HCH 8 / January 2016
An Interesting Balance, by Tussah Heera
Originally published on Tussah and the Wolf on December 24, 2014
Happy holidays, people! I’m back home in Las Vegas. For the first morning in seemingly ages, my eyes opened to the sun shining in my face, and I feel a true motivation to practice before 11 o’clock, instilled by mom and my kitty Ayu, who I’ve missed for so long.
It feels like a dream that I’m already here for winter break, done with the first semester of my second year. For the past three mornings, I have forgotten what city I’m in. It’s hard to believe it was just a few days ago that I was walking the streets of Toronto, hearing the endless flow of Christmas music and passing that elderly gentleman ritualistically holding up a sign which read “THE END IS NEAR! REPENT!”. For the hundredth time, I had wondered why was it that people like him are so eager to remind the rest of us of our (supposedly) fast-approaching demise, especially during the holiday season. I had a brief flashback to the Winter Solstice of 2012 when the Mayans managed to troll everyone from their graves. Humanity, by nature, has an unbridled fascination with the end of the world. People like the man with the sign are in love with this idea, for they believe there’s a much better place for them to go if such a thing were to actually happen. It’s also an excuse to keep salivating over their fantasy of sitting high up on a cloud, looking down, and yelling a resounding “Suck it!” at the people they don’t like down below.
Yet again, I severely digress. Onward…
So I spent all of this morning practicing assorted Liszt for upcoming concerts, without an ounce of my usual sleepiness at that hour. Perhaps as a result of being so happy, I was able to make a musical discovery. It’s always satisfying to finally see the light and find a way to prevent any “dead fish” passages from showing up in the music. By “dead fish”, I mean a section of a piece in which the music seems to stagnate – not entirely fulfilling my vision of what it should sound like. “Dead fish” passages usually require the simplest tweaks which are the hardest to find: sometimes, a simple switch of mindset, or acknowledgment of an overarching idea, which lead to the biggest improvements. I chose such a metaphor because the result of a passage not fulfilling your artistic vision is an obstinate, unfruitful section which threatens to make the entire piece stink – much like a, you know…dead fish.
“Dead fish” does not care if you are adhering to the composer’s intentions or not. You could be playing a section to textbook perfection and still be caught in the clutches of this phenomenon. The piece then sounds like the product of a dogmatic score-adherent, devoid of the self, not betraying a single scrap of the interpreter’s mind.
But sometimes, the problem is not “dead fish”. Sometimes, there is absolutely nothing the performer can do to help the music. Sometimes – and I dare the most sanctimonious of you to shoot me after I say this – the music is just plain fucking boring. No matter how much feeling the performer puts into these pieces, and no matter how much they genuinely mean to him/her, they still fail to make a greater, lasting impact. In short, the performer may not feel like he/she is suffering from “dead fish” at all, but the audience does.
Now I understand this is all very subjective – the pieces in question might be different for each listener depending on their tastes, so it’s definitely not the composer’s fault that some people fail to be moved by a particular piece. For example, at this point in my life, I absolutely can’t appreciate Schubert’s B-flat major piano sonata (D.960) with adequate concentration and . It simply does not move me enough, seemingly lacking the heart-on-fire harmonic and melodic qualities provided by Liszt and Rachmaninov. Obviously, this is not Schubert’s fault at all – or mine, for that matter. I’m also a hundred percent positive that another pianist would feel entirely differently about that piece than I do.
The “interest level” of a piece is worth delving into. What makes any music truly interesting? By “interesting”, I don’t mean “good” – both of those qualities are mutually exclusive. By interesting, I mean thought-provoking, intriguing, and mentally stimulating. “Interesting” music not necessarily “good”, and “good” music is not necessarily “interesting”.
As far as my findings go, the interest level of a piece relies on the amount of musical conflict it contains. Conflict, in this context, refers to the variety of many factors: rhythm, harmony, melody, or the explication of a story behind a work, which leads to mental stimulation, or interest. The Germans used to call it Sturm und Drang. Looking to the music of today for some scope, Rihanna’s music seems to contain a lot of musical conflict in terms of themes, tonal centers, and variety of rhythms, (which consequently makes it interesting to listen to), while Taylor Swift’s does not – relying on repetitive, conservative harmonies and structures.
The idea of conflict itself is still, by nature, rather subjective, and varies in level of tolerance among people, and just because a piece may be “interesting” does not mean it’s easy listening. For some, the tonal, tuneful, and simple melodies of a Clementi sonatina contain just enough musical conflict for them to be satisfied, while some cherish the convoluted strains of Xenakis’ works. In terms of pure content, both are “good” compositions, but differ in their level of interest and intricacy of conflict. Most listeners seem to lie somewhere around the middle, and even that varies depending upon the mood of the moment.
