Notes from the underground

The ante has been upped. The line must be drawn here. Someone has actually responded, in print, in MY space, to “Notes from the Underground.” Actually, I’ve had a few responses about last week’s discussion of tonal listening. Tonality is so imbued in our culture that it seems impossible to get away from it, but the concept is not really so difficult to understand. Imagine if I took my fist and softly hit some notes in the middle of the piano in a slow rhythm, then gradually moved my fist up the keyboard, getting higher, faster and louder, until I leapt into the air and landed on every key with a huge crash. That would be dramatic, and not just because you’d get to see me flying around. From a musical standpoint, we would have built tension and released it (through the final crash) without resorting to tonal means.

Even within a tonal piece, these sort of non-tonal techniques are used everywhere. If you drop away the limiting structures of tonality, you have atonal music. If you listen to music without expectations of tonality, you are not a tonal listener – I’d put myself in that category. Dan, on the other hand, is clearly a tonal listener, despite his best efforts to seem otherwise. His use of the word “primordial” is indicative of a pre-tonal period, when cavemen sang simple songs without knowledge of relative minor keys and banged rocks together to keep the time. Why does something seem “ancient” or “primitive” to a listener like Dan? Because it is harmonic and beautiful while not following tonal procedure. Sorry, Dan, but I’m pretty sure your first inclination is to listen for tonality, and that’s really what defines a tonal listener – the rest of us are towed along by the force of the tonal system, but it’s not where we expect to be led.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to give a full review of an album this week, but I want to mention a really nice piece: the Piano Trio of Nicholas Maw. It’s not in the library, but if anyone wants to hear it, you’re welcome to borrow my personal copy. It’s one of the most successful combinations of tonality and atonality that I’ve heard in a piece of chamber music, and so it’s actually sort of related to the topic at hand. Maw is a composer that I’ll have to look into for a future column.

I’ll also give a short review of a disc of the music of Michael Torke (CD T78 1), which is quite bouncy and energetic, but often times quite boring. I think this music is, for the most part, what’s wrong with post-minimalism: it can be so sickeningly sweet and happy-sounding that you want to lose your cookies. The first track, “The Yellow Pages,” comes across like the soundtrack to a children’s show on PBS. Actually, most of the music on the disc sounds like a soundtrack to some PBS programming, whether it be The Newshour with Jim Lehrer or Wild America. I really like that PBS music, and have often thought, “what would happen if someone made an entire piece out of this?” Well, it’s kind of like Frankenstein’s monster – some questions are better left unanswered.

I don’t want to completely disregard Torke as a composer, though I’ve been pretty viscious so far. I really like “Vanada,” the fourth piece on the disc, and the most aggressively dissonant and wild. But when I listen to “Adjustable Wrench,” the third track, I feel like I’m on an elevator. Parts of “Slate” are nice and “Rust” has some cool material, but by the end of this album I am totally sick of Torke’s style, and that’s not a good way to feel about an album you’ve just sat through. It’s very “listenable” music, so don’t feel intimidated by it, but there’s a certain overarching rhythmic concept that infuses this whole disc, making it just too boring for an hour of music.

Let’s see some other reactionary criticism against “Notes from the Underground,” hopefully from some non-music majors. Any form of criticism is welcome, with the exception of flaming bags of…er, anyway, as they say, bring it ooooooonnnnnnnnnnn!!!