It is difficult to discover one word which adequately and non-misleadingly describes what is today called “music” and what used to go by that name a century or more ago. The word should be statistical in the sense that music are the sounds which one encounters more than any other (and not necessarily what one listens to purposely).
For example, the average citizen in these United States is likely to hear rock produced from latter portion of the twentieth century when in grocery stores, houseware shops, and department stores; the same genre but of more recent vintage when in convenience stores or coffee shops, cafes, and the like; and a mysterious headache-inducing pounding emanation by the name of “hip hop” when in bars, or on beaches and other outdoor spaces.
Incidentally, my theory for the latter is that these sounds are generated by algorithm to cause the aforementioned pain, the kind of which can only be relieved by consuming massive amounts of alcohol—sold, of course, at high margins. We must admit that this is more effective than over-salting the free popcorn.
What are we to call this constellation of sound? Modern places it too squarely in time, and leaves our heirs in a jam because they will have to discover a new word to describe what they listen to in the future. Popular doesn’t work, because there will always be a genre which is the most popular (kind of like how there will always be a “leading cause of death”). Perhaps rock suffices if that word is interpreted to mean what is commonly thought of as “rock” plus its many derivatives.
Now what about those sounds from Rachmaninoff, Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and the like? The word most use is classical. And that’s fine, in its way. But it is defeatist, too. Classical means, in part, “that which belongs to antiquity.” Static museum pieces. Mention classical music and one imagines hearing a piece one has heard many times before, a piece from a limited repertoire. Mozart is not, after all, writing new symphonies.
Sometimes classical is labeled art music, but given what has happened to art over the past century, this is an insult. We could use beautiful since most of it is, especially in comparison to such things as this1. But it is only most, not all. There are, after all, folks like Philip Glass lurking in the margins.
And then there is Nico Muhly, subject of a glowing piece in The Telegraph (he has also been praised by the New York Times). The writer is under the impression that Muhly’s work is “classical.” Presumably this is because he does not use the electric guitars or computer programs which churn out today’s music.
Muhly, a sweet-faced young man whose haircut resembles the kind of expensive “designer” jeans which come with pre-ripped holes and bare spots, instead composes with noise.
I’m constantly recording ambient, unchanging noises. I stayed in a hotel in the Netherlands last month where the elevator shaft had this glorious hum of an open fifth. The air conditioner in my house is this sort of E-flat, the hiss of unconnected electronics, the buzz of a halogen lamp…
His best known composition is entitled “Drones & Piano.” And this is exactly what it is. Droning noises and a piano played with a fitful fist, jamming notes into the air in the way today’s poets scatter words across a page. Which is to say, randomly. Don’t take my word for it. The Telegraph embeds this piece at the bottom of its article. I myself was able to listen to nearly one minute of Part I, “Bedroom Community.”
The paper calls the sounds of this Part “a paranoid, hypnotic piano layered over a warm string hum.”
Viola drones continue into Part II jabbed with staccato jerks and pretty chords. Part III moves forward with brio and speed. Here, the string drones become a bee’s nest and the piano, sounding like a nest of wires, gets more and more tangled before a gentle, quiet coda segues perfectly into Part IV. This track feels like a fresh, dewy dawn.
I listened to the opening strains (yes) of each Part and I’m fairly sure that each repeats; the whole thing sounds like a twenty-second loop endlessly repeating.
Now, the reason this is important is that the paper and Muhly himself calls this stuff “classical.” And proudly. He believes himself to be continuing in the tradition of Hayden, Telemann, and so forth. He says, “The internet is filled with people saying that blah blah classical music is dying blah blah.” (This quotation shows that the mental processes which given Muhly his words also supplies his notes.) Of the doomsayers, “Chances are, they are being paid to say this.”
Nobody is paying me, Mr Muhly, but if classical music lives, you are not providing it life support. But least you have provided us something to listen to which is worse than the Beatles.
1Found by searching “hip hop charts”, clicking the first link, and selecting the third most popular song