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Melody and Memory

A Survivor's Guide to 20th century music


<< How modern is the modern listener?

One of the critical fingers so often pointed at 20th century music is that it is not tuneful, or not as tuneful as the music of the past. Yet one of the most frequent and most withering criticisms of a piece of new music is to remark that it has some pretty tunes. There is indeed a sense in which lines are drawn depending on how you view melody. Audiences, on the whole, want it; critics tend to mock it. Some composers seem actually to avoid it.

Two examples:

I've just heard Jonathan Dove's new opera Tobias and the Angel. It's drawn a good deal of critical attention and most of that has been approving (or better), but one critic complained that the music seemed always to be on the point of breaking out into a big tune, but either Dove couldn't manage it or he stopped it in its tracks. Broadly speaking, I think the observation was true (though at what point observation becomes criticism I'm not quite so sure).

A second example:

Recently I took some students of mine to a composing workshop. (It was generally awful in fact, but that's another matter). The students were encouraged to produce sounds, any sounds, and they readily obliged. Then, entirely randomly and accidentally, some of these sounds were juxtaposed with or superimposed upon others. Most of the results sounded like what they were: accidents. Occasionally, however, some sequence seemed to make sense somehow, or some chord seemed worth dwelling on because it was more than just strange; it seemed to presage something of sense, even something of beauty. Whenever that happened - as in the nature of accidents, it will from time to time - the leader of the course would snort: 'Oh, very Cheltenham Ladies Choir. Try again, please!'

Everyone has noticed that towards the end of our century there is more music everywhere - in the car, in the shops, in the restaurant, while you wait on the phone - and all of it is tuneful enough, but we loathe it nonetheless. It is our century that has coined the word 'jingle' - something meretricious and trashy, and tuneful. It's as if it rhymes with the clinking of coins and the jangling of the cash registers whose maw it is designed to fill. Some of the criticism of melody in serious music is just academic snobbery and it derives from only a small camp of self-promoting mandarins, but the general dislike of muzak is widespread. It is perhaps a sad reflection upon us late-comers that one of the trajectories of music history sees it moving from the status of precious Orphic mystery to social pollutant.

On the other hand, while there is more - much, much more - music around and about us, there is less and less music inside us. When did you last hear a postman whistle or a bus-driver sing? When did you last hear a mother or father sing to their child? When did you last hum to yourself as you went about your life?

Obviously enough, the music outside us has replaced the music within us. There's not much doubt (and suprisingly little regret) about that, but there is a crucial difference between the two that generally goes unnoticed: the music from within us is ours, the music from without is not. What people - perhaps without realising it - are really complaining about when they inveigh against wall-to-wall muzak is not so much that it's bland, or even that it's intrusive. They are really registering dispossession.

Copyright © Peter Dale, August 8th 1999

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