Monthly Archives: September 2011

Stravinsky and the Radio

I know I haven’t been posting much, so to make it up to you I’ll share a fascinating little quote from Stravinsky on music technology, with a bit of commentary. The quote is from his Chronicle of My Life (1935), and I’m typing it out of this book:

In the domain of music the importance and influence of its dissemination by mechanical means, such as the record and the radio—those redoubtable triumphs of modern science, which will probably undergo still further development—make them worthy of the closest investigation. The facilities they offer to composers and executants alike for reaching great numbers of listeners, and the opportunities they give those listeners to acquaint themselves with works they have not heard, are obviously indisputable advantages.

This was surely the understatement of the year. Indeed, Mr. Stravinsky, mechanical music distribution did surely “undergo further development.” (Wait a second while I shuffle to another mp3, or skip this song on Pandora, or search for anything I can imagine on Spotify, or stream radio from Germany, or. . . .) But with a warning that I’ve sometimes felt as well, he continues:

But one must not overlook the fact that such advantages are attended by serious danger. In Johann Sebastian Bach’s day, he had to walk ten miles to a neighboring town to hear Buxtehude play his work. [Footnote in my edition: that’s probably not true.] Today anyone, living no matter where, has only to turn a knob or put on a record to hear what he likes. Indeed, it is in just this incredible facility, this lack of necessity for any effort, that the evil of this so-called progress lies.

How unlike the way we talk today, right? “Facility” equated with “evil.” It sounds like Calvin’s Dad. I wouldn’t quite go there (usually), but still, I have felt that odd personal sense of uncertainty about what happens to my mind/attention/(and even) character when I can get whatever I want when I want it–as is quickly becoming the case with streaming music. Continuing:

For in music, more than in any other branch of art, understanding is given only to those who make an active effort. Passive receptivity is not enough. To list to certain combinations of sound and automatically become accustomed to them does not necessarily imply that they have been heard and understood. For one can listen without hearing, just as one can look without seeing. The absence of active effort and the liking acquired for this facility make for laziness.

This is hard to hear, in some ways. I’ve used Spotify to listen to more concert music in the last month than I ever had heard before, exploring contemporary and 20th-century stuff that I never was quite ready to spend money on. (Schoenberg, I’m looking at/listening to you.) But on the other hand, I almost always do so with “background music” as my main concern, with perhaps a flavoring of “I ought to check this stuff out” dusted on top. But essentially, Stravinsky is right: a lot of my music listening is separated into background or not-background music, and pretty much everything that he thinks I ought to listen to more carefully (i.e. serious concert music) goes in the background–right next to a lot of world music and a lot-lot of videogame music; strange bedfellows. (Today I’ve listened to a bunch of Schoenberg, a bit of Debussy, and a lot of Yoshino Aoki, composer of the Breath of Fire IV soundtrack.)

But I’m finally a bit less chastised when I get here:

The radio has got rid of the necessity that existed in Bach’s day for getting out of one’s armchair. Nor are listeners any longer impelled to play themselves, or to spend time on learning an instrument in order to acquire a knowledge of musical literature. The radio and the gramophone do all that.

This is where Stravinsky’s position in history really shows, I think. Yes, it’s perhaps true that people pick up traditional instruments less than they used to. (Anyone got a study on this? I’m curious.) But surely more than ever can use digital tools to create complex and satisfying music in ways he couldn’t have dreamed of.

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