Sunday, January 19, 2020

Doris Akers, "It's in My Heart" and "Every Time I Feel the Spirit"

One of the fun discoveries I made reading Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field is learning about the music of Doris Akers.  Burford pointed out that Akers was an influential songwriter, singer and arranger in gospel music whose life and work, as yet, has not received any serious academic attention.

I may or may not have heard or even sung some Akers songs way, way back in my Pentecostal days but if so it was so long ago that it's like I never heard of her before, which may be the most likely scenario.  Although I've written a fair amount about contemporary classical guitar literature that's a bit more on the avant garde side I do have a place in my heart for gospel music, too. :)

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Theodor Adorno and Roger Scruton, thoughts on the intertwining legacies of philosophers on music and aesthetics

Essays on Music: Selected, with introduction, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie
Theodor Adorno
University of California Press
ISBN 0-520-22672-0
ISBN 0-520-23159-7

(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California

Difficulties (1967)

page 648

The methods that are linked to the traditional language of music have become retrospectively problematic as a result of those that were discovered later--namely, they have become schematic. [emphasis added] One hears, through what is newer, weaknesses of the old that were once hidden. There are very many things that sound stereotyped that were not stereotyped at the time. Richard Wagner, who was very alert in these matters, already registered this. Disrespectfully, but forthrightly, he said that in some of Mozart's pieces he could hear the dishes clatter on the table--Tafelmusik, even when it was by no means intended as such. It was possible to follow this schema as long as it was not evident as such, as long as it was still of a piece with the self-evident preconditions of composing. But once composing, and the relationship of the composer to the schemas, has lost its virginity, then the schemas not only emerge baldly and annoyingly, but lead in many places to anomalies, contradict the moments that have meanwhile been emancipated. [emphasis added]...

... The person who commits himself to what is older only out of despair at the difficulties of the new is not comforted, but becomes the victim of his own helpless nostalgia for a better era that, finally, never actually existed.

On the other hand, one should not dispense with reactionary objections in the manner of an apologist, but should learn the measure of correct insights that they offer, which so frequently give them the advantage over moderate, progressive cultural liberalism. [emphasis added]...

Roger Scruton died this week and he was known as a conservative and as a philosopher who dealt with aesthetics, particularly the aesthetics of music.  He would be regarded by many admirers of Adorno as a reactionary, perhaps even "the" reactionary on matters of the arts and the art of music.  So it is useful to remember that no less than Theodor Adorno himself wrote that we should not dispense with the reactionary who comments about the problems in contemporary music simply because they have reactionary or conservative political views.  

People who only read Scruton's writing on aesthetics and music in the 1990s would not have necessarily kept up with changes in his philosophy, arguments and aesthetic verdicts, much like those who only read Adorno's Philosophy of New Music and didn't move on to read his writings on music from the 1950s and later would not be in a position to know he began to reassess his positions on music and new music (i.e. high avant garde modernist post-tonal music).  It's necessary and fair to both Adorno and Scruton to note that both men began to budge on some issues and that they eventually articulated comparable criticisms of both Cage and Stockhausen, even if those who avidly read only Adorno or Scruton seem all too apt to not know this. 

Although I could quote from Scruton's other works the clearest statement he made regarding Adorno on pop music and classical traditions came from Understanding Music.

Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation
Roger Scruton
Copyright (c) Roger Scruton 209

page 211, "Why Read Adorno?"
... his attack on mass culture should be seen in the Old Testament spirit, as a repudiation of idolatry, a reaffirmation of the age-old distinction between true and false gods--between worship that ennobles and redeems us, and the superstition that drops us in the ditch. ... 

page 216

One conclusion to draw from the history of American popular music is that we should take the world "popular" seriously--far more seriously than it was taken by Adorno. [emphasis added] Pace Adorno and Horkheimer, this music was not imposed upon the American people by an unscrupulous `culture industry' eager to exploit the most degenerate aspects of popular taste. It arose `by an invisible hand' from spontaneous music-making, with a large input from Afro-American music, both secular and religious. When that music later spread around the world it was not by some imperial venture of a conquering civilization but by the same process whereby it arose--the spontaneous taste of ordinary people. [emphasis added]

Well, it's exactly that claim that has been contested by a variety of scholars in the West, that the spread of jazz was not some imperial venture.  Music historians have been compiling work in the last twenty years on the evolution of jazz in the Soviet bloc and other totalitarian states.  The Peter Lang Edition series Jazz under State Socialism has at least four volumes.  I've only begun cracking open two of them and have a copy of Bruce Johnson's Jazz and Totalitarianism published by Routledge.  Super short version for now, the Soviet bloc viewed jazz as a form of cultural and musical imperialism and an emerging body of history chronicling the work of the CIA funding arts in the Cold War era makes a cumulative case that if Frances Lauren Stoner's version is a bit tilted toward treating the CIA as bankrolling modernist art, music and literature to a fault, there are more nuanced variations of the case that African American popular music was presented as indicative that in spite of reports of racism and racial segregation it was possible for black American musicians to achieve fame and success, thus Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field, which I personally can't recommend enough.  In sum, Marxists would view the spread of American popular music as a form of imperialism no matter what someone like Roger Scruton would say or write.  

At the same time, there's a kind of counter-argument within a celebration and historical survey of American popular music.  Even if we set aside Soviet or Marxist allegations that American popular music was imperialist, there are other issues raised as to whether what was marketed was a reflection of what was going on in day to day musical life or whether what was on sale was a tailored product.  

There has been some revisionist scholarship since the end of the Cold War that argues somewhere between Adorno and Scruton by proposing that, yes, American popular music was immensely popular and reflected popular musical styles and interests but that where Scruton's statement has some truth Adorno's has some truth, too.  To put it simply, in a work like Segregating Sound by Karl Miller and others music historians have been pointing out that there was still a top-down aspect to what Adorno called the culture industry.  If Adorno acrimoniously insisted in his earliest writings jazz was a false amalgam of march and salon music (arguably true!) and not in any way provably linked to authentic African or Afro-American music (indisputably false!), another element of his polemic against the culture industry was that formulaic music was presented as the music of freedom and as black musicians by the industry.  Adorno was wrong about the "what" but may have had a point about the "how"--Miller's Segregating Sound makes a long-form case that there was a Jim Crow regime built within and sustained by the recording industry that pervasively and persistently marketed musicians on the basis of racial and racist stereotypes.  

John W. Troutman's Kika Kila is a history of the steel guitar tradition and he points out in his book and in some interviews that we've been sold a history of American popular music that is cast in terms of white and black when the fuller and richer history is in technicolor--advocacy for African diaspora music by mid-20th century musicologists, folklorists and music historians ironically advocated on behalf of the African origins of the slide guitar in a way that obliterated Native Hawaiian contributions to American popular music.  I'm still working through Troutman's book on steel guitar (which he plays himself) and want to get to his monograph on Native American song and ceremony but as I'm working through his writings I get a sense that revisionist musicology and music history can be dismissed by conservatives as trying to attack some venerated musical styles and that's not exactly the case.  Arguing that well-intentioned white liberal and progressive scholars and black activist writings may have used a white-black script to era Native Hawaiian, Native American or Asian contributions to the evolution of American popular music is hardly making an argument that there's something wrong with the symphonies of Beethoven or Mahler.  

None of which, of course, is what I recall Scruton proposing.  Scruton, the most conservative of conservative philosophers dealing with the aesthetics of music, took it as given that jazz is both music and art and that the American songbook and song in general had proven the lifeblood of musical life and practice still anchored to some form, however abstracted and modified, of tonality:

pages 216-217

The great days of American popular music may now be past: rock `n roll changed the Blues from a lyrical confession to a Dionysian display, and the long-term effects are now being felt, not only in America, but all across the world.  Nevertheless, visitors to America are still astonished by the number of spontaneous musical episodes that they encounter: marching bands at football matches; barber shop singing; church choirs and `praise dances'; jazz combos in the clubs and Blue Grass in the tavern.  ...  

... The American song exists because people have enjoyed it and asked for more. It is the musical expression of consumer sovereignty. And like everything typical of America it gets up the intellectual nose, precisely because it seems to leave no opening for the would-be priesthood. Intellectuals on the left have never been able to accept that the spontaneous choices of ordinary people might be the final explanation of their social world.  ... 

Against Adorno's claims that American popular son was full of kitsch Scruton's rejoinder could be summed as "Yes, so what? Kitsch may be more true than Adorno's idea of `truth' about modern urban life"  What Scruton wrote was:

page 219
It is undeniable that this musical tradition is full of kitsch and false sentiment. But there is another way besides Adorno's of looking at that fact. The American popular song arose from the spontaneous desire of ordinary Americans to celebrate the world that they themselves had created.  It has never been a critical idiom, any more than the folk-music of old Europe was critical. It takes America as it comes, and its lyricism is a lyricism of acceptance. Kitsch is there in the music because kitsch lies all around. If this music were to make an effort to eliminate kitsch and false sentiment it would not be seeing through lies but telling them. There is a kind of realism here, to which Adorno closed his ears, just as he closed his mind to the real function of song in the life of ordinary people--which is to help them to be at one with their social condition, and to normalize their sufferings and their joys.  As their social conditions change, so do their songs ...

