Close Encounters With Music

An Alternative View of Western Music
Robert Winter

Having entered Brown University as a committed but less than stellar physics major, midway in my studies I suddenly found myself a music major courtesy of one of those lightning bolts that transform lives. The adjustment, quite frankly, proved unexpectedly tough. In physics we studied tangible subjects such as mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Our methodology was observation that generated data that generated answers. When you computed the maximum height achieved by a cannon ball fired from a specific gun at a specific angle, the data produced only one correct answer. You sought to understand the universe by discovering its underlying laws. The more phenomena you could explain with a single law, the more important it was.

The study of Western music observed none of these verities. Rather than the series of interrelated fields in physics, music seemed to be organized around a three-legged stool of music history, music theory, and performance instruction. I had a hard time understanding the rationale for any of these, especially how they related to one another. Music history consisted of a top forty in which the same pieces (Beethoven's Fifth, Schubert's "Unfinished," Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Wagner's Tristan, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Copland's Appalachian Spring, etc.) recurred over and over. Composer biographies invariably traced a common theme of triumph over adversity (a few—like Schubert and Tchaikovsky—ended badly) but had little connection to the larger world.

Music theory proved even more baffling. From the sciences I understood theory to involve inquiry that is speculative rather than directly confirmable. As far as I could tell, there was nothing theoretical about identifying an augmented sixth chord. Once in a class I remarked that a Beatles song had the same flat sixth as the Schubert sonata we were looking at; everyone stared at me as if I'd just escaped from a mental ward. My theory studies had only a glancing relationship to my history courses, and neither had much relationship to my piano lessons with Prof. Waldbauer. It seemed, in fact, as if these were three parallel but largely unrelated courses of study.

One aspect of the music curriculum topped all of these. Looking through the course offerings I came across a prerequisite for the major: Music Appreciation. "What on earth," I asked one of my classmates, "is Music Appreciation?" She was at a loss. The best she could come up with was that you would learn which works of music were masterpieces. In other words, you would be told. I looked in vain through the science offerings at Brown to see if they included Thermodynamics Appreciation or Calculus Appreciation.

That was 1970 and this is more than three decades later. Haven't things improved? Virtually every school or department of music now offers courses in popular and world musics. We're more sophisticated about how we study the canon of Bach to Bartók. Yet if you look closely at music curricula today (where music appreciation is alive and well), at the offerings of most symphony orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music societies, once you peel away the veneer it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So here, in a whimsical spirit of constructive change, are a few suggestions for rethinking Western music (in three decades of teaching at UCLA I've had the chance to try them out on about 10,000 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students):

* Admit up front, in the first lecture or conversation, that until at least 1650, the Western music we study and love was the exclusive plaything of the rich and powerful (yes, including the popes). Kids suspect as much. You then have the opportunity to point out that the same was also true with Japanese and Chinese court music, or with the music of the Aztecs. Now you can have a conversation.

* Celebrate the fact that from about 1650 on the dominant form of Western classical music has been opera. It is no accident that opera is the only form of classical music today that is actually growing. Kids raised on multimedia take to opera like the proverbial duck to water (meanwhile, appreciation textbooks continue to marginalize opera, finding it too messy to teach and performances too expensive to license).

* Stop talking about composers as if they were disembodied geniuses. Introduce Beethoven as the offspring of an abusive alcoholic and a depressed but enabling wife (talk about gaining sympathy); present Franz Schubert as someone who had a strong homosexual component to his life; introduce Hector Berlioz or Robert Schumann or Gustav Mahler as composers who struggled with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness). Along with their creative achievements, don't shy away from examining their politics, their religious beliefs, the means by which they made a living, even their relationships and offspring. Their achievements will be more human and therefore arouse more interest.

* Embrace that while many composers still graduate from traditional music programs, for most that is only the beginning of their education. A case in point is John Adams, arguably America's best known composer of concert music. A New England native, at age 23 he received a traditional Master's in Composition from Harvard. Almost immediately he picked up and moved to San Francisco (where he still resides). Was it the weather? Many New Englanders might agree. I recall with great pleasure having Mr. Adams as a guest in a seminar for arts presenters that I led several years ago. I began by asking him about his background. It wasn't long before one of the participants asked: "But why move to San Francisco when you had the Boston Symphony?" Adams then praised both the BSO, and the San Francisco Symphony and Opera. But that, he continued, was not his primary reason. It was the extraordinary scene that included the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Steve Miller Blues Band, Santana, and Sly and the Family Stone. And just up the road at Mills College was minimalist pioneer Steve Reich. My presenters were speechless—and then delighted.

* Accept the reality that there are music lovers whose passions include Mozart and hip-hop, Verdi and death metal. One strange by-product of the internet age is that it is largely ahistorical. With all the sounds now available, every year a student approaches me with barely concealed excitement and gushes "Hey Prof Winter, have you heard any of the stuff by this guy Mozart [which they pronounce Mose-art]? It rocks." Frequently they think that he is still living. The current generation of students is more open to Western classical music than any over the last forty years. But they have little interest in charting its chronological evolution. They want to make their own choices.

* Movies, movies, movies. Classical music is everywhere in films, even those aimed at 16-24 year olds, who generally aren't aware of what they are hearing. The classical music community has done little to help them.

* Acknowledge that the hermetically sealed isolation of Western classical music from other musics is almost entirely of its own making. Engage so-called popular music not as part of a high culture-low culture hierarchy but as part of a natural continuum. Ask rock fans what they understand by "classic rock." Introduce skeptics of classical music to legendary rock performers with intimate connections to Western classical music—such as the heavy metal guitarist Eddie van Halen's passion for the music of Antonio Vivaldi. If you start with the uniformly loud volume of a rock song and then demonstrate the extraordinary dynamic range of classical music, people begin to realize why pop songs rarely exceed three minutes, and why a classical movement can hold interest for thirty minutes. Or demonstrate how virtually every form of popular music—from blues to jazz to classic rock, from punk to rap—is descended from harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic systems introduced by Western music.

I'll close with an incident that illustrates how organizations need to rethink the way they present classical music. I served for almost twenty-five years on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival. A few summers ago my girl friend was visiting and I told her that the concert we would be attending included the extraordinary work Amerique by Edgar Varése. As someone with a near encyclopedic knowledge of rock, she had heard of neither Varése nor Amerique. But she was intrigued by my description and went with a sense of anticipation. The performance, conducted by David Robertson, was stunning. When it was over, 95% of the audience, having suffered in dignity through the Varése, bolted for the exits. Obviously disgusted, Becka turned to me and said, "Why aren't they going to play it again right now? Look at all the rehearsing they have done; they are all here, and everyone in the audience would benefit enormously from hearing it a second time." A great idea that would never occur to those chained to the comfortable concert format. If the music we love is not only to survive but to flourish, we need to get much more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Robert Winter holds the Presidential Chair in Music and Interactive Arts at UCLA. He has made unclassifiable presentations all over the United States, Europe, and Japan. His latest interactive project, From the New World (based on Antonín Dvorák's 1892-95 stay in New York), in now available at