Undue Noise: words about music
(ABC Books 2002)
The consolation of undue noise
On the stretch of highway along which I drive to Sydney each week, there’s a sign that reads, ‘UNDUE NOISE IS AN OFFENCE’. There is no obvious reason for its existence. It isn’t in a residential area or outside a maternity hospital or anything. The notice would appear to be there at the whim of a local council bureaucrat.
I’ve driven by it for two years now, and I’m still uncertain what effect it’s meant to have on me. I mean I’m not, by nature, a noisy driver. I’m not even sure how you drive noisily. The sign irritates me, to be honest. Every time I see it, I want to wind down my window and scream at the top of my lung: ‘You mean this sort of thing? Is this too noisy for you? Too UNDUE?’
Perhaps it annoys me so much because it seems to accuse me. Not as a driver, but professionally. It questions the very basis of what I do. I am a composer. And not just any old composer; I am a composer of Western Art Music. By definition, most Western Art Music is undue noise and it’s been that way now for around 200 years.
There was a time when Western composers wrote music with a function. From the Middle Ages, the Church was the greatest patron of the arts. The vast majority of music by Dufay, Palestrina and Bach is settings of religious texts. From the Renaissance, composers were often employed in the households of the wealthy, where they produced music on demand for dances and banquets and lavish entertainments. Monteverdi, Lully and Haydn were all court composers. At the palace of Esterháza, Haydn even wore a uniform, like the other staff. But in the nineteenth century all that began to change. Beethoven, Wagner and Tchaikovsky may have benefited from aristocratic patronage, but it was mostly at arm’s length. Tchaikovsky, indeed, never even met his patron.
It was also in the nineteenth century that the concert hall, pretty much as we know it today, came into existence. It is an astonishing thought that Haydn and Mozart (at the end of the eighteenth century) would have expected much of their music to exist, to a degree, as background noise. Only in the nineteenth century did large audiences begin sitting in rows, actually listening to music. This was bound to affect the nature of the music composers imagined, and it did. For one thing pieces got longer, but they also became more complex. I don't mean harmonically complex (though that too), but structurally. Where once a piece of music or at least a single movement behaved in much the same way from start to finish, now it could contain several sorts of contrasting ideas creating a back-and-forth musical argument. The early nineteenth century, remember, also witnessed the first great flourishing of the novel.
So in Beethoven's final symphonies, the symphonies of Schumann and Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Bruckner and Mahler, in the piano sonatas of Schubert and Chopin and Liszt—to name only ostensibly abstract forms—one finds discourse, narrative and drama. They serve no function other than a musical one. They are there merely because the composer wants them there. Undue noise.
© Andrew Ford 2002