What Scruton wrote around is a topic the blues and jazz historians have described as different levels of coded meaning in song lyrics.  It might suffice for the moment to touch upon that without much discussion since I'm writing this in the week of Roger Scruton's death but it seems worthwhile to point that within Scruton's point about kitsch being with us and that the kitsch may be more honest about what life is like in our culture--something may be kitsch and simultaneously dealing with human experience at another level that isn't perceptible to people who are not conversant in the norms and conventions and symbols and signs being played with in the context of an art work.  To break it down in a more colloquial and concrete way, Mahler can be simultaneously kitsch and serious.  Samurai Jack can be an adventure cartoon kids can watch but that adults can watch in a different way.

There were moments where Scruton made claims about Adorno that led me to think he had not seriously engaged with Adorno's later work.  This passage in particular comes to mind from Understanding Music.

page 223
Adorno's defense of the avant-garde of his day was based on the view that `standardization' could not take root in this idiom, which would always question its own status as a commodity and refuse to be driven by aesthetic routines.  But the routines soon arose and, from the tin-cans of John Cage to the bombastic operas of Stockhausen, the musical landscape today is strewn with avant-garde kitsch.

The trouble with that is that it seems Scruton didn't get around to Adorno's blistering condemnation of Cage and Stockhausen and integral serialism.  I wrote about that at some length in a piece called "Between forms of non-choice: Adorno’s criticism of serialism and aleatory as techniques that obliterated the decision-making subject, Leonard Meyer’s observation on the abjection of choice in modernist musical history, and some brief thoughts on jazz"

As far back as 1955 Adorno wrote the following:
On the Aging of the New Music  (1955) translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will

page 195

... The reproach that the critics have not understood the most recent compositions of unchecked rationalization can hardly be maintained because such musical reasoning wants only to be demonstrated mathematically, not understood. If one asks after the function of some phenomenon within a work's total context of meaning, the answer is a further exposition of the system.   ...

page 196
... Musical logic becomes a caricature of logic, one that is certainly implicit in it from the start, in the rigid interdiction of anything that the system finds foreign, the latter being left to atrophy. Already in the first measure the listener senses with resignation that he has been turned over to an infernal machine, which will run its course mercilessly, until fate has completed its cycle and he can breathe again.

To be sure most of the younger twelve-tone composers are less demanding. Unfamiliar with the real accomplishment of the Schoenberg School and in possession only of the rules of twelve-tone composition, which has become apocryphal through separation from its accomplishment, these young people amuse themselves with the juggling of tone rows as a substitute for tonality, without really composing at all.  This touches on a genuinely paradoxical situation: the disappearance of tradition within New Music itself. The innovators, Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Webern, Berg, even Hindemith, were all raised on traditional music. Their idiom, their critical stance, their resistance, all crystallized around that tradition. This tradition is no longer a living part of their successors. In its place they turn what is in itself a critical musical ideal into an artificially positive one, without summoning up the spontaneity and effort that it requires.  This failing can hardly be cast as a reproach. ...

...There is reason to suspect that those who have not mastered the new material are also unable to control the other, that they cannot compose an irreproachable four-voice Palestrina setting, and in many cases can hardly harmonize a chorale. The pedagogical virtues of the academy have been lost without the realm of freedom having been entered.

Even music criticism hardly helps. Critics and composers only rarely meet on the same level. Most critics are even less able than the averagely educated musician to judge a demanding new score according to its inner coherence, its level of form, its individual power. Instead they fulfill their service with substitutes such as reports about their chance pleasure or displeasure in the music, or provide journalistic information. The critic more or less routinely brings forth everything possible about the impression a work makes, its history, style, and author without carrying out what the name of his profession demands: critique, making a judgment, debatable though that judgment might be.  ...

This is, ultimately, where we can see that what Adorno said to condemn the inhuman technocratic tendencies of 20th century modernism that abandoned the traditions necessary to provide a contextual meaning to any rebellion against it as evidenced in the works of Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, Stravinsky and even Hindemith, gets recapitulated sans Marxism by Roger Scruton.  In other words, Adorno warned "us" to not dismiss a Roger Scruton's criticism of a Cage or a Stockhausen just because Scruton's a reactionary or a conservative.  Adorno himself argued that Cage and Stockhausen developed techniques that obliterated the decision-making subject. 

