because if the people of the Romantic period (and beyond) longed for new music, today’s so-called music lovers do not like surprises. They are ready to spend tens of euros to listen again to the symphony of destiny (i.e., Beethoven’s Fifth), but they would think, “Paying for these strangers? Maybe it’s not worth it“. November 2 is welcome; Christmas is always a bit risky, far too much for Puritans.

Rehearsal of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu
Rehearsals of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996).

Revenge is a record that needs to be played fast!

But reality is not consumed in this analysis; on the contrary, it displays a bizarreness that transcends any creative effort. If so-called (mistakenly) “cultured music” is as stagnant as a swamp where mosquitoes feast day and night, its “pop” counterpart lives and reigns in an uninterrupted succession of productions.

Oh yes, because if you thought the desire for new music had disappeared, dear friends, you were only deluding yourself. It is not only alive but is even more fierce than before. It is so fierce that it motivates many musicians to churn out new songs with every blink of an eye. With rocket-to-hydrazine acceleration, “pop” music (a deliberately collective term) has given birth to far more music from 1900 to the present than composed from the late Middle Ages to late Romanticism.

And so, if renowned concert halls continued to honor the dead with heartfelt devotion, stadiums became ecosystems where every form of living species increased with the rhythm of rabbits. “But then the problem is solved!” an incurable optimist might exclaim, and, to me, today it’s my turn to dampen spirits as well. No, the problem is not solved; it has become even more severe.

Gods and minstrels

The reason for my disappointment stems from a simple observation: so-called “pop” music is damned banal! We could also say that he paid for his vitality with whole layers of cerebral cortex. If you get used to listening to Beethoven (to mention the most-played composer ever), pop songs resemble coitus interruptus. They possess all the characteristics: catchy and singable motifs, rhythms marked by the ubiquitous drums, voices whose timbres have finally been unleashed and removed from the yoke of classical lyricism, and? A missed orgasm.

When everything seems ready to explode in a pyrotechnic development, the last refrain marks the premature end of the relationship. To hell with Beethoven and his majestic art of elaboration! All it takes is a singable melody over a harmonic rug (generally so simple that legions of strummers gaudy ape). Why complicate life? Well, I would say that, first of all, it’s because the composers don’t know how to do it! Second, because industrial standardization wants to sell songs like fast-food sandwiches.

Will texts save the world?

“But the lyrics are beautiful!” shouts the ecstatic crowd as if listening to a Schubert Lied. Then again, the bar was not lowered. It’s been taken out of the way! Triviality must have no boundaries: all too simple music must be matched by equally meaningless lyrics.

To no avail was the lesson of Fabrizio De Andrè, who composed dozens and dozens of songs that were all different. “Beautiful!” the crowd shouts, except to dissolve the moment someone should shyly ask what “Canzone del padre” (ed. “Father’s Song”) means. That is a territory where it is better not to set foot, too complicated, hermetic, esoteric, cryptic, crazy, …, you go ahead. Much better was the late Micheal Jackson setting a stadium (and his bank account) ablaze by repeating like a sick, obsessive-compulsive “Annie, are you okay?

I would thunder, “Hell yes! I’m fine, now continue the song!” but this is not part of the social dynamics that hold up the whole scaffolding. As mentioned above, pop music must be mundane; otherwise, one risks an untimely death and the bitter discovery that curators of Egyptian concert hall museums have waiting lists too long to hope for an audition.

Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard featuring lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.
Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard (1874 – 1965) based on lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way, it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.

The trial resumes, the court enters.

But is there a person in charge who can at least help us justify this phenomenon? I think so, but I leave it to my (Manzoni, do not be offended, but I hope more than twenty-five) readers will analyze reality and come to their conclusions. As I have already highlighted in other articles, “cultured” music faced a chasm after the late Romanticism.

With questionable motives, many composers suddenly discovered that poor Debussy was covered in cobwebs and that Stravinsky was just a visionary madman prey to a nostalgia that needed to be treated in an asylum. Yes, it is true that the French composer had experimented with hexatonal scales and was seduced by jazz and ragtime, but how do we forgive the severe fault of still referring to tonality?

