Going Down, Coming Back Up

Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo wasn’t actually the first opera, but I’m pretty sure it’s the earliest opera that is still being performed today. The story of Orpheus has an enduring relevance for composers, and not just because Orpheus was the Greeks’ idea of a semi-divine musician.

Orpheus undertook an arduous (and ultimately ill-fated) journey into the Underworld. He started in a happy place, and then had to explore a difficult alien realm. He emerged transformed.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the journey of Orpheus in much of the music of the classical period. Beginning with the early Baroque works in binary form, the music begins in one place (the key of the tonic), migrates to a new place (the key of the dominant), and then returns home at the end (to the tonic).

By the time of Haydn and Mozart, this simple formula had developed into the sonata-allegro form, which was a mainstay of European composers throughout the 19th century. It always seemed to work. In the development section, which falls in the middle of a sonata-allegro movement, we can glimpse unhappy Orpheus attempting to prevail upon Hades for the return of his bride.

The weakness of a lot of recent electronic music, it seems to me, is that we’ve forgotten about Orpheus. Again and again, a composer starts out with an intriguing idea … and then fails to develop it. The music hangs up on a static plane; it never descends into the Underworld.

I can’t help feeling that a piece of music should tell a story. I don’t mean this in a programmatic way: I don’t mean that every piece of music needs to be tied to some specific narrative. Or maybe I do. Ultimately, I don’t think the legend of Orpheus is as much a narrative as it is an archetype. It’s about a musician, but it’s also about the hero’s journey.

A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So should a piece of music. Merely having an inception, a continuation, and a cessation is not enough. The middle needs to be different from the beginning, and the end needs to reflect, somehow, the fact that we’ve already heard the middle. The piece needs to lead us from one place to another in ways that make some sort of stylistic sense — that surprise and also satisfy us.

There’s a school of thought in contemporary music — and perhaps we can detect the influence of John Cage here, or the influence of Zen Buddhism — that every moment is a new experience. Anything can happen, or not, at any time. In a minimalist piece, very little may happen, other than an unceasing reshuffling of details. And I’d put a lot of dance music squarely in the minimalist camp.

I’m never very satisfied by music that’s composed along these lines. Cage said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is music.” To which I would respond, “You have nothing to say, so I am not going to waste time listening to you, and that is music too.”

If you care about your listeners, take them on a journey. If you don’t care about your listeners, then maybe you should take up miniature golf.

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