As I've written in the past it was possible for a Marxist Maoist like John Tilbury or Cornelius Cardew to find a problem in John Cage that was substantially mirrored by the criticism of the Presbyterian minister Francis Schaeffer.  That piece was "The Music of John Cage and the Self-Extinguishing Avant Garde", which surveys Schaeffer and Cardew and Tilbury and Richard Taruskin and Leonard B. Meyer if you want to read that.  Call it the bias of being an American but I think it was possible for both Scruton and Adorno to have too harsh an assessment of what Cage was attempting to do.  There are some posts on that here and here.  Since I only really enjoy his music for prepared piano I defer to Kyle Gann and others to articulate a defense of what Cage said he was trying to do in contrast to what philosophers such as Adorno or Scruton told us Cage was trying to do. 

Of course here I am thousands of words into this essay and I've been exploring points of agreement and disagreement between Adorno and Scruton on aesthetic, music, pop music, and art.  I've quoted extensively from Scruton's chapter titled "Why Read Adorno?"  Scruton did not write that as a rhetorical question with an answer of "You shouldn't".  Scruton read Adorno.  I think he may not have read enough Adorno but it's my own case that Adorno and Scruton both budged within and shifted from their earlier more categorical claims about popular music.  Eric Oberle has a dense but intriguing monograph out on Adorno, "the wound" and how being an exile in the United States and seeing how racism against blacks and anti-semitism forced him to start rethinking his earlier stated views on a variety of topics.  Adorno died before he arrived at the shifting position that Eric Oberle is arguing was beginning to take place in Adorno's thought.  Scruton has just died so he, too, may have died having observed and articulated the nature of a philosophical and artistic set of problems that others may have to tackle.

Adorno came to respect the musicianship of black jazz musicians without coming around to conceding jazz itself, as popular song, was really art.  Scruton, as we've seen, affirms the American songbook and song tradition as the music we'd best draw from in contrast to John Cage or Stockhausen.  On this Scruton and I agree.

Scruton aimed to take Adorno's accusation of kitsch and the standardizing mass effects of pre-digested emotions seriously.  Scruton also took seriously an argument from Adorno's Philosophy of New Music that would likely be impossible for non-musicians or musicians not deeply steeped in the Western literate traditions of music to even pick up.  Scruton put it as follows (bold emphases are mine):

page 224

Adorno argued that the addiction to musical fetishes--by which he means the standardized effects of popular music--produces a `regression' in the art of listening, what we might today call a shrinking attention span. People are content with snippets that they can hum or whistle, and--thanks to mechanical reproduction--will listen to a movement, a tune or a bar detached from the work to which it owes its significance. Inevitably, therefore, the old art of listening, which involves following a complex development over long stretches of time, gives way to an interest in catchy fragments, shortened sequences that can be detached from their context and repeated at will. And it is just such fragments, Adorno implies, that become cliches, which the ear of the listener and the mind of the composer prefer to the hard work of harmonic and melodic argument.

Now Adorno has a point here ... Whatever we think about tonality, there is no doubt that it has lent itself to a new kind of music, in which the lengthy paragraphs of the symphonic tradition have been replaced by the repetition of statically conceived cells--as in the ballets and symphonies of Stravinsky. The architecture of a Beethoven or Bruckner symphony, in which the modulation from tonic to dominant might take place over a span of minutes, and in which every scale degree is conscripted to the task of transporting the material from one solid foundation to the next--this wonderful art-form is less and less present in the tonal writing of modern composers, and the `developing variations' which Schoenberg discerned in the classical style and sought to revive through his serial language are now rarely encountered. The American popular song deploys the tonal language in a manner that is short-breathed and quickly exhausted; and the idiom of jazz, which has taken tonality in a new direction, and discovered harmonic sequences and dissonant cadences which have no place in the classical repertoire, has not produced any comparable expansion of the musical argument. On the contrary, where there should be development there is usually only improvisation, and where there might be the exploration of emotion and the building of character, there is usually the repetition of the same cheerful smile.  

page 225
... Something is right in what Adorno is saying. But all attempts to pin down the thesis come up against the immovably singular nature of aesthetic judgement.  And the failure of Adorno to produce any prescription, other than his entirely negative advocacy of atonality against the tonal cliche, leaves the matter hanging in the air.  

page 226

In the light of this it seems to me that we should retrace our steps and revisit the attempts by composers to learn from the example of song--both folk song and the jazz-influenced songbook. Although this means a return from large-scale forms to the strophic idiom of natural music, it also involves a return to the crucible of tonality, in which the tonal order is first crystallized in the soup of sound.  That, it seems to me, is the direction taken by Debussy; and he was followed by Janacek, Dutilleux, Britten, Messiaen and many more--brilliant musicians who were led by their ears and not by theories, even if they were capable, like Messiaen, of theorizing at the highest level.  ...