In an era marked by unspeakable horrors (the two world wars, the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, the extermination of the Jews, etc.), one soon concluded that if art was to represent reality. Reality is also ugly (how can one deny that?). One could infer that art should be able to “steal” some of the horror of history and make it its own.

Of course, this pseudo-syllogism is all too simple. What does it mean that music must also be able to be ugly? An aesthetically ugly work of art deserves no further analysis. Is this then the meaning pursued by the composers? Certainly not. Without getting into very technical territories, it can be said that if “classical” harmony demanded that dissonances be resolved into consonant chords (i.e., were moments of transient tension), the theorists of the new music extolled the emancipation of dissonance as an entity that does not need to fade into something else.

Yet Bach, a few centuries earlier, Bach had extensively used chromaticism (i.e., notes outside the key) and dissonance (including the infamous tritone – diabolus in music). He certainly had not gone to too much trouble to modulate either gradually (i.e., by following the circle of fifths) or by jumping flatly from one tonality to another (e.g., in the D minor Chaconne of the second violin partita, the middle part begins candidly in D major). So, why so much eagerness to abolish tonality?

Frankly, I don’t know. The only thing sure is that this choice served only to free itself from a cage, whose bars were so broad as to let elephants walk, to lock itself up in a labyrinthine set of techniques that, as the composers’ shyness faded, even came to use combinatorial mathematical techniques, I Ching reading and, who knows, even raffle number draws.

Original Chinese version of I Ching
An original Chinese version of I Ching, a divination book, was used by John Cage (1912 – 1992) to compose his experimental music.

Come on, people, it’s off to experiment!

Not satisfied with an already difficult enough choice to manage, many composers (while the pop music war raged in the East) decided to expand their genius through an idolization of conceptual-intellectualistic music. In Darmstadt, Germany, and at RAI’s phonology studio (ed. RAI is the national Italian Television), there have been high-sounding names (Stockhausen, Berg, Kagel, Nono, Berio, Maderna, etc.) whose notoriety, however, fades day by day, like those posters left at the mercy of sun and rain.

City noises, screaming, hissing, “broken” quartets with musicians forced to play in the cabins of as many helicopters in flight, and a fierce use of all sorts of electronic instruments, from synthesizers to wave generators, etc., made it possible to mold an impressive amount of works whose common characteristic is only one: the public did not like them. I would like, in this regard, to know your opinion.

To make a long story short, “cultured” music has been amputated outright, demanding that fans of Satie and Puccini willingly accept this extraordinary new creativity. But alas, things did not go as planned. Artistic directors, often enthusiastic, once again ran up against the bottom line, discovering (perhaps, reluctantly) that Berio’s sublime sequences were grossing little more than they needed to offer free peanuts at the buvette.

People skinned their hands applauding Beethoven’s 9th for the umpteenth time but were bored listening to experimental music. Ignorance? Insensitivity? I don’t know. What is certain is that aesthetics leaves no survivors. “If I’m going to listen to a synthesizer used poorly to boot, I much prefer the din of pop music!

Of course. The reasoning does not make a wrinkle. Why be masochistic when pop singers can offer a refreshing listen that even an illiterate person understands perfectly? We have, therefore, come to the crux of the matter. Pop music is mundane, without development, based on first-grade harmonic progressions (with exceptions such as jazz, which often exaggerates in the opposite direction). Still, it gives more satisfaction than music that has traded the adjective “cultured” for “mindless.”

The Arabian phoenix in a performance by Friedrich J. Bertuch. Just like the phoenix,
The Arabian phoenix in a depiction by Friedrich J. Bertuch (1747 – 1822). According to mythology, the phoenix could always rise from its ashes.

Can “cultured” music rise from its ashes?

I want to end this article on an optimistic note. I am convinced that it is possible to finally hear contemporary music combining pop’s engaging power with the technical structuring of a Beethoven sonata. But to do so, considerable effort is required, not so much from a compositional point of view, but more importantly from an economic-managerial point of view.

