Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bernstein's music meaning

I watched the first two of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. The first is about how music doesn't have any real meaning, that music is only "about" music. Bernstein takes part of Strauss' Don Quixote and comes up with a story about Superman rescuing a wrongly convicted man from prison as an example of how the music could fit a completely different story (though I wonder if rhetorically a better approach would have been to come up with a story that was not obviously the wrong one--and also to not tell the audience beforehand). Then you get the other usual examples such as how a single note doesn't convey anything though adding a second starts a melody and rhythm still without conveying any meaning. And so on.

But the second concert is "What Makes American Music" and immediately I think you can see the problem. If music actually doesn't meaning anything then it can't mean "American". It's impossible to tell whether Bernstein realized this or had another explanation (a shard of pottery might not mean anything but can still be identified as having been created by Greeks or Egyptians). But much of his exploration about the Americanness of American music rests on what has to be called meaning - the "openess" that recalls our West, the "youth" and "vitality" that parallels our young country, the mixing of different styles that comes from our various immigrant traditions, etc.

The second episode also stands out for a current viewer for reasons that clearly nobody then thought about. When Bernstein mentions some countries where our "forefathers" originated and then has kids in the audience shout out their own, well nothing African is ever mentioned. Nor Asia for that matter but it's the jazz that he discusses later that had such a huge impact on American music. I also couldn't help noticing that the orchestra was completely male (a quick search couldn't come up with the first woman in the NY Philharmonic - many firsts but I wanted the first permanent member and didn't feel like spending more than a couple of minutes looking). One oddity is that when Bernstein played some brief bits of music and asked what country they reminded the audience of - one got a roar of "Hungary". I don't know if things were different in 1958 or in NYC or maybe in just the kind of people who would go to such a concert but I don't have the foggiest idea of what Hungarian music might sound like (not counting Bartok or the Galloping Coroners), in fact realized I couldn't even point to Hungary on the map. (I tested it and picked out the Ukraine which is one country over so hey good for an American right?)

Music has always notoriously been the most abstract art and consequently often seen as the most pure. ("All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.") And I think it really doesn't have meaning in most instances - that music is really just a tool for thinking about music. But it can have a somewhat provisional meaning from repeated uses in certain contexts. How many of us whenever we hear pizzicato strings think of somebody tiptoeing? Or interpret certain kinds of ambiguously tonal music as tense or scary? Use in movies and cartoons (and I'd guess before that in opera, theatre and program music) creates an assigned meaning to certain music even if in practice it may not last. (Bernstein uses the William Tell Overture as an example because it brings to mind the Lone Ranger which was more true in 1958 than today - I haven't seen the show in probably 35 years and that overture really no longer brings up any cowboys for me.) Whether music can create or evoke or recall emotions is an even trickier topic though Bernstein apparently assumes it can. I just think of all the free jazz fans I know who claim that such music is pure, unmediated emotion which to me seems almost completely wrong. You have to learn to interpret say Brotzmann in such a way and to me much of this doesn't seem to have the same emotion than other fans hear (it's usually funny to me while they often think it's angry). And that's not even getting to the Ornette/Braxton branch of free jazz.