Last week, I wrote about how the Greeks unlocked the key to music theory when Pythagoras discovered the Golden Mean. The Greeks elevated the study of music to an intellectual pursuit on par with geometry, science and philosophy, and this new attitude and knowledge about music spurred the development of precision crafted musical instruments, which, in turn, inspired the precision machines that powered the industrial revolution. Besides demanding better instruments and inspiring precision craftsmanship, this new, highly intellectual attitude towards music yielded many technological applications as well as well as producing a lot of mind-blowingly beautiful music.
The Romans also embraced the classical approach to education, and when a decadent Roman Empire turned Christian, in the 4th Century, the Catholic Church put the power of music to work for the Holy Roman Empire to maintain, and even expand the extent of their power by spreading this new religion all over the world. The Roman Catholic Church used music as a sort of psy-ops propaganda tool to win over hearts and minds, and to break down resistance to Roman rule.
Rome started sending missionaries armed with hymnals instead of Centurions with swords to their colonies abroad, but the Catholic Church burned folk instruments all over Europe in the Middle Ages, calling them tools of “the Devil’s music.” The church denounced folk music as profane and blasphemous and banned it from “The House of God,” but the Catholics built classical music into the architecture of the stone cathedrals they built for European peasants to pray in.
The Catholics built huge cisterns into the foundations of their cathedrals to power the enormous pipe organs they installed inside them, and then built soaring stone bell towers to house huge bell carillons high overhead. The bells woke everyone up, got them out of bed and brought them to church, where they heard choirs, accompanied by a pipe organ with banks of deep bass pipes resonating in optimally designed halls. This was the first time most Europeans ever heard a musical bass note so low and full that they could feel it in their chest. While Catholic Mass mesmerized the peasants, nuns busily taught their kids catchy little songs about Jesus. The Catholics put classical music to work as a tool of empire, and used it to subjugate people with other cultural traditions.
Of course, the Catholics used this music to reaffirm their own faith as well. I’m sure that hearing music with tight harmonies, pure tones and rhythmic discipline must have seemed absolutely heavenly, and miraculous. Honestly, it still seems that way to me. There’s just something about how music makes you feel, that encourages you to continue doing whatever it was that made you feel that way. That’s how musicians learn to play, but when someone presents music to you, in a way you do not understand, and in a form you can not replicate, music becomes a kind of magic that inspires awe.
Awe can be a powerful tool for an empire that seeks to express power abroad. You’ll recall that inspiring awe was an essential component of the US military’s recent offensive in Iraq, code named “Operation Shock and…” Despite the violence, clerical sexual depredation, and economic pillage, somehow, music always restored people’s faith in God, by inspiring awe.
The Roman Catholic Church demonstrated the true power of music, and it’s ability to inspire awe, as a tool for empire, and it serves them well to this day, but subsequent empires have not failed to learn from the Romans. Music had been weaponized. Music became political because music has power and anyone who wants power, needs music. That is the “gospel truth” as taught by the Holy Roman Empire.
By about 1600, medieval craftsmen had made great strides in the field of instrument building. They called their crowning achievement, the “piano-forte.” “Piano,” in musical parlance, meaning played quietly, and “forte” meaning played loudly. This room filling instrument had an elegant ivory keyboard, and employed a complex system of hammers and dampers to sound an enormous iron rack of tuned strings. It was the first keyboard instrument that allowed players to vary the volume of the note sounded by how forcefully they played. Today, we simply call it a “piano.”
It takes an empire to build a piano. While the instruments of our indigenous ancestors were likely built and played by the same hands, from materials on hand, no one could ever build a piano from materials on hand. One lifetime is not long enough to learn all of the skills necessary to build a piano from scratch. It takes skilled machinists, cabinetmakers, wood-workers, felt-makers, blacksmiths, iron workers and more to build a piano, not to mention ivory, exotic woods, metal and materials from all over the world. Today, most piano players have never even tuned a piano, let alone built one. The piano is a product of hierarchy and empire and you would be hard pressed to find a better ambassador for either.
The piano became the king of precision crafted classical musical instruments, but of course, only kings, and popes, could afford them. Most kings and popes really didn’t play the piano very well, so they hired people to play it for them, and to teach them and their kids to play. Johan Sebastian Bach got one of those jobs, and elegantly mapped out the complete melodic and harmonic potential of the twelve tone chromatic scale, on the piano. He’s been teaching the whole world how to make music ever since.
People recognize J S Bach as the “Father of Classical Music” but his music represents the culmination of hundreds of years of technology, mindset and discipline, that includes the piano. With more than a seven-octave range, the piano became the principle instrument of composers, who wrote arrangements for entire symphony orchestras, while sitting in front of it. We should not underestimate how much the piano shaped the golden age of classical music that followed.
The piano, despite it’s amazing ingenuity, has limits, like any instrument in the real world. The piano offers an impressive seven-octave range, but it cannot change pitch continuously, the way a guitar player can bend a note note up, or the way a violin player can add vibrato, for example. The piano can play loudly or quietly, and you can let the sound ring, or damp it off, but the piano only makes one sound. If you play violin, you can pluck the string, or you can bow it, to create two distinctly different sounds. Horn players use mutes to change the tone of their instruments, and organ players can often choose from a multitude of voices. Also, a piano cannot start a note quietly, and then make it louder, as a horn player might do, nor can the piano articulate words and syllables into a pitch the way a human singer can. Those are just a few musical limitations of the piano.
