Courtesy of Flip

One of my dear Jrock friends posed this question on her facebook:

Just wondering, in 200 years…will our Metallica, Slayer, Madonna and Prince be the equivalent to today’s Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven? How much further can music progress?

I told her I would write an essay on that when I got home from the D’espairsRay concert (which was amazing, by the way!) but I fell asleep right when I got home, so I’m now writing my essay.

Let’s begin with the classical composers.

Bach wrote music because it was his job.  That is why there is so much of it.  He, however, did not believe his music would outlive him, and had it not been for Felix Mendelssohn re-discovering Bach in the early 1800s, Bach’s music would have been lost.  What makes Bach so revered in the music world is the fact that his compositions are the basis for compositional technique.  The rules he followed (and correctly broke) when it comes to chord structure, counterpoint, harmony, and melody are still taught today.  Bach also played a plethora of instruments, which means he understood their individual capabilities, and he must have been quite good at them because some of his solo violin works are challenging.  (Fugues for violin?!  What was he thinking?)  The thing to keep in mind, though, is that Bach came from a musical family, so his training began at a young age and he was always surrounded by music.  With that knowledge, it’s not surprising that he was able to write the music he did and become as famous as he did during his day for his performances, nor is it surprising that he could build upon the things he learned and improve them.  Yes, his death marks the end of the Baroque era, but at the time of his death the Classical era had already started, so it was more like he was the last composing in that style.  That is not to say that his music doesn’t define the Baroque era (at least, the late Baroque era), but I am just pointing out that innovations in composition were already happening before Bach passed.

Mozart had the “honor” of being the child of one of the first recorded stage parents in history.  His father knew both Mozart and his sister were talented and had them out and performing as children.  Of course, Mozart being a prodigy helped to catapult his career, but he was not the only child prodigy of the classical composers (Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens leap immediately to my mind).  He was the first, though, and being the first gets certain distinction.  Mozart’s music isn’t necessarily innovative, as Haydn did far more with chordal experimentation and tones, and wrote far more music (104 symphonies vs. Mozart’s 41, for example) but Haydn also lived longer and, like Bach, composed for a living.  The thing everyone believes about Mozart’s music, though, is the fact that he seemed to just intuitively know what he wanted and where.  Now, had he lived long enough to see Beethoven in his hayday, it would be curious to have seen what influence Beethoven’s music had on Mozart, but since that didn’t happen, we just get to wonder.

Now, I had it beaten into my head during school that Beethoven is the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras, which I do believe to be true after playing a number of his early works and listening to many of his later works.  Beethoven experimented with instruments and tonality and expanded the classical world’s ear with his compositions.  He also created whole movements of works based on motives rather than melodies.  Think of the opening to his Fifth:  dun-dun-dun duuuuun.  It’s not a melody, just a rhythm set on different pitches, and it pops up throughout the other movements, too (like the third movement).  He did the same thing with the second movement of his Seventh:  buuuh buh-buh buuuh buuuh, while adding one of the most beautiful melodies over the theme (which, I might add, THE VIOLAS GET TO PLAY FIRST!)  And who else, to this point in time, thought to include a full choir and vocal soloists for his Ninth?

At the same time, Beethoven was a celebrity in his own right, and when he passed, the city mourned him.  It did not matter that he went deaf as he aged, for he still heard the music in his head, and, if anything, the struggle to hear strengthened the emotional impact of his compositions.  There’s something about Beethoven’s works – perhaps it is the fact that he did not compose for a living, but rather, as an art – that makes them more emotionally powerful.  That’s not to say that Bach’s and Mozart’s works do not evoke an emotional response, but there is something in the context of Beethoven’s music that really pulls at the heart.  I, personally, do not know any fellow musicians who frown when Beethoven is part of the concert program (unless it’s the Sixth symphony, but I may be alone in that).

Beethoven’s experimentation opened up the possibilities for the Romantic composers to experiment with instrumentation, chord structures, orchestra size, and so on and so forth, in a way that made it almost out of control by the end of the Romantic Era.  While Mozart and Bach defined their eras’ musics, Beethoven’s music became the launch pad for something new and different.

