Monday, April 5, 2010

Difficult Music

This coming Sunday my quartet will be performing at the Bijou for the KSO's Chamber Classics Series. On the program is Bartok's Third String Quartet, Mozart's c minor viola quintet, and the first Brahms String Quartet. It's a huge program, and an exciting one.

I know that many of you just groaned about the Bartok. Here's the thing: some music is difficult for the listener. I think that Bartok squarely fits in this category. Difficult does not mean bad, by the way. Difficult means that you as a listener need to work harder to make sense of the music. This is not music you can just sit back and take a bath in.

It is worth listening to and playing, though, and there are a couple things you can do in preparation to make your concert experience a pleasant one.

You can listen to the piece. This is a good idea for any music, but is essential for works that are difficult for the listener. Honestly, the first time I listened to this Bartok string quartet I panicked because much of it seemed like random sound. Second time around I started picking out more melodies. Now I could probably sing the whole thing, and I have become quite fond of the piece. The same is true for my daughter who used to hold her ears when I played the CD in the car. Now she asks to hear certain parts and I've caught her humming the main themes while she plays. Attending a concert is not like going to a movie. Knowing how the piece ends won't spoil your enjoyment.

Another way to prepare is to learn a little bit about the composer's style. Did you know that Bartok was one of the fathers of ethnomusicology? He collected and studied folk songs, many of which are quoted in his own compositions. Folk songs don't always use a fixed meter, nor do they always use traditional major or minor tonalities. Knowing this helps you know what to expect.

Music that is difficult for the audience is just as hard for the musicians. Putting the technical aspects aside, although difficult-to-listen-to music tends to be wickedly hard to play, we have to make sense of music that is not always obvious. I'm sure there are people who can listen to a difficult piece of music and "get" it the first time around. Most of us can't and have to do the listening and research work I've outlined above.

Difficult music is like preparing a pineapple: you have to work hard to get past the tough exterior and things can get a bit messy, but in the end the rewards are great.

1 comment:

Hobbes said...

Been at the listening side of this for over half a century and the only thing Bartok gave us worth listening to was George Solti. Sorry, no sale.