Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Review: What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland

What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland [ISBN: 0451528670]

This is about the listening of concert music, also called classical music (not to be confused with the classical period of music). Aaron Copland is best known as a composer, but he also delivered a series of lections on What to Listen for in Music, which became the heart of this book. The 2002 Signet Classic edition includes Copland's 1957 update (originally written in 1939), a forward by Alan Rich (1999) and an introduction by William Schuman (1988).

The book almost has to start by answering the question, why a book on what to listen for in music. There is the obvious answer "listen to a lot of music." And that is a truth that the book does state as well. But this is, as we say in mathematics, a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding. Listening to a lot of music gives a context, but not a language for discussing or thinking about it. Almost every field of understanding has a language that goes with the understanding of it. And knowing the language allows practicioners and others associated with the field to both communicate ideas for the growth of the field and the abilities of the individual.

By way of background, I tell everyone that as far as the fine art in general and music in particular, I know almost nothing. But somehow I got recruited to write on a regular basis for the local (Pittsburgh) Symphony Orchestra. As such, I am probably the epitome of appreciating and discussing music without any understanding of theory or history. (actually, many concertgoers without training probably have picked up much more history than I have.) So my writing, while focused more or less on the actual music, is restricted to what I hear and pay attention to.

Much of what I get from reading this is what can be expected, many things that I have picked up over time that are now expressed in words. I liked Copland's description of music as a collaboration between conductor, interpreter and listener. There are sections that discuss how to listen to melody as it gets passed from section to section. I especially liked the section on basso ostinato. It reminded me of a time listening to a friend preparing for a graduate recital, and pointing out a repeated bass line and giving suggestions about what can be done with it. And know I know what the words (basso ostinato) for what I could only describe before.

But a book is useless if all it does is repeat what is known. Starting with sections on four elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, tone color; and going on to fundamental forms (sectional, variational, fugal, sonata, free) and additional chapters on some specific forms of music, it draws a map that can guide a listener. Interspersed throughout are identified movements and selections that illustrate concepts, and where I have them in my collection, I found myself listening to the selection while reading the relavent passage, and listening again. Each time hearing more then the last, or any time before. And the book promises that I can do this many times (at least with high quality pieces).

So, who is this for? Copland makes the point that this is a book written by a composer for listeners. Composers are expected to know much of this to a much deeper level, because it makes their craft more expressive (as well as provides a structure they can work in. It is much harder to write something without structure because you have to confront the tendency to make meaningless drivel.) It is not aimed at interpreters (performers) to the extent they are not also listeners. The book explicitly assumes technical proficiency beyond necessity. While there is discussion of the tension between the creative aspects of both composing and performing, the interaction between the two is probably better discussed in many other places. Likewise, the music critic is not served, as technical ability and interpretation are not properly discussed, as a critic is expected to do. And it is not a catalogue with listings of recordings. While many works are mentioned (and conveniently listed) reading this book does assume access to a reasonable music library in being. There are other introduction to classical music titles that provide descriptions of pieces and a history of music. This work is intended to train the ear, not a reference to fill the mind with facts.

It is aimed at the listener, for whom listening to music is its own purpose. The ones who hear the many layers, and wants the ability to hear the layers individually and as a whole. To be able to listen to a piece in the large as well as in the small. And to listen in such a way as a piece and recording of sufficient quality can be listened to many times, each time observing something never before heard.
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