I suffered a bout of musical whiplash yesterday evening. From 5 to 6:45, I attended the first class meeting of a music history seminar. In this course, I will be studying the works of Gyorgy Ligeti, a contemporary composer who just passed away this summer. Then, at 8, I went to the New York State Fair and caught a performance by punk-rocker Joan Jett, who played for free on the Chevrolet Court stage.
Some of Ligeti's music was featured (albeit without his permission) in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Many of his other compositions have this same ethereal, formless feeling, filled with clustered chords and lacking the normal musical guideposts of rhythm, meter and conventional harmony. In the first class yesterday, though, we listened to a few examples of Ligeti's piano music and heard its complex rhythms and jumpy syncopations. The professor led us through discussion of Eastern European music and the rhythm of the Hungarian language itself, and the few piano pieces we heard are loaded with forward-surging, heavily-accented rhythms.
The professor described some of Ligeti's music as incredibly, sometimes willfully, difficult, especially in terms of the independence of individual parts and the layering of complex rhythms over one another. But part of the value, I'm beginning to see, in new music is the *effort* it requires of both the performer and the listener. Much of the enjoyment comes from the challenge - both the discipline of one's hands to play the right notes at the right time, and discipline of the ears to find something to grab onto in the music. The sung folk music we heard in class contained, in addition to unconventional tonalities and unfamiliar language, shouts, grunts and other uncategorizable sounds. Those elements show that the performers are working hard and exerting themselves, conveying intensity that comes through entirely apart from the language in which the song is sung.
Compare that with an hour-long set of roaring, brawny rock-and-roll, with guitars in place of pianos, English in place of Hungarian, and an up-tempo 4/4 grind in place of complicated isorhythms. The common ingredient in both musical experiences, though, was intensity. Jett and her lead guitarist hurled themselves around the stage, manhandling their guitars as they churned out steady, three-chord progressions (If the formula for country music is "three chords and the truth," the one for punk-rock from the '70s and '80s might be "three chords and a snarl"). When the guitarist and bassist came to the mike to deliver backing vocals, they seemed locked in place - eyes forward, mouths in position to sing, even on the relatively docile refrain of "Crimson and Clover." Jett encouraged the audience to do likewise, calling for more volume from the shouting chorus at the foot of the stage. She and her bandmates doubtlessly exerted themselves just playing simple, propulsive American rock music, stomping around the stage and brandishing electric guitars. I didn't know all the songs in the set, particularly the ones from the band's new album "Sinner," but they were delivered with the same weight and aggressive posture as the more familiar ones.
So here's to music that takes effort to play and to enjoy. Though you may never see a roadie drape a concert pianist in a cape after a performance a la James Brown, exertion and effort are a vital part of performance, whether it's "post-modern" or punk-rock.