Musically Speaking is the beginning of many sentences in my day to day. Very often musicians find themselves having to explain what it is they do. In general, people are so busy that music exists on the periphery for them, as something to pass the time in the car, on the train or while working out. Music for use has been a concept for as long as there has been music. What began as a way to move together then became a way to worship together which then became a way to enjoy others singing poetry, etc. Somehow after the Romantic era there came this notion of music not needing to mean anything. How then would it have any relevance to anyone’s life with no charm whatsoever to recommend itself to a listener’s attention, let alone their rapt contemplation on the psyche, the world, etc. Music has been used to keep people in step or make them look good and show off at parties, to scare people, make sure brides and grooms don’t rush down aisles.
The main ingredient in a good piece of music for me is the direction it’s going in, if any. I find myself listening for where the thrust of the music might be headed. When I hear something ear-catching I wait in patience for that part to recur. This is not to say that I have no affection for non-repetitive music made up of novel sounds that may refer to something else. If I can discern a language either of context within or reference to some story or structure without, I’m happy. So, Musically Speaking is just that to me, Music that speaks.
With all of the signals we learn how to decipher in our lives, it’s only fair that a composer use as many as necessary to get an audiences attention. A blues tune can be imbedded in a string quartet just like a folk inspired melody can be the starting point for a serious piece of new music. A different setting for a certain “sign sound” can find its way into many forms of music. Some of the most beloved music of all time refers to other sounds found in nature or made by man. Handel’s Water Music isn’t about the water and contains no water sounds, it’s enough to listen to the majestic strains and envision yourself watching the great spectacle on the water that the music was commissioned for.
Birds have had a great part in the history of music. There’s a certain drama in the repetitiveness of birds. You don’t know what they’re saying, but it’s compelling. I like this as an element in all kinds of music. If it’s not telling a specific story like “A Hero’s Journey” or some such thing, I’ll add one as I’m listening to it. I used to do this endlessly when I was in school and we would all be in stitches over it. People need drama and action in their music just like they do in their movies and there’s plenty of that in all kinds of music.
Another interesting part of the music we listen to is the idea of music to relax to. Quiet, consonant music is generally thought of as something to sleep to but I find that dissonant music if presented correctly, in a language that can be understood can be just a soothing. Just listen to Giacinto Scelsi, Cage, Brown, Takemitsu, Glass, or Feldman to name a few who use systems of their own to write music that speaks a language all its own.
Come to concerts with an open mind, but demand that there be some sort of discourse coming from the stage to you. And please, please never come just because it’s all familiar music. Art can’t hurt you.