A couple of weeks ago, when I had Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece” on heavy rotation, I had a friend who was with me explain his displeasure at the discordance (3:41ish mark) found inside of the direction of Evans’ later improvisation found in the piece, qualities like its being: high, tinny, off key, etc. It was around this point that I realized the differences in listening, (all over again, maybe) the implications found in not understanding them, and the extension of this into even the occurrences of waking reality. In short, I mean: I think we need discordance. In all of it’s forms.

Copland maybe wrote first to said friend’s initial reaction around 1939 in saying: “The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. That is the sensuous plane. It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it in any way. One turns on the radio while doing something else and absentmindedly bathes in the sound. A kind of brainless, but attractive state of mind is engendered by the mere sound appeal of the music.” {What to listen for in Music; p. 8-9}

I’m pretty sure that it could be said that said friend was listening with a latent ear; One that had no room to consider anything but the immediate fact that says, “Ow. This isn’t right. That note doesn’t belong there. It’s discordant. Please change it.” I call attention to this now not because I’m innocent of falling into this, or even to say that listening on this plane is wrong, but because I believe that it illustrates a problem in that dwelling continually in it can lead to a lack of understanding, even resignation to the emotional potential found in other, deeper, forms of listening.

A profound example of this, I think can be found in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2- First Movement (Allegro Maestoso). {Which you can find streaming : http://www.archive.org/details/uso20080601}

At a glance, Mahler presents us with a piece first that’s seemingly more than heavy. It’s almost painful how massively oppressive it seems at first. Cminor weighs heavy as the thematic mood of the piece, or at least for the first 6 minutes or so. In listening to it, we as the listeners get very completely during that period the point that Mahler is trying to communicate. It’s pretty clear the intentions of the opening section, intentions that I believe are reconciled later. Now discordance isn’t exactly found in the beginning of Mahler’s 2nd, in the same way that it is in the above observations of Bill Evans’ usage, I just used that as an understanding of maybe how these ideas were sparked initially.

Now, in an age during which the average radio single isn’t more than about four minutes in length, this is a lot of dirge. Especially for most of us that, a) don’t really listen to but so much classical in the first place.. and b) probably aren’t about to find themsevles listening to a dirge that’s maybe on average twice as long(the section that I’ve outlined, not even the whole 21 minutes..of the first of five movements.) as it takes Kris Allen to tell us to live like we’re dying. By comparison, we’re basically dead, we’re just attending our own funeral that Mahler’s written for us. Now if you’re reading this, and it doesn’t sound like the best time in the world, I first, want to commend you for reading this far, and second, want you to listen to the above. (Preferably in the greatest quality possible.) Nothing I’m about to say will really make sense out of context.

If the first six minutes of the Allegro Maestoso weren’t what they were, (those being, foreboding, funerary, oppressive, a-la John Williams’ “Imperial March,” etc.- all things that maybe are not exactly the most fun to listen to, in today’s musical ideals..) would the contrasting movement into C Major(around the six minute mark) create half of the emotional dichotomy that it does, one that so perfectly encapsulates the concept of redemption, as consistent with the aims of the work? Hearing just the movement into C major alone, out of those six minutes of prior context, provides (personally) not even half of said emotional resonance. Mahler understands the need for contrast as an emotional foundation by starting into a six-minute dirge leading the movement. If though, the listener, finds those first six minutes unbearable, would he not then be depriving himself of all of the potential profundity found in said movement at all (..much less the contrast between the two, obviously unattainable in his neglect)?

I wonder too if discordance isn’t found thematically, or even found in contrast to the musical expectations of the modern, commercial era. Looking at the musical tastes of the past 50 years, for instance, I believe that the darkly thematic presentation of the first six minutes of Mahler’s first movement is what is culturally discordant in comparison to the music of today. In this way, maybe even discordant in our attachment to “Shots” and “Tik Tok?” On top of this, how is this emotional reaction maybe even a product OF our only understanding of mainstream billboard lists? I wonder if emotional investment and attention literally to the technical aesthetic of the music being played needs to occur to all of it, in a manner that is uniform throughout, in order to understand the potential for musical/emotional profundity. Essentially: We need to weather the storm if we even want to begin to see the sun. What is it if clouds break over already open sky?

This is not to say that we should suffer through listening to our music, necessarily, but rather instead, understand that our listening should be an investment. In that, if we actively invest our attention, ourselves, it could be said.. into every note as it’s presented to us, we can understand where we’ve been inside of the “journey” that is this piece, and because of it, appreciate so completely the workings inside of it. To me, Mahler is emotionally “redeeming” his own piece. The idea, the concept of redemption that the symphony is built around is literally unfolding to us as the “clouds break” in the key change.

In this vein then, what is it about the whole idea of discordance that offers us what we don’t know we need? What we can’t see that we need?..that tempers us. For instance, mainstream radio- pop music doesn’t like discordance- this I’ve established. Because of this though, I think it’s rather difficult for us (generation Y, whoever we are..) to absent-mindedly bathe in the immediacy of Mahler’s sound, the completely sensual plane, with incongruent melodies, etc. and anything greater than sensual immediacy doesn’t sell records in the modern era. To listen to the dichotomy established though, especially in a musically concordant saturated mainstream, has no choice but to jar us out of lethargic listening- something that I think is doubtlessly a good thing. Mahler understands that if you want to lethargically listen to what he has to offer, he’s not even trying to talk to you in the first place, and your lack of receptivity will probably weed you out in those six minutes.

Diluting this slightly: what if not even dischordance, but just investment could be equally as powerful? Perhaps instead, more credible to Leonard Bernstein, Bill Evans’ “Lucky to Be Me” presents this well, I think. The last twenty-seven seconds of which, some people around me have already tired of hearing about. I think that if you invest yourself, and totally give your entirety to just the three minutes and forty one seconds of its extent, the last twenty seven will pay you back. Substantially. Hell, it’s Bernstein, it’s worlds more approachable than Mahler, or even “Peace Piece.” Discordance is at a minimum, and still it pays, and pays greatly, I believe if an emotional investment is made throughout.

And so, what is it then about other forms of discordance that tear wide all of our assumed understandings about the world, and our place in it, moving us outside of our desire for immobility, to show us how much better it’s about to get? As soon as we reach a state of complacency with our current state of things, is the minute that we fail to lose sight of how much more profound everything could be beyond it. What are the odds that the shaking of our comfort levels has nothing attached to it? That in extending this to reality, to seek out discordance, even, is to look for those things that maybe explicitly and constructively go against our comfort levels: in music, in love, in culture, in religion, in work, in politics, in everything that we are and expose ourselves to.  I would argue that it is intensely difficult to achieve a real state of development without any form of discordance, and perhaps profundity cannot be had (realized?) without it. To strive beyond these things is to get past the sheer sensibility of modern music, and our modern paradigm. At times, jazz understands this, classical music understands this. And if art is nothing less than life reflected, what more is to be said above this translating into both accordingly? To look for depth, profundity in what we expose ourselves to, will always reward us. What then, are we listening FOR? ..Or are we just listening?


~ by crossmd on February 4, 2010.

2 Responses to “”

  1. you kill me. i could not stop reading this. absolutely beautiful and so true.

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