Ends in music

January 24, 2010

A friend wrote to me, "I kept thinking that music was music." This is not the realization of a layman, but of a fairly accomplished amateur classical musician. Music is created by people, for a purpose, for many purposes, more purposes than most people realize anymore, which results in much of the tension between musical styles.

Everyone today knows the myriad forms of music which is meant to be heard. Wait, I can hear some saying, isn't all music meant to be heard? No, actually much of it is meant to be played. I'll return to this point later.

Even music to be heard is meant for many ends. The oldest of all is dancing, and this is where most musical traditions have their roots. Jazz began as dance music. Tango largely remains dance music. The characteristic rhythms of the European Baroque are all from dances. The majority of folk music is for dancing.

Playing dance music is rewarding, but not because of the music itself. How can I describe it? Any discussion of music descends into evocative phrases and examples. Language is a relatively limited medium, a realization which sent philosophy in the 20th century into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover, and the limitations of music largely bound it off from language.1

Watching a room full of people moving and enjoying themselves, and being the one with the hand on the switch, to guide and nurture that, is a heady experience, but not because of the intricacies of the music. The pleasure doesn't come from aesthetic appreciation.

Dancers like a human hand guiding the music, whether playing it directly on instruments or some hybrid with more or less of the work done by prerecorded sound and electronics. A human hand, watching over them, can adapt and guide, where a recording by itself will march on, oblivious. This connection is where the musician derives his satisfaction.

Of course, as more is done by the electronics, less is done by the hand of the musician. What amount of electronics is right? When I played music for a Renaissance dance group, I did so on a violin with no electronic support at all. This was in part because I could sightread the music with enough facility that it was less work and less distracting to me to simply do so than to try to handle any electronics. It was also because I could play games with them, I could adjust passages, I could play sections slowly for practice purposes. It was a dialogue, sometimes an uncomfortably close one, as when I was placed in the middle of a circle and commanded to play while they did French peasant dances around me.

On the other hand, consider a group like The Correspondents who work with a vocalist/dancer and an electronic sampler. The pair get mileage from their balance which I simply could not get from two violins, but they are playing venues where the kind of dialogue I had simply isn't an option.

In many cases the balance is already set. Live musicians gathered around the peculiar wheeze of the bandeon are part of the atmosphere of a milonga. Applauding the band and whooping back at them is nigh essential at a contradance.

Enough of the balancing act of the dance musician. What about other music meant to be heard? There is background music and incidental music, film scores and elevator music and the song played on someone's computer at a party to set the mood (I am never asked to provide this music anymore, after playing 12th century chants from the Christmas season at a lab Christmas party). It needs to be simple enough not to distract. Compare the simplicity and repetition of Mozart's divertimenti with his other music. Those were pieces to be played in the background at parties. He turned his extensive skills to making the music disappear. We find the same in the great film composers today. Did you notice the music in the last major motion picture you saw? Or rather, if you aren't an obsessive musician, did you notice it? Probably not, and that is the mark of a master.

But this kind of music is largely unrewarding to play except insofar as playing is fun. I was privileged to watch John d'Earth lead a jazz ensemble in a partly improvised score he had written to the silent movie Faust. It was an occasion: the hall had arranged to have the original celluloid of the film. The celluloid was unfortunately destroyed in an accident two weeks beforehand, and they had to fall back on the DVD, but it was an incredible experience. Yet, though the musicians were caught up in the project, the actual playing was hard, slogging work.

As an aside, playing in opera pits is a strange middle ground between incidental music and dance music. You are involved with the singers on the stage, there is a connection, but it's largely slogging.

Finally, there is music meant purely for listening, where the listener is expected to concentrate to some degree. This encompasses concerts as most people think of them, where the audience sits, whether on the floor, at tables, or in rows of seats, and some number of musicians play at some focal point of the room. With the advent of recording, this kind of music grew beyond belief. It used to be that the resources to produce a symphony, or the quality of soloists required for many concerti or jazz solos, were simply not common enough to be everywhere. But once they could be recorded, this all changed. The majority of recordings are meant to be listened to, not danced to, nor in many cases played in the background, though with sufficient familiarity they often are. Like incidental music, this is essentially an unrewarding activity for the musician unless it strokes your ego to have an audience.

