Sunday, July 16, 2017

Hindemith on Musical Perception

Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963) was one of the 20th century’s foremost composers. He and his wife Gertrud fled Nazi Germany where his music was condemned. He eventually settled in the United States and accepted a full professorship at Yale University in 1941. His musical knowledge was vast as a composer, performer, educator, and even as an expert on Renaissance music for which he was a strong advocate at Yale.

Paul Hindemith’s A Composer's World is essentially the printed book of his lectures for the Charles Eliot Norton series of lectures at Harvard University. He gives us a great introduction to the sociology of music, and he also outlines his ideas on music theory which he later codifies in his bipartite series, The Craft of Musical Composition. My study below of his book is only taken from the 2nd chapter titled “Perceiving Music Intellectually.” Hindemith begins the chapter:

A plain listener who wants nothing but musical enjoyment; the ordinary performer, eager to display his dexterity; the simple-minded composer who writes his music in a land of harmless bewitchment—what do they care for the philosophical approach to music! They say: let the philosophers pile up obstacles between the music and its appreciation, we want our music in its natural state, and we shall not spoil our uninhibited receptivity with cerebral extravagance.

Hindemith starts out by making the point that very few music lovers want to ‘taint’ their encounter of music by overanalyzing the experience. Music is there to be simply enjoyed after all, and why spoil it with too much ‘over-thinking.’ The question arises however as to whether or not the listening experience can be somehow enhanced. If the listener understands herself ‘as a listener,’ and how she came to the point of valuing the experience of music, then a richer experience will be possible through this self-awareness. This isn’t to say that any basis that a person has for their love of music has to be erased and built anew on a foundation of over-intellectuallization (or unwanted intellectualization!), but understanding the growth of the ‘musical self’ can possibly help the listener mature and deepen their relationship to music that they love, and music that may call to them to a state of admiration in the future. 

Are there not many among us who scarcely can read musical notes, to whom the daily influx of musical sounds has no significance as something conceived and constructed, and yet who in some moments feel within themselves*, neither prompted nor lured, a ringing and singing, a vague musical impulse? There is no clearly circumscribed vision, let alone an organized form.

Hindemith brilliantly articulated the psycho-artistic musical impulse. This ‘stirring’ is the same, whether it is generated in the mind of the amateur music lover (the listener—which we all are) or the professional composer, and everyone in between. Hindemith later goes on to state:

…but we nevertheless have to understand them [the vague musical impulses] as the very origin of musical composition, as the conceptional sparks out of which may grow a musical masterpiece.

Hindemith outlines a clear path in his book that suggests that a “vague musical impulse” can lead to the “compositional sparks” that a composer needs to kick start her creative process. The fact that the musical impulse can be a universal psycho-artistic given, means that anyone who has a love for music can experience ‘musicianship.’ This musicianship comes from a love of music, regardless of the musical training of the person. Hindemith explains the inspirational experience of music along a continuum of musical social position (musical ability or non-ability), and also along a continuum of the enjoyment and understanding of music, along a line of ‘lesser musical complexity’ to ‘more musical complexity.’ To take a general example—many graphic artists; painters, sculptors, etc., are inspired by listening to music as they work. Many of these artist have no ability whatever to read or play music, but the hearing of music provides a powerful creative ‘mind-space’ for them to thrive in. Music becomes a stimulant to the life of their creativity.

If they [the musical amateurs] are to participate in musical experiences and in the enjoyment of musical structures, they must be given a land of music which makes use of obtrusive (if not importunate) meters, brief and symmetric phrases, and simplest harmonic-tonal and melodic constructions. Thus kept in close proximity to the most primitive impulses of motion, this music permits them to activate constructively even the scant recollections of their inarticulate musical practice. Our present-day composers of marches, dances, and songs see to it that this group of participants in music be not in want of substance for their analytical and reconstructive activity. But even the more experienced and more pretentious participants will not always be able, or in the mood to construct simultaneously, their own images of complex musical compositions. A composer must take into account such periods of slackening energy.

The “slackening energy” that Hindemith describes can be the listening exhaustion that is experienced by over-listening, that is, a kind of information overload that comes with listening and encountering music of complex structure. This “slackening energy” for a professional classical composer or performer would represent the intersection that the amateur music-lover would share with the most advanced musical artist. The “land of music” that contains the “simplest harmonic-tonal and melodic constructions” is a ‘place’ that allows the music lover to have a psycho-artistic entry point; to feel, and understand the world of musical structure. ‘Feeling’ is by far the most important interaction that the vast majority of people have with music. Hindemith’s description of the experience of music by amateur listeners is in no way intended to be a condescending summation by a highly professional composer. His approach is really the opposite. He speaks from the position of being in total awe of music as an art form, available to anyone, and it’s ability to transform the human personage to a higher plane of thought—to a psycho-artistic state that gives greater meaning to life itself.

