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Arts & Culture
The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world. To listen to KPAC 88.3 FM, simply open the player in the gray ribbon at the top of this page and choose KPAC: Classical Music.

Classical Music As Soundtrack To Our Lives

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Those who listen to a lot of music surely know what I mean when I refer to music as a soundtrack. Of course, there's no universal reason why musicians create music, but likely not at the top of the list is an intention to make a soundtrack to the world around them. In fact, some musicians, and even serious listeners to music, would find repellent the idea of music as simple backdrop, perhaps even relegated to audio wallpaper.

On the other hand, a great deal of music has at one time or another, perhaps even repeatedly, served a purpose beyond music for music's sake. Think of all the times music, and I mean all varieties of music, has been used in the movies, or on television. And let's not forget, oh my(!), music conscripted by advertisers. Perhaps there's some good which comes of it, especially if the composer is still alive and can earn residual profit from the music's use. Pity Beethoven, or Bach, or Puccini, those composers who would likely find odious the use of their music as background. To make matters worse, that music is by now public domain, meaning no part of the creative chain, the composers, their descendants, or the publishers are being compensated.

As a professional musician, I find music provides a near constant accompaniment to my life, both while I'm awake and when I sleep. It amazes me how often music is the focus or the backdrop to my dreams. Does this happen to others? I hope it does. And then there's the Great American Songbook which covers just about every circumstance under the sun. How often have Cole Porter, or George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and countless others come to my rescue in making sense of a broken heart, or spiritual uplift. And this doesn't even begin to suggest the times classical music has begun singing in my head, at just the perfect time and with the perfect mood. Have I mentioned that one of my great pleasures in life is to just sit and listen to music? Perhaps this is music's greatest gift.

This week I received a thoughtful essay by San Antonio writer William Gisler. He titles his piece “Classical Music: Mood Altering Without Drugs.” With Mr. Gisler's permission, I am sharing the essay. I hope you enjoy it as did I.

 

Classical Music: Mood-Altering Without Drugs

by Bill Gisler

A few years ago, I watched Tom Selleck in an unusually well-made TV movie titled Sea Change. Like many of its genre, the film focuses on a law enforcement fellow laid low by alcohol, his drinking precipitated by–you guessed it–a woman. As you can also figure out, a guy as good-looking as Selleck is not going to languish long without a female to ease his burdens. Since it may air again or be made available on DVD, I won't comment further on the film's plot.  

What I will focus on is the film's perfectly selected musical leitmotif, Brahms' soul-searching “Intermezzo, Opus 118 #2.” During some of his alone-time, Chief Jesse Stone stokes up his old stereo and reclines to listen as Brahms' slow, sad, but hope-filled melody fills his apartment. This is foreground music at its best. The catch in his condolence is the quickly depleted bottle of scotch with which Stone drowns the music but not his sorrows. Both the writer and the director of the film do a fine job with all the minor details of life in a teensy village-by-the-sea. But both apparently fail to recognize a key point about music: if Chief Stone knew serious music well enough to choose this particular piece, he simply wouldn't need the booze, IMO.

Most film enthusiasts can recall many a scene underscored by precisely the right music: “Also SprachZarathustra” lends its power to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mozart's “Piano Concerto #21” becomes the "Elvira Madigan concerto" centuries after his death. Bernard Herrmann's eddying arpeggios give theatregoers sick stomachs as James Stewart suffers through Vertigo. Another great film for music is Chariots of Fire. From the funeral scene that opens it, to the original composition that quickens the audience's heart-rate while athletes run along the shore, to the choral music that underpins its missionary character's homilies, there are few films besides Amadeus that employ music to such full advantage.

Of course most composers of serious music are sharing something that can rarely be put into words and really is not intended for so mundane a purpose as manipulating emotions in a movie soundtrack. This is not to say that emotional manipulation through music is a bad thing. It's just that this writer firmly believes we are entitled to do our own manipulating for our own purposes.

Many's the time I have left a church sanctuary seething with anger after hearing an otherwise fine sermon "ratcheted up" by some keyboard "accompanist" traipsing along with tremolo arpeggios throughout the message.

