During my tour, I have been lecturing about the future of artistic music in the 21st Century and as part of that lecture, I ask my audience what their definition of music is. The number of music students who haven’t thought deeply about this and generally accept John Cage’s definition of “organized sound” without much questioning surprises me. Cage’s definition is good, as it is very inclusive, but in my mind only addresses the craft aspect of music. In my opinion, a good definition of music needs to include the emotional as well as the intellectual side of the art.
The best definition I have found comes from Jon Winsor. In his book, “Breaking The Sound Barrier: An Argument for Mainstream Literary Music”, he says, “Music is the use of sound to represent biological rhythm”. By this he means that music should have both the tensions and relaxations that are present in life. All elements of music can have these tensions and relaxations and when the elements work together symbiotically, the emotional impact is usually strongest. When composers isolate the musical elements and focus on just one or two, in my opinion, the emotional impact is weakened. For example, a composition that is concerned mainly with timbre and does not concern itself with the biological rhythm of melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, etc., leaves an audience cold regarding the musical expression. The piece may be logically conceived, but other than the changing timbres, there is not much interest.
Leonard Bernstein, in his Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973, uses language as a way of explaining music. In one of his experiments, he equates a noun or noun phrase with a musical motif or theme. An adjective would be equated with a chordal modifier and a verb with rhythm. In order for language to make syntactical sense and have semantic communication, at least these three language components must be present. For example, “The long (adjective) hours (noun) drag (verb) on.” If a sentence only has one of these components, for example nouns, the sentence may be colorful, but lacks meaning (example: hours, days, minutes, years, weeks) and certainly a clear emotional impact. The same is true with music if melody, tonality, harmonic progression, counterpoint, are minimized or eliminated in favor of timbre.
I found myself totally mystified by what some academic composers consider music at a recital of 21st century music that was presented at a recent conference. While I appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into these compositions, the emphasis on timbre at the expense of logical development of other elements left me cold. In addition, the heavy use of dissonance and tone clusters also inhibited the listener from feeling humanly connected, as these types of sounds appear only in the upper reaches of the overtone series where they are technically present, but not audible by the human ear.
Robert Ehle in his article “From Sound To Silence: The Classical Tradition and the Avant-Garde” Music Educators Journal, March, 1979, states that “the quest for new ideas without old associations has led to the abandonment of music as sound in favor of music as pure idea.” Roland Nadeau in his article “The Crisis of Tonality: What is the Avant-Garde?” Music Educators Journal, March, 1981, illustrates how composers have systematically eliminated each aspect of music culminating in John Cage’s “4:33” where composed sounds no longer occurred. Perhaps the next step is the elimination of the audience itself? Some food for thought.