Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Charles Rosen opens his magnificent book, The Romantic Generation, with a meditation on “inaudible music.” What could this possibly mean? Rosen explains that when we listen to music, we purify and enhance it, eliminating “extraneous” noise such as coughing, traffic, or snoring. We ignore the rattling of a clarinet’s keys, the scraping of a violin’s bow, the characteristic “decay” of a note on the piano, and construct an idealized sound in our head. Thus, musical details that are literally inaudible or unperformable — a crescendo on a single held note on the piano, for instance — can still be perceived by our musical imagination.

Rosen argues that the limitations of musical instruments often enhance their expressiveness, since a listener’s musical imagination must fill in the blanks, as it were. He calls this the “pathos of the gap between idea and realization,” a gap cunningly exploited by composers. If you can follow a musical score, even a little, you should read a few pages from the first chapter yourself; it’s well worth it. (Popular musicians regularly exploit this same gap for pathos. Think of Miles Davis’s cracking trumpet on “My Funny Valentine.” Or Joe Cocker leaping an octave in the final notes of “You Are So Beautiful,” only to end up with a strangled whimper.)

Which brings us to Robert Moog, inventor of the synthesizer, who died last Sunday. As is widely known, Moog was inspired in his researches by the work of Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, whose eponymous instrument became a 1950s horror-movie staple. It’s important to note that the impetus for Theremin — and for his electronic-music successors — was to eliminate this “gap between idea and realization.” As Theremin once told an interviewer, he was intent on proving that electricity was a “means for man to control the finest nuances of musical sound.” A Soviet newspaper review of a Theremin concert encapsulated this ideology perfectly. The Theremin was “the solution to the problem of the ideal instrument,” the newspaper enthused. “Sounds have been liberated from material ‘adulterations.'”

This is a beautiful expression of the cruel ideology of early Soviet communism. Material “adulterations” — including the imperfections of human beings — must be eliminated. Liberation to follow. Stay tuned.

But I digress. Electronic music does not usher in the Communist apocalypse, but it does change the way we create music and listen to music. It has vastly expanded the universe of sound, and given a power to composers previously undreamed-of. But it has, by necessity, severely restricted the power, the imagination, and – dare I say? – the intelligence of the audience, who are no longer asked to assist the composer in perceiving musical nuances. This is the root, I think, of the “coldness” that many people perceive in electronic music. By asserting absolute control over every aspect of his music, the composer has unwittingly disposed of one of the most powerful tools of expression — the audience’s own imagination.

Comments are closed.