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Napping with Schoenberg

I love to nap. If I get a chance to nap, you can bet I’ll take it. A big part of my napping ritual is choosing the right music by which to fall asleep. This is an absurd endeavor because I inevitably take about five minutes painstakingly choosing the right piece, and then generally fall asleep within thirty seconds. Most of the time, I don’t hear or remember a note of what I chose. But every once in a while, I’ll sort of half wake up and be still asleep but also listening to the music.  I don’t know what it is that provokes this, but when it does happen, I always hear the music in a very different way than I do when fully conscious.  

Recently, I chose the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, Op. 36 to fall asleep to. This was probably not a good choice in terms of restfulness, as those who have heard it will agree. But it did lead to an interesting observation, which I’ve since tested fully conscious, and still seems pretty sound to me. It came to me, I think, because I have also been listening a lot to an Egyptian piece, Alif Leila Wa Leila, written for orchestra and sung in Arabic by the great Umm Koulthoum. It’s a great piece, and what stands out to me is that even though it is written for a whole orchestra--strings, percussion, accordion, reeds-- there is no harmony. To be precise, there is virtually no vertical, stacked harmony anywhere in the piece--no chords. I’m no expert on Arabic music, but from what I’ve listened to, this is one of its standard features. The harmony is expressed by the pitches of the melodic line, and undergoes a series of transformations in a fairly structured way. The whole piece  is based off of a seven note mode which is revealed a few notes at a time. The tension and excitement come from the linear movement of the harmony, the dynamics, the use of call and response, and the orchestration.

So, while listening to Schoenberg in my strange sleep/wake state of mind, I suddenly heard it in the same way as Alif Leila Wa Leila. It’s basically monody: one single melodic line with very few moments of counterpoint. Any counterpoint that occurs sounds more like the melodic line double backing on itself, or sometimes predicting itself. It’s as if the melody was a bunch of strings of differing lengths, shapes, textures,and colors, laid out in a row, sometimes with space in between them, sometimes just touching, and occasionally overlapping. These overlaps are brief; at no point does the piece feel like it is an orchestra accompanying a soloist, in the way a traditional concerto would. Everything is on the surface, there are no background voices or underlying parts. Rather, like Alif Leila Wa Leila, it is a continuous unraveling of a single melody. If one were to play all the orchestrated parts on the same instrument, this would become immediately clear.

I’ve listened to Op. 36 fully awake a number of times since then and the monodic nature of it continues to strike me. I also realize that the internal harmonic structure of the concerto is not unlike the one I described above for Alif Leila: Schoenberg’s piece, like the Egyptian one, is based on a series of pitches (12 instead of 7) that are deployed in the melody according to a set of rules. The rules, of course, are different, but the governing principle is definitely similar.

I don’t know what merit, if any, this insight has to anyone besides me. Personally, I’ve been listening to music like the Schoenberg concerto for a long time now, and it was thrilling to experience it in such a different way.It’s also interesting that Schoenberg, in his complete dismantling of the tonal,vertical,foreground and background structure of Western classical music ended up creating something that--perhaps unconsciously--evokes much older structures, like those used to compose Alif Leila Wa Leila. By its nature, music tends to create itself: once you give it a few nudges in a certain direction, the rest is to a large extent out of your conscious control, whether you realize it or not. Maybe Schoenberg was a fan of naps too.