With the same “flamboyance” as Stockhausen & co, it is possible to compose, for example, contemporary versions of Bach’s cantatas. That is, instead of ending a song (the theme of which may also be worthy of praise) after three minutes, a first part can be interspersed with an instrumental interlude based on real elaborations of the themes (again, Beethoven rules), followed perhaps by a small chorale (polyphonic, why not? After all, “We are the world” has been at the top of the worldwide hit parades), and then, perhaps, close, with another song based on a reworking of the opening theme. All of this, of course, is accompanied by meticulously crafted lyrics, not gut-wrenching love nonsense.

In short, contemporary music has all the makings of satisfying the Romantics’ eagerness for novelty by pursuing quality at the expense of quantity. The only “small” problem to be solved is to depower the industrial “assembly line” ideals to revive the more “artisanal” lines of thought that, in their genuineness, preserve the unbreakable seed of true art and are looking for nothing more than good soil where they can plant it to make it grow lushly!

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Beethoven’s mind in the silence of his music

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of watching a documentary on Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (whom, from now on, I will call ABM, as was customary in his day), a pianist so shy that he granted only a couple of brief interviews throughout his life. As a result, the documentary had been constructed based more on the testimonies of friends and former students than on the living voice of the teacher.

Foto di Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (ABM) at the piano
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at the piano

While discussing ABM’s style, an acquaintance reported ABM’s brief statement about studying new compositions. The content was more or less: “Before I play a new Beethoven sonata in public, I need at least six months because first I have to understand what the composer meant by that music.” Indeed, it is a bizarre statement, considering ABM’s talent and extraordinary technical ability.

However, I am interested in analyzing only one part of the statement, specifically when he states, “…what the composer meant.” Although it might seem unnecessary to discuss, the concept implied in such words is quite insidious for both musicology and the philosophy of music. Indeed, several questions arise, the answers far from trivial.

First, clarifying a possible interpretation I believe is wrong is good. That is, ABM meant that he needed a lot of time to understand and interpret the musical material in the best possible way. The reason I discard that assumption is precisely related to the figure of ABM. A pianist of his rank and experience would take a technical and stylistic study for granted before a performance and would hardly use the verb “say.” Perhaps he could point out the interpretive difficulties, the somewhat risky choices, and the wanting or not wanting to respect the cultural-historical context that saw the birth of that score. Still, it would make no sense to emphasize the need to understand what ultimately takes the form of a real message.

So we can move to the second question: is it possible to understand what Beethoven wanted to “say” with his music? To try to answer this, it is good to make a premise. A composition of music that is not entirely absolute may contain semantic elements of a linguistic nature, such as a title or dedication. Such information should, in principle, open the door to more informed interpretation.

For example, not everyone knows that Symphony No. 5 has been subtitled as “symphony of fate”; on the contrary, most people know its main motif, Sol-Sol-Mi bem. Thanks to the information in the subtitle, one concluded that that “tolling” so mighty was nothing more than the sound of fate “knocking at the door” of one’s life. In the various movements, Beethoven reuses those four notes in different tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic contexts to underscore an existential journey that starts from the initial disturbing surprise and moves from rebellion and struggle to a state of quiet acceptance (a condition very dear to the composer, who often went out of his way to emphasize the need to pursue the path of joy and serenity).

What is stated, while likely, remains arbitrary, lacking information to test the hypotheses. However, living in an inter-subjective reality based on conventionality, we can take it for granted that Beethoven’s will obeyed the same logical rules that we commonly apply as well and, therefore, that our interpretation is most likely correct (from an objective point of view-since, in the purely subjective sphere, it could be replaced by more imaginative mental processing of the musical material).

But if this reasoning was possible because of the subtitle, what could we say about the sonatas without it? In addition, when any linguistic denotation has a vague character (e.g., “Pastorale” or “Eroica” symphonies always by Beethoven), can we understand the “narrative” intentions in the composer’s mind? The “Pastorale” symphony must evoke a succession of rural scenery, perhaps elicit images of meadows, vegetation, ponds, streams, free-roaming animals, and so on, but what else could it possibly say?