Now there are quite a few things I could say in response to this.  Scruton has summarized an argument Adorno made that since Stravinsky introduced hebephrenic schizophrnia into music by way of brutal and mind-numbing motoric music in Rite of Spring there has been a rupture between what Scruton has described as symphonic or sonata "argument" and the mind-obliterating "grove" of dance. Adorno notoriously insisted that once "argument" and "groove" as modes of musical cognition became separated they both became false.  Scruton does not affirm that.  On the other hand, he could be taken to have argued that jazz has groove and harmony and melodic art but that it was trapped in the cul de sac of a performance tradition that encouraged "strophic" composition and performance.  To put this in a way that may be more understandable to classical musicians, the argument is that jazz has gotten stuck in the dead end of continuous variation as both form and technique.

It was hardly always the case.  I can think right now of Kyle Gann's analysis of James P Johnson's Harlem Symphony.  Whether or not the "argument" was at a level that Adorno or Roger Scruton would regard as "serious" Johnson wrote a symphony that clearly has sonata forms and he did this back in the 1930s around the time Paul Hindemith was extracting the Mathis der Mahler suite from his opera.  Speaking as a Hindemith fan the opera is a bore but the symphonic suite is remarkable. 

Not all of Scruton's fans will be willing to go along with what I'm about to say.  Scruton, in sum, told us that if we had to choose between the arch-modernist direction of John Cage and Boulez and Stockhausen or American popular song to go with American popular song.  Of course Scruton was more nuanced than that.  He also all too briefly touched upon the life and work of the American composer George Rochberg:

Our model for the future should therefore not be the sterile works of Stockhausen and Boulez but the patient attempts to adapt the old to the new, and to find notes that touch the hearts of listeners because they express the heart of their composer. George Rochberg's music points us in this direction. But it raises the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. This is the theme to which I shall address myself in the next post.

Now I've written at some length on my belief that what Scruton called Rochberg's rejection of serialim in favor of tonality is better understood as Rochberg adopting code-switching as a compositional technique.

It doesn't just so happen Kyle Gann has written some stuff on Rochberg's Second Symphony that he's got up online.  I'm still trying to get to the Rochberg symphony but I was pleased to see Gann mentioned a very new monograph on Rochberg's life and work by Amy Lynn Wlodarski. Pretty good chance I will grab that because as I've been blogging here over the years I've found that a mixture of writing about music from George Rochberg, Ben Johnston and Leonard B. Meyer have, with some heavy doses of Adorno and Scruton thrown in for good measure and a bit of Augustine lurking in the background, have helped me think through how a guitarist could approach the classical guitar musical traditions as a bridge between American popular song (all kinds) and "classical music".  I have often disagreed with Scruton on specific and general things but I have been grateful for his writings not just in spite of that but because of that.  

I happen to agree with Scruton that we're better off turning to the American songbook for musical possibilities than John Cage or Pierre Boulez.  I sort of agree that in its commercial form blues and jazz have not tended to be used in ways that lend themselves to symphonic "sonata" level argument but this would, ironically, be what Adorno warned the music industry was not likely to let happen.  Even here, however, I'm planning on getting to the Wynton Marsalis violin concerto that just got released.  My concern with philosophers like Adorno and Scruton is that they have often been so busy formulating their philosophical arguments about the nature of musical arguments that the questions they raise may have, somewhere and somehow, already been given answers in musical works that they don't hear because the world and the people in the world are so abundant and varied no one can know or hear all of it on this earth.  

Jazz as a music that is simultaneously popular music and art music has presented philosophical and aesthetic challenges to the concert music traditions in the West and East and by "jazz" I use the term to refer not just to jazz as jazz historians would call it but to all of ragtime and even Tin Pan Alley, too.  Why?  Because, invoking Roger Scruton, all of this is tied together by song, not high art song as much as the music of the streets.  Scruton became known as a conservative philosopher on music and aesthetics but as a conservative he concluded that a revitalization of tonality that repudiates Adorno's stance against tonality as stretched to its hackneyed limits by the late Romantic composers is going to happen by taking popular song seriously.  Not all of Scruton's admirers were, have been, or will ultimately be willing to follow that path as Scruton has prescribed it.  Even Roger Scruton may have possibly balked at taking that path himself.

Ben Shapiro's declaration that rap isn't music has inspired two different sorts of responses, belated thoughts on the reactions of Dave Molk and Ethan Hein

There have been a couple of ways that musicologists have reacted to Ben Shapiro's stunt claim that rap isn't really music.  There's more than two ways but two kinds of responses have stuck with me in the last few months.  The first was written by Dave Molk at NewMusicBox.

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Now on the one hand since my dad was Native American I think we can and should talk about the gruesome and brutal policies enacted by white supremacists in the history of the United States.  At the same time, the idea of taking something Ben Shapiro said seriously enough to write thousands of words at NewMusicBox is simply not something I can endorse and I say that as a sort of moderately conservative type. 

I trust that Jews and Christians will be familiar with Proverbs 26:4-5 which says:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

The riddle of the proverb is in the wisdom it takes to assess when a fool should not be answered because answering the fool will make you like the fool, on the one hand, and on the other hand answering the fool according to his folly to keep him from thinking that he is actually wise.  At the risk of just stating my thesis, the NewMusic Box essay demonstrates the warning of Proverbs 26:4 and I think Ethan Hein's rejoinder to Ben Shapiro there's a time and place to demonstrate how stupid an argument is by answering a fool according to his folly.

I’m grateful to Ben Shapiro for his willingness to say the quiet part loud, giving voice to culturally reactionary opinions in print and on video that others tiptoe around or voice more euphemistically. The belief that rap isn’t music, or isn’t “real” music, or isn’t substantive enough to merit thoughtful attention, is a depressingly widely held one. In my teenage years, I succumbed to peer pressure from my fellow white rockists and became convinced of it myself. Which was ridiculous, because I loved rap as a kid in NYC, and that love persisted straight through the years when I tried to convince myself that it didn’t exist. Anyway, while rockists, jazz snobs and classical folks are united in a belief that rap is musically deficient, it’s less common to find someone in this day and age who will go ahead and say it isn’t music at all.
Naturally, Shapiro’s opinion calls for a rebuttal. He even invites us to give one, concluding his speech with one of his catchphrases, “Tell me why I’m wrong.” But there’s no point in going online and arguing with him or telling him off, because he and his fans are probably hoping for a dead-end online shouting match. Instead, I thought it would be a better idea to turn Shapiro’s speech about how rap isn’t music into a piece of rap music. It wasn’t difficult! Just about anyone’s speech sounds good over the right breakbeat. I chose “It’s A New Day” by Skull Snaps. I used iZotope Nectar for an Auto-Tune effect on Shapiro, along with some tasteful tempo-synced delay. I didn’t quantize the speech rhythmically, but I did duplicate key phrases, both for musical effect and as a kind of audio highlighter. For example, I repeated the phrase about how Ben’s dad is a music theorist who went to music school, music school, music school. ...
If you want to hear the musical rejoinder head over here.

That it's Ben Shapiro who has said rap isn't music is ... interesting because in the wake of the death of Sir Roger Scruton I want to make an ultra-long form case toggling back and forth between Theodor Adorno and Roger Scruton writing on music that the late conservative philosopher ended up staking out a position in which he said we should take popular song seriously, more seriously than Adorno did.  That Scruton wasn't able to necessarily take rap and hip hop seriously is another topic for some other time.  I'm transitioning from this post to the next post.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Kyle Gann has posts up with discussions of James P Johnson's Harlem Symphony; Florence Price's 3rd; and George Rochberg's 2nd

Now I didn't know James P Johnson had written a symphony so Gann mentioning this one was a fun discovery for me.

I've begun to listen to the Florence Price symphonies and No. 1 is solid if not always compellingly memorable, although there's the Jeter conducted performance and what feels like a livelier, more energetic take from The Women's Philharmonic conducted by Apo Hsu.  I'm just getting to No. 3 by Price so Gann's discussion of that I want to get back to after I have more time to listen to Price's Symphony No. 3

I've quoted George Rochberg a little here and there with plans to quote him a bit more extensively as part of my Ragtime and Sonata Forms project because I think that George Rochberg, Ben Johnston, and Leonard B Meyer provided theoretical concepts from which to articulate a theoretical basis upon which ragtime sonatas can be defended, which is distinct from actual ragtime sonatas themselves.  Since I have been on something of an Adorno binge in the last half decade I feel obliged to point out something he would have pointed out about the necessity for keeping theory and praxis distinct rather than collapsing theory and praxis into an undifferentiated whole.  Anyone who's read half a dozen Adorno books probably already knows why but I won't labor that point.

I've listened to the Rochberg string quartets and they're alright but I was intrigued by the directions taken and possible in his Caprice Variations for solo violin.  I have the score for that and a recording and eventually want to write about Rochberg's Caprice variations by way of a comparison to the Historische Suite by Ferdinand Rebay for flute and guitar.  Rochberg never self-identified as a postmodernist and as more of Rebay's work from the 1930s through 1940s in chamber music for classical guitar get unearthed, published, performed and discussed I can understand why Rochberg would not have regarded stylistic juxtaposition as necessarily "postmodern" or even necessarily "pluralist", despite the fact that he wrote about how one of the challenges of our era is the existence of a pluralism bigger than we seem to be comfortable with.  Rebay's musical parade of styles across centuries for flute and guitar drew mainly upon Austrian and German musical idioms from Bach to Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert and stuck largely to Vienna but shifted styles as just described. 

In other words, summing up the musical eras by uniting them through a steady underlying theme with era-based character variations was something even a composer as conservative as Rebay could do, which should have us skeptical of any claim that when Rochberg did it decades later in his Caprice Variations that such a move was "postmodern", whether by way of Rochberg's rejection of twelve-tone or whether by way of supposing that stylistic eclecticism and quotation was "postmodern" when Rochberg or Schnittke or Arvo Part of Rodion Shchedrin did it. Quoting old music and reworking it into what were contemporary styles was something Bach did in his cantatas and sacred choral music and yet hardly anyone would plausibly assume Bach did it because he was some kind of avant garde rebel rather than an observant Lutheran. 

Anyway, having written that, the page where Gann discusses Rochberg's Symphony No. 2 is over here and as I FINALLY found a digital audio format of some of Rochberg's symphonies I"ll be excited to give them a listen and read this Gann page, too.

I'm still working on getting together material to discuss Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues, 1-12 since Asya Selyutina's excellent Naxos release came out last month.  The Tosidis recording of Ourkouzounov's sonatas is also out on Naxos and December 2019 was a dream come true month for Wenatchee The Hatchet for contemporary classical guitar releases.  It actually wasn't much farther back Ricardo Gallen's equally amazing double disc recording of the complete solo guitar sonatas by Leo Brouwer was released.  We're living in a golden age of contemporary guitar literature and yet it's not the kind of stuff that, ahem, Norman Lebrecht style classical music reviewers seem to ever get around to.   As a side comment about coming attractions I plan on revisiting and updating the entire 1-12 Koshkin posts in light of the Naxos recording so that if you happen to have both the scores and the recording you'll be able to follow along easily and if you only have access to the music via something like Youtube you can still read along with what I plan to post this year.

Er, that wasn't supposed to take up so much space.  It's cool that Gann is posting material on American symphonies.  I got the Douglas Shadle book on the suppression of American symphonic works by way of being dismissed or ignored by American music journalism a few years back.

We've had some chunks of snow here in Puget Sound which means the neighborhood is cold and Seattleites are in anxiety about the weather.  So this is sort of a fast and loose and laconic post for me. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Ourkouzounov: DIvertissement a trois for violin, guitar and cello

I first heard this charming piece on the Ourkouzounov Ensemble CD on the KLE label which ... good luck finding that recording if you don't already own it.  Fortunately the work is available on the Beyond Borders recording.

Still incubating a few music posts but the plan isn't for the blog to be completely dormant. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

actual links for the weekend post, deaths of Neil Peart and Roger Scruton inside one week--Ethan Iverson sees a recent version of an argument from John Halle and, as a reader of both, I consider where they might be writing past each other

For those of us who either respect or, further, enjoy progressive rock, it has to be mentioned that Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the band Rush, has died.

When I was in my teens I found Rush aggravating.  Geddy Lee was one of those rare voices in rock who sounded like he maybe never quite got out of puberty.  One of my relatives was excited about Rush and Pinkfloyd and in my tween years I didn't care for either of them.  The parents strongly disapproved of both bands.  In a weird irony I would later get into Pinkfloyd and listen to Dark Side of the Moon rather than The Wall and the parents decided they thought the band was great after all.  They never, however, warmed up to Rush.

