Essay: Immediate Vs. Gradual Revelation—What Makes Us Want To Listen Again?

The many comments and emails from my question about music you get instantly vs. music that is a gradual revelation led me to think about this issue more deeply. The future of classical concerts, after all, hangs in the balance. :) I conclude that context is critical...

Immediate Music Vs. Gradual Revelation—What Makes Us Want To Listen Again?

Why do we understand some music instantly, but other music takes repeated listening to grok?  We“get” Ravel’s Bolero the first time we hear it. But that's not the case with Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, or for that matter, a late Beethoven quartet. Just to follow the general path of those pieces requires multiple hearings. Whether music makes its impact immediately or not has nothing to do with whether it is good or bad, short or long, or even simple and complex. Rather, it points to a fundamental dichotomy in artistic communication. All listeners experience music they apprehend immediately, and music that gives up its secrets reluctantly, only after repeated listening.

This is not at all a debate of contemporary music versus standard classical repertoire. In fact, what suggested this question to me was a series I presented on 18th century composers J.S. Bach and George Frederic Handel. Handel’s music touches us immediately. It is transparent, hummable, and glorious. He composed at light speed (Messiah in 24 days!) and we seem also to hear it at light speed. His oratorio Messiah remains the most popular piece of music ever written, but his opera Rinaldo, his Music for the Royal Fireworks, his Water Music (just to name a few other pieces) all have immediate impact. We like Handel’s music the first time and enjoy hearing it over and over again to repeat the experience.  

How different it is to listen to music by J.S. Bach! Over and over we have to listen to understand and absorb Bach’s intricate layering, complex harmonic progressions, dense counterpoint, and intense dissonance. His contemporaries complained his music was needlessly fussy and difficult. Unlike Vivaldi or Handel, whose music largely stays within the seven notes of the scale (think white keys of the keyboard), Bach was always including the other five notes (think black keys of the keyboard) to incorporate all possible 12 notes in our Western musical system. Our ears must be far more nimble to follow Bach’s harmony and that takes practice.

There is a marvelous anecdote about Johann Rochlitz getting to know Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier by playing through all the preludes and fugues. He decided he would place a mark on any page that pleased him. After his first read-through, only a couple of pages had marks. But he felt he needed to play them through again. This time he marked several more pages. That made him want to play through them yet again. Eventually. he discovered that he had placed marks on most of the pages. They were all growing on him .

Many listeners can relate to Rochlitz’s experience. At first, a piece by Bach seems overly complex, dissonant, and even dry and cerebral. But after a half dozen times, our ears start to change. They penetrate Bach’s mysteries harmony and counterpoint. We begin to experience a passion that hits us deeper than what we feel in most other music. How did we miss it the first time?

It makes for a fun game to try and divide other composers into one camp or the other. Telemann—instantly understandable. C.P.E. Bach, nope—his textures are too much in flux and disruptive to understand at first. Mendelssohn—immediate! But Schumann often requires more listening. Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov? They practically define love on first hearing. But Brahms or Bruckner? Their density demands multiple hearings. Our American minimalists John Adams, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass are fairly immediate, yes? But gifted American composers Christopher Rouse, John Corigliano, Joseph Schwantner? Not as much.

This game reveals two truths. First, musical quality is mostly independent from musical immediacy or lack thereof. And it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in the 1970s and 1980s when the prevailing aesthetic was that simple music was inferior music. Many European composers at that time regarded American composers so simple as to be unimportant (they made exceptions for complex works of 12 tone composer Elliot Carter and experimental-visionary John Cage). Thankfully, that aesthetic has faded away. We no longer consider music of Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono better than music of American George Crumb simply because it is more complex. Vivaldi, Handel, and Tchaikovsky do not wear thin or seem too simple just because they are clear on first listening. And conversely, the music of Bach, Brahms, Debussy, or Lutoslawski is not of less quality because it is not immediately transparent, but rather reveals itself gradually. I also suspect I would receive a chorus of agreement by adding that there is plenty of bad or ineffective music to go around of both kinds!

A second truth is that most composers have examples of both “types” of music. Brahms’ masterful Piano Quartet in C Minor is not so immediate, but his lullaby certainly is. Debussy’s Claire de Lune is absolutely immediate, but not so his masterpiece ballet Jeux, a work that requires many hearings to penetrate its deep impressionist layers.

