As Rome burns

With the world as it is, how can musicians, with good conscience, continue to spend so much time making music?

(The following is a guest article from local musician Bryan Hooten. Be sure to read his bio at the end of the feature to learn more about him.)

As a musician, I have often asked myself why I do what I do. That question has become all the more urgent considering the crises that loom on many fronts of our existence. While our world financial markets teeter on the brink of collapse, I am agonizing over the last few notes of a melody I am composing. As human beings continue to imperil the natural balance of our planet, I am teaching my students how to construct major and minor chords. While two men battle for the political future of our country, I am staying up late playing music at bars. While we continue to exhaust our natural resources, I spend hours trying to get everyone in my band into the recording studio on the same day. It would seem easy at this point to cast music off as a frivolous and selfish pastime, as something only to be worked on and experienced after all of our bigger problems are solved. I’m sure Maslow would agree. Are musicians fiddling while Rome burns? In a way, yes. That being said, how can I, with good conscience, continue to spend so much time making music?

There is no shortage of insufficient answers to the question of why music matters. Not surprisingly, music and the rest of the arts are often viewed as escapist, as a way to, for a while at least, forget our responsibilities, our obligations and our anxiety. Certainly there is value here. Music can have a calming, centering effect, and we put music on inside our homes and in our cars and on our iPods to provide a soundtrack while we are engaged in other activities. I must also admit that most musicians forget about the rest of the world while playing. Music is also seen as having healing qualities and the highly sophisticated field of music therapy has done wonders for those with chronic mental and physical disorders. Conversely, music is often viewed as a tool for honing the skills needed for other parts of life. Take, for example, the VH1 Save the Music Commercials. I admire the mission of this program and will always fight for the preservation of the arts in our schools, but part of the message devalues music-making itself. In the ads a group of children sit in a room playing instruments while the names of their future professions burst onto the screen above their heads. The names of jobs like lawyer, doctor, scientist, and congresswoman float above the children in white, pulsating text. Apparently not one of these children will grow up to become a musician. Furthermore, we have all seen the proof that studying music increases SAT scores and makes children better at math, spatial reasoning, and a host of other skills. While these are wonderful benefits of music education, it is tragic that many people see performance on standardized tests as the reason to play an instrument, sing or compose. Being good at math does not ensure that one will use that skill for the common good, as our current financial crisis proves beyond all doubt. I would argue that the value of music lies neither in its escapism nor in its pragmatism, but somewhere that transcends both.

Unsatisfied to merely run from the fire or to fight it with the same tools that created it, my personal answer to why I make music began to coalesce while listening to the music of the composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Doug Richards turned me on to Ligeti while I was a graduate student at VCU. Ligeti was a twentieth-century Romanian born composer who studied in Budapest, Hungary and was inspired by the work of Bartok and Stravinsky. Many will recognize Ligeti’s music from its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I quickly bought up every recording of his music that I could find and was stunned upon listening to one of his most famous works, Lontano, a piece for orchestra composed in 1967. Lontano opens with the staggered entrance of some 14 players sounding a single pitch. I was immediately struck by the fact that, except for the shimmering tremolos in the strings, it is almost impossible to tell which instruments are playing during the opening and throughout much of the rest of the piece. I was drawn into a sonic world of pure space and color. In fact, the word Lontano means distant or remote. I immediately realized that I had to stop asking questions like “what chord is that?” “what rhythm is that?” and “what section of the piece is this?” These questions actually interfered with the listening experience and Ligeti composed the piece in such a way as to deny those questions. In the score, Ligeti gives the players the following instructions: “To avoid any effect of accentuation, it is recommended that all instruments enter with an imperceptible attack, even when this is not specifically prescribed.” The French avant-garde composer Pierre Schaeffer has shown that without hearing the attack and release of a note, it is almost impossible for the listener to identify which instrument is playing it. Ligeti’s exploitation of this fact in Lontano helped point the way to my realization of music’s value.

Listen to Lotano…


I spend much of my time as a music teacher showing my students how to listen to music, how to break the listening experience into its constituent parts: melody, harmony, rhythm, form, etc. We call one set of notes this chord and another set of notes that chord. We learn to hear and identify sets of intervals and learn to imitate melodies and rhythms. Similarly, human beings, do this constantly in the rest of our lives, dividing our experience into units of time, colors, and seasons ad infinitum. In as much as our analytical musical tools reflect the basic function of human consciousness, naming and classifying as a way to understand the world, these are valuable skills. However, the reason musicians learn these skills is hopefully not to provide the audience with a puzzle to solve. Despite the fact that I could not aurally answer many of the questions that my analytical brain was asking, Ligeti, in an interview affirms that the answers are there in Lontano.

Technically, Lontano is a completely and strictly structured polyphonic work; that is to say, there is a definite part-writing, there are vertical relationships between the parts and the individual instrumentalists play their parts as autonomous units. Through the complex interweaving and overlapping of the parts, however, the listener loses sight of them, although perhaps not entirely; that is to say, the traces of this polyphony remain audible…I would say that the polyphony is dissolved like the harmony and the tone-colour-to such an extent that it does not manifest itself, and yet is there just beneath the threshold.

Incredibly, Lontano saturates the listener with organization, using a definite compositional system to give the listener the experience of something unclassifiable. A similar technique can be found in the koan practice used in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Koans are short riddles or anecdotes, most often about Zen patriarchs, that are meant to push the student’s analytical mind to its limit, at which point the student is able to act spontaneously. One famous koan reads…

A student asked “Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?” Master replied, “Mount Sumeru!”

Any attempt by the student to posit some logical “answer” to the koan is met by a swift rebuke by the teacher. The Zen koan turns the function of language and logic on its head, pointing back towards a direct experience instead of away. Just as the student of Zen cannot “solve” the koan with the same tools that were used to create it, the meaning of Lontano and of all music is not to be attributed to its tools but rather in the experience it reveals. This experience gives music its power.

Lontano continues onward for some eleven minutes while simultaneously destroying the listener’s sense of time. It sonically depicts bottomless chasms, clouds and rays of light while always defying any effort to label how these phenomena are occurring. The composer’s use of the analytical mind points the listener away from analytical thinking and back towards something more fundamental to our experience, more eternal. We as listeners experience this eternity when give up our reliance on categories, cause and effect and on time itself. Ligeti describes Lontano in this way…

It is music that could give the impression that it could stream on continuously, as if it had no beginning and no end; what we hear is actually a section of something that has eternally begun and will continue to sound forever.

The reason I do what I do is that music gives the musician and the listener a direct experience. This experience is not a way to escape or a way to get better at putting out the fires in the world, nor is it even a way to get to something fundamental and eternal within us. This experience is the eternal within us. We spend our entire lives and much of our mental energy escaping from this eternity. Our consciousness gives us the convention and logic of language, allowing human beings to interact with each other and the world within the pattern of cause and effect. These tools, while useful, ultimately point away from the eternal ground of our being. However, any sign that points in one direction can be turned to point in another. We touch this ground of our being when hear music without the spinning internal dialogue about what instruments are playing which notes. We touch this ground when we listen to someone speak without wondering what we will say next. We touch this ground when we, like the student of Zen, act spontaneously without ulterior motives. We touch this ground when, in silence, we transcend subject and object, when we transcend the idea of self and other. The friction between the universe and our grasping minds creates the fire in Rome. Living in the ground of our being robs that fire of its fuel.

For a much more thorough analysis of Lontano than is appropriate here, as well as commentary on Ligeti’s life and music, please read Music of the Imagination by Richard Steinitz.

(Quotes taken from Ligeti’s interview with Josef Hausler in the book Ligeti in Conversation: Eulenburg Books, London. Sir William Glock, editor.)

Bryan Hooten is a trombonist, composer and educator living in Richmond, VA. He plays with Ombak, Fight the Big Bull, No BS Brass, Verbatim, and various other groups. He teaches Music Theory and Small Jazz Ensembles at VCU and directs the Jazz Band at James River High School. He also serves on the faculty of the Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. He can be seen every Wednesday at Cous Cous (900 W. Franklin) performing with either Ombak or Fight the Big Bull.

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Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

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