As a further tribute to our faculty’s annual Law Show this past weekend, this week’s blog theme will focus on differences in pop culture between 1867 and 2017. It’s the week of throwbacks! We will compare people who lived in and around 1867 with people today who make similar cultural contributions, 150 years later. Though not directly in concert with the BNA Act, it is evident that culture and politics intertwine. To kick off this throwback week, we begin with a musical comparison.
Considering that popular music styles evolved quickly in the 20th century, it’s safe to say that music was drastically different in 1867. In western music culture, it was the romantic period. Music was expressive, emotional, and it produced legends like Beethoven and Schumann (Robert and Clara!). They had only pens, paper, and their own minds and experiences to inspire their music.
Nowadays, our musical influences include Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Beyonce, not to mention the endless sources on the internet from which artists can get inspiration. We have digital online music writing programs and online instruments, making music easier than ever to compose, perform, and share. John Adams, a 20th and 21st century minimalist composer, warned about the overuse of technology in music composition, stating,
“We’re in danger of an overflow of extremely mediocre music… partly because composing has become dangerously easy. Everyone can carry around software programs on a laptop and compose a new piece in a single evening. But the trouble is, of course, that the software dictates the parameters of what you can do, how you can think”.1
While there are downfalls in the modern age of music composition, music is unique in that the finished product can exist forever, electronically. Composers and musicians are not just working with and against their contemporaries; they do so also with those who came before them. In this 21st century contemporary post-modern era of music, we see composers taking influence from all areas of music, and from all time periods to give listeners new experiences.
For example, Adams’ work On the Transmigration of Souls is a choral piece that pays tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The song does not follow any obvious musical structure, and incorporates whispering, noise, and other non-traditional sounds throughout the composition. As a young child, I performed this work with my choir, and I can attest to the fact that it was not “typical”. In fact, I can recall many rehearsals during which we all struggled to remember the lyrics and flow to this 25 minute-long piece, because to us, it didn’t make musical sense. It incorporated victims’ names and quotes from family members of victims, changing themes and never staying in one “place” for too long. At the time, it seemed like the epitome of post-modern non-sensical music.
Had I dug deeper, I would have discovered that it wasn’t such a far stretch from works of the 19th century. Adams has stated in interviews that he has an obsession with composer Ludwig van Beethoven; that, “we [all] have music that we love so much that we kind of want to get under the skin of that composer, for me taking not so much melodies but just harmonic fragments”.2 Adams uses his privileged position as a musician who follows some of our culture’s best composers to incorporate their art into his; creating something new from something old.
Fittingly, we performed On the Transmigration of Souls alongside Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, a 19th century classic. Adams’ piece is a commemoration of those who died in 9/11, intended to provide a “memory space”3 where listeners can be alone.4 In contrast, Beethoven’s 9th is a rejoice of freedom. These two songs are performed together all over North America, and tell a story of oppression and mourning and eventual release.5
Comparing Adams with Beethoven is only one example of how music between then and now can differ, but still be complementary. By no means do I wish to hear One Direction juxtaposed with Schubert, but to isolate music from 1867 as totally different and irreconcilable with music from today could be a mistake. For choir nerds like me, the ability of musicians to pull influence from 150 years ago is exciting: it leaves open endless possibilities for composers of the future.
1Guy Dammann, “We Are All Living in Fear”, The Guardian (15 October 2008), online: <www.theguardian.com/music/2008/oct/15/usa>.
2NPR Staff, “John Adams Mines Beethoven’s Mind”, NPR Music (10 November 2015), online: <www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/11/10/450560466/john-adams-mines-beethovens-mind>.
3Tom Huizenga, “John Adams’ Memory Space: ‘On the Transmigration of Souls’”, NPR Music (10 September 2011), online: <www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2011/09/10/140341459/john-adams-memory-space-on-the-transmigration-of-souls>.
5Benjamin Carlson, “What Does Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Mean”, The Atlantic (7 September 2010), online: <www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/09/what-does-beethovens-ninth-symphony-mean/62556/>.