What is Music?

What is music?

It is easy for a fully living human being to intuitively grasp the meaning of “music”. Yet, it is so incredibly difficult for anyone to define “music” in a way that does justice to its immaterial and conceptual essence.

Music is not a series of sound waves, just as language is not the vibrations of the larynx. The ear make music possible, but the mind is where music exists. Somewhere between the bricks of abstract neurological architecture, one finds the air of music, born through the channels of sensory information yet elusive to being captured by the physical. Music includes the notes we hear, the notes we don’t hear, the emotions we feel, the experiential result, and, most of all, the interconnected webs among it all. Even the most literal ways of describing music seem figurative, but this all makes music all the more authentic as the untranslatable language that it lives to be.


What is music?

Greatness Never Fades

About 2 weeks ago, I had an extremely memorable concert experience right on my university campus.

The program was exactly what I wanted to hear at the time: Valse Triste by Sibelius, Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven, and Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique” by Tchaikovsky.

I had actually never heard the “Pathetique” Symphony live, and being able to do so was an incredibly emotional experience due to both the music itself and the sentiment of having wanted to hear it live for so long. As the music reached some of my favorite moments in the first and finale movements, I was literally brought to tears (excuse me for being a bit of a drama queen). There were passages that were so drenched in utter beauty and constructed with such perfection that I felt as if my mind was blown, shattered, and taken to another world by the painfully sweet explosion of pathos pouring into my ears. Yes, it was “only” performed by my university’s student orchestra, and some instrumental sections were more technically sound than others, but all that really mattered to me was the feeling of falling in deeper love with music through this timeless masterpiece.

“Pathetique” took me through a journey through bits and pieces of memories associated with various moments in the work. The highs and the lows, the fast and the slow, the heart-breaking disappointments and the triumphant victories, the repetition of themes and the progress of motifs, the long stretches of melodies that only sang louder after fragmentation and development, the descending passages that ultimately ascends in intensity, the 5/4 waltz that gleefully flows along despite of (and fully embracing of) its “lopsided” perfection, the celebratory marching that emerges with such harmonic certainty and rhythmic confidence, the coagulating drops of strength gradually coming forth amidst the air of despair in the finale…

The soloist of the Beethoven concerto was the 79-year-old Robert Silverman. Not only was I in awe of both his technique and his sheer stamina to perform the “Emperor” concerto, I also thought to myself: How fulfilling it must be, to have such a long and prosperous life filled with music and those to share it with!

On that note, I shall leave you with the very quote that I display at the top of my blog:

“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” – Sergei Rachmaninoff

New World Music

On Sunday, I watched a concert that was part of a World New Music series. World Music and New Music are two limitless realms of auditory possibilities that have unfortunately been a bit of a peripheral blind spot in my relatively Western-centric musical training and experience. Yet, it is these two broad musical areas that allow Classical Music to move in the infinite ways that it can, and has, progressed. The concert program included three works by living composers from different parts of the world. All three composers were physically present and acknowledged on stage. Despite having been to numerous concerts of Contemproary Classical Music, I can never stop the feeling that there is something so surreal, yet so undeniably real, about seeing the living composers with my own eyes. I suppose that sometimes it’s easy for me to subconsciously associate the emotional closeness of music by paradoxically distancing and isolating music in its own abstract form. (I guess listening to music by dead people kind of perpetuates this.) After the three works came the world premiere of a piece called Pressed for Time by Mohamed Assani and John Oliver in collaboration, with the solo sitar part performed by Mr. Assani himself. In terms of instrumentation, the work can be considered a concerto for sitar and orchestra, but to such a simple categorization would be an unjust reduction of its musical essence.

Through a Western classical lens, the sitar concerto had an overwhelming flavor of D minor, with many passages that clearly emhasize D as a perpetual ostinato and persence. However, D minor is only, if anything, a base. The seasoning is the true highlight of the work, spiced up by its inventive uses of augmented seconds, which was not used “functionally” (in the traditional sense of the word within the context of Western harmony) but as an inherent part of the music’s own tonal nature, as if the music, if without these melodic constructs, would not only be less interesting but also cease to even “be”. The ears were in for much more than a mere co-existence of traditional sitar music and contemporary Classical music; rather, it is a true hybrid feast of seamless fusion was served.

