Friday, September 25, 2015

Timeless Music

Dear Readers - this post, Timeless Music, was written sometime in the autumn of 2009.  I suppose that I was not quite finished and intended to make changes or add further thoughts.  In the six intervening years I've apparently forgotten what those changes or additional ideas were going to be.

What follows is, word for word, exactly the way I abandoned this article back then - although I've updated links and added the pictures.  Only the last picture is relevant to the subject matter while the others are from a series called Half Grassed.  I'm sad that the argumentative and occasionally bigoted comments on the LA Times story Loving Wagner Anyway don't seem to be available anymore.  At the end there's something I labeled "Footnote".  I'm guessing that was a sidetrack I'd cut out of the essay but hadn't yet gathered enough courage to delete.

In honor of Mixed Meters' Tenth Anniversary which was on September 16, I'm rescuing this and a couple other pieces from obscurity.  While I doubt they will get much attention on the Internet, they certainly will get more than they do in my draft folder.

Six years is the briefest of instants in the realm of the timeless.  This subject matter still seems relevant to me at the moment thanks to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's current Immortal Beethoven promotion.  Go ahead, call him immortal, I don't much care anymore.  Back in 2009 I cared a lot; that was a Wagner thing.

As always, many thanks for reading Mixed Meters - or at least for skimming through quickly.


How long is "timeless"?

Timeless could mean existing, without change, from the very creation of the universe (whenever that was) until the very end (if it happens). Actually, something that lasts longer than the universe would be truly timeless. Not a useful definition.

How about a geologic timescale? Could Mount Everest be considered timeless? Or, closer to home, the San Andreas Fault? Both features might last only tens of millions of years.

Billions of Years or Millions of Years? I can't grasp much difference. Both are incomprehensible. Understanding a millennium - a mere thousand years - is daunting by itself. And I've lived in two of them.

I'm bothering you with this silly bullshit because the phrase "timeless music" pushes my buttons. I've run across it several times lately in various forms. Anyone can claim that certain music is timeless because choosing which music is timeless is a personal decision. Timeless implies that anyone, in any decade, any century, any millennium, will find the music meaningful. A genuinely timeless work ought to remain so regardless of changes in culture, economics or politics. It's a tall order.

Mostly I hear the phrase used about so-called Classical Music, a term less than 2 centuries old. (Centuries!) Some people claim their favorite, most comfortable, friendly and meaningful Classical music is timeless. They assume others will agree thoughtlessly.

People with similar musical tastes, possibly the result of similar musical education, tend to gather together and agree about which music they think is timeless. That's great. But when they start suggesting that their music will bring personal, civic or cultural improvement to outsiders, I become upset. Such proselytizing does nothing good for the world of classical music.

I ran across a button-pushing use of the phrase "timeless music" recently in a Los Angeles Times letter to the editor. Someone named Mark A. Overturf wrote a response to this editorial about elitism, ethnicity, race and Gustavo Dudamel:

Or why not stop reading race into something as beautiful as classical music? Try going to a concert some night and listening to a world-class orchestra in a world-class venue performing timeless music -- hence the name "classical."
If the author is suggesting that it doesn't matter whether or not Beethoven was black, I'm in full agreement.

I suspect Mr. Overturf is really saying that matters of social class distinction will be more easily overcome if people would only listen "to a world-class orchestra in a world-class venue". His utopian ecstasy is available to anyone if they only have ears to hear. Certainly has a religious ring to it. Religion is an important element of timelessness.

Here's something I wrote in an online discussion about another L.A. Times article. I was responding to a writer named MarK who called Wagner's operas "timeless and universal". (I can't deal with "universal" right now. Please wait for the next rant.) I wrote:

Timeless? How can an opera that was barely begun 150 years ago be considered timeless today? Religions which are millennia old with billions of adherents might, just barely, be considered timeless. But the Ring could completely disappear from the culture in another century.
Needless to say, MarK was not swayed by my argument. (If you read "Loving Wagner Anyway" by Mark Swed, be sure to read all the comments. One rarely encounters such blatant old-fashioned, dare I say timeless, anti-semitism.)

Anyway, in that quote I was trying to compare the relative time spans of a much beloved religion (such as Christianity, now two millennia old and counting) to that of a much beloved classical composer (Richard Wagner - less than two centuries and counting).

