Point of View
We asked pre-eminent Australian conductor,
music educator and current Music Director of Victorian Opera
and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony's Education
to answer two questions...
Preamble by Richard Gill
In this article I have chosen to answer two questions about
music. My responses are plain, and I trust, to the point. Music
has occupied my entire life and for me is one of the most
important things I do. It consumes my every waking moment and
its mysteries and questions hold an eternal fascination for me.
The more I deal with music the more I find out about music and
the more I want to find out, so I thought the questions posed
were great triggers for some ideas about music. One of my
life-long ambitions is to see that every child in every state
primary school in the country in Australia has access to a
properly trained music teacher: If it can happen in other parts
of the world then why not here?
Away with dreams, reveries and passions and on to the questions.
Is Classical Music a more serious art form than Jazz or Pop
Regarding art forms and seriousness: The term ‘art’ as applied to music
is a comparatively recent one. It was introduced in the 19th century
prior to which time it was unknown in the way we now use it. It has come
to have snobbish connotations, particularly in association with
classical musicians, many of whom consider themselves to be above all
music except their own.
The concept of art has bred, in some people, a particular type of
behaviour associated with a moral view…that is, if you like art and
appreciate art you must be a good person. You could extrapolate this to
say that the same attitude applies to the makers of art works; only good
people make good art, and we all know how ridiculous that concept is.
On the notion of whether classical music is more serious than jazz or
pop I would have to say that it’s not a matter of seriousness but rather
a matter of differences. The great wonder of music is that we have such
a rich diversity of styles to enjoy and I want it all. Obviously a late
Beethoven string quartet is going to be radically different from a jazz
standard but I can appreciate both for what they are, notice the
differences and be richer as a musician for knowing both.
Therefore any judgments about music, apart from those things which can
be measured absolutely such as rhythm, pitch and harmony (are those
notes semiquavers? is this note a Bb? was that a dominant seventh of Eb
major I just heard?) are going to be subjective. Aesthetic things,
things of the senses, things which deal with the affective part of our
lives can’t be proven, or demonstrated to be true: they are incapable of
being measured and are not absolute phenomena. By that I do not man they
are not real; ask any teenager who is experiencing the feeling of love
for the first time and tell them it’s not real ( I suggest you do this
at your own risk). However, statements such as: ‘Brubeck’s music makes
me feel good’,’ I really dig Charlie Parker’, ‘Hip-hop makes me puke’
are statements dealing with affection which has, to my knowledge, no
measurable components although scientists are interested in these
Music to my mind, therefore, is either well played or badly played with
all the shades in between or is well written or badly written and
equally with many gradations in between. There is some really dull,
poorly composed so-called classical music (e.g. an opera I once
conducted by Salieri called ‘First the Music and then the Words’; a
truly awful piece) some dull Beethoven, average Haydn and so on but all
this is subjective. There is some shocking pop music and some really
awful jazz; but again, this is a subjective reaction. Therefore my
answer to the question still stands. Is classical music a more serious
art form than jazz or pop? No.
Is music capable of describing
My philosophical stance is that music sits at the top of the arts food
chain and is the most abstract of the so-called arts. Music, which may
be described in a very limited way as sound passing through time, has
the power to evoke, suggest, imply, call to mind, conjure up, insinuate
but never accurately describe.
Richard Wagner attempted to describe abstract concepts such as love by
assigning the concept a musical motif or theme. The test of whether this
concept works universally is to play the prelude to Tristan and Isolde
to an audience hearing it for the first time and ask them to describe
what is happening.
Similarly, Richard Strauss thought he could describe events, people and
abstract concepts in music. He is reported to have said that he could
describe a teaspoon in music. Death and Transfiguration, Til
Eulenspiegel, A Hero’s Life, Also Sprach Zarathustra, are all attempts
to describe things in music which, in my view, can’t be described. In
the end it doesn’t really matter what a composer says he or she is
doing; the things which count, in my mind, are how the music works, how
the music is constructed and the way it moves from its beginning to its
end. The joy of composition is what interests me.
In this sense I am a non-referentialist, or as some others would say a
musical kill-joy and a boring old fart. But in the end I can demonstrate
unequivocally that music cannot describe ANYTHING. I also believe it
means nothing in the absolute sense; it is not a language and does not
function like a language. Try to ask someone for directions using pitch
Thanks for the opportunity to sound off about my favourite topic.
© 2008 Richard Gill
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