Monday, November 12, 2007

Music and Machine

In listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas, it occurred to me why his rhythmic patterns seem so different from those of today’s music. He was not surrounded by machinery as we are. The sonatas span 1795 to 1822. The Watt steam engine wasn’t even patented until 1769 and did not become commonplace until much later. Railroads were limited to coal mines until the early 1800’s, so he would not have much, if any experience of train sounds. In Beethoven's experience, it would have been relatively rare to hear the regular whumpa-whumpa-whumpa of rotating machinery. There were waterwheels and some farming machines, but these were not ubiquitous, and they did not spin at the tempos we associate with music.

I have read that the emergence of rock and roll music out of blues in the 1950’s was stimulated in no small part by the wide availability of the automobile in America. Most rock music emphasizes 4/4 time with a relentless drum that recalls the internal combustion engine.

Beethoven’s tempos are subtle, variable, and deeply internal to the harmony and melody. When his rhythmic structure does become obviously regular, it usually sounds like a march, a waltz, or some other human movement, like a person spinning, or like something falling down a slope. From what does the regular arpeggio of the Moonlight Sonata derive? To me it sounds like the movement of a human body, swaying or tapping. It does not suggest any kind of mechanical action like that of an engine.

Music experts always tell us that musical elements refer only to themselves, not to anything in the world, but I have never found that argument convincing. There are, after all many “pastoral” musical forms, madrigals, and other types designed explicitly to be representational. I don’t say that all music is symbolic, but musical ideas have to come from somewhere, and where else but the composer’s experience could they come?

That’s why I think Beethoven’s sound is so organic, compared to modern music. The musical ideas are intimately from the natural world, deriving from wind and waves, footsteps and horse hooves, dances, songs and screams. Just about all pre-modern music would be that way. You never get a sense of machinery. There is something almost suffocating about Beethoven’s music just because it does immerse you in the sounds of life.

Maybe that’s why classical music is considered “difficult” for most people. Anyone would understand more easily music that reflects the soundscape of their everyday experience and for us, that is a mechanized world. Our machinery keeps us distant from the natural world. We drive in our car out to the country to visit nature. We don’t live in nature anymore and our mechanically inspired music reminds us of that.

Beethoven’s is an ambient auditory world that is lost to us, probably forever. (And of course was lost to him as well, in his later years of increasing deafness).