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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Poetic punctuation: music and Ungaretti’s hermeticism

“It is my heart
the most torn country.” (G. Ungaretti)

Why is it unimaginable to have music without time indications (time statement, note duration, pauses, etc.)? Even the most bizarre avant-gardes and experiments have always (and rightly, I would say) used all that information necessary to determine the rhythm, dynamics, and sometimes even the timbre of individual notes or entire chords.

A picture of a musical score. The information of tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony form an inseparable whole in music
An example of a musical score. The information on tempo, rhythm, melody harmony, etc. They form an inseparable whole.

In principle (incorrect – with good grace from Hanslick), the “semantic” content of music is expressed primarily by the pitch of the notes and their succession, so anyone equipped with a decoding system should be able to access the meaning of a musical production simply by evaluating the sequence of frequencies the composer intended to represent.

Before discussing the obvious reasons why this assumption is trivially unacceptable, I would like to make a kind of counter-example to support this thesis. If we take, for example, the Prelude from Bach’s Partita for Violin/Lute Suite BWV 1006(a), we immediately notice that, apart from a couple of opening bars and a couple of closing bars, the entire composition, in ¾ ternary rhythm, is based on bars composed of three groups of four semiquavers.

In practice, the “formal” rhythm (not the interpretive rhythm-which, even though it is a Baroque composition, always possesses a certain freedom) is “flat”: the interpreter, on first readings, can proceed without thinking all that much. The metronome beats a monotonous rhythm, and with each beat, a note corresponds. In this case, by necessity, the only factual information (strictly speaking) is provided solely by the pitches of the sounds (and a few rare dynamic indications). Something similar, but opposite, is the experiment of the symphonic poem for 100 metronomes by G. Ligeti (1923 – 2006).

Music is inconceivable outside of an ad hoc syntactic context.

Of course, this argument is entirely fallacious for several reasons. The first is obvious: complete information must, by necessity, consider all the elements given in the score. Tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and, of course, all sorts of interpretive indications (e.g., cantabile, with emphasis, sforzando, etc.) form an inseparable whole, which alone deserves the appellation “musical composition.” Removing one or more of these elements can only result in an unacceptable alteration that often makes execution impossible.

The second reason, which is more philosophical and speculative, is that music (as well as poetry and fiction) does not exist in “pure space” (unless one considers the vibrational effect static-a condition feasible in mathematics, certainly not in nature) but instead in a dimension that is perceptually referred to as “time” (or, instead, in the conjunction of space and time). In the Italian essay “Il dispiegarsi del tempo psicologico” (ed. “The Unfolding of Psychological Time”) written a few years ago, I tried to evaluate a hypothesis of why humans “feel” the flow of time. Still, here I prefer to refer to the philosophical hypothesis theorized by P.D. Ouspensky (1878 – 1947) in his famous book “Tertium Organum.”

In this sense, time is the effect of a limitation of man’s phenomenal perceptual apparatus, which, restricted by three-dimensional space, is forced to “dilute” the fourth dimension into a sequence of three-dimensional blocks. Any phenomenon, whose noumenon thus transcends the stasis of a materialistic perception, must necessarily also develop in time and, in that process, expand its boundaries to a place where efforts make us glimpse something but never quite grasp it.

Time, expressed in a graphical, structured form, is therefore “sine qua non” not only of musical interpretation (the semantics of which rests its proper foundations on the articulation of frequency sequences- time for all intents and purposes) but also of all forms of communication where the goal extends beyond the mere transmission of information functional to the phenomenal sphere alone.

Theoretical construction of a hypercube
Theoretical construction of a hypercube (or Tesseract if in 4D). Human beings have a perceptual apparatus that cannot “see” beyond the third dimension. However, mathematics can deal with multidimensional spaces (even with infinite dimensions) without any problem.

Poetry, like music, pushes its targets toward the conscious perception of noumena hidden in seemingly illogical, unstructured, and sometimes even difficult-to-understand forms of expression. Listing in succession the words that make up the lines of a lyric (as, at the limit, one might do with prose) without any line breaks or punctuation marks amounts to all intents and purposes to the dimensional flattening of the composition, with the obvious consequence of “lowering” the “target” level, from the human that transcends to the infinite, to that of creatures limited to a two-dimensional knowledge that, at most, can let one imagine solid forms just as humans think of hyperspaces (of four or more dimensions).

Poetic punctuation as a semantic vehicle

This dutiful premise, however long, is indispensable to clarify the metaphysical role that punctuation plays in the poetic sphere, with a particular emphasis on the figure of Ungaretti (1888 – 1970): grammar and syntax can be assimilated into pure space that, through chromatic and structural elaboration, allows the fruition of the first three dimensions to be saturated, while the role of punctuation marks becomes the only tool capable of encoding time as an actual fourth dimension.

Suppose in prose, for example, the separation between subject and predicate made with a comma is considered an error in poetry. In that case, it can only leave an enormous space for interpreting the relationship between the subject and the action–physical or immaterial–being performed. The forced pause becomes an instrument of emphasis. In this imaginary place, the reader can place the expansion of his or her own emotions, concreating the meaning that the poet himself or herself has “dispersed” between the meshes of his or her verses.

Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti
Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888 – 1970), the leading Italian exponent of poetic hermeticism.

Then again, even the use of different lines is aimed at often creating a disconnect between two components whose “liaison” can only be found in pure transcendence to a dimension phenomenally precluded to us. To fully understand this aspect of poetic creation, one only needs to read one of Ungaretti’s most famous and hermetic poems, “Mattina” (ed. “Morning”). For an anthology based on the poet’s most important poetry works, I recommend the book “Selected Poems“):

I illuminate me
of immensity.

The first verse is itself self-sufficient: the subject (which is and is not Ungaretti himself) implicitly declares himself and affirms his tendency to expand his perception through a process of “illumination”; moreover, the latter reality implies an object “standard,” light, the acquisition of which is precisely called “illumination.” But the poet does not wish to communicate only one of his perceptions: he wants the reader to begin to experience the effect of light on himself and thus prepare himself to understand the symbolism hidden in this concept: the immensity, the infinity, the unboundedness noumeni That only light, with its ephemeral elusiveness, can represent.

The separation in verse, therefore, “expands” the scope of action, transforming a delightful but unnecessarily devoid of concreteness phrase (“I shine brightly“) into a springboard that opens the doors of perception and lets the ego fully empathize with the light, pervasive and indestructible, before “exploding” into immensity, just like the”Ain” Kabbalistic ” (a concept assimilated to nothingness) became “Ain Sof” (i.e., the end of nothingness), transforming potentiality into the beginning of the whole creation.

