Thursday, April 1, 2010

Music Notation and the Death of Classical Music

I once contacted some music conservatories to try to find some solid reading material from which to learn music theory outside of actually going back to school. Apart from some good books on harmony, the response from one professor struck me. He explained that in most of his classes they studied the musical score. So, for example, if you want to know how Bach composed, study his scores. Simple enough if one wants to study classical music before the 20th century (and some after) but as one moves into the realm of the early avant guarde and early electronic music, notation fails rather miserably.

The reason that I mention the avant guarde is that I have found do some considerable personal study and interest, that the root of early electronic music are traceable to the avant guarde which can even be traced back to early 20th century music such as Stravinsky or Debussy or back early to Wagner and some others. In other words, there is a more or less unbroken progression as there is for most classical music. Composers draw from other composers. How? Back to that conversation I had with the music professor, by studying their scores.

Now the problem with electronic music is that pop bands soon discovered synthesizers that went from the universities (who where the only people who could afford some of them - especially the early digital ones) to bands. Band like "Pink Floyd", "The Who" and many others soon discovered these marvelous little instruments that could make new sounds in many different ways. So when the first audiences heard a saw wave or better yet, a few playing together slightly detained, well, you had some instant sucess. Although few would take a full Moog Modular on stage save Keith Emerson, the compact gems such as the Minimoog soon made music accessible to the masses which was really the dream of Robert Moog (well done).

During this time of pop experimentation into electronica as it became coined, classical music lost its way. I personally blame it on serialism which for my tastes, sounds like crap, but many the endless experiments, serial or not, left classical music in a fog. Some wanted to be old school or neo classical and others ventured into otherwise unexplored musical territory but the one thing that was lacking, notation or perhaps vision or both.

Now the young pop crowd did not really care all that much. Have guitar and a modest Marshal head and speakers and even the most plain teen could find a garage band and hope to emulate their guitar heroes. Eventually, it even became a game. Must stuff degenerated in my mind. The bluesly delta blues rooted hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin became heavy metal. Have overwound pickups and a high gain amp and you did not have to play all that well (turn up the gain and all those mistakes disappear in a haze of distoration) as long the the ears of your listeners were bleeding after they heard you. Some of those who were interested in synthesizers gravitated to DJ tricks, scratch and then Hip Hop. Some, sadly following those like Klaus Schulze took something interesting and turned it into techno.

Make a long story short, the lemmings followed one another by pied piper record producers and mass produced a few genres of music that more or less sounded the same within the genre. Creativity in my mind did not die but went on life support. Urban creativity in sampling music became hip hop which linked itself with the dark underbelly of gangs and city life even to the destruction and death of some of their the most popular. Techno became the mindless drone of the lost youth of Europe and well, the story just gets worse. The youth loved the dance music as their bodies driven by brains made mad by designer drugs found a new path to dull their brains and soothe their angst.

So why have I lead you to this dessert of music? One reason and one reason only. Notation my friends, notation! In order for music to progress, you have to have something to look at. Go and transpose a Beyonce tune. It's like a serial tone row without any variation, stuck in an endless musical loop from hell but who cares right, you can dance to it. What notation allows us to do is draw from others but only those techniques that we want to use. Notation allows us to talk about what is good and what is bad. Simply saying that we can dance to it and it sounds good, while appealing to the anti-intellectual zombies of our time, does little to truely advance music.

It is my hope that one day, electronic music can go back to its roots. If you read Paul Stump's "Digital Gothic" about the roots of "Tangerine Dream" you might find that "Tangerine Dreams" true roots have much more to do with classical music than the psychedelia per say although there were those influences as well:

Read this book for example and you might find the name Ligeti to name one of many. Now there is not way to transcribe much of the artistry of this band or others like them but I do feel that they were more on the right track then others because while they may have been tempted to follow the stream of pop oriented lemming taking their earning from their vanilla dance albums right to the bank, this band had some integrity.

Perhaps, if we can find a way to get some of the techniques used in good electronic music on paper, it will re-merge with the classical tradition it came from and electronic music can move forward. Perhaps new ways of making notations will lead to new hardware and who knows where things go from there. Perhaps.

For the record. I am anti drug. Very very anti drug. Perhaps you may find this suprising from someone who likes, plays and composes electronic music but the truth is that I find some intergrity in some of the better forms of electronic music. For now, I can only hope the electronica rejoins classic music where I believe it has its rightfull place and where it belongs. It remains only a dream for me in the dessert of copy cat mediocrity and danceable serial tone rows stuck in neutral. But I can dream can't I?

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