The performers were genuinely having a good time, which brought a smile to my face. A myriad of innovative techniques were used, but there is no feeling of overwhelm or technical awe that often seems so predictable and obligatory in a classic concerto-like context. Rather, I left satisfied and full of the palette of colours and tastes that made this experience so enjoyable and eye-opening. Admittedly, I would not have known about or bought a ticket to this concert if my friend hadn’t recommended it and obtained ticekts for both of us. This reinforces my belief that music appreciation is an experience to be shared!

Schubert – Quintet in C Major

Two violins, one viola, and two cellos: bottom-heavy, yet never dragging; symphonic, yet never taking away from the intimate nature of chamber music.

This piece is an example of the amazing “orchestration” that can be done with only string instruments at various registers. Composed around the same time as Beethoven’s profoundly ground-breaking late quartets, this piece manages to stand on its own mountain peak of brilliance. Indeed, the Early 19th Century gifts us with an unrivaled generation of masterfully composed chamber music. Schubert’s melodies sing with beauty and decisiveness. Amazingly, this was written less than 20 years after the death of Haydn, who is known as the “Father of String Quartet”! Oh how rapidly the music of small string ensembles had progressed!


Dvorak’s Piano and Schumann’s Cello

Two lesser-known concertos by well-known composers would be the Cello Concerto by Schumann and the Piano Concerto by Dvorak. Seeing these two works in one sentence feels almost as if I am looking at a typo where the names of the composers were accidentally switched. Neither Dvorak nor Schumann composed a large number of concertos. In fact, even with the instruments for which they did write concertos, they only each composed one for each instrument. This makes every one of these gems precious, does it not? Dvorak’s Cello Concerto and Schumann’s Piano Concerto are timeless warhorses that top all kinds of “Top Concerto” rankings, but what about the Piano Concerto by the strings-oriented Dvorak and the Cello Concerto by the piano-centered Schumann? Are they hidden masterpieces? Or are they awkward works, like those of a painter who held the brush in his non-dominant hand?

Schumann’s Cello Concerto displays beautiful, fluid phrasing that takes advantage of the vocal nature of the cello’s timbre. The first movement was originally intended by the composer himself to be faster. Perhaps this means that the movement is meant to be full of motion, not a sense of dwelling. Schumann never saw the piece performed during his lifetime, and as for the way this cello concerto was intended to sound from the genuine hand of a pianistic composer… I guess we could call it a mystery! Here is the piece, composed and performed by people who died way too young:


The Dvorak concerto is not a peacock under the spotlight but a bull in action – alive, authentic, powerful, heavy yet not dragging, large in size yet not lacking in intricacy. When it was premiered, it was heavily criticized. I venture to guess that the work did not fit the mainstream mould of the Romantic Piano Concerto. During the composition of the concerto, Dvorak was entering the most Classically-inclined stage of his career, placing his music closer to the realms of the Mozart-Brahms traditions of instrumentation, orchestration, and structure for the concerto, as opposed to the Liszt-Alkan stream of virtuosic piano concertos. It is often said of piano concertos that they are even more difficult than they sound, and this is particularly true of the Dvorak concerto, especially with the “un-pianistic” nature of Dvorak. The first and third movements are energetic, goal-oriented, structured by the hand of a perfectionist, and driven by the harmony with the melody as a flavorful topping. The second movement, it often seems with Dvorak, shows a more sensitive, imaginative, and wandering side of Dvorak that I often forget exists. The slow movement manages to take its sweet time while still giving the listener the sense that it was too short. Here it is, performed by a true giant of the piano:


Mompou in the Gentle Sunlight

On this warm, sunny, and perfect summer afternoon, I’m listening to this equally lovely music by Mompou. 

I don’t usually quote others on my blog, but in this case, I couldn’t find words more precise and perfect than those written on this page: http://www.stephenhough.com/writings/album-notes/mompou-piano-music.php

Join me in this summer afternoon:


Franck-tastic Variations

I came across this wonderful surprise today while listening to the online radio. The symphonic breadth, the instrumentation of a piano concerto, the versatility and imagination of the theme-and-variation structure, and the imaginative stylistic flare of Franck… Definitely worth a listen!

For a minute I really thought it was a piano concerto! However, although the instrumentation makes it difficult not to associate this work with piano concertos, the structural dexterity and its capacity for linear expansion will surely win the listener over as something fun and different.

Here it is, performed by the great Jorge Bolet and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: