(Originally published 1/6/2011)
No, this isn’t the entry about counterpoint and ethics I’ve been promising…but it still might piss some people off.
My wife and I convened a meeting of the household joint chiefs of Santa before Christmas, and decided to buy ourselves an elliptical a couple weeks before the 25th. We put it in the basement, right in front of the boob tube. One benefit of this, aside from allowing me to feel like I’m doing something to work off all the Christmas cookies I ate, is being able to watch movies while I work out.
I watched the director’s cut of Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s/Milos Forman’s commentaries, and a featurette on the making of the movie over some recent workout sessions. As an aside: there are some very interesting additions to the movie in this cut, such as a scene where Salieri propositions Constanze quid pro quo for helping get Mozart a royal pupil, a scene where Constanze returns one night to Salieri to accept his proposition, and a scene where Mozart tells off and insults another prospective noble employer.
Anyway, Mozart’s music has been more present in my mind than usual, and that’s saying something, considering that Mozart has been a musical idol of mine for almost as long as I can remember.
As I was walking through JFK airport today, I found myself humming bits of the famous scene in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in which the statue of the Commendatore slain by Don Giovanni arrives for dinner and vengeance. In particular, I was humming the Commendatore’s line “Altre cure più gravi di queste / Altra brama quaggiù mi guidò” — which features lots of repeated pitches in the vocal line and repeated scalar patterns in the orchestral accompaniment. Go to approximately 1:35 of this video to hear the section I’m talking about. (Watch the whole thing, too–Kurt Moll is awesome.)
And I had an epiphany: one thing that’s missing from almost all contemporary classical compositions these days is meaningful repetition.
Forget minimalism and its spin-off genres; most of that is meaningless repetition. Very few minimalist composers have achieved anything of artistic significance by repeating musical ideas over and over and varying them slightly over the course of the work. It’s easy to cut and paste in notation programs and have the illusion that, through repetition, one is creating something of artistic merit, and a host of John Adams wannabes do just that. Poorly. Even John Adams himself isn’t always all that good at writing like John Adams.
No, rather, I’m talking about thoughtful musical construction both on the small scale and on the large scale, which hooks the listener into the music (and, where there is one, a text) by a given phrase or longer section of music that sparks an expectation of what might come next or later on in the piece, and of how the composer might repeat or transform bits of what was already heard. For those who want to get into the nitty gritty, on the small scale, I find contemporary music woefully bereft, for instance, of sequences; on the large scale, forms like sonatas and rondos, which traditionally featured the return and recycling of big chunks of musical material, are all but extinct. And listeners are poorer for it.
Repetition matters because music sinks or swims based on the way a composer fulfills, thwarts, or plays with a listener’s expectations. And without some kind of repetition in a piece, all a listener comes to expect is a barrage of new ideas or sounds that s/he can’t relate to each other or mentally organize. Sure, after an onslaught of unconnected musical ideas the composer might make a perfunctory return at the end to the first idea of the piece, but that’s about as convincing a stab at wrapping things up nicely as Dave Barry makes at wrapping his Christmas presents. The brain usually just gives up on such pieces; I call them watch-checkers, for obvious reasons. They make me wish I weren’t there…or, at least, that I could be on the elliptical while I listen to them.