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In praise of challenging music

In praise of challenging music

As a gaijin living in England, my experience of sushi has traditionally been very ‘western’: recognisable bits of fish (tuna, salmon) or seafood (crab, prawn, maybe octopus) with rice, seaweed, and wasabi. OK, so there is always ikura (salmon roe) with its little bright orange bubbles and unagi (eel), although this last is proving unsustainable (catfish sushi may be a handy replacement). But the really challenging sushi remained elusive. No way was I ever going to eat uni, those dark orange pillows made of the reproductive organs of sea urchins. Ugh!

Then I tried it. It has a creamy texture, with a surprisingly light, sweet, briny flavour with a long aftertaste of the sea. It’s like ocean-fresh custard. It also contains small amounts of a euphoria-inducing neurotransmitter called anandamide, although I doubt the phrase “stoned on sea urchin gonads” will ever make it into common parlance. But, the point of uni is that it’s challenging and it’s flavour is complicated – like a fine wine or a good cheese. It’s not ‘adult sweets’; not something that is an immediate taste sensation, but a thing you need to be more grown up about. Ultimately uni sushi is something a westerner approaches with a sense of excitement, interest, and open-mindedness… or the deal is off.

So it is with some music.

Whether through proliferation or commercialisation, for many people music has stopped being something to inspire, offend, impassion, and challenge people. We can do ‘moving’ and ‘stirring’ relatively easily: Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his Ninth Symphony is stirring stuff and movie score composer Hans Zimmer manages to instil these emotions in almost every soundtrack he works on, even if sometimes he recycles the same melody (for example, compare ‘Roll Tide’ from Crimson Tide with ‘Battle’ from Gladiator, and then listen to the soundtracks of The Rock and Pirates of the Caribbean). But, we as music lovers should strive to dig deeper into our musical consciousness. We should seek out the challenging music.

The last century and a half of orchestral music has provided us with a number of powerful works that were not composed as a confection for a Hapsburg prince, or as background to an action hero movie. Music in the Classical era and before required patronage, and it’s only been the last 150 or so years that a composer had the freedom of writing music for a wider concert-going audience that we’ve been able to explore beyond the musical foundations laid down by Bach. But the free market has its downside – pandering to a lowest common denominator.

The classical recorded market is a perfect example of the best and worst of that free market environment. It’s possible now to collect great recordings of some of the most challenging works every produced, should you so wish. And yet, the shelves of surviving generalist record stores selling classical music are filled with non-threatening musical trivialities played by Bright Young Things. The hope was that a beautiful cellist on the cover will act as an introduction to classical music, but there seems to be little follow-up from these purchases.

I don’t think the answer is for music stores and classical music radio stations to put up a barrier of Stockhausen to protect against the hoi polloi from polluting classical music, but I think it behoves all music lovers to explore the outer regions of the music we love. It also behoves us to impart that love of music to anyone willing to share.

Despite my little dig at Hans Zimmer’s soundtracks earlier, I think film scores do introduce people to classical music more effectively than almost anything else today. More people have been inspired to delve deeper into modern classical music through hearing Ligeti’s ‘Lux Aeterna’ in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Philip Glass’ soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi (and more recently The Hours), or Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer as the haunting theme to Badlands, than through listening to classical radio stations. Sadly, the use of complex music in movie scores is in decline, replaced instead by powerful rock soundtracks to summer blockbusters.

For those of us already developing an interest in classical music, go deeper. Admittedly, some of the more structurally dense atonal and music concrete works of the 20th Century are extremely demanding (someone moving from Mozart to Pierre Schaeffer in one jump will very probably jump back to Mozart fast), there are transition points that introduce the listener to the complexity of more challenging music. Search out Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, or Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht as good and accessible starting places, as they still call upon traditional concepts of melody, harmony, and rhythm, while introducing more intellectually challenging concepts of chromatics, modernism, serialism, key modulation, and dissonance. These pieces retain much of the beauty of Romanticism, but express darker themes without 19th Century polishing.

From here, music can take turns through jazz, folk music, experiments with different tonal structures or even atonality, introduction of more complex time signatures, non-standard orchestral instruments, tapes and treated instruments, and more. The middle-late 20th Century became a very strange musical place with experiments in tape loops, early synthesisers, and other experiments that make no sense to the uninitiated (and not much sense to the cognoscenti). And, to be fair, these almost unlistenable compositions from the 1950s and 1960s have largely faded as composers adopt a more synoptic view of composition in recent years. There is still much to be had in listening to the hypnotic exploration of resonance from Alvin Lucier’s 1969 composition “I am sitting in a room”, but it also is a work of minimalism very much in its own time, and the musical world has moved on. Arguably the ‘Earthrise’ image taken by astronaut William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 was the most significant event to happen to modern classical music, because it turned composers away from decades of introspection and outward to contemplating nature and the universe. Whether directly or not, the difference between the introverted minimalism of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ (from 1964) and Arvo Pärt’s ‘Fur Alina’ composed a dozen years later is marked.

Audiophiles have long been skirting around more complex music, as many enthusiasts’ collections include the ECM version of Arvo Pärt’s beautiful, minimalist Tabula Rasa or even Spiegel im Spiegel. These are powerful, contemplative works and well worth seeking out.

I guess we all have our limits, whether musical or culinary. Staying with Japanese food, that’s very likely konowata, or sea cucumber intestines. And with music, it’s probably listening to Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It’s a brilliant piece of microtonality, rightfully and genuinely disturbing, and sounds like someone torturing 52 stringed instruments to death over eight and a half minutes. Which is possibly entirely relevant and fitting given the subject matter, but something I find just too challenging. For now.


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