David Byrne, How Music Works
We’re all Africans
Some say that the instruments being played in the photo at the top of the next page were all derived from easily available local materials, and therefore it was convenience (with a sly implication of unsophistication) that determined the nature of the music. This assessment implies that these instruments and this music were the best this culture could do given the circumstances. But I would argue that the instruments were carefully fashioned, selected, tailored, and played to best suit the physical, acoustic, and social situation. The music perfectly fits the place where it is heard, sonically and structurally. It is absolutely ideally suited for this situation—the music, a living thing, evolved to fit the available niche.
That same music would turn into sonic mush in a cathedral. Western music in the Middle Ages was performed in these stone-walled gothic cathedrals, and in architecturally similar monasteries and cloisters. The reverberation time in those spaces is very long—more than four seconds in most cases—so a note sung a few seconds ago hangs in the air and becomes part of the present sonic landscape. A composition with shifting musical keys would inevitably invite dissonance as notes overlapped and clashed—a real sonic pileup. So what evolved, what sounds best in this kind of space, is modal in structure—often using very long notes. Slowly evolving melodies that eschew key changes work beautifully and reinforce the otherworldly ambience. Not only does this kind of music work well acoustically, it helps establish what we have come to think of as a spiritual aura. Africans, whose spiritual music is often rhythmically complex, may not associate the music that originates in these spaces with spirituality; they may simply hear it as being blurry and indistinct. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, however, thought that the temple and cathedral are attractive because they spatially and acoustically recreate the cave, where early humans first expressed their spiritual yearnings. Or at least that’s where we think they primarily expressed these feelings, as almost all traces of such activities have disappeared.
It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically “simple” (having few key changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as “progress” when it comes to music, and that music is “better” now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t “improve.”
As time passed, symphonic music came to be performed in larger and larger halls. That musical format, originally conceived for rooms in palaces and the more modest-sized opera halls, was now somewhat unfairly being asked to accommodate more reverberant spaces. Subsequent classical composers therefore wrote music for those new halls, with their new sound, and it was music that emphasized texture, and sometimes employed audio shock and awe in order to reach the back row that was now farther away. They needed to adapt, and adapt they did.
Around 1900, according to music writer Alex Ross, classical audiences were no longer allowed to shout, eat, and chat during a performance. One was expected to sit immobile and listen with rapt attention. Ross hints that this was a way of keeping the hoi polloi out of the new symphony halls and opera houses. (I guess it was assumed that the lower classes were inherently noisy.) Music that in many instances used to be for all was now exclusively for the elite. Nowadays, if someone’s phone rings or a person so much as whispers to their neighbor during a classical concert, it could stop the whole show. This exclusionary policy affected the music being written, too—since no one was talking, eating, or dancing anymore, the music could have extreme dynamics. Composers knew that every detail would be heard, so very quiet passages could now be written. Harmonically complex passages could be appreciated as well. Much of twentieth-century classical music could only work in (and was written for) these socially and acoustically restrictive spaces. A new kind of music came into existence that didn’t exist previously—and the future emergence and refining of recording technology would make this music more available and ubiquitous. I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall—it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.
Although the quietest harmonic and dynamic details and complexities could now be heard, performing in these larger more reverberant halls meant that rhythmically things got less distinct and much fuzzier—less African, one might say. Even the jazz now played in these rooms became a kind of chamber music. Certainly no one danced, drank, or hollered out “Hell, yeah!” even if it was Goodman, Ellington, or Marsalis playing—bands that certainly swing. The smaller jazz clubs followed suit; no one dances anymore at the Blue Note or Village Vanguard, though liquor is very quietly served. One might conclude that removing the funky relaxed vibe from refined American concert music was not accidental. Separating the body from the head seems to have been an intended consequence—for anything to be serious, you couldn’t be seen shimmying around to it.