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Follow-up: Is it music? A closer look

In December I blogged about composers whose works challenge listeners to reconsider which combinations of sounds qualify as music and which do not. Interestingly, The Atlantic recently ran an article relating the details of a study that tested how much of our perception of what is “music” — in this case, pleasant, consonant music — is learned (and thus not innate). For me (and perhaps for you) there is nothing too surprising about this — there are far too many types of music in this world of ours for the perception of consonance (or, what is pleasing in music) to be innate — but it serves as a fine backdrop for what I’m about to write.

For if a penchant for consonance is not innate, then our individual definitions of music have the capability for modification and expansion. I remember the first time I heard music that challenged my ears (a piece by Anton Webern); at first I recoiled, but after a few days, when I realized the experience was sticking with me, I decided to take a second listen. Over time, I grew to appreciate and enjoy the sound of it, partly because I began to embrace the idea that music can consist of music that isn’t diatonic, and also because I began to understand Webern’s compositional methods and historical context.

Part of this new appreciation was learning more about the music, and, as a music-theorist-by-night, I thought it might be fun to take a closer analytical look at compositions written by two of the composers mentioned in my last post, just to take a closer look at what makes them tick.

Let’s start with Elliott Carter’s piece 90+ for solo piano (you can watch an excellent performance by Illya Filshtinskiy on YouTube).

For me, the salient feature of this piece is its texture, of which I hear two types. In the first, chords sustain while single notes, some of them accented (marked with the “greater than” sign in the score below), are struck at irregular intervals, as in the first six measures of the piece.

Excerpts from 90+ used with permission from Boosey & Hawkes.

In the second, the sustained chords are absent; instead single notes (for the most part), sometimes accented, skitter about all over the keyboard.

Excerpts from 90+ used with permission from Boosey & Hawkes.

So much for my first-glance hearing, what does the composer have to say?

90+ for piano is built around ninety short, accented notes…against these the context changes character…it was composed in March of 1994 to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of my dear and much admired friend, Goffredo Petrassi…”

And thus you can see, on the first page of the score near the top of this post, little numbers in parentheses — which I’ve circled — that begin counting out Petrassi’s ninety years (the little numbers only occur on the first and last pages, the last page beginning with number 85). This knowledge changes my hearing of the piece: Carter is expressing through music ninety years of a man’s life. Though his pitch and rhythmic selections still remain arcane to me at this point, the overall gesture of the piece takes on new meaning.

My second analysis involves a new piece by composer Matthew Hough (one of NPR’s “100 composers under 40”) called “Remembered States” (2011), written for nine performers. Even more so than the Carter piece, texture is by far the most prominent feature of this work, mainly due to the unconventional use of the instruments.

Excerpt from Remembered States used with permission from Hough House (ASCAP)

The piece features tactile clacking, gritty overtones, and various shimmering sounds. In this excerpt, the voice murmurs unintelligible words while the flute and trumpet follow suit “as if speaking”; the composer has called this technique “ghost playing”, a sort of shadow of the music. The clicking of the sax keys is audible, as well as the bassoon’s overtones and the coordinated chords in the piano and electric guitar. High above it all is a dry, stratospheric sustained violin note.

For me the experience is that of blurriness or semi-consciousness, where the overall effect is a sort of pixilated background out of which certain sounds stand out in stark contrast (particularly the bassoon overtones and the violin note). According to the composer, the title of the piece is meant to convey a type of remembering, where details sometimes dissipate in the background, while others jump dramatically to the fore.

While pieces like these can be challenging for some listeners, I think it is unfair to assume, as some have done, that the composers are unconcerned with connecting with their audience. I believe for many avant-garde composers today it’s more of an unconcern about conforming to perceived norms. The audience is welcome to come along for the ride if they so wish.

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  1. [...] From OUPblog In December I blogged about composers whose works challenge listeners to reconsider which combinations of sounds qualify as music and which do not. Interestingly, The Atlantic recently ran an article relating the details of a study that tested how much of our perception of what is “music” – in this case, pleasant, consonant music – is learned (and thus not innate). For me (and perhaps for you) there is nothing too surprising about this — there are far too many types of music in this world of ours for the perception of consonance (or, what is pleasing in music) to be innate — but it serves as a fine backdrop for what I’m about to write… [...]

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