But if background music and listening music are so unrewarding, why do musicians seem to enjoy their jobs? In some cases it is a job, where they do competent, professional work with agreeable colleagues, as in the pits of Broadway musicals. But in many cases it is much more. We return now to what I mentioned above, music meant to be played. This is music where the experience on the inside, the experience of the musician, is drastically different and vastly richer than the experience on the outside.

The most extreme example of this is playing in a string quartet. A quartet that has been together for a couple of years starts to develop a rapport that resembles telepathy. After decades, it becomes positively uncanny. I watched the Guarnari Quartet rehearse once, after they had been playing together for thirty or forty years. They could start and stop together without any apparent gesture. They would describe points to begin, or things to adjust, in a couple of ambiguous words, words that meant nothing to me until they started playing and I saw what had changed.

How can I describe the experience of chamber music? Perhaps playing soccer while listening to music and carrying on a conversation? No. Suffice it to say that team sports seem slightly pointless afterwards, listening to music without an instrument in your hands seems incomplete afterwards, talking to someone with just words is shallow after locking together through a passage of Haydn or Beethoven.2

This isn't specific to the string quartet. Have you ever been to a concert with a musician? Have you wondered what they hear that you don't? Have you ever seen a sort of hunger on their faces? In their heart of hearts, as they listen, they are projecting themselves into the performers, pulling the music apart in their minds and putting it back together as a way of writing themselves into an active roll.

Outside of the unfortunately shrinking world of amateur chamber musicians, string quartets are generally thought of as performance pieces today. But there have been whole genres of music which existed only to be played at home or with friends. The viol consort music of Renaissance England is among the richest repertoires produced by man, and was meant entirely to be played, and listened to by at most a few friends who didn't have an instrument to hand. Children's songs, rounds, catches, madrigals, all exist only for the pleasure of singing them.

For obvious reasons, musicians have historically chosen to write music that was fun to play. Depending on how much they depend on the support of a listening public they will make it music to listen to as well. There is some pop music which has abandoned this practice, preferring to use tools like AutoTunes to produce a product rather than focus on playing. This is possible because the result can be recorded, and the musician have done with it.

Most nonmusicians have guessed that musicians play music for the pleasure of playing it, not for other people to listen to. Some who have spent time strumming a guitar may have had an inkling of a world of music to be played that isn't social, that is just for yourself.

Over the years, when someone close to me has died, I have taken out my violin and played my way through Bach's six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Under such conditions I didn't play well. Sometimes I found myself weeping or silently screaming as I played. This is music to be played, but obviously for a vastly different reason than the string quartet.

There are pieces for one musician, with minimal equipment, a conventional instrument and no more, which are somehow intimate. I am thinking of the six sonatas and partitas I mentioned, and of Bach's six suites for cello, of St. Colombe's six suites for viola da gamba, of Debussy's preludes for piano. They are played in public, but vastly more in private. The great violinists of the 20th century had favorite sections of the Bach sonatas and partitas which they played regularly, in some cases daily. Even amateurs like me return to this music again and again.

Why? Many people write to get events in their lives out of their heads in order to see them and make sense of them. Carefully considering and playing these pieces over the years provides an analogous medium where we can pull out emotions and states of mind and write them in sound to get a good look at them.

As an afterthought, I must mentioned one more purpose which dictates one more kind of music: the etude. This is a piece written with a technical end in mind, either the isolation of a specific technical difficulty on an instrument, or a single aspect of composition. They are experiments, tend to be written for solo instruments or small groups to make the experiment easy to carry out, and are usually unknown by nonmusicians. How many concertgoers are familiar with Kreutzer's etudes for violin, which Heifitz called "the professional violinists manual?"3

If you have only experienced a few of these ends of music, try another. Try playing for dancers, even if it's only choosing recordings. Try singing around the house. If you are a musician, try listening once without injecting yourself into the ensemble (I haven't the heart to tell you to do it twice). Far too many people experience far too little of what music does in our world.


Fred Ross
Lausanne, Switzerland
January 24, 2010


  1. I refer the reader to Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading, section 1, chapter 1, heading 1, "Laboratory Conditions" ?

  2. I consciously did not say Mozart. His quartets are sublime, but have a tendency to destroy string quartets unless they are already strongly bonded. All new string quartets begin by playing Haydn, and hold off on Mozart as long as they can resist the siren song. ?

  3. You might enjoy this discussion of violin etudes. ?


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