Similar considerations are possible for another hermetic masterpiece by Ungaretti, the poem “Soldati” (ed. “Soldiers”)

We are as
leaves
in Autumn
on the trees

Again, the only non-linguistic information is the verse division. However, in what seems a trivial subdivision lies the more profound and poignant nature of Ungaretti’s poetry. The semantic content could remain unchanged if the lines were concatenated into a sentence, but the poet does not wish to write an aphorism. The incipit “It is like” strongly implies an existential condition of forced stasis. The impersonality, coupled with the use of the preposition “as,” creates determines a clear semantic context, a stark opening to a scenario where men, like puppets forced into unnatural positions, “stand” without even attempting to rebel (an act that would certainly be in vain).

The other verses show the same poignancy and even manage, with a very apt “rhythmic” choice, to place all the emphasis now on one aspect and, immediately after, on another, creating an interconnection where the individual elements yield nothing to the context, but contribute to its structuring without distorting themselves in any way. The second verse (“in autumn”) is similar to an isolated chord that hovers in the air and remains suspended, just like an autumn landscape portrayed by an impressionist painter.

Ungaretti weighs every word, every tiny fragment capable of carrying meaning. In this case, “in autumn” is not a simple temporal statement; on the contrary, the poet strongly wishes to emphasize that on par with the being of the first verse, there is also a mode that burdens the condition of passivity. Fall is a terminal season, but it can still make people reflect, turn their backs, and see summer with its joyous squeals. It isn’t kind because it condemns yes to stasis but simultaneously to full awareness.

The last two verses crown the descriptive effort of the first two. Musically speaking, they are like a cadence: after tension, they bring harmony back to a fundamental state. What is precariously static is precisely the leaf, “birthed” by the mother tree, which, after an entire existence spent clinging to the parent with an “umbilical cord” that was never severed, discovers the stark truth. Autumn will bring weaning, separation, and death. Forced into immobility, just like the puppets hiding in the trenches, moved only by the whims of the wind, the leaf slowly withers, yields its green to golden streaks, and increasingly feels the scourge of the air.

Without “punctuation,” Ungaretti marks boundaries to create syntactic and semantic textures. He crosses the boundary of pure formality to a place where academic rules decay to give way to pure perception that cannot be tamed. In that ethereal space, which, at the same time, is so grave and material, he draws with individual linguistic fragments whole landscapes of the soul. He overcomes the barriers of maximalist descriptivism with unparalleled elegance. He manages to create true poetic punctuation precisely through its absence, for, as the great musical performers teach us, it is not the value of a note that determines its genesis and death but the depth of its essence, its uniqueness, and its appearance in a specific space and time.

War in the poetry of Ungaretti

Ungaretti’s poetry constitutes a poignant testimony to the overwhelming impact of war on the human psyche. As a soldier, he experienced firsthand the horrors and brutality of the trenches during World War I. However, his poetic compositions go beyond the simple description of the battlefield; they delve into his emotions and existential condition as a soldier.

In his poetry, Ungaretti masterfully transposes the chaos and anguish of war into vivid images and profound metaphors. Through concise and fragmented verse, he captures life’s fleeting and fragmented nature on the front lines. His words evoke a sense of immediacy and urgency, providing insight into the raw emotions experienced by soldiers.

Italian army troops in a trench during World War I. Ungaretti's poetry was a companion even in those terrible moments.
Italian army troops in a trench during World War I.

Ungaretti’s ability to express the fragility of life in the ruthless context of war is truly remarkable. It explores themes of loss, grief, and despair, reflecting the collective suffering of those caught in the crossfire. His poems become a cathartic release, a way to process his own experiences by giving voice to the countless soldiers who have endured similar hardships.

Through Ungaretti’s unique poetic style, he effectively conveys the human condition in the context of war. His verses bridge the personal and the universal, transcending language barriers and finding resonance among readers from all walks of life. Ungaretti’s poem serves as a powerful reminder of the lasting impact that war has on individuals and society.


Considerations on the concepts of Ain and Ain Soft in the Kabbalah

The concept of “Ain” is Kabbalistic and has significant philosophical implications within Jewish Kabbalah. “Ain” refers to nothingness or nonbeing, representing absolute divine transcendence. It denotes the initial stage of creation in which God’s existence is hidden and incomprehensible to human understanding.

Going beyond “Ain,” the Kabbalah introduces the concept of “Ain Sof,” which means “endless” or “infinite.” This term indicates the infinite nature of God, which encompasses all existence and transcends all limitations. “Ain Sof” represents the divine essence and is the ultimate source of all creation.

The philosophical implications of these concepts are profound. “Ain” emphasizes the metaphysical nature of God, challenging the human intellect to grasp the incomprehensible essence of the divine. It encourages Kabbalah seekers to transcend the physical world’s limits and delve into the depths of spirituality.

Fragment of a Kabbalistic Text
Fragment of a 16th-century Kabbalistic text.

The concept of “Ain Sof” reveals the infinite nature of God, suggesting that every aspect of creation is an expression of the divine. It inspires individuals to recognize the interconnectedness of all things and the divine spark within each being. From this perspective, Kabbalah encourages pursuing spiritual growth and realizing one’s inner divinity.

By exploring the concepts of “Ain” and “Ain Sof” within Jewish Kabbalah, individuals gain insights into the nature of God, the universe, and their spiritual journey. It opens the door to mystical experiences, profound wisdom, and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all existence. Through study and contemplation, one can discover these Kabbalistic concepts’ hidden truths and philosophical implications. For more information and philosophical-theological details on Jewish Kabbalah, I recommend the book “On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism” by G. Scholem.


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Music and poetry: the wedding that has been celebrated countless times

Pragmatics of Human Communication, a fundamental text also addressing the problem of the relationship between poetry and musicWith this article, I wish to begin a reasoned discussion on the existing rapport between music and poetry, asking all the relevant questions and trying to proceed with a logical approach supported by universally recognized theories. The first step I want to take is based on the fundamental concepts of the “Pragmatics of Human Communication” inaugurated by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues in the Palo Alto (California) school and aimed primarily at defining the theoretical and operational cornerstones of systemic-relational psychology.

However, for our purposes, this last element is of little relevance. What matters most is human communication’s basic properties (or principles). To compare music and poetry, one must first start from a common ground to avoid affirmations that may be valid in one case and utterly inappropriate in the other. The first and most important question could be expressed in this way: is it possible to compare these two arts on the level of communication?

Pragmatics of human communication

The first principle of the pragmatics of human communication unequivocally states that one can’t not communicate. In other words, any form of expression directed to a human audience is always a form of communication (including silence), that is, a message transfer from a source to a destination. The problem may arise when we apply the concepts of semiotics and start looking for signifiers and meanings when evaluating whether a particular form of communication is assimilated into a language.

According to musicological and philosophical research (e.g., Peter Kivy’s research published in the delightful book “Introduction to a Philosophy of Music“), music can be defined as a kind of language endowed with a rigorous syntax but, at the same time, utterly devoid of semantics. Music can arouse emotions, but fails to convey timely (or even inaccurate) information about concepts. I fully share this view, which is difficult to counter in the case of absolute music (i.e., devoid of any form of text).

An orchestra engaged in playing the intended music
An orchestra engaged in playing the music described by the scores

A hypothetical “Symphony No. 7 in F minor” is undoubtedly a form of communication (what isn’t?) and indeed can be counted among the most complex expressions of communication itself. Still, it can never express an elementary concept such as “Today is Sunday, it’s sunny, and I wish to take a walk in the park and stop to eat at a little kiosk by the lake.”

What is the message conveyed by the music?

At most, the symphony’s movements may reflect the message’s psychological phases: calmness, serenity, natural sounds, etc. But this in no way guarantees the “success” of the process. Some might perceive calmness, yes, but liken it to a dreamlike “mindscape,” more suited to dreaming than to waking (i.e., the exact opposite of the verbal message). Others might intend natural sounds, imitations subservient to melody, etc.

On the other hand, poetry is based on descriptive natural language par excellence. A verse can be simple, cryptic, metaphorical, dialogic, etc., but, in any case, it expresses something precise despite the possible difficulty of signification. At this point, however, it is essential to clarify. After reading the first part of this paragraph, some people may have turned up their noses, thinking, “How can we talk about precision in the case of poetic expression?”

Collection of magnets represented the hypothetical words of a poem
A collection of magnets represented the hypothetical words of a poem.

If we compare the different forms of linguistic communication, poetry is much less accurate than narrative. Saying “the house is white” is not equivalent to spouting the line “a deafening silence.” In the first case, the determination is precise and leaves no room for interpretation. It could also be expressed by saying, “The object called home emits light with a wavelength of 520 nm,” but what about the second message?

The poetic message

It is based on a rhetorical figure (the oxymoron) contrasting two antithetical concepts. From a physical point of view, if one is inside an anechoic chamber and the noise level is negligible (i.e., there is almost absolute silence), the conditions do not exist for any living being to become deaf from excess sound pressure. So, interpretation must go through an intermediate stage concerned with reassigning meanings according to a non-natural principle. In this case, the idea of something “deafening” must override elemental signification to transcend into a more “fluid” state, in which the annoyance of constant din is transposed to a diametrically opposite realm. The poem, then, wants to tell us that absolute silence haunts the poet like the most annoying noise.

For our purposes, however, we must narrow the field and analyze only the poetry-music pair, disregarding other forms of expression. This should not have any negative impact on the validity of the treatment. So, we can finally ask: are poetry and music somehow related? It is well known how adjectives belonging to one sphere are often used in the other. It is not uncommon to hear talk of “musicality of the poetic text, rhythm of the verses” and, at the same time, “elegiac musical composition” or “motif with poetic traits.” Such contaminations are always welcome as they help the artist expand the boundaries of the work, transcending into a creative field of ever-widening limits.

Violin with sheet music. Information on sheet music often has the linguistic characteristics of the poetic world
Violin with scores. Sheet music information often has the linguistic characteristics of the poetic world.

To better qualify our problem, it is necessary to resort to another fundamental aspect of the pragmatics of human communication: the relationship between analog messages and digital messages. According to Watlzawick and co.’s theory, a communication object can come in two very different, in fact opposite, content forms.

Analog and digital messages

Similar to electronic signals, a digital message is based on precise, ideally determined content. Our example, “The House is white,” is a perfect candidate to be a digital message if there is no doubt about what house is being discussed. In addition, the concept of “white” is a literary way of expressing information of a physical nature (to be exact, a color such as “green” is not perfectly assimilable to digital information since, physically, “green” is defined as any electromagnetic wave with a wavelength between 500 and 565 nm – however, human language implicitly refers to precisely that range and not, for example, to 522 nm green).

When related to music, poetry, therefore, appears strongly digital. The verse “deafening silence” also “precisely” expresses a condition (silence) and its abstract property (being deafening). It matters little if signification requires more effort than decoding a newspaper article. For our purposes, the information is “exact” because it leaves (too much, to be exact) no room for free interpretation.

Music as an analog message contrasted with the digitality of poetry

In contrast, a musical motif or an entire composition of absolute music appears inherently “fuzzy.” The poetic expression “strolling through the woods” in music results from a subjective mental process that might try to imitate the sounds of nature, but in any case, would always end up leaving something “hanging.” In other words, without any indication (e.g., Sinfonia Pastorale or Le Sacre du Printemps), the listener is not “forced” to understand at least the composer’s basic ideas.

Returning to the line “deafening silence,” one might disagree with the poet, consider the oxymoron inappropriate, etc.. Still, one cannot fail to receive it accurately (for the dual reason that one cannot fail to communicate and that the message is contextually digital). On the contrary, it is expected to read musicological texts where critics express their opinions about what might have gone through the composer’s mind. Depending on the scope of work, the conjectures could probably be accurate, but there is nothing to confirm these assumptions. We are in the domain of analog messages.

Performance of an opera, one of the most fruitful works of musical communication
Opera: for some centuries, the perfect marriage of music and poetry

The synthesis: the marriage of music and poetry

We have thus reached the point where poetry and music seem to be opposites of the same communicative project. Both primarily aim to excite the audience’s emotional response, but the tools are very different and, in a sense, complementary. Indeed, opera has for centuries been the crowning achievement of a joint effort (alas, much more focused on music than on poetic quality). The digital messages of the verses were accompanied by as many analog messages, and the whole (no longer the sum of the parts) created an atmosphere in which the music’s rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elements amplified the power of intelligibility.

This concept was perfectly understood by Bach, who, in his Cantatas serving the Lutheran Sunday liturgies, successfully marked the theological value of many Gospel concepts through skillful use of polyphony (both vocal and instrumental) and harmonic/contrapuntal variations. The “journey” continued in the following centuries, even as the debate on absolute music became a recurring theme (primarily thanks to Hanslick and his indispensable essay “On the Musically Beautiful“). The last genuinely great theorist of this “synthetical” relationship was certainly Wagner, with his ideas of total artwork. An opera where the parts are not elements to be assembled (as was often the case in the relationships between composers and librettists) but vital organs whose coexistence makes one indispensable to the other and vice versa.

