Thursday, August 04, 2005

On the history of music, and other stuff

Galerie Ravenstein copola

Doug Ramsey brought up Roger Scruton's "Harmony and History" article, but only quoted part of it. Here's the whole thing. The historical part is fairly interesting, if dizzingly, inevitably, condensed. Then comes the contemporary questioning, in which Scruton falls into the old trap(s).

Last summer, I watched a semi-random bunch of people (some clearly regulars, others clearly passer-bys) congregate in a square in Gent and do traditional dances to traditional, and some not-so-traditional, music. I'd share a video of it with you, but my camera doesn't do sound along with video, so it wouldn't make much sense. It was there that I had a blinding(ly obvious, perhaps) revelation: this music, rather than classical music, is the ancestor of pop. In terms of complexity, the place of rhythm, instrumentation, social factors (who plays/writes/hears it, where, when and why), the relationship is quite clear. Later, seeing groups like Cor de la Plana or Nass El Ghiwane at Klinkende Munt, and thinking back to some traditional music I'd heard in Spain, only reinforced the notion.

That pop music comes from older popular music is a rather simple point, but it goes against our perception of musical history, which comes from music as it has been recorded. The traditional view is summarised in Scruton's article: church music, Renaissance, Classical, Romantic, Serialism. This kind of chronology is based pretty much entirely on music that was written down. Popular music wasn't written down, so it is erased from the history of Western music: I haven't read it, but I somehow doubt that Richard Taruskin's six-volume The Oxford History of Western Music deals with what peasants were dancing to at village parties. This sets up the fallacy, the apples 'n' oranges comparaison, that Scruton, like countless others, reproduces.

If it is assumed that contemporary pop music is the descendant of classical music (how that could be the case is never discussed, of course: it is enough to leap, as Scruton does, from Alban Berg's "Violin Concerto" to young people singing along to pop songs), there can only be a "the sky is falling" reaction. It would probably be more instructive to track the history of music that took place outside the palace walls and chic salons, and compare oranges to oranges. I haven't conducted this thorough-going study, obviously, but details of that sort have never stopped me from forming opinions.

Most of the world's music is simple, rather than complex. Or may be complex/sophisticated in one or two regards, and very simple in others. Scruton gives an example of this, in how harmony is often limited to unison in the modal musics of India and Arabic cultures. Traditional European musics, just like traditional musics from around the world, it seems to me, were nowhere near the harmonic explorations of the palace composers. Further, contrary to a popular belief reinforced by written music-centric histories, European music doesn't lack rhythm, nor is rhythm some distant concern (flamenco, Irish music, Greek Koumbania... Maybe it's just the church-derived stuff that sounds stiff). I think that contemporary pop flows quite naturally from the same (social/cultural/musical) place these older musics came from.

I've honestly never read this view anywhere, so I'm either completely out at sea, stating the unspokenly obvious or radically original, whichever suits you best. Still, I've seen the "we've gone from Mozart to this?" lamentations so many times...

And now for some smaller nitpicks. Scruton says:

Here is the most remarkable fact about our music, one that has never been sufficiently commented upon: A musical person, familiar with the outline of our tradition, can at once assign a date to almost any piece of our music, however unfamiliar. Western music is through and through historical, in just the peculiar way that Western civilization is historical: We hear history in it, and even if it is only a delicate nuance of style that distinguishes the language of Mendelssohn from that of Schubert, you know at once that the "Hebrides" overture was written a few years later than the Unfinished Symphony. In such experiences you perceive, through the ear, something of the spiritual development of a civilization and the unique place of the individual within it.

Is this kind of historicity really so particular to Western music? Is there really no reason to think musical evolution did not follow psycho-social evolution in non-Western societies?

The old culture of listening depended on something else that is no longer easily obtainable: silence. (...) We owe it to young people to turn off the noise. We must re-create silence, so that silence can turn to song. If we do not do this, then our musical culture will die. It is not we, but our children, who will be the losers.

I see the situation differently. The "natural sonic state" of the world is not silence (from which song may spring), or even relative silence, but noise. Certainly in cities, Muzak isn't the main source of noise. Go out in the country: a fieldful of crickets make a huge amount of noise. Go up in the Alps, those cowbells are really loud. In Martinique at night, the crickets are joined by the frogs and who knows what else. Nature hates a void. From that, I come to the conclusion that silence (even relative silence) exists only in music. And that music sounds nothing like real life, even though it tells us a great deal about it.