27.1.12

rethinking music...

This post isn't talking about Chinese music per se, but is just a random rambling on something I've been thinking about quite a lot lately. Been reading this book, "Rethinking Music" which as a result, subsequently formed the title of this post, and it made me think.

We've always assumed music to be a form of art. But how do we qualify and quantify music as art? Can we qualify and quantify music as art?

Now, what constitutes art? From the wikipedia, it states that "Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions and intellect."

So if the basic premise that music is an art holds true, then how does it affect the senses, emotions and intellect? In other words, how does it express what it intends to express? Is the understanding of music universal?

Can one born into a Western culture hear Carnatic music and understand innately what it is trying to communicate? Can a Chinese from a rural village, without having any prior contact with Western Classical music understand what Mozart is wanting to communicate in his 40th Symphony? The list goes on.

Probably at the topmost layer, we could qualify music as whether they "sound nice" or not. This aspect does not involve delving into the deeper issues of aesthetics but rather, on the surface, of whether sounds feel comfortable or not. And it is actually a very scientific process which is probably innate. Music has physical properties - what constitutes music are the presence and absence of sounds - and sounds are made up of physical waves. And these waves behave and have certain properties which cannot be changed. And any person who can hear will be able to feel the consonance of two sine waves meeting together in an octave or the dissonance of two sine waves clashing in a second.

Underneath that however lies much deeper issues. Being able to feel the consonance of an octave or a fifth does not give an indication of how the brain of that person will cognizize the octave or the fifth. A consonance might mean something for people of a culture and mean a totally different thing for one of another culture.

So what happens now? If music is not that canonical universal language people have been saying it is, what is music?

I think, the understanding of music as a universal language, that is to say to have two people from entirely different musical backgrounds react with the same responses to a single piece of music, does not happen.

Does that take away music's worth? Does it mean that music actually doesn't mean anything? On the contrary, I believe what does happen however, is the innate ability for everyone to learn to understand music according to their own cultural conventions. So within a culture with people fluent in a certain musical language, similar ideas can be conveyed, similar emotions can be evoked.

That music is actually not the universal language we fallaced it to be simply means that, music is not a universal language. But it doesn't mean that music cannot be an instrument of conveying ideas and emotions. It only means that to understand what is being conveyed, we need to learn the language. (And this serves as the perfect argument we need much more resources for a comprehensive musical education, does it not?)

The aesthetics of music, of what constitutes beauty and not, as a result, is far from straightforward. Because the aesthetics have to be embedded in each culture we intend to study, instead of being a universally recognized entity.

I can not say for other societies and cultures, or the amount and type of work they've done to increase understanding of their own particular music, but within the society I am in, Western Classical and Chinese traditional music are two major forms of music our people have easy access to. (Of course Malay traditional music and Indian traditional music as well, and many forms of pop music but I shall talk about the two major music cultures I'm most familiar with and which is easily accessible to the population at large.)

Now, ever since the beginning of the twentieth century when China opened her doors to the rest of the world, there has been a great influx and assimilation of Western musical ideas. So much so that we can now very easily draw a huge parallel to Western music, in terms of instrumentation, formal and structural analyses for new Chinese compositions. However because of this as well, a lot of the nuances of Chinese traditional music has been lost too.

Take for example our appreciation for the aesthetics of Chinese musical sound. More and more so, we are approaching the Western ideal in beauty of sound. With an ever increasing bass section, changes in construction of orchestral instruments such that they tend towards mellower, more easily merged sounds, our entire soundscape of Chinese traditional music has changed vastly over the past century. Instruments that are too unique in a sense, are taken away from the orchestral because of the difficulty in merging their sounds according to the Western tradition. But it is precisely these unique sounds which are characteristic of Chinese traditional music.

Aesthetic philosophies are changing as well. Moderation, not being overly dramatic, are the ideals Confucian ethics sought for. But too much internalizing and too little dramatizing of music makes listeners of the present feel like the music is flat and boring.

Discussing all these however, is a two-edged sword. How much can we reconcile going back to the past and understanding the folk traditions and philosophers of ancient China when in actuality, many new compositions of Chinese music nowadays are written with Western ideologies and aesthetic ideals in mind. And how far can modern-day audiences appreciate and understand the ancient Chinese classics with their modern-day understanding of musical aesthetics of the West?

Will there be a similar appreciation of Chinese classical music in the present as there was 2000 years ago during the time of Confucius? I believe not. Can there be with someone being very versed in the ancient Chinese classics and history and philosophy? I would think there can be a closer approximation, but never the same. After all, music can never be stagnant. We can recreate, but at the end of it, it is still a re-creation and not the actual thing.

But it does also mean that we can more closely appreciate what a certain music is trying to convey when we understand more about its history, philosophies, ideas and thoughts behind its composition and performance process.

I really am rambling. But the main point is, music understanding and appreciation is a learned process. The ability to learn this understanding, like language, is innate, not the understanding. Hence to fully appreciate and grasp what the music is trying to convey will certainly involve not only the music itself, but everything behind it as well.

2 comments:

  1. Been listening to and researching traditional Chinese music for a decent chunk of the day. Arrived at your blog through http://2centsmusic.blogspot.com/2013/01/chinese-music-theory.html, then found "Rethinking Music".

    I appreciate your universal approach to considering the language of music, and expressing the idea that music is no more universal than speech. One can only perceive what the musician is communicating to the extent that the listener is familiar with the musician's culture.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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