Are composers aware of this distinction? Do they intentionally set out to write music that is immediate or not? Edward Elgar seemed to have a clear intention when he wrote about his Pomp and Circumstance: "I've got a tune in my head that's going to knock 'em dead!" Beethoven famously responded to a musician critical of his quartets, saying, “Oh, these are for not for you, they are for a later age.” Ravel came to loathe his Boléro out of fear its popularity would eclipse his deeper music. Yet at first conception, he played the tune with one finger for a friend and asked, “Don’t you think that it has an insistent quality? I’m going to try to repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” So composers do seem more or less aware of the potential of their music to strike listeners immediately or not, in the same way pop composers calculate their “hooks.” ­­­But that is hardly their primary pursuit.

Can we afford that perspective today, to be less concerned with immediacy in music? Ours is a time of vast surface. The competition to be “heard above the noise” seems to demand immediate apprehension. Entertainment, by definition, fits this requirement. Pop music and film music are required first to be immediate. If a piece does not, those in the craft will simply say “it doesn’t work.” With entertainment, music gets one shot to attract people. That said, it can also contain other elements that are not immediate, but the requirement that most of it be immediately absorbed by the listener is non-negotiable.

Classical music is not bound by this urgency. Perhaps this is a more useful distinction between classical and pop music than other generalizations. While Ravel’s Boléro and Beethoven’s Grosse Füge are extreme examples of instant versus gradual apprehension, the truth is that most classical music lies within a spectrum between these two extremes.

A common experience for symphony audiences is to hear a piece for the first time and like or understand only a small part of it. But that small part becomes the “hook” that encourages a second listening. Then much like Rochlitz playing through Bach’s preludes and fugues, we discover enough we like to listen a third, fourth, and fifth time

I recently studied Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 “The Tragic” and that makes an excellent example. Here is perhaps Mahler’s most intense and complex work. It frustrates many expectations and really takes many times to be understood. Yet even the first time, great moments stick out. That powerful fanfare of fate that slips from major to minor returns many times and seems to anchor the symphony. Then there is the lush, hummable “Alma” theme in the first movement. We love it the first time we hear it, maybe wishing Mahler repeated it more! There’s more at first listening. it is impossible to ignore or be unmoved by the mighty hammer blows in the finale. These are moments of clarity within a massive work that often seems impenetrable. But those few wonderful moments may inspire us to hear the piece again. Now maybe we discover different “favorite” parts—the funeral march in the first movement or the expressive melody in the slow movement. How about those mysterious cowbells emerging from nowhere that elicit a remote dreamscape. We listen a third time, and again discover new moments. That is the key to Mahler’s revelation, ”A symphony must be like the world.” But that is pretty much the same listening evolution with all classical masterworks.

The classical concert hall and its rituals create a space of mystery and unlimited potential for musical revelation. We experience moments of magic, moments delightfully unexpected, and, of course, many moments uninspiring and exasperating. Sometimes performers disappoint us. Sometimes times a new work is abrasive or offers nothing interesting. And sometimes a piece we’ve heard before now seems less effective than at first. But in the sanctity of that space is a trust and willingness of musicians and audience to perform and listen beyond instantaneous gratification. What a different quality of communion that is than a popular concert or festival where immediacy is the critical point.

Even so, our modern concert halls buckle under the enormous pressure of the vast cultural surface encompassing contemporary society. Common context seems no longer possible. In the 1960s, a majority of classical audiences in the 1960s knew the Beethoven symphonies. That is not a safe assumption to make today, not because of contemporary ignorance, but because of the enormous amount of music seeping into everyone’s ears through internet, grocery stores, shopping malls, gym, bars, dance clubs, advertising, radio, TV, and film. Recordings reach back through every historic period, around the world with music of hundreds of different cultures, forward to experimental music, and vertically into a kaleidoscope of a thousand ever-shifting popular genres the Billboard Charts race to categorize. We hear it all, and without context. It’s just all out there mashed together. And no one can know it all.

Without context, audiences find it difficult to plug into the ritual of classical concerts. Might that be the root reason that so many orchestras now incorporate multimedia in concerts, even with traditional repertoire? More than seeking to attract younger audiences, are these confections an insurance policy to guarantee an immediate experience for audiences not sufficiently engaged to just watch and hear orchestra and singers alone, say, in Haydn’s Creation Oratorio, or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde? These multimedia extravaganzas are often not tightly integrated with the music. They often add so many disparate layers that the music becomes an accompaniment. You can tell this if during intermission, people discuss the video, staging, costume, or personality of a soloist instead of the music itself.

