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Rebooting the ear

May 15, 2015

Anton Webern
Source: Wikipedia

‘New music’ doesn’t have to mean cacophonous ‘modern’ music: it can of course just be music we haven’t heard before. Nor does ‘modern’ music have to be particularly new. Even though we’ve had over 80 years to get used to Anton Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24 (1934), it can still seem like the most difficult and intractable stuff. Let’s take a few minutes to try and upgrade your interface with challenging music like this, and see how much of a difference there is between what you hear at the start of this blog and what you perceive by the end.

Cuckoo
Source: Wikipedia

Listen to the opening of the Concerto (8.557530). It’s a bit thorny isn’t it? Now listen again. Those last two notes in the clarinet are funny, aren’t they? It’s not hard to imagine them played through a trumpet with a ‘wah-wah’ mute, and the phrase is like that really annoying ‘hah-hah’ laugh Nelson has in The Simpsons. Is this music deadly serious, or is Webern just having a laugh? Everything here is based on the number three with each instrument playing three notes—and those last two notes are a distinctively cheeky major third. They might also remind you of birdsong, like the call of the cuckoo in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (8.550335).

Imagine you are walking through the forest. Dusk is falling and the air is still. In the distance, replacing birdsong, you hear this. Your reaction may well be: “what was that?” You’d want to know where it came from, listening out to hear if it would happen again. That’s a positive response: one of inquisitiveness, rather than puzzlement.

Wood lark
Source: Ján Svetlík

Actually, birdsong is far more difficult to follow than most composed music, so why do we accept it without prejudice? Composers have long been fascinated with birdsong as a source of inspiration, and Olivier Messiaen is particularly known for capturing their striking sounds. Here’s the Woodlark from his Catalogue d’oiseaux. (8.553532-34). You are unlikely to hear Webern’s actual music in our imaginary woods. If you did, however, try listening to it as you would to birdsong. You don’t really expect to be able to understand it or whistle the tunes with any kind of accuracy, but there’s never any sense of frustration in hearing birdsong. After listening for a while you should start to sense patterns, but there’s no need for deep analysis; just the need to take a little time, and to encourage an inquiring ear that’s keen on discovery.

So, we’re still walking in the forest, and there is that sound again. Webern and the waltz were both synonymous with Vienna, and you could almost dance to the last ten seconds of that clip, the elegant sounds of piano, violin and oboe conjuring a palm court ensemble with their three-note phrases. It’s brief, but there if you listen for it. The slow movement of this Concerto can be full of ghostly echoes from the ballroom if you allow your mind to take you there.

Niccolò Paganini
Source: Wikipedia

Don’t be put off by academic analyses of this kind of music. You’ll come across terms such as ‘inversion’ and ‘retrograde’, but these only mean the same as turning a photo upside down or in mirror-image on your computer. The opening theme of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 (8.550717) is justifiably famous. Rachmaninov, in his Variations on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43 (8.554477) takes this tune and both inverts and flips it into reverse to create something beautiful and new.

Johannes Brahms
Source: Wikipedia

Johannes Brahms does something comparable in his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56A (8.557430). The original theme is attractive enough, but in the Seventh Variation Brahms melts our hearts with a Grazioso movement that, in part, turns the theme upside down and also takes the notes of its accompanying chords and fans them out like playing cards to form a new tune. You’ll hear that lilting waltz feel again here and have probably guessed the connection I’m trying to forge—Anton Webern was already three years old in Vienna when Brahms died there in 1887.

Arvo Pärt once said he relishes the experience of hearing music as though it were in the next room—from a distance, in another place. The suggestion is to try listening to unfamiliar music as though you were listening to exotic birds in far-off trees. With such minor tweaks in imagination to the ear, these strange musical soundscapes can be yours for the taking. Listen again to an extract from Webern’s Concerto. Does it perhaps now sound different?

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