Kyle Gann has written today about sophistication and music. Early on in the blog he says:

New music is similarly overgrown with vines: the school-taught classical assumptions about what constitutes musical sophistication.

(You really need to read the blog to understand this sentence completely. It’s a good write up. At least to this musician.)

I guess to some, “endlessly repeating rhythmic patterns”, or a lot of whole notes are “unsophisticated”.

He writes about students who prefer to leave dynamics out. This one has me wondering, though. Do these composers wish us to leave out all dynamic contrast, or are they expecting a performer to insert his or her own dynamics? When I see a contemporary work with no dynamics I play it that way, and some might suggest that the composer is asking for an unexpressive performance. No dynamic contrast at all often suggests a “controlled coldness” to me. I wonder if that’s what these writers intend or if I’m mistaken. Or maybe it’s what Gann suggests; these students have grown up with the (pretty much) one dynamic of rock music.

Mr. Gann also writes about telling a student to change a work written in C major to D-flat major in order for it to be accepted. (D-flat being much more “sophisticated” to some, I’m sure!) That one made me laugh, because I recalled playing the first movement of a concerto that happened to be in C major for a solo ensemble competition back in the dark ages, when I was in high school. The adjudicator said I should have chosen something in a more difficult key. At the time I thought he spoke God’s own truth. Now I just shake my head. Surely Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, which happens to be in C major, is a difficult work! (It also happens to be on nearly every symphony audition repertoire list I’ve seen.)

Does music have to be sophisticated to warrant merit?

Give me music! I don’t care about the key. I don’t care how difficult it is. I’ll take simplicity. I’ll take sophistication. (Can something be simple and sophisticated? I guess not. But somehow … I don’t know … seems like sometimes things can be sophisticatedly simple. But then I’m an oboe player so what the heck do I know?!) You can even leave off dynamics if you wish the piece to lack volume contrasts. I just want music. Music that makes me think or weep or laugh or dance or even get angry. Music that causes some reaction. Music that moves me.

4 Comments

  1. Brandon Squizzato

    A good read, so good that it motivated me to sign up and post here. I’m
    currently a high school senior and principle oboe player for my school,
    moving on to play in college next semester. It’s funny that I saw this
    article today, because today in my class, as we were rehearsing the 5th
    movement of the Star Wars suite (the real studio version, not a
    dumbed-down arrangement, just to clarify :D), which is mostly in the
    key of C, and my conductor mentioned to us how the key of C can have a
    very powerful sound; the powerfullness of the key is somewhat innate.
    He wanted us all to back off a little
    because the key of C just kind of blasts out at you to start with.
    Whether or not you want to consider the Star Wars songs sophisticated
    or not is up to you, but my director seems to think it’s the kind of
    piece that will be around for years to come, almost like old opera and
    play music that has endured.
    Using a key to determine how sophisticated a piece is seems just
    ridiculous.

    I believe an unsophisticated piece is a piece that is incapable of
    having expression at all. In other words, you just have “no where to go
    with it.” This happened to me this year, when at our State Festival
    sight reading performance, the piece we were assigned was just so dull
    and we had almost nowhere to go with it. All of us came out of there
    thinking “what was that?,” as did other schools which sightread the
    same piece that day.

    The blogger also pointed out composers commenting that “audiences want
    to hear sophisticated music.” If our goal is to convey some sort of
    emotion within an audience, the audience needs to be able to relate
    somehow to the music. I think it would be very difficult for the less
    “music appreciative” to relate to say, Hindemith’s Symphony in B flat.
    However, this is considered a sophisticated piece, is it not?

  2. Patricia Mitchell

    Great to see another new member here, Brandon!

    So what college are you planning on attending?

    I played some Star Wars music many years ago. The concert was directed by someone who had access to some fun things, and my son got the “meet” R2D2 and was given a Skywalker Ranch T-shirt. What a fun event that was!

    Some pieces may appear to go nowhere when you first work on them. Later you might actually find that the stagnancy is there for a reason. Of course other times the music is just awful and that is that!

    I’ve seen many unknowledgeable folks appreciate very sophisticated music. Sometimes they have ears to hear, sometimes not.

    As to Hindemith … I haven’t played him in eons! (I’m very fond of Symphonic Metamorphosis.) Are you talking about a band work? I seem to recall that’s a band piece, but I could be mistaken. I haven’t played in a band since college. I was in college back before the wheel was invented I think! ;-)

    Hope you stick around!

  3. Brandon Squizzato

    Yes, Symphony in B flat is a band work. Hindemith was asked to write
    something for band for somethnig, I don’t recall what, and he asked
    “Well, what key do they like to play in?” The reply was B flat, and
    there you have it.

    Anyways, I’m on the east coast and I plan to attend NC State
    University. I’m planning on minoring in music performance. My current
    high school is pretty close to the university and therefore our
    directors talk a bit sometimes. I know the director there wants me to
    play for the Wind Ensemble, and they also have a symphony there run by
    a different director so I will be inquiring on that.

    I visit your sight occasionally, especially for quick links to those handy reed adjustment guides ;)

  4. Patricia Mitchell

    So what will your major be? (I’m nosey … you don’t actually have to answer this!)

    I seem to recall really enjoying the Hindemith band work when I played it. I love his Symphonic Metamorphosis … just a blast to play.

    If you ever want to chat, I’m on IM frequently! SN: Patioboe