A Universe in Music

Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony brings us to a fundamental concern of Western classical music: the relationship between an idea, its written form and its performance. Over time the importance of each of these have changed relative to the others. In the last couple of centuries scores have become increasingly meticulous, more instruction than guide. Once, performers had liberties ranging from ornamental to instrumental choices. No dynamics were listed, instruments might not be specified, cadenzas were not scored, repeats allowed for improvisation, and so on.

As scores became less ambiguous performers had to suppress their personality. This led some composers in the nineteenth and, moreover, the twentieth century to believe that music could exist in its purist state outside performance — that is, transmitted straight from score to mind.

But Charles Ives went even further. He found purity in the musical idea not yet written or performed. In Essays before a Sonata he wrote:

The instrument! — there is the perennial difficulty — there is music’s limitation. . . . Is it the composer’s fault that man only has ten fingers? Why can’t a musical thought be presented as it is born — perchance a ‘bastard of the slums,’ or a ‘daughter of a bishop’ — and if it happens to go better later on a bass drum than upon a harp, get a good bass drummer. That music must be heard is not essential — what it sounds like may not be what it is

‘That music must be heard is not essential’. This would be true if music were a language. Language describes things, so voice or sign language can be equally effective. But music doesn’t describe anything. A tree exists before I use the word ‘tree’ to describe it, but music doesn’t exist until it is played. Or rather, music only exists as we play it, either on an instrument or by simulating those sounds in our mind. A language describes things which exist independently of whether or not they are communicated, while music cannot exist unless it is expressed.

Ives wanted the Universe Symphony to portray all the vastness of creation. He ideally wanted it performed by two enormous orchestras ‘across from each other on mountaintops overlooking a valley’. (Whether he meant this literally or not is unclear.) He never did complete the symphony, and many argue (including me) that it would have been impossible to do so. He had an idea so ambitious he could never properly articulate it. Biographer Jan Swafford observed that this problem only got worse: ‘Over the years, the less able he was actually to work on it, the grander the Universe became in his imagination’.

The incompleteness of the work was not altogether exceptional. Ives wrote of the ‘Emerson’ movement from his mammoth Concord Sonata, that ‘I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it’. He enjoyed the ‘daily pleasure’ of playing the music and seeing it grow. But the distinction between Concord and the Universe Symphony, besides one being less ambitious than the other — Concord’s movements represent different transcendentalist thinkers — is that Ives actually allowed the idea to be born. He played the sonata regularly and recorded it both on score and on tape. To the extent that he left it unfinished, it is because he delighted in the fluidity of the performance. One can almost view this nostalgically: a return to the primacy of the performance rather than the inviolability of the score.

Mendelssohn, in a conversation with a friend, once said that ‘When you first start a composition you have a lofty idea of what you can and will create this time! The ideas for which you search always appear more beautiful in their vague presentiment than they are later on paper. I have experienced similar things, but I soon got a grip on myself.’ Is this where Ives ultimately went wrong with the Universe Symphony?

Two ‘completions’ of the symphony exist, and I would say Johnny Reinhard’s is the superior, in that it sounds a bit more Ivesian. Though it’s still not at all like anything else Ives wrote. Even if I knew nothing about the history of the symphony, just listening to this I would get the impression that it was an impossible idea. The slow chaos of it is quite unconvincing:

Ives’ best ‘universe’ piece is The Unanswered Question. The appropriate reaction when faced with the question of the universe is humility. The Universe Symphony is one of the most ambitious musical ideas, an unwieldy monster that shows little restraint or ambiguity. The Unanswered Question is brief but challenging, simple but complex. It evokes the universe but doesn’t try to depict it.


My Prejudice Against Mahler

I find myself consistently unable to like Mahler’s music. It’s not that I dislike it — I just feel ambivalent, and ever so slightly suspicious. I certainly want to like it, and I believe those who speak so highly of his music. I’m not yet ready to join the small but noisy Mahler backlash, those fed up with how frequently his symphonies are performed.

My feelings about Mahler are not particularly reasoned. It is a musical prejudice of sorts (and not my only one). Most listeners have such prejudices, and I’ve encountered many far more severe than my own. People who only really like Baroque music. People who listen to no music before Mozart (with the exception of Bach). People who have almost totally avoided 20th and 21st century music. People who much prefer symphonies. People who much prefer chamber music. People who can’t stand certain instruments.

One of my musical prejudices is for moderation and brevity. I prefer smaller and shorter music. Musical forms seem to metastasise: orchestras get bigger, symphonies get longer, scores become more prescriptive, techniques become more challenging, the music becomes more complex. It’s quite possible I’ve gained this prejudice as a guitarist. The instrument is a quiet one which, though quite capable of polyphony, is far more limited than the piano. We can pluck four notes simultaneously and strum six. The pianist can play ten simultaneously, and with greater range and far greater liberty. With the exception of the organ, I can think of no instrument more powerful than the piano. It provides the player with more possibilities than any other instrument. For many this is wondrous. For me it’s frightening. I see music as more the product of limitations than possibilities.

All that said, this prejudice does not stop me liking many things that are big and splendid. I adore the symphonies of Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Pettersson, Tchaikovsky, Aho and many others (as well as the smaller Classical symphonies of course). I like Shostakovich’s symphonies, but tellingly I prefer his string quartets. Beethoven’s symphonies are perhaps bombastic but he achieves this great effect with the most meagre musical material — triads, the simplest of motifs. I also enjoy going to the opera. But operas are made up of a lot of short, often small things with some show-stoppers thrown in. The overture is a short symphony, the arias are seldom too long (do any exceed ten minutes?). I’m tempted to say that my favourite opera is Dido and Aeneas, intimate and a mere hour long, though it could easily be exchanged for, say, Don Giovanni or Madama Butterfly.

Confucius’s favourite follower, the one he thought the most virtuous, was the one who almost never spoke. Indeed I loathe ostentatiousness (though can be guilty of it myself) and the quality I most admire in others is humility and quiet. So it is with music too. Music that goes on and on, the type that seek to excavate every musical inch, bores me greatly. Mahler’s symphonies are that kind of music. Moreover, they are manipulative, pushing me explicitly in a particular emotional direction, teasing me, holding me in suspense for an inordinate amount of time, presenting like a peacock, boastful and grand. They can be annoyingly predictable — that inevitable, elongated swell leading to a loud drum hit and cymbal crash, rather like being hit over the head in slow motion. I prefer music that gets to the point rather than labouring unnecessarily and, perhaps, artificially.

I went to a Mahler concert this week, his Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan’. It ended splendidly, I’ll admit, and prompted rapturous applause within a semiquaver of the last note. Indeed I enjoyed the concert as I do any. The concert hall — even those as flawed as the Barican and Southbank Centre — is a magical place. Almost never has that spell been broken for me, so even when unsure of the music I am still transfixed by it. The Mahler also benefited from its pairing with Berntein’s Symphony No. 1. It was a theatrical symphony, brash, big, shimmering and forgettable. Bernstein was a remarkable educator and conductor but, it would seem, a negligible composer. The Mahler, coming in the second half, was a sort of relief, but far overstayed its welcome. I almost find the Mahler symphonies rude in a way.

I want to end this post with something quite different: a small and delightful rondeau by Machaut, ‘Ce qui soustient moy’. The musicologist and blogger Elizabeth Eva Leach has an excellent post analysing another Machaut rondeau, in which she begins by saying:

Most of the two-part Machaut pieces are rather neglected: you can’t make a dance out of them like you can with the monophonic virelais, and by the time you’ve assembled singers to perform Machaut, you might as well do the pieces closer to a modern four-part texture. As two-part songs are neglected by performers, they’re also neglected by musicologists, who tend to prefer the three- and four-part pieces as if these show evidence of greater artistry in some teleological narrative of contrapuntal progress. *sigh* Ok, off the early music soap box now and down to business!

Should we take video game music seriously?

The New Statesmen has just put up an article by Caroline Crampton on why classical purists should start taking video game music seriously. One gets the impressiom that more composition graduates write film and video game scores than concert music. The first name that comes to mind is Bear McCreary. He has written the soundtracks for two of my favourite shows — Battlestar Galactica and Outlander — and was student at USC Thornton School of Music in a film department that, believe it or not, choral composer Morten Lauridsen helped set up. McCreary is reaching a far larger audience than he otherwise would. This track from the Outlander soundtrack has 2.7 million views:

Film and TV soundtracks are doing extraordinarily well commercially and benefit from modern production values. But I wonder whether artistic standards have declined. Recently I watched the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, and Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack is more impressive than what I’ve heard from Bear McCreary. (Though apparently McCreary actually studied under Bernstein.) Don’t get me wrong, McCreary’s soundtracks aren’t bad, but separated from the shows the music loses its effect. The repetitive, glossy style becomes irritating — the somewhat cliched use of percussion to stir the listener, how it all sounds so digitized… In her article Crampton nearly reveals this disparity between old and new:

Just as Hollywood film studio executives turned to established composers like Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich in the early twentieth century, today’s games designers are using the best composition talent to augment the experience of playing their titles.

