What does Music Promise?

by Paul Griffiths

Green hills recede to the horizon. Bright Mountain streams cascade across stones. Images such as these appear on the covers of classical CDs these days. They say something about the way we think of music.

Not long ago, the classical CD covers that promise excitement within––covers featuring the usual soulful tenors and slinkily dressed violinists––were joined by jovial six-month- olds. Mozart––parents and well-wishers were assured–would foster an infant's mental progress. So there may be good reason why now, a couple of years later, the same audience––exhausted by intellectual toddlers pondering genetic theory or Sanskrit grammar––is being given a different promise by record companies: that as exciting as classical music may be, it will also bring much-needed solace. "Chilled Classics," "Brahms for Relaxation" are the titles––and the cover-tots are being ousted by clouds or vacant landscapes.

So aside from any question of music's power to build brains, which is it? Does music excite us or calm us?
Surely both, depending on the music, the situation, and us––and depending, too, on what we mean by calm, by relaxation, by peace.

The calmative, restorative properties of music are well attested in literature and anecdote. "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast." Bach's Goldberg Variations, according to tradition (as useful a guide as factual history to how people really think and feel), were composed so that young Goldberg could have something to cure his employer's insomnia. Reassurance and the intimation of rest are also prime qualities in a lot of religious music, or in the quasi-religious use of secular music, as when a pianist plays a slow movement at a funeral or memorial service.

Here, though, we have traveled some way from the business of alleviating the stress of a day at the office or blocking out the city's noises. Music consoles only in as much as it instructs, teaches us that there are other timescales than those on which our minds customarily work, that harshness and violence can be understood, that resolution is possible. In order to receive these messages we have to listen, but we also have to speak to the music, ask it the right questions. A conversation is going on––indeed, many conversations at the same time: with the performer or performers, with the composer, perhaps with the writer of a program note or essay, whose words attach themselves to the performance, and certainly with the music itself, as an impalpable organism with which we are momentarily in contact. Relaxation suggests forgetfulness. Music, on the other hand, wants us to remember: Its lessons and its disciplines are in the art of memory, of following, and being possessed by, a drift of thought.

Relaxing to music means letting that drift or wave of memory, allusion, and expression wash over us, and there may be times when we need to do just that: have the music simply there, a comforting presence, not making any demands and not having anything demanded of it. But that cannot be all. For one thing, to desire classical music as anodyne is to desire it not for what it is––for all its particularities––but for what it is not. Classical music relaxes us (if it does, or if we will let it) only because it provides gentle regular meters rather than emphatic pulse and syncopation, because its dynamic level is moderate, because its structural reach is beyond the immediate––because, in brief, it is not rock. It is from this opposition between Haydn and house music (an opposition unsuspected by Haydn, of course, and probably overlooked by many on the other side) that classical music gains its aura of tranquility and perhaps also of prestige.

We can do without the prestige, and we can go beyond the tranquility. Nor is it very helpful to regard classical music and rock as locked in eternal combat. They are able to seem so only because they reach us as the two great musical alternatives available through electronic means, whether those of the CD player or radio––which may alert us to how classical music owes its current reputation as a relaxing presence to a great absence: that of performing musicians. Music can seem demand-free when it is person-free, when it comes to us disembodied. We would find it hard to ignore what someone close by was saying to us, harder still to pay no mind to what a musician might be playing to us, or singing to us. But music without an evident human source can easily slip by.

Otherwise there is trouble. The repertory of music for relaxation, as promoted now by record companies and radio stations, includes rather little that is vocal, because the voice is a constant reminder that a person is or was there––a disturbing other to interrupt that bath in the warm glow of incorporeal sound. Similarly, it is difficult to maintain the supine, passive posture of the relaxer when we are at a concert, where the presence of others––performing musicians, fellow audience members––cannot be ignored.

Another story from legendary musical history may be relevant here. When the young Berlioz first heard one of the Beethoven symphonies, tears streamed down his face as he stood among the audience in the Paris concert hall. Perhaps he even sobbed. The gentleman next to him turned with an offer of assistance, at which the overcome composer snapped: "Do you think I come here to enjoy myself?"

