It’s amazing to think that Mozart did with only a pen and piano what a million musicians with all the technological power in the world today couldn’t do if they spent a thousand years trying. It’s like we’ve been given the key to conquer the universe and somehow said — you know what, I’m good, you can keep it.
The power of the machines at our fingertips, all the possibilities we have, and yet our popular music is little more than three or four phrases, repeated over and over, with the same rhythm that we’ve been hearing for the better part of fifteen years. It’s almost comical how bad a lot of popular music is.
But then, what do you expect. People have lost the ability to concentrate on anything for more than five seconds. Myself included. Imagine listening to a composition in full, a song that lasts five minutes, ten minutes, ever-changing as it continues, moves on from a beginning, through a narrative in its mid-section, then finishes with a flourish.
I often wonder why what we now call classical music was able to flourish at one point in history. I think, if I were to pinpoint a reason, I’d have to say some of it had to do with technological reproduction, or the lack of it. When music could not be reproduced, and it could only be experienced if played live, the performance was everything. Certain segments of society — mostly the middle and upper classes — were able to partake in this music, and they in turn wrote the history of this music, and we in turn began to believe that this music was popular in its day. In reality, it may have only ever been popular to a small degree.
In the villages and in the slums, the places where large groups of people then lived, there was a music all its own, folk music, which was popular with those people, and it was in these villages where music that we now call classical, like Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, was never popular or ever truly understood.
And it was from these villages and slums that, over time, we got the songs that we now sing every day, whether we know that the melody came from that place or not. So, Mozart made something incredible, that much is true; it is also true that while he was doing something we now consider high art, there was also, too, a low art, an art that was ignored and disregarded until history and mechanical reproduction was such that we could, in our nearly infinite power, look at it and say: you know, there is actually something of value here.
But that’s the story of modernism, isn’t it. The bricks that built the homes that stand for centuries in some countries have been replaced by sheetrock and plaster, materials that, over time, are only made to be destroyed. This generation, the last fifty or seventy-five years of history, has aspired to make nothing that lasts; we cannot even remember one week from the next, the culture moves so fast, the products it produces disposed of mere hours after they have been created.
Nothing ages well. Only the highest of art can be passed down through the centuries, because it is the highest of art which contains something in it which is truly timeless, a complexity and depth that, if you are to continue searching within it, is always revealing new layers; in this way, to look at this art is a method of unraveling the past, learning about a time and place through every note and melody that is played.
To hear Mozart is to hear all of history, in a way, or at least a certain kind of history. We have taken pieces of those melodies, over time, and turned them into pop songs, because the mind, no matter what we may think about it, can only process but so much information at once. A repetitive melody, one that plays continuously, on loop, is a form of propaganda, in a way; it does not tell any story, rather it tells a message, formulates a worldview through the emotions the melody triggers and the images called to mind when the words are repeated.
Music, you see then, is the most powerful tool of propaganda in the history of the world. But those years ago, when Mozart was alive, this was not music’s purpose; its purpose then, in an age without visual storytelling, when the only way to escape would be through the stories told in theater, or through books — when they became available — was to provide a kind of emotional journey, a way to take a trip into the world of the composer, what he had to say, without leaving the theater.
In the age of the moving image, of the motion picture, it was the melding of music to action and storytelling itself which forever altered how people would perceive this kind of music; never again would they hear the emotional music of Mozart without wondering where the story was, for to sit down and listen, to relax and enjoy where the music was taking you simply left too much to the imagination; really, not unless someone told you to would you sit back and simply listen to listen.
In this, the whole world got lost in story, in the need for music to project some kind of reality, for it to be a deeper thing than what it actually was, or rather for the music itself to be the deepening experience that one was searching for.
Music became background, you see, in service of a reality that was not real.