Aural Fixation: What Is “Art Music”?

August March
4 min read
What Is ÒArt MusicÓ?
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The term “art music” refers to work that involves advanced theoretical and structural concerns and a written tradition. Art music often originates from the classical genre, but referring to art music as classical music is a vast oversimplification. Whether you’re a rad rocker, hip-hop hellion or jazz fiend, art music is totally worth checking out.

Art music has always been around me. As a musician and critic, I absorbed what I could and often listened to those serious sounds, mostly because I liked what I heard. I never quite got the serialists and twelve-tone style—I still flinch when I hear almost anything by Stravinsky—but I discovered some awesome tuneage among the pantheon of past and present producers of art music. Modernism and I remain at odds, but I must admit that arcane realm has produced some truly awesome art. The following may serve as a jumping-off point for anyone who wants to explore the vast and complex genre.

The first time I heard Johannes Brahms’
Horn trio in E-flat major , I was sure it was the theme to the TV series “Lost in Space.” But it’s not—although it does serve as an excellent makeshift soundtrack to Dr. Smith’s pursuit of the green lady. Written in 1865, the work’s somber undertone is deconstructed, revised and ultimately built upon as a rollicking, joyous reflection on life and death. Composed to commemorate the death of Brahms’ mother, this piece evokes tears and laughter amid the ineluctable passage of time. The horn parts serve as superb, emotive guides. Some players, notably Soviet hornist Yakov Shapiro, performed the work with vibrato, adding nautical nuance to the proceedings. Some in the music world find such adaptations disarming, but Shapiro’s vibrato lends drama and longing to the trio.

Gustav Mahler’s
Das Lied von der Erde ( Song of the Earth ) is another work that reaches beyond the bounds of the normative in its exploration of the human experience. Mahler wrote some deep, dark discourses, and these six songs (for two singers and an orchestra) are mesmerizing for their heroically theatrical, melodic detail, plaintive vocalizations and haunting lyrics. Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde in 1908 after some profoundly tragic life circumstances, but the composition itself never veers into self-pity or hopelessness. Instead, the vocal melodrama is well balanced by a sense of wonder engendered by the orchestra, especially the string section. With lyrics like “A full goblet of wine at the right time/ is worth more than all the kingdoms of this earth,” you just can’t go wrong. The recording of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring tenor Siegfried Jerusalem and mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier is where it’s at.

Not everything on my art music playlist is so arcane. I’m a huge fan of
Boléro by Maurice Ravel. Growing up in the shadows of the Sandia Mountains, I listened to Boléro on my old man’s hi-fi. I recall going to see Blake Edwards’ 10 at the Wyoming Mall Cinema because of Ravel’s masterpiece, not just to catch a glimpse of Bo Derek. Boléro hails from the year 1928, and it’s a timeless, thoroughly listenable example of genre-jumping with an added musical surprise at the end. Starting simply and somewhat somberly, the work threads elements of Arabic composition, jazz and dance music into an unforgettable melody that builds to cacophony. Near the end of the work, the key shifts suddenly from C-major to E-major, leading to a rapt and stunning conclusion. Ravel wrote Boléro with the dance of life in mind. You’ll probably be leaping around afterwards too, just like Dudley Moore.

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