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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Grosse Fuge as Portal into New Music

There are not many good entry points into the universe of modern music. I think it relates to how we hear, and almost involves unlearning the way we have heard music in the past.

The perception of hearing is just extraordinary. It is perhaps even more developed in our biology than the sense of sight.

Imagine an astrophysicist gazing into the night sky, looking at the stars, and seeing the wonder of it all. Then think about the great telescopes that have evolved over time cumulating with space-based systems. Think about how that perception of the sky today is different from say the first human inhabitants on the earth. Each sees the vastness of space so differently.

There are some extraordinary people who can hear complex patterns of sound and process it in their brains real-time with amazing agility. They can push the human mind and their ability to hear to the limit. They have a depth of understanding about sonic relationships that go far beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.

In history, some of these gifted people explored patterns of sound more than others. One such individual over-came many personal obstacles (such as deafness) to make that important leap into the future. Beethoven is one such entry-point into the world of new musical thought. He can serve as a Portal in the new music landscape.

While I can find examples of modern non-linear musical thinking going all the way back to the Renaissance, Beethoven had a vision that is closer to our time. To this date, whenever his Grosse Fuge is performed, some audience members run for the door. The piece causes for some psychological dislocation. I've even heard of people getting physically ill from it.

The Grosse Fuge (for String Quartet) is a late work, and he wrote it when he was almost completely deaf. It had been assumed by his patron that he was either mad, deaf, or incompetent. For some mortals, the piece merely sounds "ugly." But if you want to gaze into the world of complex music, this is a potential doorway. Like Einstein work worked not long after him, Beethoven could see what no one else was able to. Einstein replaced Newton. Beethoven built on top of Mozart and Haydn and took it to a new level. The world has never been the same since.

Here is an article by Alex Ross (the current music critic for the NY Times who just published a book about Modern Music) mentioning the Beethoven manuscript for the Grosse Fuge...

Lewis Lockwood, a musicologist at Harvard calls the Grosse Fuge the "Holy Grail of Music, a vortex of ideas and implications." I couldn't agree more.

I hope this amazing "portal" provided by Beethoven works to improve your hearing. It's not going to be an easy journey, but one that I think people should make.


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