Friday, March 4, 2011

The Journey vs. The Moment in Music

Yep, just click to--just kidding!
(click the link to the left to check it out)
In his book Te Deum: The Church and Music, Paul Westermeyer reminds us that during the baroque period in music (from roughly 1600 with Giulio Caccini's collection called Le Nuove Musiche (1602) to the death of J.S. Bach in 1750), "tonality developed from the modal system into the major and minor keys we now take for granted."  He goes on to point out that "tonality increased the possibilities for both drama and length of musical pieces.  After a key was established, another (related) key could be introduced to set up a longing for the home key."  Back in music school I remember studying sonatas and concertos from the classical era and thinking, in a quite monotone inner-monologue: "wow, you've established a key and moved to the dominant and back, how very exciting."

But now I think about WHY it was so prevalent at that time to set up a key and switch to another-- so prevalent that it became ubiquitous and, to my ego-infused early college self, "old hat"--at the time it was the latest exciting innovation in composition!

I love those moments studying history when you truly get a glimpse into the way people might have actually thought and felt at the time.  This is when history ceases to be an endless and seemingly incoherent stream of events, and it becomes LIFE.  It's like the moment in math when what has been a crazy jumble suddenly clicks into place and you see how everything relates to everything else.  This feeling is wonderfully and entertainingly depicted in this video I saw recently:

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus:
The classic example of the classical ideal:
balance, harmony, and of course, seashells.
But what I really wanted to blog about was this feeling in music (and in life) of The Journey-- in Sonata Form, for example, you start out in one key, with one set of themes and feelings (the "exposition"), and no sooner do you get comfortable with it that you're carried off to a fantastic land that may or may not at all resemble home (the "development"...the dark night of the sonata, if you will), and later you return home (the "recapitulation") to find things even better than you left them (albeit probably with a few extra V chords).  This motif is often reflected in theological perspectives of the time.  One idea is that you start in one spiritual place, and at some point in the future something fantastical and maybe wonderful and maybe scary happens (you find church, you have a spiritual awakening), and then you return home rejuvenated.  Or the ultimate adventure carries you away-- death-- and you end up in an even better home: heaven.

An incredible composer, and a
bronze adonis to boot:
This classical focus on the Journey as a balanced, delineated story contrasts interestingly with the contemporary practice of composition in both the jazz and "classical" realms.  These days we often seem more fascinated with sonorous chords that are beautiful unto themselves; jazz artists and composers like Eric Whitacre like to stack notes upon notes, thirds upon thirds, playing with different colors, different textures of sound.  In the Baroque and Classical periods people were fascinated with the journey from chord to chord and key to key, and (decreasingly over time into the Romantic period) back to the original.  This reflects a focus on balance and structure characteristic of these periods, a paradigm that, like all norms, began to be questioned and break down almost as soon as it was established.  In contrast, in the world of jazz and composition of the twentieth century and today, we have been and are very taken with just sitting in the beautiful moment of a lovely, unique and complex chord.

We can easily carry this idea into our personal and spiritual lives.  Yes, we are on a journey.  Yes, we are looking forward to future "developments."  But every moment along the journey is the beginning.  It is so incredibly important for us to sit with ourselves, to sit with each other, to deeply listen to the vibrant, resonating chords of our being, and to know that this moment, now, is complex, unique, balanced, and