Thursday, June 23, 2011

Atonality on Ice

Last weekend, the Boston Bruins had a big parade to celebrate their first Stanley Cup since 1972. Although I've always been a big sports fan, I grew up in a part of the country where no one played or talked about hockey, so aside from the unforgettable winter of 1980, I've rarely spent much time caring about it. Still, I ended up watching a lot of playoff hockey this year, what with all the local Bruins mania, and I did enjoy it. Here's a Twitter post from April of 2010 that kind of sums up my feelings about watching ice hockey:
Watching hockey to me is like listening to really wild atonal music. The gestures/speed can be exciting, but I have no idea what's going on.
I've actually used variations on this line a couple of other times on Twitter and even in conversation at parties (see, you should invite me to your party). Actually, I just did a quick search of my Twitter archive and discovered that the atonal/hockey connection started back in 2009. A pianist and hockey fan named @mariocast tweeted during a playoff game:
"Carter SCORES!!! Flyers 1, Penguins 0," 
to which I cleverly replied,
"and you can purchase Carter SCORES here:"
He responded,
"uh...thanks for the link. I do dig some of Elliot Carter's music, but I was talking about a hockey game."
And that prompted my epiphanic observation:
"to me, watching hockey is kind of like listening to E. Carter. It's fast-paced and exciting, but I'm never sure what's going on."
There now, wasn't that an interesting little historical journey? And it proves that Twitter can inspire interesting insights, because I think there's actually something to this idea. For me, the basic atonality/hockey connection has to do with the perceptive framework each imposes on its audience (or, at least, on me). Hockey moves at such a lightning pace, with possession of the puck constantly shifting from team to team, scoring opportunities always a second or two away, yet rarely being fulfilled - as one is watching, it's hard to process everything that's going on, partly because the action is so continuous. Aside from a few timeouts per period and the occasional power play (when a penalty means one team has to skate with fewer players for a couple of minutes), it's challenging to organize the events of a game in a clear way.

In the same way, atonal music (though not always fast) tends not to feature the kinds of cadences, resolutions and general harmonic contexts that help the listener organize the musical events as they go by. This doesn't mean that one can't make sense of the events: die-hard hockey fans can find much more structure and intent than I can in what often looks like random darting around the rink. The announcers will often speak of set "plays" that I can sort of make sense of on replay - much as the theorist might be able to show me row statements and transformations. But the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky will use clear phrasing/harmonic clues to group the pitches of a melody distinctly, just as a baseball game clearly separates into distinct plays (almost always initiated by a pitch!).

In fact, based on my own culturally conditioned perceptive framework, I'm going to suggest that taking in a baseball game reminds me the most of 18th-century music (especially the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart): there can be tremendous passion, heart-rending surprises, etc., but usually within a neatly structured series of events. Carrying this not-too-serious kind of comparison along, football has more of a 19th-century Romantic kind of feel - the emotions of the game are more heart-on-sleeve, there's more obvious drama and violence, but the game still organizes into very clear "plays." Romantic music, for all its energy and revolutionary fervor, is often even squarer and more predictable in its phrasing structures than music of the Classical Era (see Kyle Gann on Dvorak here), and football also has a very regular pattern of stopping and starting.

Basketball moves along much more continously than baseball or football, but unlike hockey, the game is pretty clearly defined by which team possesses the ball at a given time. So, in terms of organizing one's perceptions, the game still falls into clear, if irregular, chunks, helped along by the fact that regular scoring also helps to structure one's viewing. So, I'm going to align the helter-skelter but mostly easily processed pacing of basketball with the early modernists like Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokoviev. (I know, that's a very Russian list.) Their music is often asymetrical and unpredictable (lots of sudden fast breaks), but melodies and phrases are still pretty easy to discern. There's usually something to hang on to. [The rules are often a bit of a mystery in each case as well.]

