A Valentine Out of Season

A Valentine Out of Season

As far as I can recall, I’ve never previously posted a chain of paragraphs here or anywhere else on February 14, and therefore always managed to avoid having to definitively put something in prose about Valentine’s Day, a holiday I have rather mixed feelings about. Nowadays I usually enjoy a quiet romantic dinner with my wife Trudy, but when I was younger I frequently didn’t acknowledge the day at all. I always found the de rigeur “Hallmark card, roses, and chocolates” quality of the day somewhat trite. Although today when I walked into my office building and was handed a complimentary chocolate bar from the building’s management, I was amused and mildly charmed. Guess that’s yet another sign of having grown up.

But the one thing I can’t help thinking about on Valentine’s Day to this day—some old axes will always grind—is how irrelevant new music is to it, and to romance in general. While to me it seems a completely off-putting cliché, I know that many couples have specific “songs” that they associate with their relationship and which they listen to on important days, e.g. anniversaries, Valentine’s Day. But I’ve yet to meet a couple who make such associations with contemporary long form score-based compositions. Whether it’s Elliott Carter’s solo piano piece Night Fantasies, David Del Tredici’s song cycle Love Addiction, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Romance for violin and piano, or even Milton Babbitt’s The Joy of More Sextets, folks don’t seem to turn to this stuff when their minds turn to thinking about romance.

Might the fact that this music is not generally something that folks get sentimental about be one of the key reasons it hasn’t reached a larger audience? Many people talked about the ability of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings to provide comfort and solace after September 11. But the associations assigned to that particular piece seem more the result of how it has been previously used in soundtracks for motion pictures such as Platoon, not because of anything innate to the abstract notes that Barber put on the page.

Most people who love contemporary music, at least in my experience, do not love it because of the way it makes them “feel.” Or have I been talking to the wrong people? Do you have a Valentine’s Day go-to piece? And if not, may I suggest this timely classic by John Cage?

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11 thoughts on “A Valentine Out of Season

  1. holbrooke

    Do you have a Valentine’s Day go-to piece?

    Why not just love the music that best serves the situation? You wouldn’t want Nancarrow at a Bar Mitzvah, or Sun O))) at a dance party. Naturally contemporary short form recording-based compositions featuring vocals are best for Valentine’s Day.

    Face it, contemporary long form score-based compositions are not useful for most situations for most people on earth. This is nothing to lament, if anything it is what makes it special.

  2. Jeremy Howard Beck

    Re: Adagio for Strings
    Saying that we perceive Barber’s Adagio for Strings in a certain emotional way largely due to its use in movies gets it exactly backwards, I think: if there weren’t anything that moved people in that specific emotional way in Barber’s abstract notes-on-paper, then no director would have used it in his or her movie in the first place. They used the Adagio precisely because it has that emotional effect on people. Its use in movies like Platoon only means more people have heard it, not that we assign it emotional content that it didn’t already have.

  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Barber’s Adagio is indeed an extraordinarily beautiful and moving piece of music, but I maintain that assigning a specific meaning to wordless instrumental music will never result in a universal consensus among listeners. But don’t think that I wish it were otherwise; music’s lack of specific meaning makes it all the more flexible. Yet that said, performance contexts and reception history have a lot to do with the extra-musical syntactic associations we attach to music and can often determine meanings for us that might not have originally been there.

    The Adagio for Strings, of course, began its life as the slow movement of Barber’s String Quartet, the rest of which is equally extraordinary though unjustly not as well known. Arturo Toscanini’s championing of Barber’s recasting of this movement for string orchestra was one of his rare embraces of music by a living American composer and so that carried a ton of weight. As did its being performed at the funerals of FDR, Einstein, and Grace Kelly. But even though it was voted the saddest piece of classical music ever by the listeners of the BBC in 2004 (if Wikipedia’s account of it is to believed), even ahead of “Dido’s Lament” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which does have words (!!!), I’m still not convinced that this is exclusively because of the music and not its subsequent usage.

    Do you believe that the major scale connotes happiness and the minor scale connotes sadness? Such a notion was refuted decades ago by studies done among people in the world who had never heard such scales—although admittedly such a study would probably be impossible to replicate in today’s Western culture media saturated world. The reason remains, however, that the meanings we associate with music are culturally and contextually determined and not conveyed through the notes themselves.

    That said, it might be interesting here to ponder why certain pieces of music resonate with people in certain ways and others don’t, even on first hearing. Why are we able to instantly recall melodic shards from certain pieces and not from others? And is the ability to recall such shards a connotation of a piece’s worh? If that’s true then songs like the theme from Ghostbusters or “Ring My Bell” are greater than the complete works of Anton Webern, which I imagine would be fighting words among many new music aficionados.

