Dancing About Architecture


“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

– Frank Zappa

Nevertheless, despite the genius of Mr. Zappa, I intend to write about music--but what I have to say is less about music and more about true conservation.

Classical music has fallen on hard times. It's hard to make money with performances live or on album. There are any number of explanations for this; however, the reason matters little--we are in serious danger of losing a great heritage if we do not pay attention.

Many people seem to think that classical music is "for the few, the proud," . . . the snobs. Not so. One of the reasons people may come to this conclusion is that music may be the most underappreciated art. Most people don't know how to listen to music, or don't care. Erik Satie noted that the way in which most people listen to music turns it into wallpaper or furniture. When we see the number of people strolling around with iPods or glued to their headsets at work (I admit to being among them), we can see that there is considerable truth to the statement.

Even when people begin to listen to music rather than just hear it, the reactions tend to be on one plane--"I like it, I don't like it." Now our reaction to almost any form of art begins with this simple dichotomy; however, for most of us, we do not remain there. "I like The Violent Bear it Away because. . . " "I don't care for the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe because. . . " What follows the because begins to enter the realm of analysis if it consists of anything more than mere surface impressions. But most of our reaction to music come down to, "It's got a great bit, good, kicky melody, really danceable, I give it an 8 out of 10."

Music, classical or otherwise, requires attention. In fact, because its impressions are fast and fleeting, it can require more attention than any of the other arts. Unlike walking through an art gallery where you can choose to stand for as long as you wish in front a a painting, a live performance of a piece of music is a fleeting, ephemeral experience. If you are not trained to listen, the experience can be exhausting. And yet. . . to experience music it is necessary to really listen--and despite what many people think, you can listen even if you have no real idea of how the music gets to be the way it is.

So, you can't read a note and you've had no music appreciation courses. What's a person who wishes to listen to do? I suppose it might be wise to start small. Pick something you really like and listen to it. Observe how the notes go up and down, get faster and slower, louder and softer. If it's vocal music, listen to see how the voice interplays with the instruments. You may not have the words to describe this interplay, but you can hear and understand it.

All music has depth. Some pieces are deeper than others. You'd be surprised where you might find musical depth if you listen. Just listen of "Eleanor Rigby" or "Take me home, Country Roads." There is more to them than what most people ever know. They hear it, but they do not really understand or listen to it.

Music is great for creating a soundscape conducive to other activity; however, this is a secondary function, but like hanging a painting to "decorate" your house. Indeed, the painting does "decorate" but its primary function is to stimulate the mind and the heart. When we allow either music or art to become wallpaper, we've lost a source of contact with God. (You knew I'd get there sooner or later.)

Music and Art speak either directly or indirectly of the creator. Often they speak of the creator despite the express intentions of the artist. It cannot be otherwise because it is an act of co-creation. The creation of art is a participation in the divine life and so will always reflect the divine life.

What a tragedy then, when we deny ourselves some part of the good that has been laid out before us.

So today, before you do another thing, take a short break and begin the practice of really listening to music. Turn your musical lawnchair or William Morris into a piece of art again and begin to appreciate how it is turned and fashioned, what went into its making. If you've any musical ability at all, sit down at a piano and try to compose just six or eight bars of melody--forget harmony for the moment. Begin to understand that music, like art and writing, truly is an endeavor requiring an incredible talent and precision.

Then do yourself a favor and start to listen--really listen to the music that you love. Don't use it for a background for something else--or if you do get to know it first so that it can transport you, even as a background, out of the world as it is and into the world as it can be.

Bookmark and Share



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 28, 2007 8:24 AM.

Who Is the Crimson King?--A Catholic Reading was the previous entry in this blog.

Support Your Local Orchestra is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll