I went to see the Ann Arbor Symphony in its annual Mozart Birthday Bash performance last night. I like a pretty wide variety of music and, in turn, a fairly wide variety of classical music. But Mozart is a particular favorite of the strings-and-woodwinds variety. There's something about the dynamism of his writing; the seemingly boundless energy of his approach to whatever form he was engaged in at the time, that is constantly alluring. Obviously, I'm not alone in that perspective.
Almost every great composer attempted to convey some message in his work. Some were obvious (Wagner) and some not so. I once described Beethoven's 9th in this way: "I always feel as if he, a not very religious man, was trying to say something about the grandeur of the world around us; not in and of itself as a 'creation' but as what it could be if we would only stop and experience it. I'm not entirely sure how he's trying to say it or even if that's the fullness of the message, but that's what resounds in my head every time I hear it."
There's an allegory there for every form of human interaction. Most of those forms are an attempt to describe something, be it an idea or an experience or an emotion. All of them can be beset by the same difficulties as trying to describe how one can pick out various instruments in a musical piece. I remember trying to show someone how I knew that a particular string piece was made up of violin, viola, and 3 cellos. You could hear the high, plaintive violin and its more sonorous cousin, the viola. But the cellos were playing at different tempos, sometimes harmony, sometimes disparate. I kept saying something like: "You can hear them. There's one, there's the second... and there's the third right under... there."
You can probably imagine me making a pointing gesture to the air above my head at the appropriate moment: "There it is. Right there." That, of course, means nothing to someone who isn't hearing it in the same way that you are. The same frustration tends to follow at any similar failure to convey meaning: "Why don't they understand (hear)?!" Of course, this is all my interpretation. Knowing what I do of Mozart, I don't think that he was quite as compelled by meaning as, say, Beethoven. The former was more driven by demonstrating both the perfection of the form and his own ability with it, which doesn't make it any less able to be admired and convey feelings to the listener and, hopefully, between the audience as a whole. Perfecting the form is, after all, something that many artists aspire to and can often embody the meaning of what they do to begin with. It's no less true for martial artists, for example, than it is for painters, sculptors, chefs, or musicians.
But that deeper meaning is something that I think often sets certain forms of music apart. In addition to my affection for classical music, I'm a huge punk fan. I grew up in the middle of the punk revolution and swiftly adopted bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag, the Minutemen, and so on. All of them were very message-driven (both social and political) and used their departure from the standard rock form to highlight that message and their disdain for the current state of the music world. In short, it was all about the music, man. I still find that rather blunt and forward approach appealing (and it's often reflected in my communication technique, for better or worse) and tend to contrast that kind of exciting and agenda-driven music with the hideously processed sound now prevalent which strikes me as being focused almost entirely on selling records, most of which tend to sound the same. Give me a band willing to sweat in front of a crowd of a few dozen rather than one which has a far warmer relationship with its Macbooks and Auto-tune.
Is it still possible to derive a message from a Nickelback song in the same way one can from Beethoven or the Replacements or Steve Earle? Probably. It's probably similar to deriving a message from the latest bullshit spewed by a Tim Geithner, as opposed to the far more honest delivery of, say, Arundhati Roy, but it's there. I guess.
By the way, the best part of the program last night was the Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra, K. 364. Take a few minutes to follow the 3 parts posted to a Youtube from a French chamber group: