Regarding where to start, this could be slightly more difficult a question to answer, because it all depends on an individual’s interests and openness to various external factors. It is defined by what and by how much is one allowing oneself to be exposed to. Do you want to listen to music created in contemporary times or are you also interested in the music of the past? If you ask Moppa Elliott, he certainly thinks you should listen to music created in the past as well. He will even set a timeline for you, suggesting you should go as far back as the Renaissance polyphonic era. Maybe even past that. How about the spatial boundaries to which a certain musical work or genre might belong? Admittedly, one can be biased to hold to a higher regard music coming from certain geographic areas over others, due to one’s cultural, and maybe even political, beliefs. Perhaps music coming from certain places arouses a certain curiosity, because it is so unknown that it fascinates us, and having access to it gives us a sense of privilege.
A more concrete place to start could be the Late Junction
radio show on BBC Radio 3. I remember Max Reinhardt, one of the presenters, saying to one of his guests once, who was in doubt about the show being able to play something in particular: “But we can play anything. Actually we do”. Late Junction is without a doubt one of the best music programs available which is not bound to a specific type of music, nor to a specific time or place that music might belong to. Not to long ago, they even managed to unearth and play a song from North Korea
But what happens when a particular work of music that you find appealing is linked to someone or something that you might not agree with, or even be completely opposed to. Such as the music of Wagner for instance, a German composer who is widely considered to have strong anti semitic tendencies
. Do you discard it, or do you embrace it? Renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz believed that music is above all else, when, in 1953, during his third tour in Israel, he ignored an unofficial ban
on music by German composers, and he defiantly performed Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata
, a work which beared some controversy at the time. No matter where you stand on Wagner, it is beyond dispute that his music has influenced many and has produced a colossal impact. For instance, I’m not a musicologist by any account, but it’s a well documented fact that the Tristan chord
was quite revolutionary for its time, or so Stephen Fry will led you to believe
. In fact, if you watched Lars von Triar’s excellent Melancholia
film, you should be already acquainted with the Tristan chord, as the whole Prelude from Tristan und Isolde
serves as the soundtrack for the opening scene.
But if one is willing to listen to anything and everything, how far should one go with regards to the listening? Or, what is music, anyway? How do we define it? Undoubtedly, someone who was preoccupied to a large degree with this concept was American composer and theorist John Cage. Cage took the notion of music to radical new heights when he premiered his infamous piece, called 4'33"
(as in four minutes and thirty-three seconds). In it, the performer is instructed to set a stopwatch for the said time and to not play a single note. The performance ends when the time is up, and so the actual “music” was supposed to be made of the sounds of the environment perceived by the listeners. Music is everywhere
, or so John Cage believed, and this seems to be the idea which prompted Cage to come up with his “silent piece”, as he referred to the composition. Weather or not you agree with John Cage on his revelatory definition of music, the influence of his works
is widespread, and at the very least he succeeded in making us reconsider the boundaries of music, where does music start and where it ends.