Friday, October 21, 2005
Getting with the Program
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard composers say, “This piece isn’t program music, but…” with the “but” followed by a description of all the things – poetic, philosophic, personal – the music depicts. The more I hear this, the more I feel like I did when Bill didn’t have sex with Monica.
The 19th-century concept of programmatic music was an attempt to create art that could be appreciated by bourgeois audiences. Today, we call this “audience building.” 19th-century composers were pretty good at it.
At its best, 19th-century program music was a seamless interaction between music and extramusical association. At its worst, it could be a cheap form of audience pandering, with cheesy sound effects substituting for real ideas.
The proliferation of program music at its worst led to the 20th-century attitude that completely rejected the concept altogether. Hollywood composers, with their leitmotifs and scenic evocations, were seen as the lowest of the low. Thus, generations of serious composers were taught to make their music absolute, meaning that it should exist only on its own terms. We used to call this “abstract” music, but it would be more accurate to call it “concrete” – the abstraction consists in connecting sound with feeling, or philosophy, or whatever else you want to connect it to.
I don’t see why absolute music and program music should be mutually exclusive. Why can’t some music exist only for itself, and other music revel in all of the associations music is capable of prodding in an attuned listener?
What do you think? Should music only exist on its own terms? Can it express or represent anything beyond the notes?
And if a composer expresses something beyond the notes, shouldn’t that composer call it program music, instead of protesting innocence with fingers crossed behind the back?