Well, we all do come to the concert hall to enjoy ourselves, but our enjoyment can take many forms, and relaxation is the least of them. Relaxation implies disregarding or at least undervaluing what is special about a work or a performance, because things rare and special will get in the way of the calm, tepid flow. Relaxation also involves depersonalizing the source, failing to recognize that a musical composition is an act of will, generosity, imagination, experience, and expressive force, all made possible by some person, and that these same high human qualities and abilities come together, too, in any worthy performance. Furthermore, relaxation reduces musical communication to a one-way stream––and a one-way stream to which little attention is being paid. The music goes on, and the response stays the same: blithe, no questions. Relaxing to music places us in a safe world of our own, when we might be going out to explore the world that is the music's.

Relaxation is a means of repair. We need it. But music provides us with opportunities and invitations to repair ourselves not only by resting back but by reaching out, by grasping at passing, unrepeatable sensations and striving to pursue the unfamiliar as much as the well-loved. There is the submissive relaxation of amnesia, of drawing a curtain on the world and its troubles, and there is also this active, mindful, even belligerent refreshment of getting involved in something else, of participating. Those who find their relaxation in playing or watching sports know this; so do those who relax at the theater or movie house, or by reading. You sit up, you take notice. So it generally is at concerts, and we have to resist the electronic siren song that wants us to think music––classical music––is all about lying back and letting it happen. Otherwise we lose not only the whole history of vocal music but also, perhaps more insidiously, the ability to accept or respond to music that forces itself on our attention, that will not be overlooked.

Happily, a lot of music is like that. Beethoven, for instance––whether or not Berlioz is the one listening. Beethoven's strenuous curves of energy, his thundering climaxes, his obversely quiet moments when huge harmonic tensions are at work on a tiny point, his melodies that seem to speak or sing or shout––all these make it impossible for us to relax simplemindedly. Or at least, that kind of relaxation is only possible when a much-played recording is being heard at low volume. Beethoven's colossal demands––on his listeners as much as on his performers––were recognized at the time by many others besides Berlioz, and they are unmistakable again whenever one of his works is presented in anything like an adequate performance. The scale of the music–––the size of the voice with which it addresses us––has also provided a continuing ideal for composers and performers throughout the two centuries since the Eroica Symphony. Beethoven will not go away, refuses to be neglected by the relaxing mind, and Western classical music has followed him in that regard.

It is perhaps only in the last thirty years or so that composers have started to write music to which one might mindlessly relax. In some cases it would be hard to know what else to do. But in the same period many more musicians have been exerting themselves to counter the diminution of classical music to the status of mild narcotic. The big achievement of historically informed performance has been not to reconstitute the sounds of the past but rather to rediscover the full rough richness of incident and expression in music whose features had been partly or largely erased by the passage of time. Many present-day composers, too, have been striving to renew and extend what music can spring on us.

The value of, for instance, Elliott Carter's music is not that it permits us to relax but, contrariwise, that it keeps us alert. There is no dozing here, no dodging the issues. In a society where so much conspires to keep us from countenancing alternative points of view, habits of mind, or modes of feeling, this is music that offers all of these in abundance, and the same may be said of the many other outstanding composers at work today: György Ligeti and Luciano Berio, Harrison Birtwistle and Helmut Lachenmann, to mention only some of the most distinguished. If their music does not figure very prominently in the air time of classical radio stations, that is our loss––and music's loss, in that this great and powerful art is being required to give us no more than bland wallpaper.

We can ask for better than that. We can demand music that, like Beethoven for Berlioz, moves us to tears. We can seek out music that––suddenly, in a moment––opens our minds rather than setting them at rest. We can find music that sounds like nothing ever heard before, music in which we can glimpse strange pathways that will become clearer with repeated exposure. We can delight in music that is as bounteous, alarming, inspiriting, strange and satisfying as the rest of our lives, and whose eventual promise may be not the relaxation of a moment but the serenity of wisdom.