Monday, November 16, 2015

The goblins are back

Around the fire, at the party after my organ concert a few weeks ago, she told me she really liked my comments about the muttering goblins and she'd been able to hear them.


As I've mentioned a few times this year, the absolute music folks aren't going to be happy that I brought ghosts and goblins into a perfectly good organ sonata, and probably cheapened the dignity of some highly regarded classical literature into the bargain. But here's my defense: it is useful as a guide to the listening experience. In fact, it obviously made a connection as evidenced by the woman's comments after the concert.

Alexander Guilmant probably was not thinking about goblins when he wrote his sonata movement. There is nothing programmatic about it--well, maybe we should back up a little. A dictionary definition of absolute music (was it from Harvard's?) called absolute music that which "has no program, or no program the composer wishes to advertise" because you never really know what was in the composer's head at the time.

Being a composer myself, I can tell you that while I do not often use imagery or narrative as part of the formative process of writing a piece, there are times when some sort of emotional impulse leads to a specific choice of melody or harmony--times when a feeling prompts me to play a particular chord on the piano. In that moment, I'm not thinking that I'll put an A major seven flat nine here--I'm not thinking in terms of the names of the chord or the procedure, I'm thinking, or feeling, something not in words, and basically that impulse leads to a chord because I am expressing that thing with the chord the same way our needs to communicate something inside us lead us to make particular word choices, or figures of speech, or speak in long or short sentences. We are translating something that is not words into something that is. The impulse leads to the clarification of that impulse, with music just as in words. Other composers have clearly found inspiration in words and ideas; some are best at setting texts and show little interest in music that operates without some kind of companion for inspiration.

What I'm suggesting is that I don't think simply in terms of compositional procedures--in fact, that is probably only a small (but necessary) part of my thinking. Of course, those impulses can't always be translated into words, or, if they are, the point is that they have to be translated, because English isn't their native language either.

I can't say that all composers everywhere have this type of thing built into their system, but as a creative human, I can say with safety that some people, some times, must be familiar with it.

It is not the analytical language of transition, retransition, exposition, 2nd theme, and so on. Although it is useful as an anatomical language for composers and theorists, it frankly bores me. And I suspect it bores the audience, so when I talk about what to listen for in a piece of music, while I usually key in on the piece's architecture, I seldom use it.

Instead, I'll try to attach something, emotional, experiential, active, or something to the parts of the music, making the necessary disclaimer that this is not a view necessarily endorsed by the composer, nor is it (as I suggested with the Brahmsian ghost story last week) the only way to negotiate the listening experience. It is one useful way among many, just as the piece's meaning, if it is a meritorious piece of music, is hardly exhausted by a single explanation.

So back to the goblins. I had hinted that the opening idea had a rather Halloween, goblinesque association. It was a Halloween concert, after all, and it made sense to connect the ideas. But after the first section ended (2:36), there was something very different waiting for the listeners. The something was a beautiful, hymnlike-melody in a major key. There is nothing odd about this--many composers have contrasting sections in the middle of their pieces. And there is nothing odd about what Guilmant did next, either.

Most composers like to connect their ideas somehow. It seems amateur to simply drop one idea and forget about it, the way people often discuss politics: "and another thing....and that reminds me...they all should just...." tossing disconnected ideas into the ring every thirty seconds without developing any of them. Instead, Guilmant will find a way to work his way back to that first theme, but before he does that, he finds an ingenious way to connect them as well.

Enter the goblins, or rather, let them forget to exit. What I told the audience was that if they listened carefully they could hear, between each phrase of the hymn, the goblins muttering to themselves and biding their time. In just a few seconds, this imaginative shorthand enabled the audience to notice something that very few would have heard otherwise. It is that very rapid pedal figure that flits by at the ends of phrases starting at 2:44.

In anatomical terms, this is a leftover from the first theme, in rapid notes, which contrasts with the slow moving second theme. In a minute or so, Guilmant will begin alternating the themes with more regularity and gradually giving the stage more and more to the first, preparing its return. This is, from a procedural standpoint, pretty basic.

But it's not very alive, then, is it?

Dare I connect an emotion, an image, even a slogan from a horror move (...they're baaaaack!) to describe the hair-raising way in which Guilmant accomplishes this basic architectural feature of a sonata movement? (complete with spectral page turn!)

Why not? It worked. And it took far less time to expound than this blog. It made a connection. Somebody heard something they wouldn't have heard otherwise. Something very interesting a composer did that went by in an instant, but made the piece much more than mundane.

That's what images and ideas do. They help us form our own maps, our own connections to music. They interpret form and structure, as well as local ideas, melodies and rhythms. They are the stuff of us, just as our music is. They are not to be confused with the music itself, and they are not more than the temporary interpretation of it.

But they help us to connect, to relate. And that's significant.


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