I recently read Sing Me Back Home by Dana Jennings. The book details the role of county music (authentic country music – think Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash) in post-war rural U.S. up to the mid 1970’s. By painting a picture of the poor in that time period from first-hand experience, Jennings points out the parallels in the music and lyrics and illustrates why that music was relevant to so many at the time and is still important to this day with those that have come from that era and circumstance.
The point is clear that this music meant something to Jennings and those he knew because listeners identified with it and it was authentic. Lyrics about cheating, being busted, doing time, or just getting by when things aren’t going your way were familiar. The delivery, instrumentation, and arrangements often reflected the subject better than the lyrics. People who were still using an outhouse in the 1960’s could relate to this music.
This measure of a music’s worth seems to get lost at times in the art/business/manufacture of music. While music is definitely a reflection of the artist that created it, the measure of how it relates to others is a very important component. Think about it: if an artist is a member of a society, the art created will reflect existence in that society (sometimes in recognition and approval, sometimes indifferent, and sometimes protest). The artist will embrace the possibilities and the result is often a reflection of the times.
There are many instances where it seems that a music was formed in such a state of detachment in striving for a unique voice that the music is, while original, difficult for anyone else to relate to in that time. Who does that serve? How can music like that be considered authentic? To be clear, I’m not referring to an audience’s reaction to Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata in 1818 or Eddie Van Halen's Eruption to those in 1978. While these both were shocking in their depth and exploration, they were rooted in a heritage that made these pieces culturally relevant. That made them relatable. That made them great works of art. That made them successful. What I’m referring to is the instances where manufactured elements drive the creative process. That leads me to the greatest hero of all composers: Arnold Schoenberg.
Schoenberg struggled with how to compose music after tonality had been dismantled by the Romantic trends occurring in classical music. At first, he was handling things quite well. Transfigured Night and even the less accessible String Quartet No.2 are compelling pieces I enjoy listening to, but he longed for tonality. Trends in art music were evolving beyond this conventional ordering of tones that had been guiding composers for some time, and it appears that he was unable or unwilling to use this structure for new compositions. His output illustrates that the freedom provided by atonality was not a favorable alternative. His solution was to invent his own method of ordering pitches where all tones had the same importance…12-tone music. The result was that the composer was enslaved by his own invention and there are likely volumes of great music that were never written due to this self-imposed struggle.
It could be argued that this struggle to find order in music was a reflection of the chaos that was around him as World War One was about to unfold, but I wonder how those around him related to the music. Did they share a similar quest and identify with the elements of 12-tone music? Accounts I have come across show an overwhelming rejection of this approach by audiences. Why is that? Is it because his works in this style were just bad? If it was only his composition and not the musical solution in question, then why has the 12-tone music fallen so far out of favor within the 100 or so years of its inception? It is rather unfortunate that Schoenberg influenced so many others to work in this method given the results and the relevance. I am only thankful that his student, Alban Berg, composed his opera, Wozzeck, as a primarily atonal work.
So why is Schoenberg the hero? He demonstrates by his example that creating music in a test tube is doomed. While there may be a few unique and memorable pieces, the majority will fail by falling outside the collective experience. On the other hand, he does illustrate by his example that trying something new and seeing the results is not altogether a bad thing: If you are unhappy with the results, there is still the lesson learned. He did eventually abandon the 12-tone method in his later works. This might have happened as well after realizing that most 12-tone music sounds like the bumper music in the original Star Trek TV series (had he lived to see that).
Most great musicians, songwriters, and composers spend hours in solace working out ideas, finding an original voice and style of expression, honing their craft without distractions. The truly great ones also keep an ear to the rail to see what else is happening to be better able to share what they see with the rest of us. We cannot help but reflect the times and place in which we live.