Vidas: Let’s start Episode 155 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Leon, and he writes:
“Thanks for the thought-provoking complex question on how some people hate most modern music. Perhaps it would also help to read some texts on the history of music. Irving Kolodin's "The Continuity of Music" would get him to the 20th century. And then if there is a music school near him, or even now via the internet where he could take a course, even a seminar on 20th century music, that would help.
As for myself, it seems to be very random what I have liked and not. For example, I do not like much of Xenakis' music, but his lone organ work, Gmeeoorh, is actually very well structured, and one of my fantasies to be some day to play. After a couple of big Bach works and the Reubke sonata. And a Vierne, etc. Bottom line, sometimes nightmares can become part of the dream, and eventually as you remind us: miracles happen!”
Ausra, what Leon is saying probably is that music that we dislike in the beginning sort of grows on you later, especially complex modern music. Do you have this experience in your life?
Ausra: Yes, yes, definitely.
V: Does your taste change over time, or not?
A: Sure, of course. I remember when we first met, I sort of liked early music more. And I was a fan of Buxtehude and Bach; and I still am. And I remember you were a fan of Hindemith and more modern music, yes? So...And actually, you know, during our studies in Lithuania, I would say we had fairly incomplete education in terms of modern music. Because all the focus was based on the common period, and we did not know much about early music and, I mean, about the Middle Ages, and Renaissance music, and early Baroque music. We did not listen much, and we hadn’t studied much of it. And also, of the modern music, because sort of my knowledge before going to the United States was ended up somewhere with the New Vienna School--meaning Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. I did not know much about later composers of the 20th century; and about the beginning of the 21st century. And then, you know, in the States, during our doctoral studies, we moved to the part of music history first, of the second half of the 20th century; and it really widened up my horizons, because I learned a lot about modern music, and you know, composers like Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio and you know, many American composers such as John Adams, and I could name many of them. That’s a new world, you know; but of course, if you study modern music, you have to find out what the composer’s idea was when he wrote a certain composition. Because that’s a very important thing, to find out what is behind it, what the idea is behind it--what composition technique did he use; because, you know, if you don’t know about modern composition techniques, these cannot mean anything to you. Like, for example, I studied Luciano Berio’s Sinfonien. That’s an amazing piece, but you know, you have to know how it’s put together, what’s behind it, the idea of composing a composition. Like, all this musique concrete and using collage technique, and like, you know, tonal serialism, and all that kind of stuff. What about you, Vidas? What’s your experience?
V: Well, let me say this for starters: Don’t you think that, let’s say, Bach’s music was quite modern for his day, too?
A: Yes, I believe so.
V: He was quite groundbreaking in many ways. And remember when he played some fancy stuff after returning from Lubeck, when he was an organist in Arnstadt, his congregation complained that he’s playing too dissonant music, right? Among other things. So, he was well ahead of his time in many ways. And let’s say, composers that we think of as very early music, like Sweelinck--he was probably just as modern as any other contemporary composer back in the day, right? And everybody back in the 18th century, 17th century, played “modern” music, “contemporary” music, “music of living composers.” Either they copied the music by hand, or sometimes they purchased very expensive publications, which were rare in those days. But you could not get away just by playing music from dead composers. Sure, people studied ancient art, and Renaissance traditions, and polyphonic masterpieces, but they did that in order to expand their musical horizons and to further develop their own unique original musical style. Don’t you think, Ausra?
A: Yes, that’s right. I couldn’t agree more.
V: So today, of course, when humanity’s development is so much more advanced, today we have so many styles to choose from, right? And when I first started playing the organ as you mentioned, I liked early music a lot. And I still do, of course! But I didn’t know much about any other stuff, any other developments; and I didn’t know about ultra-modern music. Then I discovered Paul Hindemith and his creative approach that got me hooked; and I started improvising as I understood Hindemith taught. Of course, that was quite ugly in my case...But that was a natural, probably, development of my personality--my musical taste. And I believe the further you study music, and practice music, you are open with your eyes for influences; and you look for influences everywhere--not only in music, in other forms of art, but also in science, in everyday life; you look for those inspirations, right Ausra?