Fast forward nearly 200 years.

Now we are in a period of time where music is all around us, from the radio, to television, to movies, to our own iPods and phones.  It has become a huge commercial industry, and advances in technology have made it possible for nearly anyone with a computer to create music in some way, shape, or form, even if they cannot read a note.  That is not to say that this is a bad thing, as it opens up a world of creativity and it’s always interesting to see what those not bound by rules and conformity can (and do!) create, but it has also led to an accessibility of new music that happens so quickly it is very easy to become a one hit wonder.  There are exceptions, but let me sound off on Flip’s aforementioned four:  Metallica, Slayer, Madonna, and Prince, before speculating.

The ones with the greatest chance of musical eternity are Metallica.  Metallica’s music can transcend genres, and that gives them a big plus for musical longevity.  We have thundering drums and bass, and shredding guitar solos, but we also have a melody listeners can sing and remember.  Metallica’s music can translate to acoustic covers, or find a place with a symphony orchestra.  They are not afraid to experiment with their sound, and they allow their own personal experiences influence their music.   There’s also the fact that they’ve been recognized multiple times by their peers for their music achievements.  Plus, they inspire creativity and ingenuity with their music.  For example:

Lego Metallica

Apocalyptica

Now, I would not say that Metallica’s music in and of itself is anything groundbreaking, but the fact that they have been around for nearly thirty years, have a dedicated fan base, and are still relevant in the mainstream music scene today means they have something that will outlast them as people.  I think, 200 years from now, musical society will look at Metallica in a similar light to Beethoven, being the famous and accessible bridge between genres and eras.

I can’t say the same for Slayer.  As influential as they have been and continue to be, they are very much a metal band and will always be a metal band, and that does not offer them universal appeal.  Slayer will probably be remembered for their lyrical content and the controversies surrounding their releases, and not their music.  However, in the world of metal, Slayer will be up there with the greats for all eternity.  I guess that means Slayer will be the Shostakovich of the future – great, heavy music that many get into, but sometimes the music gets overshadowed by the themes it expresses.

Madonna and Prince…if the world never passed the 1980s in terms of fashion, sex, and things that are socially acceptable, Madonna would be queen forever and always, and Prince would be the king.  But again, it’s not so much their music as it was their images and lyrical content that got them noticed.  Neither of them found a sound that was particularly new or groundbreaking, but I will say they each created a sound that is individually theirs among a sea of other, similar, pop music.

The true innovation here is that both of them are very charismatic performers who made their live shows into spectacles, although I admit that I find Madonna to be a great deal more entertaining to watch and listen to than Prince.  Madonna also seems to have an easier time finding universal appeal as an all-around entertainer.  As far as their music surviving into the next 200 years, I think it will be lumped together in a chronological history of pop music throughout the 1980s and 90s.  Madonna probably has slightly more of a chance of her music outliving her than Prince, but both of them will be overshadowed by Michael Jackson in the long run.  I am not sure who to compare Madonna and Prince to in the classical world.  Maybe Paganini?  Although he was a virtuoso violinist, and neither Prince nor Madonna could be considered a virtuoso, but all are known more for their performances than their music.

I do have to say, though, that none of them – Metallica, Slayer, Madonna, or Prince – will ever fall into obscurity, because they have created their careers doing what they wanted and creating the music they wanted to.  They all have the status and credibility as artists, which they all rightfully earned over the years, to follow their creative energies and visions.  They are true to themselves and do not follow what others tell them to do, which makes them loyal to their craft and brings them loyal and devoted fans.

So now we beg the question:  How much further can music progress?

Well, first we need to agree on how to define “music,” as different people find different genres appealing.  It’s probably easiest to go with the idea that music is organized sound, therefore we can incorporate sounds of all kinds, whether they come from instruments, computers, or nature.  Therefore, we accept that the clicks of typing on a computer can be a musical rhythm.  Leaves rustling in the wind provide music.  Cars passing by, planes flying overhead, the whir of the computer fan…all can be considered elements of music if organized properly.  This is the idea behind John Cage’s music and the concept behind the movie August Rush.  Music is everywhere if you’re just willing to listen.