Wagner succeeded in creating a hybridization of poetry and music (he was the author of both). The characters entered the scene to send digital messages, but his music, through the skillful use of leitmotif, “imitated” the words and even the images. Even before the appearance of a singer, the announcement of a leitmotif indicated his or her imminent appearance, as if an annunciator was sending a digital indication to the audience. A leitmotif cannot provide precise semantic details except in the context of a work in which the poetic text has already done the “preliminary” work.

However, suppose such a relationship is primarily established. In that case, the debate between music and poetry, as indicated in Hegel’s philosophy, comes to a synthesis in which the two components are no longer opposed or complementary but fused into a single act that draws nourishment and life from the peculiar characteristics of each artistic form. Of course, the reader may object that opera is a “busy” genre that no longer finds a strong response from the public. This is undoubtedly true; other forms of combining poetry and music have always existed; indeed, we might say that singing (often accompanied) originated before absolute music, and even composers such as Schubert (1797 – 1828) and Mahler (1860 – 1911) devoted their energies to the Lieder (likened to modern more committed songs).

For these reasons, I propose to return to the subject by referring to the modern and contemporary evolution of the relationship between music and poetry, the various forms, and the most fruitful experiments, which have enabled us to enjoy remarkable artistic results suited to the most diverse atmospheres (musical, social and literary) and contemporary sounds, from jazz to rock, blues to traditional music.

Addendum: the Palo Alto school of psychology.

The Palo Alto school has significantly contributed to our understanding of human communication and relational dynamics in psychology. This research, led by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues, revolutionized how we perceive and analyze interpersonal interactions.

Palo Alto’s psychological research greatly emphasizes the role of communication in shaping human relationships. One of the central concepts is the idea that communication is not only about exchanging information but also about creating meaning. According to this perspective, communication is a dynamic process involving both verbal and nonverbal signals and the interpretation of those signals by the individuals involved.

Paul Watzlawick, co-founder of the Palo Alto school of psychology and co-author of Pragmatics of Human Communication
Paul Watzlawick (1921 – 2007)

Relational psychology, another key focus of Palo Alto research, explores how relationships between individuals develop and function. Emphasizes the interdependence and mutual influence among individuals, highlighting the importance of context and power dynamics within relationships. This approach recognizes that relationships are not static but constantly evolving, shaped by communication patterns, shared experiences, and perceptions of each person involved.

In addition, Palo Alto psychologists stress the importance of feedback loops in communication and relationships. They argue that individuals engage in a continuous feedback process in which their behavior and responses influence others. This feedback loop can lead to constructive or destructive communication and relational dynamics patterns.

By understanding the main concepts of Palo Alto psychological research, particularly in communication and relational psychology, we gain valuable insights into the complexity of human interactions. This knowledge can help us improve our communication skills, foster healthier relationships, and navigate the complexities of social dynamics with greater sensitivity and understanding.


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Schoenberg on piano, Keith Richards on guitar

Arnold SchonbergBefore I begin, I would like to clarify. I admire Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951), have listened several times to his expressionist and twelve-tone compositions, and have read his books (I consider his Treatise on Harmony a cornerstone of modern music theory). Thus, this is not meant to be an article critical of him but rather a discussion in which Schönberg represents not a musician but the forerunner of a way of conceiving music in sharp contrast to earlier composers.

Paris hosted three grand universal expositions in 1878, 1889, and 1900 (to mention only our interest years). In addition to allowing visitors from all over the world to be welcomed, these have made it possible to “import” many foreign and quite distant elements from European culture. Persian, Asian, and American musical cultures especially made their triumphant entry into a Europe dominated by Romanticism, with the absolute dominance of the piano and its sounds.

Music, until then, almost wholly confined to specific territories, became “globalized” and was, therefore, a candidate for appreciation by a new audience, perhaps a bit conservative but still open to new experiences. As evidence, one only needs to consider the Sino-Japanese influence on furnishings and decorative objects. What was taking place was a veritable muted revolution, whose guerrillas were the same Europeans who, without blowback, were beginning to observe exotics with an increasingly less critical and increasingly interested eye.

The African American culture that, in the cotton fields of Alabama or Mississippi and, above all, in New Orleans, Lousiana, had given birth to the blues, and the jazz began to spread like wildfire in an area where tonal music was firmly anchored in diatonic scales and, only timidly, for example, with Debussy, began to explore the potential of hexatonic scales and colors typical of distant cultures. Without much ado, we can say that they liked this new, less formal music very much.

On the other hand, European music had also “colonized” America and found fertile ground, thanks to extensive subsidies from impresarios. But in that sense, Americans harbored an unsurpassed pride while intensely appreciating European classical and romantic works. In particular, jazz, the child of a culture forged by abuse and segregation, sought revenge that did not distort original ideas but elevated them as Europeans had done with Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, etc.

The existence of two opposing tensions: the first centripetal, on the part of “pure” jazz musicians, and the second centrifugal, on the part of fruitions alien to that culture, soon resulted in a dual outcome. Jazz slowly conquered the most coveted stages (first and foremost, Carnegie Hall). At the same time, Europe began to demand more and more new, less “canonical,” and, ultimately, more straightforward music to enjoy (this does not imply that, for example, jazz harmony is simple. Indeed, it is incredibly complicated, but the final results and sounds do not “strain” the ear as much as was commonly demanded by European composers).

You probably wonder why I brought up Schönberg, who worked diligently as a learned composer. The answer (at least, for what I think and argue) is that he, unaware of a revolution, decided to take the painful path of change, perhaps hoping to represent his time through music better. It must be said that his considerations, expressed, for example, in his letters to his friend Kandinsky, are legitimate, and no one could argue that his efforts were vague.

On the contrary, Schoenberg knew perfectly well that what he wished to pursue was logically grounded. Still, what he overlooked (or perhaps underestimated) was that, while atonality and all considerations of the revaluation of dissonances fed a piece of increasingly intellectualistic music, the public had by then accustomed its ears to a very different way of making music. Absolute music was to be more suitable for entertainment and less and less pretentious, and songs, the uncontested queens of twentieth-century stages, for their part, were to overcome the timbral static nature of opera and concentrate a variety of meanings and chromatic nuances in a small space.

Little (in my opinion) was worth the efforts to reevaluate the Lieder by great composers (e.g., Mahler and Schönberg himself) when overseas, the most timbrically disparate voices elicited new emotions. Therefore, I think works like the Pierrot Luinaire, rather than revolutionary, appeared utterly inadequate. The demand for composers had become even more significant than that of the Romantics and Classics. If the latter respected the tonal culture to which the public was accustomed, Schoenberg’s school began to demand an increasing intellectualism.

Listening to Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with the same ear as listening to Shostakovich or Gershwin was impossible. And if Stravinsky went through countless vicissitudes because of his neo-classicism, he at least could not be accused of wanting to demand what the audience did not wish to grant at all. In my opinion, the heart of the matter is hidden in this very point: all atonal, serial, random experimentation, etc., that followed started from the assumption that music could and should follow the same path as, for example, painting.

man in black pants sitting on chairWhy could Picasso, Dali, Magritte, Pollock, Rotko, etc., exhibit and attract oceanic crowds, including several millionaires ready to pay a fortune to grab one of their canvases? At the same time, did music have to continue to follow the style of Michelangelo or Caravaggio? Because Duchamp could have the audacity to display a signed urinal, and Webern, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio, Maderna, Sciarrino, etc., cannot claim the same, right?

The issue is very subtle, and I promise to explore it in future articles, but what can be said is that music is not painting. In the banality of this statement lies the most incontrovertible truth. Suppose figurative art has the primary purpose of decorating (also expressing countless meanings, but always only after fulfilling its primary function). In that case, music is more difficult to convince when the sound impact can no longer arouse anything.

The pretense of expressing ideological meanings and concepts using only absolute music (without lyrics) is doomed to continual failure. Experimental compositions based on synthesizers and other purpose-built contraptions showed no revolutionary insights. While Stockhausen was doing this, hundreds of musicians, pop, rock, etc., used the same (or similar, such as electric guitar with filter chains) instruments to produce music that ignited spirits.

I don’t mean to sound irreverent or trite. Still, while Beethoven was igniting audiences in the early 1800s with the straightforward opening of the Fifth Symphony, a century and a half later, Deep Purple was sending a stadium into a frenzy with the equally simple opening notes of Smoke on the Water! To deny it makes little sense, and to try to find shelter in the search for an elite who goes into ecstasy while listening to a Berio sequence or a Sciarrino composition is to have openly declared that the battle has been lost.

Music must pursue the idea of wholeness, and it cannot do so if it fails to comprehend the needs and wants of the wider audience. Of course, this does not detract from the fact that individual composers are free to express themselves as they wish, eliminating tonality, using matrices and other mathematical methods, or, like John Cage, using I Ching to receive “suggestions from the transcendent world.” The trouble, however, remains, and if these compositions slip inexorably into oblivion (while, for example, Morricone’s music is played all over the world), one should not blame an uncultured society but perhaps only a language that, even when taught, does not appeal.


Brief musicological note

Arnold Schönberg was a composer known for his innovation and revolutionary contributions to the music world. He pioneered atonality and serialism, which completely transformed the traditional tonal system. Schönberg believed that music should be free from the constraints of tonality and sought to create a new artistic approach that reflected the complexities and dissonances of the modern world.

One of Schoenberg’s main ideas was the concept of emancipating dissonance. He argued that dissonant sounds were not inherently unpleasant and could be used to evoke a wide range of emotions. By liberating dissonance from its traditional role as a source of tension and resolution, Schönberg aimed to create a more expressive and emotionally charged musical language.

Incipit of A. Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra Op. 31, perhaps the composer's most important twelve-tone work
Incipit of A. Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31 is perhaps the composer’s most crucial twelve-tone work.

In his theoretical research, Schönberg developed the twelve-tone technique, serialism. This approach organized all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale into a row or series, which served as the basis for composition. Using the twelve-tone technique, Schönberg aimed to create a sense of equality among all pitches and eliminate the hierarchy of tones.

Schönberg’s ideas and theoretical research were met with both admiration and controversy. While some composers and musicians embraced his innovative ideas, others criticized his departure from traditional tonality. Regardless, Schönberg’s influence on music cannot be overstated. His search for a new artistic approach paved the way for future composers to explore new possibilities and expand the boundaries of musical expression.


References

An exciting book that I suggest to all music lovers is Isacoff S. Musical Revolutions: How the Sounds of the Western World Changed, Knopf, 2022


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In Praise of Silence

woman in brown topYou speak. Nevertheless, those lips vibrate like the beating of a gnat’s wings. Speak. You speak when the sun screams, or the rain whiningly whispers its song. In the cracks in the wall, the slowly advancing snail, the dust shading the balcony railing.

Perhaps you find your outlet at night, but what prize can be given to an eternal winner? Is it not like that lemon tree still hanging on the old branch? Isn’t that your voice? Thunderous as the roar of the void, insistent as the had that never stops telling lives?

And what words can reach the poet’s pen to draw a picture of your eloquence? Perhaps one should follow the pirouettes of smoke rising from the coffee cup. Perhaps one should bathe in the glare of an undecided tear. Was the man crying? Or was it the harassing pollen masquerading as an indistinguishable Pierrot?

Speak. Despite everything, you speak. Even when no one wants to listen to you, the illusion you give is lovely. Like May air, you make love to every creature, but the limelight is never yours. Speak. And, in your speaking, you give life silence.


 

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Important but damn dull

What’s your dream job?

person standing on rock formation near mountains under white clouds during daytimeIf you think I should write a short list like “dentist,” “taxi driver,” or “director of a panda nursery,” I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I have no alternatives.

I used to have several affine job positions for about twenty years (from consultant to vice-president), and they were exactly like every generic professional would expect.

What was precisely their nature? Every experience seemed acceptable initially but soon became tedious and often frustrating. Like a mathematical theorem, it seems there was no way out. I was a victim of the curse of “important but damn dull.”

To be completely honest, I remember some positive experiences, but, as I explained, they were isolated situations that lasted for a pretty short time.

On the other hand, my last job experiences were suffocating. The script was always the same: big expectations and a slow but continuous discovery of the truth. Boredom. Every single shade of kaleidoscopic boredom.

No, my dear friends, my dream job isn’t a dream at all. It’s my current reality that I reconquered after a long, painful preparation.

Now, I work harder than ever. I don’t want to sleep too much, and when I go to bed, I hope the night will pass by quickly because I want to continue my work.

Am I mad? I don’t believe so. I worked in a “standard” way to obtain a green card to access the freedom to be my boss.