A: Sure, and you know, it’s never easy, probably. Think, for example, about Ligeti’s famous piece “Volumina”, composed for the organ. I think the story behind that piece is that it was banned at the beginning. Remember that story we heard I think in Sweden? But now, it’s one of the most common pieces, and sort of exemplary piece of modern organ music.
V: Exactly. I think the best you can do is to stay open to the possibility for chance to fall in love with this music. Not particularly with Volumina, but let’s say music that you don’t understand right now: for example, there was a time that I didn’t particularly like music by Charles Tournemire. His music looked like bizarre melodies and rhythms combined together. He didn’t have well-structured form (or at least I thought it was like that); and for example, contrary to this music, Vierne was very well organized and quite well understood by me. So I thought Vierne was more worthy of respect. And then, of course, music by Jehan Alain--oh, he died young, and his music, many of his pieces are very short, but could be short miniatures; but quite recently I discovered that he was quite a genius, right? And Tournemire also was a genius, I believe, because the more difficult thing for you is to analyze this music. The more original it is, the more unique it is, probably; if it’s on the surface, very clear and well-structured, simple, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is unique or innovative or original. There might be exceptions, like with Mozart for example--brilliant poetic simplicity. But in a lot of cases, people, they create something and they then don’t try to go even further than the extra mile, and think that it’s good enough, and this is an exercise music. (And with Vierne of course, that wasn’t the case; he was a unique inventor, and pushed symphonic French art into the new realms of chromaticism; there is no question about it.) So each of those composers sometimes I don’t appreciate at the beginning, grows on me. Whenever I spend quality time with that composition. So now, I try to be open to new musical compositions and try to sightread every day, some unfamiliar music, some bizarre musical composition that I can get my hands on. Would that work for Leon, do you think?
A: Yes, I think so. I think it would work on anybody. Because it’s an important thing, you know, to study, to analyze, to appreciate modern music.
V: Because you have to understand, we probably need to express ourselves, express our inner ideas, let them out. We have some songs that we need to sing, of our own--not only songs that Bach wrote, or Scheidemann wrote, or Sweelinck wrote, or Vierne wrote, or Tournemire wrote, or those masters that we adore, right? But sometimes we have to try to create something. And this will be, of course, not perfect, just for starting out; but then, if you understand the need for this, then you obviously start to look for influences and inspirations wherever you can, especially modern music. If you are inclined to create. And I think every human being is sort of inclined to create. Sometimes we’re afraid to create, but nevertheless, it’s good to try. And sometimes, it’s really fun.
A: Yes, it is. Even when you study a modern score, it has all that graphic design, sort of unusual for the eye--it’s basically a masterpiece.
V: And a lot of people don’t understand that, and say, “Oh, it’s nonsense, it’s rubbish, it’s too dissonant,” right?
A: Yes, but I think the more time that we spend with that music, the more familiar you get with it, the more you can appreciate it. I mean, you don’t have to love it and play it every day, but you need to learn to understand it and to appreciate what the composers did.
V: Because that music came from the composer’s mind, from the abyss of the human mind, you know? There’s a saying--you remember the name of the professor who told that, “The human mind is an endless abyss.” That was the former director of music department at University of Nebraska in Lincoln. His name was Raymond Haggh.
V: And he had this saying, especially after grading freshman papers…
A: Students’ papers!
V: “The human mind is an endless abyss.” So, try to go further into this abyss. It’s interesting, and you will be surprised what you will find there.
A: Yes, and have fun studying modern music.
V: And guys, please let us know if you have such experience when the more dissonant music and more advanced music sort of grows on you, and you start to like it later in your life, after spending some quality time with it, right? It would be very interesting to know if we’re not wrong.
A: Yes. And remember, when you practice…
V: Miracles happen!
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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