Where are today’s Coplands and Shostakovichs? (Hint: they’re not writing for video games.) Anyway, here’s The Ten Commandments overture:

The video game composer Crampton most discusses is Jessica Curry, who is returning to ClassicFM, a UK classical music radio station, for another programme on video game composers. I am somewhat familiar with Curry’s music. Some years ago the game Dear Esther was released with many people praising it as the future of interactive storytelling and an example of ‘games as art’. I don’t recall being persuaded by the media brouhaha, but the premise was indeed alluring: you, the player, get to walk around a gorgeous virtual Hebridean island. Sadly, the novelty wore off quickly. Walking along a forced path by holding down a key on your keyboard — while listening to some rambling narrator — is a terribly boring experience.

(As a quick aside, by sheer chance I just today bought a copy of Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and so far it provides a far better tour of the Hebrides than Dear Esther. Fine writing arouses one’s imagination in a way that makes CGI seem surprisingly dull.)

The Dear Esther soundtrack is alright, I guess. The best way I can describe it is crossover minimalism for piano and strings with some eerie sound effects splashed on top. Einaudi-level tedium is prevented thanks to an attractive violin part. The trailer will give you a sample, as well as some footage from the game, which I must say still looks impressive years later:

Should we take this seriously? Not really — there’s not much of substance to discuss. It is spare, relying heavily on sound effects, doused in reverb, and based around two repetitive, unchanging chords. The violin melody is welcome, but I’m not bowled over. I’m much more impressed by the Tetris theme. Writing a clever little tune is much harder than writing a soporific, ‘atmospheric’ soundtrack.

Crompton also links to an article about the Baroque music influences in the video game Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings. The article is nonsense. We are told that the game ‘takes place in revolution-era France, and its developers wanted a soundtrack that reflected the period.’ Do you see the problem yet? According to the article, his influences are Bach (d. 1750), Vivaldi (d. 1741), Handel (d. 1759) and Telemann (d. 1767). How is one supposed to take video game music seriously when its composers and advocates don’t seem to know that the Baroque era ended decades before the revolutionary era? The composer should have been listening to Haydn, not Handel. What’s worse, he attempts to make the soundtrack sound Baroque in the laziest and most useless of ways. Rather than assimilating Baroque style, he simply writes the same music but with some Baroque instrumentation. If one plays Beethoven on a harpsichord it doesn’t make it Baroque, and if one plays Bach on piano it still remains Baroque. Here’s the soundtrack:

Considering that she’s writing for a left-wing journal, it is amusing how Crompton justifies video game music in a drearily capitalist way: ‘Above all, [video game composers] have a vast global audience listening to their music. An art form that is so widely consumed deserves to be taken seriously.’ Notice the use of market language like ‘consumed’. You could say this about any product. What does extent and volume of consumption have to do with aesthetic value?

Still, it is an interesting question as to why soundtracks are popular. I would suggest they are enjoyed mostly for the memory it evokes — playing the video game. While I remember a great deal of soundtracks — film, games, TV, or more general soundtracks to life — I remember them because of their context, whereas I remember Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony almost totally for the musical content. Music is increasingly auxiliary to life; we celebrate it as a memory aid, a mood-setter, and video game music is a continuation of that. I take interest in the music that is essential — loved for its own sake.

So video game music doesn’t belong alongside classical music. Crompton has a little dig at BBC Radio 3 for not being ‘broadminded enough’ to play video game soundtracks. I doubt Radio 1 or Capital FM will be broadminded enough to have a classical programme. Tolerance and open-mindedness are usually one-way streets. I’m no ‘purist’ but I do fear that the few remaining havens of classical music will be forced to capitulate to the dominant culture and will get nothing in return. There’s no evidence that soundtracks and crossover music expand the reach of classical music.

Okay, so I don’t seem like a total curmudgeon, here’s a video game theme I like. It’s a pleasant enough tune, slightly stirring, cheesy and dated, but I only really like it for the memory of my younger self playing it on a decrepit old laptop; the laptop was so awful that, though it was the late 2000s, I couldn’t play anything made after about 1998. This game was made in 1995. Charm and nostalgia are invariably for things that were quite imperfect. Flat screen televisions will never seem charming in the way boxy old monochrome CRT televisions are. But anyway, here’s the theme — synthesised strings, heavy reverb and all:

Hierarchy of Music

If someone builds an exquisite birdhouse I will marvel at it, be fascinated by the craft, take pleasure in its design, enjoy its function and so on. But what is it compared to, say, Westminster Abbey or the Royal Albert Hall, places so awesome and imposing, so sublime and transfixing? This isn’t merely about scale. One sees the attractive birdhouse and knows it exemplifies human resourcefulness and skill; but the greatest architectural achievements are so incredible as to seem to defy natural human ability. They are so ingenious that their complexity is overwhelming. One can find the same complexity — not technical complexity necessarily, but artistic complexity, imagination as much as skill — in physically smaller things. Great paintings, for instance. And just as often the same thing is evident but without the same physical presence. Books, poetry and music fall under this category.

