Friday, January 10, 2014

The World Is My Parish

It is "Baptism of the Lord" Sunday this week, and as we usually emphasis water as a visual aid and a theme, I often play pieces of music having to do with water. This year I've finally gotten around to a piece from one of the books I was given while playing concerts in Taiwan some 12 years ago. The title of it was translated for me as "Flowing Water." I'm going to play it for you in a moment.

I've been struggling with the piece all week. It isn't that the piece is all that technically difficult--it isn't especially easy, though, so I had been wondering, coming out of a very busy Christmas season and generally exhausted for about 4 days after the New Year's Eve Concert, whether I'd be able to make a start on it soon enough to be able to play it. I found after a few days that the piece would probably be ready just in time, and the snow and extreme cold we've had in Illinois at the start of the week provided a chance to stay home and practice in a relatively stress-free environment.

The struggle has been more philosophical. I've been wondering whether the piece really works. The opening is beautiful, and some of the later ideas are wonderfully atmospheric, and grand, but I'm not so sure about the coherence. The harmonies, in particular, don't go where I want them to go, and, given the strange state of discontinuity between them, I've had occasion to wonder if this is simply a bad piece, and if I should simply not waste time practicing it. It may be beautiful in places, but if it doesn't hang together it won't get past my ears, or those of anyone else who listens for musical sense.

But there is the question of culture. The music was written by a Chinese composer. We don't know who because the individual names aren't listed in this "collection of Chinese tunes piano." Recall the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic games in which one could see how important it was to be a cog in an immense and well-synchronized wheel, and where individuals are not important on their own. When I was given the book I was told this is a part of the communist philosophy. Of course, that position was represented to me by citizens of Democratic Taiwan. The two countries (or one, depending on who you are talking to) do not have a cozy relationship.

It is not especially desirable to be critical of a culture you do not understand very well. And I have been wondering, given the sheer foreignness of this very Eastern piece to the ears of this very Western gentleman, whether the fault is with the piece or with me. It is certainly possible that this particular book does not exactly represent the high water mark of musical composition in China, and that, just as there are plenty of composers in this country who are able to compose pieces for the piano that sound pretty but don't go anywhere, that have ideas but are not able to develop them, or maintain their musical focus long enough to create a line, explore more than the most obvious possibilities, and ultimately create something that will engage the mind as well as the senses, there must obviously be a talented few in China and a number of also-rans. Not possessing more than a few books from this enormous cultural storehouse, how would I know?

In the other corner there is that possibility that I just don't get it. For the most part, my questions are about harmonic continuity. But is this of value in the culture in which it was written? Or do the ears perceive this differently?

Consider this: how different Mandarin is from English. In the first place, it is a language which is constructed of vast numbers of quasi-pictorial, labor-intensive characters, rather than an assemblage of 26 letters which are simply strung together in combination to make sounds. Mandarin is also a very musical language, in which the speaker often changes pitch to indicate difference in words which might otherwise be identical. Obviously the cadences in Mandarin are very different as is apparent to anyone who has heard a Chinese person speak English. But it is also, I think, not a property of Mandarin speech to necessarily fall at the ends of sentences, the way speakers of Romance Languages tend to do, causing a cadence (the verb "cadare," to fall) which indicates finality.

Those already represent some radically different fundamental assumptions about the way in which communication ought to happen. Consider how they might be carried into music. The pentatonic scale, which I am told is only a partially accurate representation of the notes used in much Eastern music, is, to Western ears, "missing" two notes that are not only an important part of a lot of Western music, they virtually drive most of it. It is those two notes which cause tension and which call for harmonic resolution. Our experience of having a need and driving toward a musical goal is not a universal assumption, nor a universal philosophy nor a universal experience of life.

This is not simply an "academic" question, for if I understand the piece differently, I will play it differently. It may be that if I am able to "resolve" some core issue at the heart of the piece's construction, I will do a better job of making it successful for my audience. It often happens that at one moment music seems muddled and poorly written, and the next, through a change of emphasis, perhaps of not overstating unimportant details, or of making a clear, bold announcement of the music's essential line of thought, that the same piece of music has suddenly been granted a much better position, as if its composer had instantly gained a great deal of mastery in the art of composition!

This approach is fundamentally different from that of past centuries. When Methodism's unintentional founder, John Wesley, said "The world is my parish" he may have reflected a concern for people far beyond his own piece of real estate. It was also an ambitious proclamation. And for years before and after, whenever Christians had dealings with China, or any other exotic foreign lands, they tended to assume that folks there were in need of what Westerners could bring them, because theirs was a superior culture with a superior understanding, not just in terms of having the correct religious notions, but with more developed ideas about industry and economy. Such an arrogance would not bother to consider whether, when at an impasse, the fault lay with the Westerner or the Easterner or both, or whether there was a lack of understanding involved, it would naturally be for the Easterner to adjust to the Westerner's views of the matter. Bred in such an environment, one should unquestionably assume that any standard of musical integrity to which a "foreign" piece of music did not cleave was the music's fault, not one's own. Thus, the lack of harmonic coherence must be because the composer doesn't know any better. Let us teach him (and add paternalism to arrogance).

It is, however, tempting to want to see a lack of harmonic sophistication at work here. One need not be limited to potential generalizations of other cultures. There are examples closer to home. I can't help thinking, for example, of pieces by Michael Praetorius, in which the final chord has nothing at all to do with the tonal framework but simply reflects local considerations--in other words, if the final note of the chant is an E, that is the piece's final harmony, no matter whether it was prepared in advance. Melodic and harmonic inflection in pieces of the Renaissance often do not go where our modern ears would like--and these were the professionals of their era. It is easy to think them crude by our standards. Popular musicians often think in chords, and allow several notes to move in the same direction, not thinking of the various notes individually, as with a polyphonic texture in which each voice moves separately. This is much harder to do, and there are few examples of composers who did it well, almost all in Europe, several of them named Bach! Most indigenous music throughout the world moves in blocks of parallel harmony. It can be argued that a knowledgeable composer with the ability to think in multiple voices might at times choose to composer in blocks of parallel harmony (Debussy) but it is just as likely that much music eschews this because it is just too hard for the untrained.

And supposing it is a lack? What then? Is there a way for me to play the piece which will cover up this shortcoming? Even if it is really no fault of the composer within their culture, if my ears cannot accept it, what then? As of writing this blog I am playing some passages such that I bring out the melody greatly, and leave the harmonic filling out much less, so that there is a larger dynamic difference than there would be otherwise. The harmonies are closer to overtones under this scheme. It seems to work.

It is a kind of musical transliteration, I suppose. But then, the composer has already modeled a bit of that. The music was written for a Western instrument--the piano was invented in Italy. While the title is in Chinese the musical expression markings are all in Italian. Beside the standard "Andante cantabile" and "molto riterdando" there are a few (from other pieces) that are quite amusing. My favorite features one of several terms that are completely made up--this one is also redundant: "allegro fastoso." I get the point, however.

I'll never meet this person and I'll never know how the music sounded to him or her, or how they played it. Although you never know. Youtube can be a glorious thing. In the quest for understanding, and for overcoming the natural parochialism of human beings, one frequently encounters things tantalizingly out of reach of one's understanding. The important thing, I think, is to keep asking questions.

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