Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

In defense of fine arts – III

9 May, 2012. The third and final installment in a discussion of the value and significance of public funding for the arts.

In advocating the elimination of national support of the arts, some people are arguing economics. I suggest we look beyond that, and  consider our fundamental values, because the money we spend is an indication of those values. There’s government money spent in support of all sorts of projects representing all sorts of values, whether it be environmental concerns, energy alternatives, space exploration (originally sparked by national defense!), scientific research, urban renewal, education, arts and humanities, etc. If we’re going to say, there’s no more money to go around, so let’s cut it all out, everybody’s on his own, then fine. But that’s not going to happen. In a democratic society, we have the means to reach a consensus about our values, and commit our resources to promoting those values. Neither Republicans nor Democrats show any inclination to change that — they are simply squabbling over which values to promote.

I’m suggesting that, 1.) the arts, education, and humanities ought to be counted among our society’s values; and 2.) although some of our cultural patrimony does not take a visible, palpable form — dance and music, for example — it is no less real than painting, sculpture, and architecture. Consider for a moment those tangible arts — the things you’ll find in a publicly funded museum, for instance — from the opposite point of view, as performing arts. They are all about performance. The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s David, the Arc de Triomphe: these are all examples of bravura artistic performances — it’s just that the performing is essentially completed, and is preserved in a concrete form. Great music and dance are more fragile than that, and notwithstanding recordings and videos, which are mere records, like art prints — in genuine terms, these art forms must be continually re-created. But they are no less real, and possibly even more profound. Because they are performances in sound and movement that take place in time, they have a dynamism and emotional power that is not limited to two or three dimensions.

Although all of these things might be described as leisure pursuits, they are not mere diversions. Entertainment is a very broad term, including everything from Seinfeld to professional wrestling. The best art and music is intended to offer much more, to prompt people to think and feel. Not all live performances are world-class, but any good performance has much to communicate to a receptive listener/viewer.

Perhaps even more important, performing arts are not just about the product (e.g. the concert, the CD, the video), but about the process. It’s not just the concert, but the preparation that matters. What sets classical music apart from most other kinds of musical entertainment, is the sheer number of performers, amateur as well as professional, that can participate in a choral or orchestral performance. The power of a community of sympathetic individuals coming together to a common expressive purpose is not to be underestimated. There is in this kind of musical enterprise a dynamic process of cooperation, symbiosis and resonance that is virtually unmatched in all of humanity’s constructive activities–and without benefit of sound systems and enhancements, editing, light shows, or smoke and mirrors. In an average-sized program like mine, concerts can involve up to 100 people, not counting the audience. The individual and collective rewards for the community of such a patently social artistic endeavor are immeasurable. And nearly anyone with some elementary skills can participate: it is the most democratic of art forms. Is there any more fundamental American value?

Commentary © 2012 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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On Harmony, Polyphony, and Humanity

The following is a reflection on a recent column in The American Organist magazine (June 2011 issue) by Thomas Troeger, the national chaplain for the American Guild of Organists. Dr. Troeger discusses musical terminology as metaphors for the non-musical, focusing in this particular column on the significance of harmony, both musical and spiritual.

I often read Thomas Troeger’s insightful columns with interest and sympathy. His recent entry, “Salutary Harmonies,” (TAO, June 2011) prompts me to respond with an alternate understanding of the characteristics of harmony, one that offers a fresh and complementary perspective on the meaning of harmony in terms of human relations.

As Dr. Troeger hints, we typically talk about musical harmony in terms of chords, the “simultaneous sound of notes” that yields “vertical music,” as the Oxford Dictionary explains. This is a rather static notion of harmony, however, perhaps stemming from the historical preeminence of keyboard instruments. An isolated chord is indeed a resonant sonority, but it only becomes music in the context of other sonorities. Musical progress and meaning arises from an ongoing discourse of sonorities, whose composite inner voices bear a relationship to one another.  This play of inner voices moving to and from a tonal center (or a series thereof), leads the listener along an odyssey of keys. It is immaterial whether harmony is the by-product of a Renaissance motet, a Bach fugue, a homophonic Viennese minuet, or the simplest harmonic theory exercise: all harmony is polyphony.

As in the “harmony of the spheres”—a marvelous image!—about which Dr. Troeger wrote, harmony arises from the confluence of independent contrapuntal voices. From an artistic point of view, the Oxford dictionary definition of harmony as “a simultaneous sound of notes” is not entirely adequate, because the “vertical” cannot really be separated from the “horizontal.” Harmony is not merely the momentary experience of resonance—exhilarating though such a moment might be. Harmony is the outcome of confluent, congruent individual strands within the entire fabric of an enterprise—musical or otherwise.

By way of illustration, consider the biblical Star of Bethlehem observed by the Magi, which, some scholars propose, appeared as the conjunction of several planets at the time of Christ’s birth. Like contrapuntal voices approaching a cadence, such an astronomical confluence may well have marked the simultaneous converging of the man, the place, and the moment that is the Christ event. From the Christian point of view, this is a striking expression of divine harmony!

Moreover, musical harmony is that aspect of our tonal system that imparts movement to music. More than any other feature of tonal music, it is harmony which arouses the listener’s sense of expectation, and subsequent fulfillment or surprise. This can only be achieved through the interaction of cooperating polyphonic voices. Furthermore, it is not simply an ongoing formulation of consonances that makes music dynamic—for such music would be mere minimalism. Rather, it is the introduction of dissonance into this discourse of harmonies that energizes voice-leading and impels the music. Even the apparent incongruity of “unrelated” chords can elicit in the listener an emotional response by their very disparity from the harmonies around them.

Likewise, harmony in human relations is really a polyphony of diverse hearts and minds. A harmonious friendship or marriage is not simply an abiding experience of common purpose, interest, and affection. It is the symbiosis of individual, contrasting personalities and points of view that leads to a dynamic, often unpredictable, yet invigorating and constructive relationship. This holds true on every level of human relationship and endeavor, no matter how grand or humble. And it aptly describes the polyphony of the human spiritual journey, which constantly seeks harmony in its intersection and interaction with the journeys of others.

Commentary © 2011 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.


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Stephen Mager, D.M.

Music Director and Conductor, The Masterworks Chorale, Belleville, Illinois

Composer-in-Residence, the Bach Society of Saint Louis

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