The last semester of music theory at the university was the most abstract. In the first few days Dr. Brody had led the class of seniors and grad students away from the familiar concept of music notation and into a strange world, ruled by rows and columns of numbers meant to represent the organization of the pitch universe. He tantalized them with the philosophy of the modern musical era, in which the giants of the early twentieth century composed their works in terms of neo-classicism, minimalism, and a type of melodic agnosticism.
As the nine o’clock class got underway Cal shifted in his seat, his pen lying unused by his notebook. This all perturbed him greatly. Nothing in the music they listened to and deconstructed reminded him of what humans had spent almost a thousand years cultivating. The monks, with their haunting chants—the great Palestrina and his brave, beautiful mass movements—Bach and his structured but reverent chorales—the modern music era had all but closed the book on them.
“So you can see in this short phrase here,” Dr. Brody was saying, “that the use of octaves would lend the piece a semblance of tonality, of melodicism. And Ravel is loathe to do that.”
“Why?” Cal wondered aloud. He realized quickly that the fifteen or so other students had turned to look at him. He continued, slowly. “Who is Ravel writing this for? Who doesn’t want to hear a melody in music?”
Dr. Brody was unfazed. “It’s not so much Ravel’s audience as his adherence to the movement of the day.”
“Yes, I know—but the modern movement was built around kind of an insane premise.”
“Which is?” the professor prompted.
Cal cleared his throat; he didn’t speak out in class much, as he was still self-conscious of his Australian accent. “Which is…basically doing only the things that hadn’t yet been done. The modern composers did away with melody and diatonic harmonies and what was left? Music that sounds like…” He struggled momentarily. “Sounds.”
A few students tittered; one of the grad students offered, “But isn’t that a working definition of music? Organized sound. Music can be a lot of things.”
“But can it?” Cal asked. “Where do we draw the line?”
Dr. Brody leaned against his podium, smiling a little. “Where would you draw the line?”
The students were looking at Cal again.
“Well…take Plato, for instance. His theory of forms. Everything in our world has a transcendent origin. Who’s to say that music doesn’t as well? That there isn’t an ideal form of music?”
“Ah, I see.” Dr. Brody was still smiling. “And you think that there are types of music that hew more closely to the ‘ideal’ than others.”
One of the seniors made a haughty noise in his throat. “A typical Western notion.”
“No, no,” Cal said, amongst the murmurs of approval. “This isn’t about West versus East. It’s about permanence. The realm of forms is immutable, and our world can only imitate it. The better we imitate the musical ideal, the closer we get to the real thing. But taking the academic approach of Shoenberg and Stravinksy, even Ravel—who would truly say they enjoy listening to that? Who would use it in their everyday life?”
“So you believe music is solely to be enjoyed?” Dr. Brody interjected.
“I think music exists in and of itself, and we can only discover it. And I think that real music is immediately understandable by everyone. You don’t have to put it through retrograde equations,” Cal said, waving his notebook of numbers in the air, “to make sense of it.”
A woman behind Cal spoke up. “But can you really define music based on a theory even Aristotle criticized?”
Someone laughed. Cal sighed. “That’s the beauty of the realm of forms. It exists whether or not we believe it does. And Plato knew that it was more real than our material world. This stuff…” He referenced his notebook again. “It’s just shadows on the wall of the cave. We should be spending our time trying to find the source.”
Cal was more frustrated now than when he started. Music the way God intended it might never be accepted here. But Cal could try and lead them, if nothing else, to the truth of the beauty of an ideal.
At the end of class he went down and wrote a bit of Psalm 108 on the board.
“…I will sing and make music with all my soul.” Psalm 108:1
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