Back in high school when I had to share a car with my sister--it would have been the '83 Toyota Tercel that couldn't get to 65 even with the gas-pedal pressed to the floor--she wondered how I didn't fall asleep while listening to classical music as I drove. And I believe it was a Wagner cassette I had left in the car. Wagner! Come on, I mean, if it had been Debussy, maybe I’d understand. Maybe. But, anyway, fast-forward twenty-some years and my wife was playing an opera CD in her Odyssey when one of her friends asked, "How in the world can you stay awake listening to this stuff?" I think it's hard for some people to remember that Bach and Mozart didn't write background music for offices and studies. There's something going on here, and over the past two years, I've been on a mission to clear up some of my own ignorance on the subject. The good news and the bad news is that this mission will be a lifelong endeavor. There’s so much to know.
Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music isn’t a bad place to start. I found his self-admittedly artificial construct of three planes of listening enlightening. “For lack of a better terminology,” Copland wrote, “one might name these: (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, (3) the sheerly musical plane” (7). The school librarian who listens to Mozart while she catalogues new books and writes purchase orders is listening on the sensuous plane. Mozart as background music. Listen to the opening to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the romantic, rising, and ultimately unresolved dissonances (unresolved until Act 3, anyway), and you get the expressive (it’s about love--who hasn’t felt that much longing?) and sheerly musical (it’s done with dissonant chords that don’t resolve). Copland argues we spend too much time in the sensuous plane, but this isn’t so much a chastisement as it is a call to look a little deeper into the music.
Charles Ives, great American composer of the late-19th and early-20th century, is a composer who never bores me while I’m on that long commute to work. He confuses me. The first time I heard his Symphony No. 4 I wondered when it would begin--it sounded like an orchestra warming up. He makes me weak-kneed. Listen to the Michael Tilson Thomas recordings of the second movement of Ives’s Symphony No. 1, the third movement of his Symphony No. 2, and the third movement of his Symphony No. 4. Listen to "The Alcotts" in his “Concord” Piano Sonata. But what about something like the second movement of Ives’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano? Are any of the instruments aware of each other? It sounds like they’re all doing their own thing! I hear snippets of familiar melodies and then some raucous piano playing or stage fiddling diverts my attention. It’s like the ultimate ADHD nightmare--what the hell do I focus on?
Answer: Take your pick! Just focus!
It’s easy to imagine walking down a street at night in New York City with music leaking out of different establishments and coalescing into some glorious mess of different keys and rhythms and melodies. It’s the glorious mess that Ives captured so well. I’m nowhere near intelligent enough on the matter to explain how he makes it work (read the great Jan Swafford biography or check out what Michael Tilson Thomas has to say about the man), but it works.
I was driving to work one day soon after reading an explanation of what is going on in the second movement of Ives’s Symphony No. 4 (titled Comedy, appropriately enough--composers have senses of humor) when it struck me Ives had captured life in the 21st century. Our environment is full of stimuli--sound stimuli like sirens, horns, bells, chimes. Tactical stimuli like buzzing notifications, the depressing of a keyboard key. Add to that all the screens we’re surrounded by--surrounded by CNN at the airport, teachers spending entire planning periods in front of a monitor, children staring down at tablets. It’s all in the Comedy --the confusion and brief moments of clarity and beauty that rise up out of the fog (or is it storm?) of our daily lives. And then there’s the beauty of the whole. This music, it’s a day-in-the-life of just about any person, anywhere. There’s enough complexity in Ives (and in life) to keep a mind intrigued for a very long time. If I don’t let it just wash over me. If I pay attention to what it all means and how it all works.
So we come back to the critics of classical listening in cars. If some people consider classical music as great accompaniment for bookstore browsing and nothing more, then I understand why it would put them to sleep. But if people are listening for depth--what does it mean (in a general sense)? how did the composer do that?--then classical music will put demands on their attention they never knew were possible. Cool! Cooler yet is the way this focus impacts other areas of your attention.
Take the medium I work in, writing. I read plenty of mysteries and thrillers for sheer escape (the sensuous level?). But I also read plenty of books at deeper levels. Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, of course, but also modern greats like Russell Banks and Toni Morrison. Read Dennis Lehane and get “lose yourself in it” stories but also tremendous thematic depth. I also find that Aaron Copland’s three planes apply to a way of looking at life in general. Like every generation that’s walked this earth, there’s a lot going on around us, a lot of change, a lot of distraction. Do we simply accept what is? Mindless acceptance of the march of progress? Adopt these slick devices, the constant connectivity, a world of information at our fingertips? Or do we stop for a moment and think about what all the change means, and how it changes us? (Nicholas Carr and James Gleick are good guides.) Dig deeper into one art and you end up digging deeper into everything. Dig deeper into everything and you’ll never find yourself bored.
Source: Copland, Aaron, Alan Rich, and Leonard Slatkin. What to Listen for in Music. New York, N.Y: Signet Classics, 2011. Print.
Ray Stickle reads a lot and writes daily. For progress reports, updates on any upcoming releases, and the occasional thought or two, check here.