No more useless meetings. No more cheap-talking. No more detestable presentations. No more projects where 99% of the time should be spent chatting and circling like hamsters.

This life isn’t for me. I needed time to realize it, but eventually, the process was completed. I became aware of what I already knew and determined to make a radical change.

OK, you’re probably wondering what my job is. I don’t want to make you still wait. My job is to be an utterly freelance musician and author.

In the past, I published four poetry books and several short stories, and I wrote a couple of long novels that I abandoned for unknown reasons (I refuse to think they bored me, too!)

Then, my hangover ended, and I published seven technical books. Two became best-sellers (in a niche, so please, don’t think I see myself like Stephen King), and I still receive royalties. I don’t hide that it makes me a bit happy because it confirms my innate eclecticism.

The truth is that I love creativity (any expression of it), and creativity loves to see its children. I’m not against, for example, a software project, but if I need to spend more time using the hated PowerPoint to repeat the same things a hundred times, I throw in the towel.

Again, this is not for me. I want to keep studying hard, working harder, and cradling the results like newborns.

I’m composing music (while studying new classical guitar pieces – my beloved instrument), writing poetry that I consider the best way to express what I have inside, and focusing on some philosophical questions I want to investigate more and more.

If you are so kind to follow me, you will receive almost daily updates on my work. This is the best way to know me and, hopefully, for me to know you!

I publish most of my works on my website both in Italian and translated into English. As I’m not a native speaker, I would be glad if you could add your (constructive) comments to my poems, short stories, essays, and posts!

At the end of the day, a consistent part of my job is indeed to reengage with the largest possible audience. And I’m stubborn enough to succeed sooner or later! You can bet your entire salary, which I hope to be considerable!


Photo by Julian Hanslmaier


 

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A conductor in the C-suite

What makes a good leader?

people sitting on chairs inside buildingI can make the example of a conductor. Is he a leader? Of course! He is a sort of “borrowed head” for an orchestra. All the musicians are professionals with long experience and don’t need another “head.”

However, they are not playing as soloists but together with dozens of other musicians. Everyone has a score, but it’s limited to the parts an instrument must play. The entire composition’s score is too vast and impractical to be shared.

Therefore, the musicians ask for a coordinator who controls the interaction between different instruments, checks tempo, speed, and volume, and keeps listening to the entire composition. Of course, a good conductor makes specific decisions regarding timbre, the dominance of a set of instruments in a particular part, or, for example, inserting a “rubato” in a phrase while keeping the original tempo in another. He’s an artist himself, not just a mechanical coordinator!

However, all decisions concern the entire orchestra, even when they only affect a few musicians. Remember that the conductor has been designated the leader, and his horizon is always the largest. He has to “take” the entire Symphony and gently bring it to the public.

In the past, this role was usually assigned to the first violin, a poor man who had to play while trying to send messages using his hands. Quite complex, isn’t it? I sincerely can’t imagine the result, and I suppose that good performances were the product of each musician’s hard work more than firm leadership.

Another common problem is that some instruments, e.g., oboes, don’t always play. In each score, there are indications about the number of pause bars before they need to restart playing. Remember, they are alone, and the orchestra expects them to start playing precisely after the end of the last pause bar.

If you have played a Symphony a hundred times, you can probably get rid of some indications: your ears and memory are probably more precise than a metronome. But at the beginning, you need a lot of information! And above all, you must pay the maximum attention to avoid delays or early entrances.

Everything is much easier if the conductor can look in a particular direction (i.e., where the musicians sit) when it’s time to start playing. Maybe he can also use gestures to indicate how the entrance is expected to be (soft, violent, “a tempo,” etc.) In other words, he can simplify the task and maximize the artistic result.

Now, think again about the concept of “head.” Is a musician a mechanical tool? No, he has his head and can make autonomous decisions whenever he wants, but sometimes delegating this task is preferable.

It’s not a pure matter of granting power or donating prestige (the latter is generally a consequence of successful hard work) to an external actor, but rather a rational necessity.

I finish by saying that a good leader is precisely like a good conductor. The greater his musicians are, the greater he can be. His responsibility is to maximize the sum of these values. Otherwise, the first criticism will arise from the orchestra itself.

That’s precisely what happened to Placido Domingo at the Verbier festival. He wasn’t prepared to “borrow his head” to the orchestra, which caused confusion and an abysmal performance.

All the musicians had a working head with solid expertise in their field. They didn’t need someone who screamed or decided to act without caring about the score. Nor did they need a conductor who took for granted that his orchestra would have played well anyway!

They needed a leader to give birth to a unique musical experience. This is a very accurate (if you think about it) example of good leadership that summarizes all the features usually listed in management books.


Photo by Andrea Zanenga


 

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Memoirs of early classical guitar lessons: a tribute to the absurd

person holding brown guitar outdoorI want to relate some details of my disastrous experience with my first classical guitar teacher. I think many considerations can be helpful to newcomers to avoid awkward situations and waste of time and money.

First of all, I should preface this by saying that I was fortunate enough to study with several teachers, many of whom were true teachers (as well as artists), and I learned a great deal from some advice that, on the surface, seemed excessive. So it is good not to come to conclusions too soon but always to know how to evaluate each situation and make appropriate decisions promptly and critically.

My technical knowledge was undoubtedly not remarkable when I went to my first teacher. I had studied the fundamentals, scales, arpeggios, and many didactic compositions by Sor, Giuliani, Carcassi, Diabelli, etc. However, my sound was imperfect (not that it is imperfect in an absolute sense now!), and I had a long road ahead of me. Therefore, knowing a guitar teacher by name, I decided to turn to him.

I still remember the emotional tension when I began to play a few minor etudes in my repertoire, and I admit without any reluctance that the result was decidedly poor. I made several mistakes and often froze in anxiety. The teacher went from one request to another carelessly, almost as if he considered my “examination” useless.

After about half an hour, without explanation and with very few comments, he told me that I had to cut my nails because, according to him, first you have to learn the movement and then use the nails. I reiterate that my imperfections were obvious, but I would have expected a more constructive approach to correct mistakes and get me on the right track.

Instead, he saw fit to undo all my previous efforts and start again as if I had never held a guitar. Before I continue, I would like to say that the debate between Sor and Aguado on the use of fingernails has been over for well over a century, and by now, almost no guitarists prefer to use only their fingertips. That being said, I have never come across a guitar method in which students were asked to start without nails “to learn movement,” just as, I suppose, there is no violin course in which students start using a bow without a horsehair.

