MusicArts

Developing a Taste for Modern Music

Year: 1952

Place: Maverick Concert Hall, New York

A pianist walks out onto the stage in front a full audience, sits down in front of a beautiful grand piano and closes its lid. His hands fall to his sides and he stares at some sheet music in front of him. He waits. 

After one minute of silence, the crowd grows restless. There is whispering and chatter. Some even get out of their chairs and leave the theatre in anger. The silence continues.

Three more minutes follow. The audience has become louder with impatience, trying to decipher what’s going on. They stare at their watches, mumbling to themselves and shuffling in their seats. The silence persists.

At this point, exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds have passed since the pianist has sat down in front of the piano. He gets up abruptly, walks to the edge of the stage, and bows. 

This is exactly the experience of several hundred people sitting in the audience for John Cage’s premier for his iconic song Four minutes, thirty-three seconds (4’33”). Though controversial, Cage believed that through writing a song of complete silence, he could force people to listen to the world around them and hear the music of their surroundings. This song marked an interesting turning point in the development of what is often defined as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ music for it’s obvious contrast to traditional music of the time period. While most people can appreciate (or at least pretend to appreciate) some nice intricate jazz music, 4’33” is in an entirely new realm of what we define as music. It blurred the boundaries between music, sound and noise.

***

Year: 2014

Place: Parry Sound, Ontario — Interprovincial Music Camp

I had just arrived at jazz camp for the last month of summer expecting to spend my time hanging out by the water, singing around the campfire and having what would be considered a ‘normal’ camp experience. What ended up happening was rather the opposite. From my first day, I was thrust into a competitive environment where every kid’s dream was to be a jazz musician. The first day I sat down at the piano was also the first day I was told to improvise in front of an entire orchestra. As a classically trained music student, I had no idea what I was doing. 

At this camp, I learned that nearly everyone (including the instructors) talked about music in terms of ‘feeling’ sounds. I can remember one particular day when our instructors invited us to a concert they were having. Expecting a typical jazz performance (thinking of my favourite jazz artists like Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman) I eagerly showed up to the venue at 7:00 that night expecting nothing but the best. 

But instead of the traditional jazz music I was prepared for, the musicians barely played anything at all. The first 10 minutes were spent shuffling around awkwardly, moving chairs, blowing a few notes into their instruments, continuing to sit. At around the 10 minute mark they began to play, slowly and awkwardly, all at different speeds and in different keys. It was nearly impossible to distinguish any melody or harmonies. After about 20 minutes, they stopped playing and bowed. The audience (mostly other kids at the camp) gave them a standing ovation. I was confused, to say the least.

***

Let’s go back in time again. After 4’33’’, John Cage continued his journey into experimenting with sounds. In 1960, Cage performed a piece called Water Walk’ on a popular TV show, which involved strange noises such as the sound of a goose call and the glugging of a water jug. Cage also created a number of ‘prepared pianos’ throughout his life, in which he fixed in screws and other objects to traditional grand pianos. Some of his pianos still exist, and have been played by other musicians like Tim Oven

Developing a Taste for Modern Music

Many others found their calling to modern music in the early on in the 20th century as well. Arnold Schoenberg is a great example. While Cage’s speciality was strange objects and silence, Schoenberg speciality was atonality. Essentially, he created a form of music known as ‘twelve-tone theory’ which has the following rules:

  1. The musician must play every note in the 12 note scale (in a series).
  2. The musician must not play the same note twice before going through all 12 notes (one series).

The result sounds something like the video posted above. Schoenberg reasoned that this technique would allow for about 480 million different combinations (whether all of those combinations sound good is up for debate). 

So what is music, then? Clearly there is a demographic of artists (especially in the realm of jazz) that have a completely different idea of what music is compared to general population. Are they wrong in their opinion that the squeak of a chair could be as beautiful as a flute solo? 

I’ll admit that my perception of music has changed a lot since my experience in jazz camp several years ago. My acceptance of ‘nontraditional’ music (Shoegaze, Grunge, Modern Jazz, Rave Music, Experimental and Punk Alternative) has increased while my enjoyment for FM 96: top 20 has plummeted. 

I think of music as more of an art than something that will get me through a workday, and I can appreciate the hum of the city environment or the sound of a stream in a woodland. This being said, Cage’s “4’33” is not exactly on my top 10 list of songs. Developing a taste for different genres of music, especially modern music, takes time and effort.

Developing a Taste for Modern Music

So how does one develop an appreciation for obscure sounds? I believe that there are several ways to keep an open mind and enhance your taste for certain types of music, even in a short amount of time.

1. Expose yourself. Without exposure to a particular style of music or a particular artist, it will stay foreign and unfamiliar to you. If the idea of listening through an entire album of a new artist is too much, try listening to them in small doses. 

2. Actually listen. Often, we turn on the radio while doing other things without really taking the time to listen to the individual melodies, the lyrics, the percussive beats, and the timbre. Through listening, you can appreciate the time and effort put into making the piece of music. 

3. Connect music with places and memories. For me, the song Myth by Beach House encapsulates the feeling of summer on the coast, and the song Take Five by Dave Brubeck reminds me of a dimly lit bar in downtown Chicago. Try to bring songs into the things you like to do and the places you like to go and you might find that every time the song plays it will bring you back to that exact place in space and time.

4. Know your history. The song The Times They are a Changin’ by Bob Dylan becomes incredibly more powerful when you understand the 1960s Vietnam-war atmosphere in which Dylan had been living. Other musicians are more subtle about their historical context, but having an idea of it can enrich your listening experience.

5. Avoid bias. Too often, we tend to avoid certain styles of music because so-and-so told us that they hate that kind of music and we value so-and-so’s opinion a lot. Similarly, when we find out that a terrible person really likes a particular type of music, we tend not to like it as much. Try to base your taste in music on your personal interests instead of the people around you. 

Ultimately it is up to the individual to explore sounds in the world around them and learn to love new types of music. As the great musician John Cage once said:

“Everything you do is music, and everywhere is the best seat.”

And so, I encourage you to listen, accept and appreciate. 

Author

Developing a Taste for Modern Music
Ross is a graduate student at Ryerson University studying urban planning.