And then there's hockey and the atonal gang. It's true that one of the most important distinctions here is that hockey and atonality are simply less popular and well-understood than baseball, football, and tonal music. Some people will always love them partly because of the outsider-y status, but hockey suffers from a world in which the average sports fan doesn't really understand its strategies or know how to follow the puck, and Schoenberg's fans are still waiting for the day when children whistle 12-tone tunes in the street.

Of course, when the stakes are high, the non-stop, "anything could happen any time" feel of a hockey game is an asset - again, I'm not even a big fan of the game, but I found myself almost breathless watching the Bruins playoff games, especially the Game 7s (they had 3!) and the overtimes. There's almost no way of knowing or guessing when the big moment is coming, which can be tremendously exciting, but the game still strikes me as less artful than baseball/football/basketball because so many of the "plays" don't work out.

Passes are routinely missed, shots are often blocked in ugly fashion as the puck bangs into a series of legs and sticks that are running interference. And, perhaps my biggest complaint, often the goals that are scored are not that aesthetically pleasing. Yes, careful player positioning and a skilled shot may set things in motion, but more than not, the actual goal seems to come from a rebound that's hard to see and that seems a product of chance as much as skill - just as so much atonal music ends up sounding kind of like chance music.

Which reminds me of another similarity between the worlds of atonality and hockey. Each embraces ugliness with a curious sort of pride. I don't know if it's because men on skates are afraid of being seen as un-masculine, but hockey has evolved into a brutal sport that features not only lots of violent hits, but even looks approvingly on fighting as part of the game.* I'm still trying to come to terms with the fact that the Bruins' breakout star was rookie Brad Marchand, who's been referred to as a "little ball of hate." In one memorable "break in the action" from Game 6, Marchand punched Vancouver's highly skilled Swedish star Daniel Sedin in the face seven times in a row, for no other reason than he felt like it; although I'm sure Vancouver fans didn't like it, the mainline opinion on this goofy scene is that Marchand proved himself a tough warrior and Sedin, by trying to get a penalty called rather than punching back, was soft.

Atonal music is likewise full of brutal sounding sonorities that can feel like assaults on our civilized sensibilities

- and, again, it can seem like a sign of weakness to admit to not liking these sounds, at least in some circles. Ironically, many hockey players turn out to be surprisingly mild-mannered and good-natured off the ice - kind of like Milton Babbitt and his love for musical theater. Kind of.

But, to wrap up, I think the biggest similarity is that whole goal thing. There aren't many goals in a typical hockey game and it's hard to hear where the goals are in a typical atonal work.** That doesn't mean there's not a lot of purposeful action in either - I listened to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto for the first time in a long time last week, and was surprised by some of the gorgeous orchestral sonorities that floated by early on, almost like refugees from a lush bit of Gershwin. I know it's not fair to hear the music that way, but I'm just being honest about my own perceptive framework, which is the point of this whole post. I keep wanting these sounds to organize into a clearer harmonic framework, just as I long for a hockey possession to look organized and intentional for more than 6 seconds. But maybe it's just me...

* I realize football is also ridiculously violent, but somehow its violence is more aesthetically pleasing to me - maybe because I grew up watching it, but maybe because hockey has those big ugly sticks waving around and that brutally hard, cold surface. At least football players get to land on soft turf and they don't get slammed into walls.

** What about the lack of goals in soccer, you say? Yes, that's a problem for us unenlightend Americans, but soccer doesn't have the wild, ugly side of hockey, so I'm going to align soccer with the world of Renaissance counterpoint. Lots of beautiful, controlled play that seems endless in its purposelessly purposeful flow. (I actually like Renaissance counterpoint much more than soccer, but will admit I've never given soccer much of a chance.)

[This is perhaps the least timely post I've ever written. I actually starting thinking about writing it on June 15, the day of Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs - then I wrote a good bit of it last Saturday, the day Boston celebrated the Bruins with a big parade. And here it is, more than a week past hockey season and officially a summer hockey column. Oh well.]

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