Such a blissful, Utopian view…

Now for the harsh reality:  We have the music industry.

The music industry needs to stop looking for a quick fix to all its money problems and instead look for artists it can nurture and cultivate into stars and stop going for the new hot thing every five minutes.  Yes, it’s a business, and the point of any business is to make money so you can survive into next year.  I think they sum it up the funniest in the movie Josie and the Pussycats.

That was just for fun, and not to start the whole “subliminal messages” debate, so please don’t start it.  The point is, the more money and backing anything has, the more it’s advertised, the more it gets seen, and more of a buzz gets created around it.  My cousin and I have a theory that, the more advertisements you see for a movie, the worse it is.  Anything worth seeing or worth listening to will create its own buzz, but if it has to be shoved in people’s faces for them to pay attention to it (and becomes popular as a result) it probably was not worth the attention its getting in the first place.  Unfortunately, money rules the world, so if something annoying and obnoxious has more money than something of quality, everyone will know the annoying thing and it will get more attention and become more annoying, and in turn potentially discourage the thing of quality from trying to make it.  If someone decided that sounds from animal mating rituals were the next big hit, suddenly there would be tons of advertisements for albums with those sounds recorded in high quality audio, ready to take to the airwaves and consequently be sampled and remixed until there’s a venerable menagerie on every single radio and music television station around.  It would give “Welcome to the Jungle” a whole new spin, perhaps even sparking a resurgence in popularity for Guns ‘n’ Roses… No, probably not.  I think GnR did enough of their own self-destruction to ensure they would never hit that mark again.

While that idea itself is ridiculous (the animal sounds, not Guns ‘n’ Roses), that’s basically what happens.  In an effort to make money and see profit, something new comes along, auto-tuned to perfection, and within months we see it everywhere, we can’t escape it, and there are at least five clones and the fan base starts warring over who is better.  It builds its own competition until the NEXT thing comes along and the cycle starts again.

It’s not always negative, though.  One thing that got shoved in everyone’s face just last year was Owl City.  Personally, I thought the song “Fireflies” was annoying as hell, but a lot of people liked it for its different sound and positive spin on the world.  What annoyed me about it was that anyone with enough time on their hands and the right computer programs could create something like that.  Give me a Mac, LogicPro, and a day and I could do the same exact thing.  But there is a certain beauty in the thought that anyone could create that.  Unlike the days of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, one no longer needs formal training in order to create music.  All one has to do is sit down at a computer, or record sounds, or pretend to sing, and they can create a song and upload it to the internet and share it with their friends.  Maybe it becomes viral, and the creator wins their fifteen minutes of fame.  That’s not to say that people who do this are hacks, because that is not always the case.  All it means is music is more accessible for anyone to create, so how far it can progress is only limited by one’s creative capacity and their imagination.  Whether or not we as a people get to hear it is another story, as that depends on the popularity and quality.  American Idol has shown us there are plenty of people who have become famous because of how bad they are, but it’s also given some genuinely talented people the chance to see their dreams come to fruition.

What is certain, though, is the fact that however music evolves next is going to be completely dependent upon computer technology.  Check out the music in this blog post.  I actually relaxed to the ethereal sounds of slowed down, indecipherable, technology manipulated Justin Bieber earlier this afternoon, and it was nice.  It was like music from another plane of existence and not the pre-packaged pop the collective ear has become used to.

No matter how far music progresses (or regresses, as the case may be) the fact remains that there will always be something or someone pushing the envelope or trying to change the perception of music in the world.  Whether they succeed or not, and whether the music lasts the test of time, is up to the individual creators themselves and how much work they put into it.  Just remember the quote from The Sandlot. “Heroes are remembered, but legends never die.  Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.”

~ by violarockstar on August 20, 2010.

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