A musical structure which due to its extreme novelty does not in the listener's mind summon up any recollections of former experiences, or which incessantly disappoints his constructive expectations, will prevent his creative cooperation. He cannot adjust his sense of proportion to the unfolding structure, he loses the feeling for his position in the sounding terrain, he does not recognize the significance of the single structural members in reference to the entity, he even loses the feeling for the coherence of these members. For him music goes astray, disappears in chaos; it deteriorates into the mere amorphous assembly of sound it was before it entered the zone of active cooperation in the listeners mind.

The above paragraph refers to what I would simply call ‘hard listening.’ The listener becomes easily overwhelmed with a complex work, being unable to make connections with past musico-structural references (the remembered repertoire) that already inhabit her mind. Hindemith emphasizes, using his astutely invented terms, that the listener is involved in a joint creative act while listening. Listening to music is not just a ‘passive’ act, but a genuine ‘creative’ act, informed by the listener’s past experience. If the “sounding terrain” becomes a map-less, busy, complex, cityscape to the listener, she can become not only disoriented but downright agitated and angry that her expectations of hearing a work that she wants to enjoy, and be enlightened by, are dashed and frustrated. The listener is also the musical consumer and then feels that her ticket cost has been wasted. Ideally the listener should prepare for the experience so as not to be overwhelmed by the “extreme novelty” she encounters.

What then remains of the importance which we customarily ascribe to all questions of a composers style? We prefer to think of his tone-combining craft as possessing an infinite variability, even power of eternal regenerations, but it merely permits a limited number of variations within the given limitations of its sounding ingredients. The building material cannot be removed very far away from certain structural, harmonic-tonal, and melodic prototypes, so that the listener can assume an active part in the process of musical realization. Furthermore, the continual accumulation of experiences in a listeners mind should not be overrated. Once he reaches a certain point of versatility in his power of musical co-construction, no further progress seems to be possible. Thus his experience, rising from primordial feelings of comparative motion to a climax of lateral co-creation, can be likened to an arc which surges up as part of a tremendous circle and then slows down and flattens into a parabolic curve.

Hindemith has given us the cultural and psychical roadmap from elemental listening to musical connoisseurship. Although his thesis seems to be centered on adults, his conception can be applied to the accumulation of musical experience from early childhood, and through all of the developmental stages through late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Thinking of the infant’s first experience with cradlesong; the toddlers’ classroom interactions around nursery-songs; etc., etc., and on through all the psychosocial stages of human growth and development. Exposing people to music for which they are not ready however can be disorienting and off putting if not downright a causing mental shutdown. The professional musician certainly benefits from the “accumulation of [musico-artistic] experiences” which has as its goal the “lateral co-creation” [the listener’s corresponding and simultaneous creative act with the composer] which the ‘musical personage’ will discretionarily aim towards. Being a true listener (and not a hearer only) is a creative act unto itself and not just an imposed state during mental passivity. The accumulation of listening experience leads to the “co-construction [by listening],” or a ‘joining’ with the composer’s music, which leads to more accumulation of experience etc. In short, the more listening, the more growth; the more growth, the more listening—the more musical apprehension is attained for future listening experiences. Memories are used by the listener to co-create the musical landscape that will shape his future listening experiences and his desire to compile even more.

*All italics are mine

© 2017 Steve D. Matchett

Paul Hindemith with his students at Yale University

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Robert Muczynski: Complete Works for Flute

This is a fine recording of many of the wind works of Robert Muczynski (1929-2010).  Although these pieces date from 1960 - 1992 a very consistent style is apparent.  I really related to these pieces because they are so nicely constructed and rhythmically dynamic.  I particularly enjoy the way that Muczynski juxtaposed angular and linear elements as a method of creating structure.  The two works on this recording for wind quintet performed by the Stanford Wind Quintet, the Quintet for Winds, op. 45, and the Movements for Wind Quintet, op. 16, reveal the composer's affinity for the wind instruments.  The winds really seem to suit Muczynski's mode of expression because they are so adept as a group with changes of harmonic color.  The lines grow out of the combination of kaleidoscopic harmonic shifts.  The composer's harmonic palette is a plentiful and provides a constant freshness.
The Movements for Wind Quintet would make a sophisticated introduction for a young performing group to the workings of American neoclassical sounds.  These miniatures would also serve as a launching point for Muczynski's Quintet for Winds, which is much more substantial work which has become a standard repertory piece.  This work has very strong solo lines for all of the instruments.  Even though the Quintet dates 22 years after the Movements the same stylistic traits can be recognized.
The Flute Duets, op. 34, are very nice miniature abstract inventions which involve more chromaticism than the other pieces.  They all create a gentle atmosphere, with an almost Far Eastern meditative quality, even in the faster movements.  They are performed here by Alexandra Hawley and Jean-Pierre Rampal.
In the Moments for Flute and Piano, op. 47, the writing fluctuates between a rhythmic and a longingly lyrical central episode.  The darkly second movement seems to express like lonely thoughts in the night, but activates into pleasant memories, and back again to dark and distorted thinking.  Waves of introspection.  The last movement has a very assertive sense of movement and seriousness, with some brief episodes of calm.
© 2017 Steve D. Matchett