I find this wrong and counterproductive, and I will say more: the teacher should not only make the pupil use the nails immediately but also slowly make him aware of the different touches (including part of the fingertip) so that he becomes aware as soon as possible of the different possibilities that he will have to develop.

During the first week, he assigned me a single exercise. I had to play with my index and middle fingers (no fingernails, cut almost with tears in my eyes after coming home), the strings idle at a speed of 20 bpm (i.e., alternating beats of a metronome set at a minimum of 40 bpm). Elementary math is enough to understand that a finger pulsed every three seconds! Where the mind wandered in those intervals is a mystery, but it was impossible to speak of concentration.

Once again, I would like to clarify. Studying slowly is very important. But defining what the adverb “slowly” means is much more critical. Since this is purely qualitative, it can be subjectively misinterpreted without further specification.

It makes no sense to slow down to the point where you can almost drink coffee between one note and the next, just as it is detrimental to persist at an excessive speed that does not allow for complete control of actions. The rule of thumb should be “to study at a speed that allows you to control your movements while respecting sound quality, articulation, and setting of both hands and finally to avoid distractions.”

Too slow a speed is generally unnecessary and causes thoughts to wander freely when, instead, they should be focused on muscle control. In addition, persistence to the bitter end at a low speed does not allow for muscle development, increased tendon elasticity, and improved motor coordination. The “trick” is to gradually increase whenever you notice that you are no longer making mistakes at a specific rate.

My teacher thought otherwise and, on the second week (also due to naivety due to my young age), had me repeat the same exercise alternating index and ring fingers. The third one was for the middle and ring fingers, and after almost a month, when I began to hate the guitar, he finally made me use my thumb as well!

Completely listless, I undertook, after more time, the study of the chromatic scale, spending the entire lesson correcting the most imperceptible imperfections in the setting. I vividly remember an incident that made me so nervous for the first time that I reacted firmly. I was told to rest my right forearm at a point on the edge of the guitar and play (at 40 bpm) the chromatic scale in the first position. Because the support point was too far toward the neck, my right shoulder tended to rise to make my hand reach the strings.

Whenever it happened, I would hear his annoying rebuke, “The shoulder is tense!” At that point, as expected, I would lower my shoulder, sliding my forearm outward slightly. With a bit of imagination, you can imagine the teacher’s reaction: he immediately corrected me by asking me to bring my forearm closer. This ridiculous exchange occurred a couple of times, after which I blurted out, telling him that it was impossible to do both simultaneously! I shushed him, at least for that day.

I continued classes for another couple of months, listening to pedantic and boring speeches and undergoing corrections bordering on the ridiculous. To mention one, I remember unintentionally starting to play a concise study at 42 bpm instead of 40 bpm. To specify, at 40 bpm, each beat occurs after 1.5 seconds, while at 42 bpm, after about 1.428 seconds! I don’t doubt that such a discrepancy, although on the order of hundredths of a second, could create mismatches in an orchestra, but in that case, I was playing solo! The difference in difficulty is practically negligible, but his rebuke was peremptory: “First, you study it one week at 40, and then you move on to 42.”

In short, I endured that situation too long before I decided (albeit somewhat reluctantly, given my expectations) to abandon it and find a better solution. I am convinced I did the right thing and regret not quitting sooner. The only bright side is that that overabundance of nonsense allowed me to develop a strong critical sense, a “gift” that saved me wasted time on several occasions.

With that, I end my brief journey into the past, hoping that if any neophytes read this article, they may draw some constructive conclusions. Time is precious and should never be wasted. We must investigate and demand an explanation when we realize something is not working. Unless you are in front of an educator of unquestioned reputation, supinely accepting what you think is wrong and pedantic is an unforgivable mistake. Always pretend appropriate and convincing answers; do not be persuaded by phrases such as “It must be done this way.” Always ask why. And, if you do not get a valid answer, you begin to think that in front of you, there is no absolute master, but rather a person who applies “prefabricated” patterns without any adaptation to specific situations.

Sound. Learn and study! The classical guitar is a beautiful instrument that, like all others, does not seek elites but only demands perseverance, patience, and commitment. In return, it will give you pleasure and satisfaction in abundance and without limits!


Photos of Brandon Wilson


 

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Atonality: the aesthetic dilemma arising from an artistic revolt

a blurry photo of a person doing a trickWe want to ask how pleasant, aesthetically appreciable, and ultimately beautiful atonal music is. First, clarifying that “atonality” does not imply using serial or similarly contrived compositional patterns is helpful. In our understanding, it represents only the choice not to compose with alterations in key and, therefore, to give up the presence of tonal centers with attracting power from which it is challenging to move away.

Tonal music is primarily characterized by melodic and harmonic choices that always revolve around the tonic or fundamental. If, for example, a piece is composed in E major, it will frequently return to the E-G#-B triad, representing a reference point from which to start and return to give the piece a sense of resolution and completion. Even in the case of modulations, the new tonics will always play the same role, the only difference being that they are inherently transient and generally subject to fading out either in the planting key or, quite often, in other neighboring tones.

In the atonal sphere, the composer renounces any constraint dictated by the presence of a privileged pair of chords (of tonic and dominant) to take refuge in a flow of what are no longer mere chromaticisms but rather exact compositional choices aimed at making particular atmospheres or sound images vivid. In a sense, one could speak of atonality even when many composers choose non-diatonic scales (such as, for example, hexatonal or pentatonic). Of course, there is always a tonal reference in the latter case, even if its structure is foreign to the classical-orthodox harmonic culture.

A pure atonality takes away the listener’s ability to anticipate a “homecoming” sooner or later. Still, unlike seriality (or other similar avant-garde choices), it does not necessarily give up classical compositional syntax. In fact, according to music composition theory, a piece should be imagined with syntactic properties similar to those of a narrative. The motifs represent words, while the sentences, with a balanced trend in antecedent and consequent, are the counterpart of the linguistic namesake.

In particular, these should be composed with a semicircle or parabola in mind. From the beginning, the phrase can evolve freely until it reaches an acme, from which it descends to a resolution on the tonic through a cadence. This approach complements the phrase and offers our ears a satisfying sound experience. To understand the above, baasti thinks of the short line in the song “Happy Birthday to You.” The evolution seems to move away from the center of the word “best wishes” (precisely, with the syllable “day”). Still, it then quickly plummets toward it with the pattern associated with the words “to you.” To further realize what I am saying, it is helpful to try playing a scale (possibly provided with chromaticism) and singing the song following the ascending progression. The effect is unsatisfactory as, to the “narrative” conclusion that would like all emphasis focused on the words “to you,” an escalating sequence is associated that escapes unchecked.

So, atonality that respects classical syntax, as unbold as it might seem, provides the listener with the perceptual tools that promote memorization and, ultimately, understanding of the piece. Many pop music, jazz, rock, etc., fall into this category (even without being fully aware of it often). On the contrary, the decrease of tonality accompanied by the renunciation of classical syntax has been considered by many to be the authentic product of artistic evolution, but, at the same time, it ends up being an experiment that leaves one speechless (if not replaced by whistles).

To understand what I am asserting, I invite you to listen to Arnold Schoenberg‘s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31, which we might describe as the main theorist and composer using this approach:

YouTube player

The composition is lovely. I don’t think you can say otherwise too lightly, but what impression does it provide? What stands out immediately is the sequential aspect of the sentences. A “movement” is not followed by a return action whose purpose should be to balance the tension with a subsequent relaxation. On the contrary, the piece evolves continuously, with no (or very few) returns to previously presented material.

Syntax is wholly disrupted, and the listener is “forced” to accept a musical experience without the prerogative of content anticipation. If classically, the competitive “game” relied on the continuous contrast between correct prediction and surprise (e.g., now the sentence closes with a cadence and returns to the central theme?), in this case, there is no alternative to surprise. Regarding information theory, this kind of music has a very high entropy, far beyond the limits to which most early twentieth-century audiences inhabited.

But while a syntactic disruption is often intolerable in literature (indeed, it is generally marked as a serious error since it affects semantics), in music, comprehension does not rely on explicit transfer of meaning. A correct sentence such as “John went to the movies and had a good time” clearly informs us of a subject (John), an action (going to the movies), and a consequent emotional condition (having a good time). The semantic impact could be devastating if I altered the structure without respecting the basic syntactic rules.

However, in music, this kind of meaning is not pursued. So, the listener, though displaced, could not say that he or she did not “get it.” At most, he might claim that he did not enjoy the music or could not follow its unfolding with due intellectual and emotional involvement. From this, we infer that a syntactic change in music is never as “dangerous” as in literature. The absence of a consequent in a phrase, the missed expectation of a cadence, the shift from a movement that would suggest a modulation to a leap to a series of chromaticisms, etc., can disturb the ear but not the brain.

What Schoenberg said (supported by many contemporary and later musicologists) is accurate. Habit is more robust than any syntactic or harmonic rule. It is absurd to pretend that a listener from the Baroque period could accept such music (although Bach, for example, made exemplary use of chromaticism). Still, the contamination that took place at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it possible to learn about “exotic” sounds that would soon become very popular.

At this point, the crucial “problem” is only aesthetic. Is the most driven atonality, good or bad, without syntactic or classical harmonic footholds? Beyond the (often questionable) ideological and philosophical choices, are the artistic results worthy of attention, or is it better to erase a piece of music history by covering it with a veil of shame?

I think the latter assumption is wrong. Despite the disagreement of ideas, no one should be allowed to devalue art too lightly. I am convinced that the 21st-century man’s ear is still unaccustomed to this kind of sound, primarily because of the spread of pop music, which makes extensive use of “classic” (albeit with ever-changing instruments, shapes, and timbres) and effortlessly catchy structures. However, many atonal compositions that are not overly cerebral (e.g., based on mathematical structures or matrices of permutations) continue to give emotions and evoke very intense atmospheres. I dare say he succeeds even more than many classical and Romantic composers, who either took refuge in natural imitation or, often, contoured particular motifs with complex harmony, creating a stunning but sometimes less evocative work than expected.

I conclude by inviting readers to listen to several pieces by atonal composers, such as, for example, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, etc. (I also include Leo Brouwer, being a classical guitarist myself), to read the titles (often essential for the correct decoding of the sound content) and, finally, to come to one’s conclusions. I would be delighted to read your comments along these lines and perhaps start a fruitful discussion that can only enrich each of us and broaden our cultural horizons!


Photos of Hulki Okan Tabak


 

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Whatever you do, always point to the Moon!

What is your mission?

full moonI love the idea of a mission and, running the risk of appearing too ambitious; I’d say that I set different missions to accomplish during my life.

Whatever I did had a purpose, which was generally hard to achieve. I don’t like the idea of giving value to small targets. My motto is: “Whatever you do, always point to the Moon!

It doesn’t matter if someone makes just a few steps while somebody else reaches a farther destination. This reality cannot justify being shy and defeatist. If someone looks too close, she can never see the opportunities to progress much faster.

Now, it’s time to talk about my mission. I’m a very eclectic person and can renounce several interests. While studying engineering and business administration at university, I kept studying music, reading book after book, and writing poetry and stories.

Nowadays, after a couple of decades of working in different roles and companies, I have made up my mind and decided to dedicate my time only to working on arts, in particular, music and literature.

Hence, I aim to continue creating poetic works and serious music (I mainly play the classical guitar). You can find some works in Italian (generally the original language) and English translations on this website.

My sub-goal is to keep “feeding” the site, adding new poems, essays, and short stories daily. I’m doing my best to involve more and more readers and establish a fruitful series of interactions through comments and proposals.

Later on, I’m going to start to include my music too. I am currently focused on writing more theoretical posts in the blog section. They are “designed” and planned every night after ending up practicing on the instrument.

It’s challenging work when you want to carry out it with precision and constancy. But when I decide to do something I believe in, I feel tired because it means I spend a lot of energy.

I’m convinced (according to my experience) that hard work is an always-winning investment. It requires patience and a dose of resilience to face all the several frustrations. However, this is the ruleset of the game. The Moon is far away, but it’s enough to remember that human beings touched its surface.

If they succeeded many years ago, you can, too. Here and now. That’s why I’m never too scared to stop going on in front of any difficulty. When I face a problem, I breathe, reason, and act most effectively. This isn’t a silver bullet: nothing can magically solve all the problems. But knowing there’s a way out, nearby or far away, and starting walking towards it is sufficient.

After a year in which many changes happened, I have to admit to being extremely satisfied. I feel this is my mission, and I’m happy to spend a lot of time and energy to pursue my goal. I would have felt stressed, demotivated, and continuously angry in the past. Today, my wake-up alarm never rings, and when I open my eyes, I think: “Another day! Ready to do what I planned!”

I hope my enthusiasm might be an inspiration for all the people who live in “limbo” and don’t know how to break their chains and restart doing satisfying activities.

I also kindly invite the readers to follow and interact with my site. I need an audience to donate my work to! This is my mission! I’m already taking off with the Moon on my flight path!


Photo by Alexis Antonio


 

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