June 16th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reflections on the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx

EDITORIAL Significance of report into shooting down of MH17

CANBERRA OBSERVED Lee Rhiannon: too Bolshie or not Bolshie enough?

POLITICS Wading further through the Greens party bilge

ECONOMICS Vatican document nails some of the causes of the GFC

POLITICS Greens promise to keep Australia legally stoned and welfare dependent

ENVIRONMENT Scientist sacked for challenging claims of demise of Great Barrier Reef

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Humpty Dumpty has his way with words

CHRISTIANITY AND SOCIETY Tradition, Christianity and the law in contemporary Australia

EDUCATION Ladybird, ladybird: adventures in literacy

OFFICE LAUNCH NCC Sydney: a new chapter in a continuing story

ASIAN AFFAIRS Indonesia takes religious syncretism to the nth degree

WA RALLY FOR LIFE 3300 crosses in Perth poignant reminders of abortions

HUMOUR News snippets

PHILOSOPHY Bendigo initiative

MUSIC Gain is loss: Where is there left to discover?

CINEMA 2001: A Space Odyssey: Unsurpassed 50 years on

BOOK REVIEW The house that could not stand

BOOK REVIEW Australia's first official war historian


EDITORIAL China's pivotal role in Trump-Kim summit

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Gain is loss: Where is there left to discover?

by David James

News Weekly, June 16, 2018

In 1782, Mozart, who was then aged 26, was shown the music of Johann Sebastian Bach by the diplomat and amateur musician, Baron Gottfried van Swieten.

The Baron hosted Sunday-morning musical salons, and he had scoured Berlin to find manuscripts of Bach and Händel, whose works were virtually unknown in Vienna. He brought them back with him to show young composers to help them develop.

It was the first time that Mozart had encountered the Baroque master, and it provoked a change in his approach to composition, especially his use of counterpoint. Mozart was reportedly impressed, supposedly saying: “When the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach.”

It was only a temporary moment in the sun for Bach’s masterful works, however. It was not until well into the 19th century, when Mendelssohn and others in his circle came into contact with Bach’s music, that it became mainstream again. A 20-year-old Mendelssohn conducted the St Matthew Passion. Bach’s music, which had almost been lost, has since remained a central part of the repertoire.

Scroll forward to the 21st century and Bach is inescapable, everywhere. It is the same for every other part of the classical music tradition, and also so with jazz, rock and pop, where the back catalogues dominate. Fashions in music still occur, styles come and go, but there is no forgetting. It has a profound effect on creativity – there is no tabula rasa any more.

When Mozart was developing the Viennese classical style to its stellar heights, there would have been a great sense of discovery; of being in an open terrain finding things that had never been uncovered before. This spirit of discovery is part of what makes music exciting.

In jazz it can be heard in the playing of trumpeter Louis Armstrong, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk, guitarist Wes Montgomery and (several times, because he invented several new styles) trumpeter Miles Davis. They were all “pioneers”.

That excitement cannot be heard to the same degree with the next generation of musicians, who were to some extent looking over their shoulders. For example, pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett have exhibited exceptionally high levels of expertise and musicality, but their playing has never had the sense of newness and original experience that could be heard in their predecessors. It was only an extension.

By the time that trumpeter Winton Marsalis arrived in the 1980s, any sense of discovery had vanished, the music was becoming a fossil. Marsalis is a technically exceptional trumpet player, but what he produces is stale. Little wonder that Miles Davis was scornful, saying it was just a reprise of the playing of Clifford Brown in the 1940s and ’50s.

Another example of how when there is a sense of discovery it leads to superior results, was the British blues explosion in the 1960s, which resulted in some of the great rock and pop music of the period. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream – even The Beatles – were a response to the excitement of never having heard music like that of the African-American blues players. They absorbed the new rhythms and created their own spin on it, producing music that has not been surpassed in the genre.

There have been many effective rock bands since, but they cannot replicate the sense of excitement. The rhythmic possibilities and vocal nuances are now familiar – and that familiarity is a loss.

It is hard to see where musicians can turn now to find the discovery of the new. The sheer proliferation of music, which is now available everywhere, all the time, because of the internet, means it is impossible to replicate the shock and excitement that Mozart or the British guitarists of the 1960s would have felt.

The obvious thing is to combine musical styles from different parts of the world, what is usually described as world music. But again, there is little freshness. When keyboard player Joe Zawinul pioneered the approach, there was the sense of discovery, although the results were patchy. But that is not possible now.

The new areas of discovery will pro­bably not be stylistic but technological. Synthesisers are producing sounds never heard before and, although there is a certain homogeneity about them because they are not “natural”, something will emerge.

It is worth remembering that Bach himself experienced something start­lingly new: the advent of “well tempering”, which allowed complex counterpoint to become possible for the first time because it ironed out tuning problems. He took contrapuntalism to a level that has never been surpassed, no doubt impelled by intense excitement at possibilities that had never existed before.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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