Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Music..some ramblings...

Elevator music, recorded music in restaurants, the incessant jingle-jangle in mall stores, people with earplugs piping in their own tonal requirements are a few signs of the pervasiveness of this addiction the human race has for music. Musical genres are a rainbow of national cultures and some are so different as to be nearly unintelligible from one country to another. An Indian friend once told my father that he just couldn’t get into western harmony...too many strands to follow. I find Native American drum and chant music fascinating, but difficult to understand in a similar opposite way.

There are ways to be open to the world’s expressions of this art. It was late at night and I was driving home from a meeting in a city several hours from home. Browsing the radio for something to keep me awake I came across a female choral group on a PBS station startlingly different from anything I’d ever encountered in my jaded musical life. The words weren’t English, there was a rich, strange harmony, but it wasn’t based on western models. Vocal production was highly nuanced from stringent and harsh to velvety seductive. Determined to play musical detective I ran through all the possibilities, except music from another world and could find no parallel. It held me in thrall as great art should and I eagerly awaited to hear the announcer tell the group’s name and ethnicity. It was the Bulgarian Woman’s Chorus . (Listen with your eyes closed and then with them open to have some inkling of what I was experiencing that night many years ago.)

Bulgaria, a small country with an ancient history of civilization mixing. European and Middle Eastern musical traditions colliding and competing and finally blending and forming a new color in music’s spectrum. What attracted me was the artistry, the precision of vocal attack, release, and timbre unanimity. It was obvious that what I was hearing was a finely honed and disciplined ensemble and the strangeness of it’s other architectures served only to make it more intriguing. I made a mental note to see if I could purchase their performance on CD’s and to my delight, the local music store was able to find and order it for me. Looking them up on “YouTube” was delighted to find them there also.

Which brings me to “YouTube”. What a repository of most anything that has ever been put on film! Since our move to Richmond I’ve been involved with a symphony and several string quartets. I needed to learn music that I had only heard of and quickly. Just barely knew that “YouTube” earlier computers were too slow to use this medium effectively. Early on I needed to know how a Brahm’s Sextet should sound. On the spur of the moment I entered it into my browser and voila, there were several complete performances to select from which to learn! Would never have thought it possible to find something so esoteric.

In American culture there is a sub strand of what I will designate as “youth music”. It is a whole universe and each devotee believes his group will last until the end of time. There are new ways to propagate these emanations and those that speak to the universal human condition may survive a generation or more. But there is so much common “ ham hocks and beans” with groups imitating each other that one has to listen long and arduously to discover the unusual and artistic. Perhaps this is the function of the late night PBS disc jockey to discover and promote the new and unusual.

Because of an early life in India, I encountered its music as a child before western music. I didn’t like western “geets” and so expressed my early preferences. That must have spurred my father to begin my violin lessons. He did let me learn how to play a few “tabla” rhythms and learn something about the techniques and esthetics associated with them. I’m indebted to his broad minded approach to all things musical. In my young adulthood I would hear a live concert by Ravi Shankar and several decades later attend a blend of East Meets West concert when his daughter, Anoushka, performed sitar ragas in Roanoke. I blogged about that event and invite you to read it, if you’re interested, on my blog “Garumchai” You will also find clips of Ravi and Anoushka performing on “YouTube”.

Many years ago there were rumors that symphonic music because it was “museum music” and expensive to reproduce would go the way of the dinosaurs. Interestingly that has not been the case. Yes, some orchestras may disband temporarily because of economic downturns, but just in my life time I have seen Virginia’s own growth of symphonies from three or four, one in each major metropolitan area to one on almost each university and college campus. There are a number of youth and volunteer symphonies and some of the richer public high schools have creditable orchestras of their own.

Because it begins its life in the human intellect, music continues to evolve in all its forms and threads The fine minds in each community are attracted to the live study and performance of their great music wherever they live.. Much of it is banal, but there will always be examples that dazzle from virtuosity or art. Great music has a long life span. Some of it seems capable of living as long as human life continues. Philosophers and rulers will continue to try to understand the place and function of music in our existence. There will always be the great debates about “The Mozart Effect” on one hand and the “ruining of this generation’s mind with degenerate music” on the other. Because music can be such an intimate art, it follows that at least some music is powerfully linked to courtship and sex, very basic human activities and interests. Hence the myriad love songs one encounters all over the world.

Music attends many other human functions. There is ceremonial music for worship and military functions. It helps celebrate marriages and eases the parting of death. It is the engine that energizes and inspires dance. Without music most of our entertainment media would be boring, it is the music that tells us what we should feel about what is about to happen. Good music, good food, good companions, and scintillating conversation is usually hoped for at dinner parties.

It is my great privilege to be able to make, teach, and use music. Do I relish silence sometimes? Absolutely!

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