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The Art of Time

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The Art of Time

I just started the second volume of Taruskin's massive Oxford History of Western Music and he reprints the introduction to the whole series at the beginning which I re-read because it is a fairly dense meditation on the problems of music historiography.

History is, of course, all about time and music is the time art. Everything in music is about time: the pulse of the music is reiterated beats in time, the melodic pitches themselves are just reiterated pulses at a faster speed: A pulses at 440 times a second, for example. And harmony? Well, harmony is just melodic notes sounding together. So it is all about time.

We perceive music in time as well in layer after layer. There are layers of immediate sensation that might make us want to dance, that's the somatic element. Some melodies might make us melancholy or cheerful. Here's a couple of pieces from John Dowland to illustrate: first Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens played by Nigel North:

And for the cheerful example, My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe, also by John Dowland played by Cecilio Perera (with some church bells):

But there are many layers to our perceptions. Both of these pieces are what we call "early music" because they were composed quite a while ago--four hundred years in this case. Wonder why we don't call it "old music"? Marketing reasons, I guess.

But an important binary in the whole welter of our perceptions of music, and everything else, is that old/new division. We like old things and new things for different reasons. I bought a little jar of jam the other day and the name of the producer was La Vieja Fábrica. For marketing reasons again, they tell us that this is from the old factory, which presumably makes better jam than the new factory just as grandmother's cookies were presumably better than those from Megacorp. And who knows, there may be some truth to it.

We like old things for a variety of reasons: over long stretches of time the wheat separates from the chaff and perhaps that is true of jam as it seems to be of music and art in general. But as I have mentioned several times before, we are moving through time as well and our tastes change so perhaps over time our love for Mendelssohn wanes and our love for Schubert waxes.

But what about our love for new stuff? I suspect that a lot of so-called "new" music is actually quite familiar music with a shiny veneer. But occasionally there is some genuinely new music with a lot of novel features even though, as in the case of the Rite of Spring, for example, there was a fair amount of Russian folk music tucked in here and there.

There is no denying the invigorating shock of something truly new in music and that is the attraction of new music--the possibility of hearing something really unlike anything you have ever heard before.

When it came out this was a pretty good example: Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw:

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