When it comes to piano music, one great composer seems to come to mind when thinking of monochrome music with – and I dare you to get a second bullet ready – Mozart. Sure, some of his works are sublime, such as his deathly beautiful A major piano concerto, A minor sonata (k.310), and countless others I have neglected to mention. But let’s face it – it sometimes feels as if he wrote the same work a gazillion times over. For example, if someone without perfect pitch were to listen to a Mozart piano marathon, fall asleep somewhere in between, then wake up an hour later, they would think that they’re still listening to the same piece, and the fact of the matter is that musically, they really wouldn’t have missed a damn thing. “But no,” someone once told me, “Mozart’s genius is a complex endeavor to understand!”. Transcendent, undoubtedly, but complex?!? The floor of the barn called, it would like its bullshit back.
In order to show you what I mean, I have listened to his C major piano sonata (k.330). Do click on the red words to listen to it and make up your own opinion about the conflict it contains. Here’s my take:
1st movement: The piece starts with an optimistic, sunny melody in the right hand, not unlike the smile of a Miss America contestant. Then there’s two staccato arpeggios, which are repeated for some reason or another. Suddenly, the F’s are sharpened. The expected modulation to the dominant key, G major, happens quicker than ever, and at this point you can almost picture Mozart with an inexplicably bored expression on his face, just having begun this piece yet already totally over this “composing a sonata” shit. After more repetitions which completely betray his apathy, BOOM! Deceptive cadence, which is so unashamedly overdone that it has me talking like the Doge meme from some months ago. Wow. Such depth. Much impressive.
The extremely short middle section, or the so-called “Development” hardly develops anything besides a listener’s impatience, unless you consider “developing” to be the act of transposing the same trill to three closely-related keys in close succession before sheepishly repeating the opening melody to signal the recap. But wait – the recap is SO much different! He added a WHOLE EXTRA NOTE at the top of each staccato arpeggio! And the second time, it’s not an exact repetition but ASCENDING C MAJOR SCALES!! Oof. How avant-garde. Such variety. Oh Wolfgang, you dirty little rebel.
After these little trinkets of “genius”, everything from the exposition is repeated in C major, before an ending section that seems to say in a douchey tone, “Look guys, I know you had to put up with that entire exposition again, but hey, at least I’m here now! I’m such a badass – check this out – a flat sixth. Just like Beethoven! Yup, you heard that right!”
Mozart was so ahead of his time – did you know he came through a time-machine and found that Philip Glass would make millions by fooling around with C major many years later? He then did the same, and like Glass had many a fruitful product from that love affair. Ah, C major! The minimalist’s muse!
2nd movement: The deceptive cadence again! Much wow! The slow F major tune repeats, then attempts to flirt with a minor key as a means of emotional variety. Knock it off, Wolfgang, seduction is by no means your strong suit – leave that to Liszt. The true emotional variety, however, is in the F minor middle section, which resolves to A-flat major. This part truly warms my cold heart for a bit, but then the effect gets old hat very quickly when the Mozart-Glass union comes slowly seeping through the cracks, hoping ardently that I wouldn’t notice. There honestly isn’t much to say after that. In the words of my piano teacher John Perry, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. In that line of thought, I say if it ain’t different, don’t dwell on it.
3rd movement: Marked “Allegretto” – that one controversial tempo along with “Allegro ma non troppo” that has everyone arguing. Some say, “but exactly how much is too much?” while others insist “Not quite allegro! It says not too much!”. I wonder what motivated Mozart to choose that tempo because in this case, it seems wholly unnecessary to be so vague. But as I mentioned before, he did have a time machine, didn’t he? Maybe seeing the future tempo arguments pleased him. How evil.
After a brief and assertive melody, triplets show up. These notes in the right hand go all Edward Cullen on that shit and start to sparkle as the sunlight oh-so-predictably beams out of the sixteenth notes. This continues until the next repetition, where it gets to continue all over again. The piece ends with a brief pause, then Mozart hastily remembers to resolve the piece, so as not to incur the wrath of his theory teacher/father, and sticks three chords in there for finality’s sake. Applause!
Okay, okay, it’s not that I don’t like Mozart. Overrated as he may be, I actually need Mozart, for several reasons. Even though we don’t realize it, it’s extremely hard to create art devoid of conflict -especially instrumental music. Music like his speaks for itself, with honest clarity and simplicity, unburdened by the myriad psychological horrors of the mind, free from the twist of the knife that keeps me (and countless others) constantly compelled. Though conflict seems to be a prerequisite for great art, it is not always necessary in life. Per mortal need, genius lies in simplicity as much as complexity, as Mozart so wonderfully and refreshingly demonstrates. Many a time have I put on the C major piano concerto after practicing my conflict-heavy repertoire in order to detox my busy mind. The feeling is unique and calming -similar to sipping warm camomile tea after a night of drinking. We need this sort of music in the world to keep our mental equilibrium, our very sanity. We are by nature volatile, and risk inflicting suffering on ourselves and those around us if our expectations of these extremes are not met. As I write this, I realize how dependent upon extremes I am in different ways: needing to play Liszt, listen to Mozart, and write about their music in order to survive sanely…