None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with the birdhouse, that one can’t or shouldn’t find pleasure in it. One thing being superior to the other does not imply that the other is bad. A lazily-crafted birdhouse would be bad, but a well-crafted one clearly isn’t.

This shouldn’t be controversial but in our strange times there are few taboos greater than discrimination. My concern is primarily with how this affects music. Googling around, one easily comes across attacks on the idea of a hierarchy of music (and few defences). In 2012 The Guardian posted a conversation between rock ‘n’ roller Laura Barton and (now former) BBC Proms director Roger Wright. An excerpt:

Barton: … the problem I have with classical music is the lack of democracy – not just to do with how much it costs to go to the opera. I remember reading something – do you know Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes? – about how many working-class people loved to go to classical music concerts, and then it stopped. That was probably around the same time rock’n’roll was born. Now there is a weird aristocracy of music, where people automatically assume classical music is superior to rock’n’roll. My problem is with the way it is represented and regarded.

Wright: Classical music, itself, I don’t see it as a hierarchy. I recognise that there is great classical music, but there is frankly also second-rate classical music. There is great hip-hop, but clearly there is also second- and third-rate hip-hop. I also think that opera gets a bit of a bad press.

You’ll notice Wright contradicts himself. First he denies a hierarchy, then he categorises music into first, second and third rate. If music within genres can be organised into hierarchies, why can’t we establish hierarchies between genres? It’s totally illogical, an exemplary bit of doublethink.

Barton later says:

For me, it is the number of people I have met, predominantly people who are older than me, maybe from a different background, who have dismissed the fact that I love the music that I love, and think I should get into this. That’s what I mean about a hierarchy: “This is nice but this is sort of adolescent, and eventually you’ll graduate to liking this.” That’s what I resent, or feel uncomfortable with. A kind of loftiness.

I struggle to see what’s wrong with this, unless individuals were indeed rude and condescending towards her. But you’ll find a more pernicious kind of inequality, one of genuine widespread condescension, in the absence of sound hierarchies. I don’t want people to pat me on the head and make me feel comfortable in my ignorance. The person who respects me is the one who says I should explore such-and-such because it is better, and who helps me understand how to do that. The cruel person is the one who disingenuously says that I don’t need to explore these better things because everything is equal — you don’t need to taste this slice of roast venison because you have a bit of stale bread, and food is food, after all.

In the last post I listed some of the deficiencies of popular music, which I will repeat here with some additions. By ‘popular music’ I refer to the essentially twentieth century development — an unfortunate one — in which music was bisected into classical and popular. The popular side covers everything from Tin Pan Alley to Grindcore. I must add that some pop music is quite good, and will include an example later in the post. But most of it sadly isn’t, especially in recent times, for these reasons among others:

  • the emphasis on extra-musical features (theatre, image etc.)
  • an interest in sound as much as music (the ‘sound’ that characterises not only the genre but each band, and the use of non-musical — some might say anti-musical — sound effects, e.g. distortion, autotune)
  • a very limited understanding of harmony
  • no understanding of voice leading
  • repetition of simple riffs
  • escalating volume and thus a very limited dynamic range
  • unsophisticated notation systems, if any
  • insipid melodies (which goes hand-in-hand with a limited understanding of harmony)

This is a recipe for truly awful music. Browsing on YouTube, one of the trending music videos is Taylor Swift’s …Ready for it? Now, the invention of the ‘music video’ is itself one of popular music’s great horrors. How vain is a music that places such an emphasis on image — and thereby fuelling one of the most depressing features of modern life, the desire to be famous. So many of the great classical composers never received due wealth and fame, nor is that particularly why they pursued music. And not even the most respected composers received the kind of material success pop stars do now. (If you want to discuss unfair hierarchies, let’s talk about a society that distributes so much wealth and power to these pompous, talentless minstrels.)

The Taylor Swift song has almost no melody (much of the song consists solely of one note), which not too long ago would have disqualified it from even being a song. Most of the piece only uses one chord and relies on an inflexible rhythm and superfluous sound effects to move things forward. The only hint of musicality is the generic chord sequence and plain melody in the chorus.




Now compare that to Billie Holiday’s Gloomy Sunday. The Taylor Swift is a piece of unpleasant ephemera, like much pop music, but Gloomy Sunday will likely stay with you. Musically it’s not that interesting, but it has the fundamentals — a good memorable melody, harmonic tension, and of course it is performed very well.



However, it’s obviously not on the same level as something like this: Monteverdi’s madrigal Tempro la cetra. Gloomy Sunday is the birdhouse and Tempro la cetra is the Royal Albert Hall.