The Car Stereo Music Test

Over at Failure Magazine there is an interview with Carolyn Abbate, one of the authors of the book A History of Opera. [Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan] They discuss something that interests me as an opera fan: why new works don’t gain traction in the repertory. Abbate has this to say,

“Partly it’s because composers tend to compose in a certain musical language. They are not going to go back to a melodic style that was current a hundred years ago. We talk about this in the book, but [in the 1930s] contemporary opera composers abandoned the idea of formed melody in favor of a kind of musicalized speech that is much more free form. This has become the default mode for new operas. But the loss of melody means a loss of popular appeal. If you can accept this it’s fine. You can say: We’ll write these kinds of operas and let’s accept a certain part of the audience will really love them, but there won’t be a clamor for them to be repeated because they don’t supply the same kind of pleasure that earlier opera did. That pleasure is an important component — the pleasure of these great melodic arcs sung by marvelous voices.”

“Musicalized speech” is one phrase for it. Another is “shouting random notes.” All popular music uses some form of melody. Unfortunately for the group of opera fans who are like me, melody has been formally deemed incapable of allowing composers to properly evoke the contemporary world in musical form.

The first time I heard Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in a Met broadcast I felt like the singers, the conductor, and the orchestra were hitting my spine with a baseball bat. So I wrote off Schoenberg.

Several weeks ago I attended the Met HD broadcast of Thomas Ades’ The Tempest. It’s an adaptation of the Shakespeare play. I went out of curiosity. I own a recording of Ades’ Powder Her Face which I’ve only listened to a few times. Ades was interviewed during the broadcast. He seems like a smart, congenial, purposeful fellow who is absolutely sure about the notes he writes. But there isn’t a tune you can hum in either opera. None of the music from The Tempest stuck in my head.

Mozart wrote melodies. Frank Sinatra and Elvis sung melodies. The Beatles and Rolling Stones wrote melodies. Melodies carry you. Melodies stick in your head. Musetta’s Waltz, the Anvil Chorus, or Largo al factotum will get stuck in your head for days or weeks at a time.

People like to revel in a song they love, whether it’s from a musical like Chicago or The Book of Mormon, or artists as varied as Carly Rae Jepson, Katy Perry, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Shakira, Aretha Franklin, Metallica, NIN, or the Black Eyed Peas. Reveling in music gives joy (even when it recounts a painful feeling) and is even cathartic.

When I was much younger I worked and saved my money so that I could put a whole lot of stereo equipment into the 2-door, hatchback Ford Escort I drove. (Ah, the priorities of a 19-year-old….) As soon as the equipment was put in (it was done in two phases, first an amp and a kicker with the help of a friend, then another amp and more powerful speakers with the help of my father), the next question was: WHAT DO WE WANT TO PLAY LOUD?

Then my friends and I went through our musical libraries shoving cassette tape after cassette tape into the deck and playing our favorite music loud. There was a handy feature to keep me from blowing the speakers on the kicker: the tweeters would shut down automatically when it go too loud. Let’s just say that the tweeters cut out frequently. They often cut out during the last minute or two of Guns ‘n Roses’ “Paradise City.” “I WANNA GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” The stereo was so loud that your ears would be ringing after the music was over. Kind of like being at a concert.

I don’t have a loud car stereo now. (Though it would be handy to drown out the whining and bickering of two small children.) But I think the figurative question I ask myself about a piece of music is this: Do I want to crank it up on my car stereo?

For the likes of Ades, the answer is no. For the likes of Puccini, Verdi, and Social Distortion the answer is yes. If you can’t revel in the pleasure of “great melodic arcs sung by marvelous voices,” then what’s the point?

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5 thoughts on “The Car Stereo Music Test

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Our brains and physical responses are programmed for melody and beat. The nuance of harmony and dynamics add to the emotional appeal. The problem for musicians is that it goes back to profitability and demand. If they continue to produce music that lacks the drawing power, funds will dry up. And yet, we know that if our musicians do not explore new ways of presenting music, we cannot progress! It really is a delicate balance!!

  2. Cassette tapes?? I didn’t think you were that old! The best thing about driving a car to go swim (which you know I do my best to NOT do) is being able to think of a song with a good melody, play it loudly and repeatedly, and then have it go through my head while I am swimming. I always have an “I LOVE swimming!” day when I can do that. I don’t listen to opera at all, but I do listen to a fair amount of classical music, and if I can’t hum at least a few bars of the melody when a piece is over, then it’s of no use. Just yesterday before swimming I heard Mahler’s second movement from his symphony no. ?? (It’s very recognizeable, they even played it on an episode of Star Trek Voyager) and it was a great swim with that going through my head. Although my lockerroom-mates were probably thinking WTF? about my humming…..But sadly, most “20th century classical” makes me rush to the radio to turn it off.

    • Ha! Yes, indeed I am “that old.” In my youth I owned tons of cassette tapes, and LPs. The only Mahler I’m familiar with is his No. 5. Lovely, amazing epic piece, with that haunting horn at the beginning.

      While swimming I get the oddest songs in my head. Sometimes when I’m doing a lap count in my head, say “One down, four to go” I often get Yes’ song “Leave It” thanks to it’s chorus “One down, one to go, another town, and one more show…” Lately, I’ve been getting Florence + the Machine’s “Swimming” for obvious reasons.

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