Does 2000 years qualify Christianity as "timeless"? It might. Will Christianity still exist in any recognizable form in another 2000? Will any of the basic principles remain unchanged? Possible. But without an argument based on faith no one can be certain.

Similarly, can anyone say that Wagner (or Beethoven or Bach) will still be revered or performed or even remembered after 20 centuries? To suggest such a thing requires a good deal of that pure simple faith.

Personally, I wonder if the talents needed to perform 21st century classical music will even be taught in the year 4000? I suppose that aspiring musicians then, just as now, will want to study what they need in order to get work. Will they have violins to play? Will people listen to mp3 files? Will the army of musicologists have grown enough to determine definitively if Wagner was an anti-semite?

Back here in the present, musical timelessness appears - hardly noticed - in curious corners, often part of a marketing campaign. I guess timelessness sells music with a familiar notion: "this music is good for you."

For example, I received a print brochure for the upcoming season of Los Angeles' own Monday Evening Concerts. It includes this anonymous audience member's quote:

It was really something that could not be described. And for me it verged on a religious experience.
There's no indication what indescribed music is being discussed. But apparently suggesting that an epiphany might be had by buying tickets is good marketing.

Recently I noticed the concept of timeless music at Starbucks. Starbucks once fancied itself a music store but today hawks only a few CDs. Right now they're selling albums by those immortal artists Barbra Streisand and Michael Buble displayed under a placard reading:

Music made to stand the test of time.
I wonder if "standing the test of time" is the first step canonizing "timeless music"? Will MarK or Mr. Overturf agree that Michael Buble might someday become "timeless". (I'm pretty sure they won't.)

I wish the idea of "timeless music" didn't bother me. It does because I am someone who searches for novelty in music. Novelty is getting harder and harder to find. These days I rarely hear anything new that does not remind me of something I've heard before.

There are a few pieces I enjoy hearing repeatedly. I would never suggest that others will react the same way. Certainly my all-too-unique listening habits plus my unusual educational and career background color my opinions about what music is good and which isn't.

I also wish that promoting music with religious overtones didn't bother me. I believe everyone should belive what they want - and everyone else should leave them alone.

Sometimes it is suggested that certain composers are inspired by God. In reality, composers are insecure, neurotic people, working under a deadline, trying to guarantee that each new piece sucks less than the previous one. God has nothing to do with it.

As my friend Armen said once: "I don't believe in Beethoven because there is a God. I believe in God because there is Beethoven." That's his choice, of course - and, because he has flipped the normal cause and effect, I find it a beautiful sentiment. Would that more of the classical music audience thought along these lines.

Personally I believe that the meaning of classical music comes not from the composer but, instead, from each individual listener. Through a process of consensus, so-called timeless music has achieved a kind of default meaning over the years. Eventually people begin to mistake the origins of that default consensus. They imagine it comes from out there, somewhere. In reality its real source is deep within each of them.

I believe that the consensus about classical music needs to be challenged. I hope what we have now is not permanent. I hope new meanings will be found for old pieces. I hope new pieces will find new meanings as well. I hope more of the audience will think independently. I hope fewer people will suggest that their favorite music is timeless. I hope they spend their time enjoying it and being moved by it right now.

I hope for utopia.


Only old pieces, the ones heard over and over again, become timeless. New pieces are never timeless. ("Never timeless" is quite a concept.) New pieces must be vetted over time to achieve their certification.

Long unchanging drone pieces might seem timeless - but the mere act of lasting a long time is not what is being discussed here. In today's musical climate a piece might last six hundred or a thousand years without the slightest claim to being timeless. There's even a Timeless Music Festival.

Often "timeless" music is actually "timely", meaning it is still relevant in society. Beethoven's Ninth is timely because there are those who need to hear the message of universal brotherhood. Suppose humans actually survive until an age of universal brotherhood. Will anyone have reason to bother with the Ninth again?

Of course, the meaning people find in the Ninth is largely based on its text. Maybe it's Schiller who is actually timeless, not Beethoven.

The one creative artist closest to achieving timeless status is Shakespeare. His plays have the advantage over abstract music because words have more specific meanings than notes. To my knowledge, no one ever suggests that watching Shakespeare can solve the world's ills. I suppose there are people who attend theater with the same fervor of the Bayreuth audience. People seem to need to believe.

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