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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 Program, Richard Gill
to answer two questions...

Richard Gill

November 2008 share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more


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.


First Question:

Is Classical Music a more serious art form than Jazz or Pop Music?


Richard Gill's Response

No.

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 problems.

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.

Second Question:
Is music capable of describing reality?

Richard Gill's Response

No.

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 only.

Thanks for the opportunity to sound off about my favourite topic.


Richard Gill

© 2008 Richard Gill


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