  4. dB

    Sorry, Jeremy, but I think you’re the one who has it backwards. Should we assume that images of space babies, or the emotions we associate with them, are inherent to Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra simply because Kubrik made that connection? Or that Stealer’s Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You would be associated with mutilation if it weren’t for Tarantino? A work of music’s association with a famous film forever alters the public’s perception of it.

    The music of Barber’s Adagio is beautiful, but I’m not sure it’s inherently tragic, which is certainly the emotion now most associated with it. Rather, I should say that while “tragic” is a valid reading, it is certainly not the only objective reading, but has become so because of the associations it has with film. The fact that this particular association has become so ubiquitous that even people who have never seen Platoon still understand it’s meaning isn’t an indication of it’s inherent meaning, just the degree to which that trope has permeated pop culture.

  5. Jeremy Howard Beck

    dB, I think you misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that Also Sprach Zarathustra inherently connotes space, monkeys, etc., or that Stuck in the Middle With You inherently connotes mutilation, because those things are specific images. The emotional response that people have to the Adagio for Strings is, like Frank said, nonspecific–some people might think of it as tragic, sure, but others might think of it as wistful, nostalgic, or even reverent, and each of those emotions has its own unique “flavor.” But to use that to conclude that the piece has no inherent emotional content is, to me, a logical fallacy. It contradicts my own experience with the piece, hearing it for the first time at 16 in my music theory class, with no knowledge of it or its use in movies.

    Honestly, the only musicians I know who are made so uncomfortable by the idea of emotional content in music are contemporary classical musicians. Classical musicians who play the standard rep talk about the feelings provoked in them and in audiences by the music they play all the time and with great enthusiasm, as do jazz musicians, rock musicians, pop musicians, folk musicians, and musicians from different cultures around the world. Arabic modes and Indian raga have very specific cultural emotional meanings–are those not inherent for Arabs and Indians, just because they are not inherent to us?

    All languages are inherently arbitrary–there is no reason why we should call something “night” which Israelis call “laila,” French people call “nuit,” and Japanese people call “yoru.” Those sounds have no inherent meaning, and yet they mean something to us. Music’s emotional meaning may not be inherent to the notes on the page–a visiting Martian might have a completely different reaction from ours, if she has one at all–but I think to conclude that that somehow invalidates its emotional meaning for us is silly, and betrays a discomfort with music’s emotional power that I find increasingly alienating.

  6. MarkNGrant

    The fact that this particular association has become so ubiquitous that even people who have never seen Platoon still understand it’s meaning isn’t an indication of it’s inherent meaning, just the degree to which that trope has permeated pop culture.

    With all due respect, the possessive is “its,” not “it’s.” “It’s” as a possessive is as bad as “ain’t” or “youse.” When one uses that glaring a solecism not once but twice in a sentence in a forum like this, one undercuts one’s credibility as an advocate, to be sure.

    And by the way, it’s Kubrick, not Kubrik; Strauss’s, not Strauss’ (see the Chicago Manual of Style 6.24-6.30); and Stealers Wheel, not Stealer’s Wheel.

  7. dB

    Your language example either demonstrates that we’re on the same page, or that I’m missing your point entirely. Since, as you concede, words have no inherent meaning (or rather, that the sounds have no inherent meaning), the meaning we ascribe to it exists only in out minds. Speakers of any language have a generally agreed-upon definition for any one word, but the meaning is only conceptual, not inherent to the word itself. The exact same can be said about music (which, let’s be honest here, is much more abstract than language in the first place).

    If a piece can be read as having every possible emotional spin, as well as being read as complete emotional gibberish, what would its “inherent emotional content” be? I suspect this answer can only head us toward the old intentional fallacy debate, which I’d rather just avoid, but I also suspect that you mention language to suggest that some people are equipped to understand certain genres/lineages of music that others are not. This is at best limiting to music consumers who aren’t equipped in that way to understand everything (but who otherwise might enjoy and indeed find meaning in it), and at worst insular and classicist. My only response can be “where do we draw the line?” How informed does someone need to be to make an informed opinion, to contribute to defining the inherent meaning of the piece? Do we all need PhDs in musicology, or will simply having grown up in a particular culture equip us to form opinions about it?

    A personal aside to MarkNGrant: please save your “due respect” until you have something less condescending to say. Sorry we can’t all be as diligent in editing our own posts as you are in editing everyone else’s.

  8. Jeremy Howard Beck

    @dB again
    My point was not that only certain people are equipped to understand certain music, only that the music you grow up with is, by definition, the music to which you are acculturated. Arabic music will never be the music of my childhood, and neither will Balinese music, Flamenco, or even Rap. The music we grow up hearing has resonances within us that it may not for people who come to it later.

