Monday, 8 April 2013

Pathways into Classical Music Appreciation


How a awkward kid from an Australian semi-rural cultural back-water became all musically literate and edificated...

... or some crap like that...

People ask me frequently how I manage to listen to all kinds of varied music. I listen to everything from Renaissance-era Lute music through to hardcore punk, and all points in between. For some people, that's too broad a scope and it is beyond comprehension for them. I guess it all depends on the way it is introduced to you and the way you approach it in the first place.

For most people, and I was no different, they are introduced to this stuff in junior high school music. "This is what classical music is, now sit there and appreciate it." Others learn instruments and learn to play classical-era pieces at the expense of anything modern. This could go part of the way to explaining why we tend to hate it so much - we didn't come to the music on our own terms.

My psych lecturer at university explained a method of learning new information:
  • take in new information,
  • how does this new information relate to information I already know?
  • how can I use this information in the future?

This explains how I managed to get into classical music: some of the bands I knew and loved as a kid were trying out new things that just happened to be classical ideas.

For example:

  • "Jesus Christ Superstar" and The Who's "Tommy" were operas, albeit with rock instruments.
  • The Beatles used 19th-century chamber quartet-style arrangements on songs like "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby".
  • They also cribbed a short burst of melody from one of Bach's "Brandenburg" concertos for the trumpet solo in "Penny Lane".
  • My dad played a lot of Neil Diamond around the house, so I was unwittingly exposed to Mozart via "Song Sung Blue".

Other initial contacts with classical music include the Warner Brothers classic cartoons where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd parodied Rossini's "The Barber of Seville", and where they condensed 19 hours of Wagner's "The Ring of the Nebelung" down to just seven minutes.

Of course, some of the musicians I loved also happened to be classically trained: Yngwie Malmsteen and Randy Rhoads (who played on Ozzy Osbourne's first two solo albums) for instance.

It wasn't until I heard a piece of music by a person named Walter Carlos (now Wendy Carlos) entitled "Country Lane" that blew my mind. "Country Lane" was part of the soundtrack of "A Clockwork Orange" and it was a very early synthesizer work. Its ever-changing key signatures, complex chords and brooding dark atmosphere just hit the spot as a precocious 15 year old.

Country Lane by Wendy Carlos on Grooveshark

In high school I found a pivotal record among the music resources in the form of Carlos' "Switched On Bach", which contained famous Bach pieces played exclusively on some very embryonic Moog Synthesizers. By the time I'd heard it for the first time (circa 1993), synth technology had advanced considerably, so the sounds were quite archaic. However, the beauty of the music was evident, and I heard enough of it in "Switched On Bach" to know that this was impeccably crafted music, overflowing with melody and supported by a rich tapestry of ornamentation.

 The next step was to try some classical guitar albums. As a young guitarist at the time, this caught my imagination. I also listened to the Andre Segovia records that were also in the resource room and they were also fascinating. The musicianship, the complex chords, the lightening fast runs of notes; these players possessed a discipline and dedication to their instrument that far outstripped anything I was capable of.

 From there I found John Williams, the Melbourne born classical guitarist, student of Segovia, who was probably the first classical guitarist to risk his career and reputation by picking up that most dreaded instrument in the eyes of classical purists: the electric guitar. Mind you, his band Sky performed a rocked up version of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" that I consider to be the definitive performance of the piece.

 For a while it seemed almost everywhere I looked, classical influences were being integrated everywhere. The sportman's favourite theme music "Fanfare for the Common Man" was a trumpet fanfare written by composer Aaron Copeland, rocked up by Emerson Lake and Palmer. Electric Light Orchestra grafted a chamber string quartet onto a traditionally-configured rock band. Frank Zappa idolised Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese, and Frank was always incorporating some of the stranger, more avant garde aspects of their work into his own increasingly complex compositions.

 I'd purchased Zappa's "We're Only In It For The Money" in the mid 1990s on the recommendation from one of those lists of "Greatest albums of all time". For years I hated it, until I studied 20th century music as part of my degree. Listening to some of the strangest music I'd ever heard in that class, and hearing works by his inspirations suddenly made Zappa's more esoteric work (such as this one) make sense.

 Three Pieces Op 11 - 1. Massig by Arnold Shoenberg on Grooveshark

 Hearing Scheonberg's serialist piano works can be quite painful at times, but after hearing them, I now know why David Bowie was inspired by them. For years I hated the piano solo in "Alladin Sane". However, the song is about his mentally-ill half brother, and by adding a bizarre atonal, arhythmic piano solo of this nature to the song was actually a stroke of genius. After all, the title "Alladin Sane" is a pun on "A Lad Insane"...

 Aladdin Sane by David Bowie on Grooveshark

20th Century music was the greatest liberating factor for me as a composer, as it meant that one could take the traditional music rule book and torch it with a flame thrower. Rules, syntax, constructs didn't matter anymore. You could write your own rules. That's one of the reasons that some of the most ugly, difficult sounding music (as it sounds to most) is quite a thrilling listen to me, as I find it to be very free and unhinged, unbound by complex rules and traditions that may in fact hold a piece of music down or make it sound like something else.

In all of the cases cited above, all it takes is for a musician to incorporate something unusual or different into their work for one to gain exposure to a number of different styles of music, and as such, I could then go and approach this music as I felt I needed to - on it's own merits, in my own way. I didn't just believe what people told me was "good music".  I didn't just assume that "I had to like it" just because someone said I did. Indeed, I probably would not have found the pieces of music that a music teacher would recommend a student should listen to, but that's precisely the point: From the massively green field of classical music, I've managed to cultivate my own, if strangely manicured, patch within it.

Everyone has their own story to tell, and not everybody would follow the same path to discovering music as I have.  Tell me about yours in the comments below.

And as much as I love Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", I still can't stand Romantic-period Opera!

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