The piano makes many musical compromises in order to give the player the maximum flexibility for melody and harmony. Classical music is all about melody and harmony. Add in rhythm and dynamics, and you’ve described the complete palette of classical music. I bring this up to point out that in order to delve deeply into these four elements, the classical music tradition completely overlooked not only sounds and techniques, but whole ways of looking at and appreciating music. For example, overtone music, such as Tuvan throat singing sounds alien to us, because our classical tradition choked that whole approach to music out of western civilization.
Everything but melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics got squeezed out of classical music, as it ascended to it’s pinnacle with composers like Mozart and Beethoven, who composed their masterpieces at the piano. It was an age of empire, and these composers produced music for kings, emperors, and even God himself. Our classical music tradition strongly reflects this. That’s why classical music sounds so grand, reverent, and orderly, and why it is so very careful not to offend the ear.
Flash forward to the turn of the 20th Century at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Several new inventions greatly increase the reach and the power of classical music, but they also would eventually change the way we relate to music. Radio, the phonograph, and eventually the tape recorder revolutionized music even more than the piano.
Before long, even people who never learned to play an instrument, could experience the sound of a full orchestra in the comfort of their own home, thanks to the magic of radio. By the 1970s, electronic sound reproduction technology reached it’s zenith. If you had a decent stereo, most bands’ records probably sounded better in your living room than the same band did playing live at a concert hall. It no longer made sense, if you wanted music in your life, to learn to play an instrument. For the price of a single musical instrument, you could buy a whole sound reproduction system that would allow you to listen to studio polished performances by the world’s most renowned artists, right in your own living room, right out of the box, and with no practice.
By this time governments, churches, and corporations all started using music to express power and influence people’s behavior, and our modern technological media helped them do it. Where once, the only way you would hear music was if you made an instrument yourself, and learned to play it, by the 1970’s when the FM band opened up, anyone with a radio had their choice of music, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Suddenly, music was just there, everywhere, all the time, everywhere you went. Classical music had become an institution. Kids still learn to play an instrument and read music in school as part of their classical education, and charitable foundations continue to keep symphony orchestras playing in most major metropolitan areas, so long as they keep playing the old classics, but the playing field has changed. Disciplined performers and precision machines no longer impress us. We take them for granted. Not only that, we’ve heard it all before, and we no longer feel any connection to it.
We don’t know how any of it works anymore. We don’t know where it comes from, how it is made or why it works, just like all of the high-tech gadgets we surround ourselves with these days. The proliferation of artificially flawless, studio produced music has the same effect on our self esteem as seeing images of people with artificially flawless complexions and perfect smiles in the media. We no longer believe we are capable or worthy of a direct relationship with music, so mostly, we leave it to the professionals, and consume music passively, second-hand.
Meanwhile, the whole classical music game got stale. Composers got tired of grand, reverent, orderly and inoffensive and started looking for ways to make classical music more aggressive and challenging. Some sought to subvert the classical system of tonality, while others looked for ways to add new sounds to the repertoire, and still others looked for entirely new ways to approach music.
Some of these composers embraced this new sound reproduction and sound production technology and incorporated it in creative ways into their music. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Iannis Xenakis’s Diamorphosis, and saw the written score to it in an elementary school music class. Xenakis composed this piece on magnetic tape, from a variety of recorded and electronically generated sounds.
Karlheinz Stockhausen composed pieces full of weird electronic sounds that came at the audience from all directions with discreet multi-channel sound systems,
and John Cage used microphones and electronic transducers to amplify ordinary household vibrations into bizarre sounding compositions.
I love all of that weird music, by the way, and it still turns me on. That music is rebellious in a very intellectual kind of way. These composers all recognized just how finite the tradition of classical music really was, and they understood the oppressive nature of classical music, as only a classically trained musician would, so they went exploring, to see what else they could do with music. I still love that music because of that rebelliousness, and how earnestly revolutionary it all sounds, in that deeply intellectual, symbolic and inconsequential way that privileged people embrace radical ideas. Still, it spoke to me at an impressionable age and I still love it because of the nostalgia I have for it, and for what it was in it’s time.
Today, empires of all shapes and size compete for your attention with music, but music no longer wows the peasants as much as it once did. Marketers continue to use music to ambush us and invade our space, because they know how powerfully music can convey their message. As a result, we’ve become music resistant. Music has become a pervasive noise that we learn to tune out, and we resent catchy jingles that stick in our head. We get subjected to so much weaponized music these days, that we no longer trust music, and we no longer respect music. We assume that anyone who makes music these days, has an agenda, and serves an empire, or wants to build one.
That’s too bad, because we need music to build culture. Our culture has disconnected us from the musical process, in order to subject us more completely to its power to inspire awe and manipulate behavior. At the same time, music has died in our culture. Classical music has long since exhausted itself and folk music has succumbed to the lure of capitalism. When the music of your culture dies, your culture dies too. You might not notice it for a while, especially when there are so many great recordings of it to replay, but there’s no real future in our culture anymore.
Stockhausen, Cage and others saw it clearly decades ago. They saw that it was over, and because they knew it was over, they had no enthusiasm for musical convention. Instead, they cast aside everything they had been so painstakingly taught about music, since they were school-children and they went looking for whole different approach, starting from scratch. They weren’t afraid to offend the ear, they showed no reverence for tradition, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been able to use any of their music to sell anything. That’s what makes them some of the most important composers of the 20th Century.
This has been a very brief and very broad overview of the last 40,000 years of music in our culture. From this perspective, anything that’s happened since then is still today’s news, so I think this is a good place to end. I’ll tell you what I still find compelling about music next week.