    You seem to be arguing that because music’s emotional content is subjective, it cannot be inherent. But there are different levels of inherent-ness, which is what I meant in my language example. Sure, “rain,” “ame,” and “lluvia” only mean “water that falls from the sky” because we culturally agree that that is what the word means. So it has no objectively inherent meaning, okay. But “rain” absolutely does have inherent meaning for me as a native-English speaker, and to say that I only think of water falling from the sky when I hear “rain” because of its use in books and movies and stuff is, to me, an abdication of the power words have, and, by extension, an abdication of the emotional power that music has, and which only contemporary classical musicians deny, discredit, and avoid with such zeal.

    That then begs the question: if objectivism is so important to you, why do you work (I assume, since you’re here) in the arts, which are all inherently subjective? Why is it so important to you to discredit people’s (involuntary) reactions to art?

  9. Colin Holter

    But “rain” absolutely does have inherent meaning for me as a native-English speaker, and to say that I only think of water falling from the sky when I hear “rain” because of its use in books and movies and stuff is, to me, an abdication of the power words have

    Not to speak for dB, who just won major points with me for his entirely warranted and admirably measured response to Mark N. Grant, but:

    What do the two of you mean when you use the word “inherent?” The word “rain” doesn’t particularly sound like rain. It doesn’t make you feel moisture on your skin when someone says it. In what sense is the connection between the lexeme “rain” and the meteorological phenomenon of rain an inherent one? In other words, once you’ve said that “rain” has an inherent meaning for you, how is that meaning inherent in the word? Sounds like it’s inherent in you, probably because you speak English.

    The socially conditional character of music’s emotional valence doesn’t by any means weaken it; “rain” doesn’t have to sound like water falling from the sky for me to know what you mean when you say it, and music that I find sad doesn’t have to have some demonstrable psychoacoustic affective aura in order to make me sad. People in contemporary music are serious about this issue because the whole point of contemporary music is to illuminate different points of view.

  10. MarkNGrant

    Kubrick’s use of music
    Kubrick and 2001/Also Sprach Zarathustra already came up above; I’m surprised his use of music in A Clockwork Orange hasn’t also been mentioned in the context of this discussion about the polysemous affect of music. Kubrick uses the William Tell Overture as the soundtrack for the scene where Alex (Malcolm McDowell) has a quickie with two girls he’s just picked up in a record store. Then during the segment where Alex and cronies break into a writer’s home and rape his wife, Kubrick has Alex crooning ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ all through the scene. Finally, when the government captures Alex and forces aversion therapy on him to condition him to respond with nausea and terror to sex and violence, the aversion therapy is accompanied by Beethoven’s Ninth. Later the torment of hearing the Beethoven’s Ninth alone, which Alex formerly loved, drives him to try to commit suicide.

  11. dB

    I realized after I posted last night that I really should have worked to clarify what I meant by “inherent,” since it seems to be at the crux of the argument. Colin said a lot of good things, so I’m going to try to avoid being redundant.

    Jeremy says that while the word rain does not have any inherent meaning on its own, it does have inherent meaning to him, which I interpret as he inherently applies meaning to that word. This would be entirely subjective, but for the fact that culturally, english speakers have a general agreement about what the word “rain” means. Because of this agreement, you could say that there is some objective meaning to the word rain, but music is very different from words.

    Words are designed to have that kind of culturally agreed upon meaning. If music (or any art, really) ever has something resembling that type of “objectivity,” it is very culturally (that is, both time and space) specific. The reason contemporary musicians deny that type of objectivity is 1) that it’s essentially a myth that dissolves as soon as it takes shape and 2) because a lot of new music seeks to avoid alienating any subjective readings of a work (that type of alienation would be inherent in naming any one subjective reading THE objective reading).

    Another reason some contemporary musicians might be sore about your argument is your claim that music that wasn’t around when you were growing up will never have the same resonance for you as the music that was there. New music necessarily could not have been around when you were growing up, so you’re essentially discounting its emotional impact of their work not only before you’ve heard it, but before they’ve even written it. I’d be angry if someone said that to me.

    In response to your question, objectivism is not important to me at all. I don’t seek to discredit peoples subjective reactions to art; I only ask that they not confuse that reaction with some objective truth about the art.

    I don’t mean to start a whole different conversation here, but what you said about the power of words really intrigued me. Do you believe words have power beyond their meaning? I’ve always viewed them as a means to an end of communication, primitive vessels for transferring ideas. I’m just kind of curious to hear your thoughts.


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