If audiences do not bring a common listening context to concerts, how do we still justify programming music that is not immediate? And specifically for us contemporary composers, why should we continue to write music that needs to be heard multiple times? After all, audiences will likely hear our music only once. Even if we are fortunate to have multiple performances, those different audiences still only hear the work one time. We don’t live now in the time of Haydn or Beethoven, when avid listeners might hear several performances of the same piece and then hear it yet again several more times in a 4 hand piano version at home salons.

New music has other disadvantages that are well known to listeners. If programmed on a standard classical concert, the new work is a novelty sandwiched between familiar works that provide insurance the audience will find something to like. If the new work is part of a new music concert with an audience of dedicated aficionados, it often blurs into anonymity amidst the five or six new pieces also being heard for the first time.

So if our performance outlets emphasize just a single audience exposure, why don’t we only write immediate music?  Well, many composers are doing just that. The American minimalists may have started the trend in the 1970s, but today we commonly hear new music that uses audience interaction, cultural outreach, multimedia, or even a complete rethinking of concert staging and format not merely to stimulate audience imagination, but to create a totally unique experience. A Chicago-based quartet performed a concert of just ring-tones. Our local LA conceptual genius Yuval Sharon staged an opera in a train station where the audience walked around randomly wearing wireless headphones. Are these experience-based concerts now a requirement for successful classical music? Or are they just our current trend?

These multimedia productions are effective, successful, and immediate. They address head-on the difficulties of classical music for today’s audiences by providing thrills, interactivity, and social engagement. With an experience of so many diverse things happening at once feeding both eyes and ears, audiences don’t need to understand a deeper musical context. The awe comes from breaking the bonds away from the intense undistracted austerity of the traditional concert space. Bashing stuffy rituals and passivity make irrelevant debates such as when to clap, or whether it is ok to take pictures or even get up or talk in the middle of a performance. It’s about fitting our current norms, creating fun, and comfort. But… are they ultimately as satisfying?

Will this push to “join the world we live in” eventually be the end of the magic of a traditional classical concert, where people together listen quietly to abstract music and feel deeply stirred by intense emotions. Is this unique Western musical achievement just too outdated? Will we trade it for a succession of imaginative multimedia experiences, each trying to top the last? I struggle with these questions, both as a composer and a pre-concert presenter whose job is to help audiences hear more deeply.

Regardless, neither classical musicians nor contemporary composers desire to be pop artists. Rather, their playing field is beyond the immediate, to participate in what I call “the grand musical conversation.” We become aware that Mahler in his symphonies converses with Wagner and Schubert, both of whom converse with Beethoven, who converses with Handel, who comments on Palestrina, who speaks with Josquin, who interacts with Ockeghem, Dufay, Machaut, and all the way back to Perotin and plain chant. This conversational fabric of the ages is the connection that classical musicians, composers, and audiences seek. And that desire for deep meaning and connection transcends the drive for instant gratification. Serious musicians and music lovers just love too much music that is not immediate to exclusively seek out instant pleasure.

Still, what an enormous cognitive dissonance it is to expect an audience to enjoy a complex unfamiliar piece without preparation or context. The multimedia approach brings music into “now” with cultural relevance, but there is another option to draw audiences into the music while still keeping listening as the primary activity. Enter the performers first providing context before the performance.

Leonard Bernstein was the master at engaging audiences. Instead of lecturing, he just took people straight into the heart and guts of a piece. He pioneered this approach in his Young People’s Concerts in the 1950s. Nearly 70 years later, we need it even more today. Despite confessions pleading musical ignorance, classical audiences are smart. Not only intelligent, they catch things quickly. It’s also worth remembering that by taking time to battle traffic and attend a concert, they demonstrate a beautiful willingness to stay open, even vulnerable, to experience the unfamiliar. We forget this, but what a critical and precious contribution audiences bring to the concert hall. For non-immediate music, an audience just needs a few windows opened, just some specific examples or ideas to illuminate a listening path. Then they gladly embark on the journey as partners with the performers.

An increasing number of artists hear the call. Conductor Ben Zander’s preconcert talks for the Boston Philharmonic are nearly as popular as the concerts themselves. Soloists and chamber musicians feel increasingly comfortable breaking their silence and talking directly to the audience about their favorite parts, their interpretative ideas, or even moments that make them anxious. When they speak authentically, audiences respond and hear more deeply. They develop first a personal relationship with the performer, but second a personal relationship with the music itself. Context is critical. Context provides a bridge we can all cross to listen deeply the first time, to absorb the many layers, ideas , themes, and arc and then to fill us with desire to listen again.

Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.
Ludwig van Beethoven