Recently, I have nearly thrown things at my TV because an ad co-opted some classical work (e.g. Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus"and Orff's“CarminaBurana”) for commercial purposes. Works in public domain seem to be fair game for any schlock artist. (If they start on J. S. Bach, I may have to purchase pistols and challenge the offenders to duel.)

Right now, let's talk about how to foment a sea-change in your mood by selecting suitable instrumental or choral music written over the past thousand years. An easy starting point might be the work of Brahms, especially his “Hungarian Dances.” Like AntoninDvorak's “Slavonic Dances,” Brahms' dances vary abruptly from slow to fast, from simple folk melodies to more complex harmonies. The listener, whether or not s/he "knows" music can hardly help but be grabbed by the spirit of the tunes. One would need excellent self-control to keep from humming along or at least tapping a foot.

It was through these two composers that I first tap-toed into the classical world in my youth. Through the miracle of then-modern, two-sided LP's, they led me to Tchaikovsky's “1812 Overture,” thence to his “March Slav,” “Violin Concerto” and piano concertos. (Mother's stern warnings to leave her Chopin records alone gave a "forbidden fruit" secrecy to the endeavor.) But enough about me–what about you?

If you are still of school age, seek out some kind of music appreciation course. If you have already graduated, try some adult ed classes to gain exposure to the fullest range of musical expression. What makes you happy might make another morose.

For example, I can listen to Jean Sibelius' rather dark “Swan of Tuonela” with a nostalgic smile, recalling a lost love who savored it with me decades ago. You might leap off the nearest spire after ten bars of it. In short, grasping great music is not the exercise of an instant.

You may be blessed to live in a town or city with a classical music station. San Antonio, Texas has had KPAC, a non-commercial, listener-sponsored station for more than thirty years. Broadcasting serious music and discussion of that genre 24/7, the station has won awards for its programming and for the many civic-minded fund raisers it hosts.

In this age of technology, there is another route, one not available just ten years ago. While trying to learn the exact name of the Brahms piece in Selleck's film, I stumbled onto YouTube and landed in a sea of great classical music. I'd heard of the site for a few years, but assumed, incorrectly, that it pandered only to persons seeking to steal modern music by download. Despite my moral reservations about subscribers uploading professional musicians' work (remember, it's called YOUtube, not Him, Her, and Themtube) I'm listening to Rachmaninoff even as I write this. Just browsing through any composer's work there can lead you to similar and different styles of music--Bach's “Air on the G String” played by a jazz saxophonist or a five-year-old prodigy's remarkably nuanced performance of a complex baroque-era opus.

Older folks who have listened to classical music for years develop a taste for more complex and more demanding music. They will likely enjoy opera and chamber music and pieces with slower tempos that let them enjoy as many as eight different melodies harmonizing and creating conflicts and resolutions of clashing chords. Neophytes can enjoy the energy and upbeat tempos of Vivaldi and other baroque composers. They can marvel at virtuoso performances that inspire the viewer/listener by showing what a talented human can accomplish after years of devotion to lessons and hours of daily practice.

One final "note" before closing: It is no secret that I consider J.S. Bach the greatest composer the Lord ever has fashioned. Therefore, I expect to hear several Bach cantatas, motets, etc., daily throughout eternity. I have heard Bach works played on Moog synthesizer, Mund-harmonica, and even kazoo. The eldest Bach never sounds bad. Likewise, Mozart, Brahms, Bruch, and many others are performed by persons with a huge assortment of "instruments." One fellow "plays" by opening his mouth and hitting the top of his head with both fists. Despite their very different abilities and talent levels, even the worst performers of these immortal composers' works reveal a bedrock greatness in the notes themselves that makes the hearing emotionally emancipating and totally worthwhile.

It could take months or years to discover the composers who set you free, and those who challenge you. You may also encounter vile villains who inspire you to gain absolute global power in order to eradicate all they've ever composed. But the emotional and spiritual journey is worth all the effort it takes, and getting there is most fun.