Natural and Mathematical Sublime: An analysis of 20th century Western music

Music has such a powerful effect to people’s mind that it has become the source of sublime which we encounter most frequently. Compared to natural landscapes or chaotic natural forces, music is so much closer to our daily life that we can even get the feeling of sublime while we are on our way to work–through listening to sublime music.

In the history of Western music, a representative period of music sublimity is the 20th century during which all kinds of new music genres and styles were being tested and developed. In this period, many mathematically sublime music pieces were productively composed, while some of them are consonant, and some of them are dissonant. Within the mathematically sublime pieces, however, music can also be divided into the more naturally sublime ones and the more mathematically sublime ones. A representative work of the more naturally sublime piece is Copland’s Appalachian Spring composed in early 20th century. This piece, as is obvious in its descriptive title, is a symphony poem that depicts the spectacular landscape of Appalachian Mountains. The disjunct melodies in its main theme create such a vast visual scene of the Appalachian mountains that the sublime of this natural landscape is brought from its original place to the ears of the audience. This is the power of music. Some film musics also has such naturally mathematical sublime. A good example is John Williams’ Star Wars Main Theme. Similarly, John Williams also applies a disjunct melody to create a sense of vastness in the universe. While these two example pieces are consonant and tuneful, there are also pieces with naturally mathematical sublime that are not tuneful at all. For example, Stravinsky’s ballet the Rite of Spring is such a piece that suggests an overwhelming primitive culture while adopting an extremely untuneful melody–it is hard to say it has melody at all. This type of dissonant pieces are still sublime because they make us feel the immeasurable power of the nature, and their untuneful characteristic actually helps creates such sense of sublime. 

There are also some pieces that are more of experimental nature and create purely mathematical sublime (different from naturally mathematical sublime). Reich is such a representative composer in this category. One of his works, Piano Phase, only has one line of composition (three measures), while the whole piece lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. What actually happens is that the music is played repeatedly by two pianists together, at first synchronously, but slowly out of phase when one of them slightly speeds up. Such setup enables this music to have infinite possibilities and the audience can thus easily be overwhelmed by its endlessness. This is sublime.

Reich’s Piano Phase

There is one extremely controversial piece by John Cage called 4’33” that challenges our understanding of sublime, but is truly sublime. This piece does not have any notes or melodies or rhythms–it only has silence. The length of the silence is also freely decided by any performer of this piece. Although these facts sound ridiculous, in John Cage’s idea, everything we do is music. If we look at the audiences of almost all the performances of this piece, they all seem to seriously enjoy the performance. This fact shows that this “music” piece is sublime. It is the sublimity of this virtually meaningless silence that overwhelms the thousands of audiences in the auditorium and makes them quietly stay in their chairs and enjoy the ridiculous performance.

David Han

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