It is now musicologically accepted that music is asemantic. And when you want to denote it as language, you always refer to the emotions aroused, certainly not to philosophical disquisitions or the meticulous description of a field of poppies with a few trees and a couple of horses quietly trotting along. Thus, can we infer that ABM implicitly referred to the emotions Beethoven wished to arouse in listeners?

A bucolic landscape, like those that inspired Beethoven as he wrote his Pastoral symphonyThis possibility is likely but opens the door to an additional problem. Suppose music is inherently capable of arousing emotions. In that case, if the production of the sounds recorded on the score is sufficient to trigger particular emotional reactions, why would one take six months to figure out what the composer wanted to “say”? In other words, if I say “the pen is on the table,” the process of signification based on knowledge of the Italian language (and, of course, of ordinary reality) should not need too much elucubration to reach comprehension.

Conversely, if I were to say “the pen tears oil,” I would be making use of poetic language based on metaphors and other rhetorical figures that might not allow one to arrive at either an unambiguous meaning or even activate an “instant” if not purely literal (and thus, often, meaningless) signification. But this scenario is incompatible with music, as it is firmly based on complex semantics and the descriptive possibility of a reality that not only can denote the smallest details but is also capable of producing abstractions that can be reused in other contexts through metaphors and metonyms.

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that music falls into the “immediate” communicative forms, whose effects, while remaining partially subjective, do not need to serve complex decoding to manifest themselves in their essence. For example, a piece in C minor, with a slow tempo, long notes, dynamics tending toward piano, etc., most likely will not need the subtitle “Funeral March” to arouse a sense of melancholy in the listener. If anything, linguistic information allows one to anticipate what one will hear and, perhaps, be surprised if, at some point, the composer modulates to a major key and switches to a tight rhythm with rapid ascending and crescendo passages. In that case, just like ABM, it would be expected to wonder what was going through the composer’s head!

But while asking this question, can music provide a satisfactory answer? If we were in the presence of a Bach cantata, where first the sorrow of death is described (with tonally minor music and melancholy chants) and then, also suddenly, a Corale in a major key begins with sopranos chanting “Hallelujah,” our surprise would be limited. On the other hand, we know the Gospel story, and we know that Bach, however imaginative and original, would never have taken the trouble to mock death with a brilliant jig and then assign the basses the resurrection hymn while the horns and basso continuo mumble a counterpoint with mournful, compassed features.

But all this is possible by the presence of a text, a linguistic narrative of a story. Music, willingly or unwillingly, will necessarily have to subordinate itself to the semantically dominant elements unless it renounces all structured (albeit asemantic) communicative aspirations altogether and takes refuge, for example, in dodecaphony to give rise to an autonomous and, in many ways, deliberately incapable of communicating by following conventional paths.

Going back to the original question, is it reasonable to assume that ABM wished to penetrate Beethoven’s mind almost like a psychic in front of an old portrait? It is much more reasonable to assume that he, instead, wanted to find some form of “resonance” between his feelings and what he projected in his mental image of a conflicted composer, perpetually striving for happiness but continually thwarted by life events (not least, his early deafness).

After all, isn’t that precisely the job of an interpreter? Wasn’t ABM to continue the creative process started by Beethoven by having his music unfold in the present time? If one accepts this hypothesis, “trying to understand what he meant” results in a process of internalization that does not claim semantic extension. At the same time, while accepting the immediacy of musical perception, he is not content to reproduce the notes as they are printed on the score but, on the contrary, wishes to become a composer himself to “color” with his palette those feelings and affections that music (even reproduced by a synthesizer) should normally arouse.

In this way, not only the formal elements (i.e., time, tone, rhythm, etc.) that define the contours of the “message” but also those nuances that, like the patina that forms on bronze, have the gift of uniqueness. But such uniqueness cannot result from an improvised performance. On the contrary, it needs a reading that takes license to “make music say” what music does not and never will say. Only in this way can the work of musical art be kept alive and given back to the audience of any age: not by playing, but rather, by creating at a given moment in history what has already been, definitely but never wholly, created at any time in the past.

Photos by David Tip

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