Ironically, ten years later from my first initial and unhappy exposure to Rush I'd end up in an aspiring progressive rock band that covered "Tom Sawyer", "Spirit of Radio" and "Zanadu".  I went from hating the band to respecting the musicianship of all its members.  This fan of Bob Dylan, Pinkfloyd, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, J. S. Bach, Haydn, Shostakovich and Bartok never quite warmed up to Rush enough to like them but I came to respect their musicianship and, compared to Yes, their song structures, no matter how complex, still broke down into discernible forms.

I've read about a half dozen of Roger Scruton's books, chiefly on the topic of music.  I found myself disagreeing with him about a few things.  His rebuttal to the ideas and legacy of Adorno, for instance, was paradoxical inasmuch as Scruton retained much of Adorno's arguments against popular music in terms of aesthetics and technique while jettisoning the Marxist aspect of Adorno's approach (though not necesssarily Adorno's debt to Idealism).  The irony that the most substantial of Adorno's criticisms of mass and popular music culture has lived on in the last half century through the writings of the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is probably an overstatement to those who want their left and right thinkers to be cordoned off in realms where none of their ideas can possibly overlap but I don't think anyone has any real obligation to do that and the kinds of ideologues who do make that move, who do separate "left" and "right" are the sorts of people who I have come to disagree with.

Although I got a sense that he set up a number of Adorno's positions in straw men formats Scruton was right to say that those of us who disagree with Adorno on issues like Marxism and capitalism have an intellectual and moral obligation to engage with Adorno's work.  There hasn't been a philosopher dealing with aesthetics who broached the subject of tensions between "high" and "low" art cultures, techniques and mentalities more directly and thoroughly than Adorno.

Another layer of irony in Scruton's historic antagonism toward Darmstadt style modernism is that in this respect, too, he was like Adorno.  Objecting to inhuman technocratic worship of technique for its own sake bereft of the personalism of a decision-making subject who makes artistic decisions was something that can be found in Adorno and Scruton.  They were obviously on somewhat "opposing" sides on the legacy of Schoenberg but both Scruton and Adorno came to comparable conclusions about integral serialism being an anti-humanistic dead end in terms of aesthetics and artistic agency.

The common thread here with the mentioned dead is that though I disagreed with them and disagree with a few ideas they've expressed I can respect them and send regards and condolances to their families.  There are people in the arts and in philosophy where they do far more for you by giving you ideas and art to disagree with than you might ever gain by finding all the stuff that you hear or see or read that feels like it connects directly to "you".

When I hear how formulaic the 3:30 song format could be from the 1940s to 1960s, hearing just how much of a song factory Tin Pan Alley could get it's a reminder to me that whether or not a Scruton or an Adorno would have had much to say about Neil Peart in particular and Rush in general there could be some agreement that the problem of increasingly formulaic art mass-produced to elicit a mass-produced feeling needed some artistic counter-measures.  Criticism of music that is all feeling and no mind can keep showing up in moments such as when Quincy Jones remarked that too many songwriters seem to believe that you only use the right side of your brain in creative activity when the left side of the brain needs to be involved.

I doubt anyone could make any kind of case that Peart didn't use the left side of his brain to make his music and write his lyrics.

It was easy to regard progressive rock as a pretentious and portentious dead end as a musical style, a sea of arcane technical and technocratic musical athleticism divorced from "soul" but that is a genre stereotype that we can set aside and lay to rest.  There were flaws in progressive rock that I have thought about over the years.  Way back in 2006 I posted "Calm Blue Oceans and Thunderstorms" and more recently piggy-back blogged on some observations Ethan Hein made about how the complexity of Bach's Chaconne at the polyphonic surface is counter-balanced by a beautifully simple ABA form at its largest level of structure.

They are still not my favorite band but compared to a lot of prog rock I'd say Rush found a delicate balance between moment-to-moment complexity and a grasp of simpler underlying structures.  They made long suites that are still not exactly my favorites but they really did master the simpler forms.  To put all of this another way, Rush entered and stayed in the pantheon of prog rock because although as part of the progressive rock vanguard they explicitly rejected being constrained by Top 40 pop song formats they demonstrated in later work and some early work that the absolutely could do those four-on-the-floor kick-out-the-jams rock numbers.

On other musically connected links for the weekend stuff.

This was posted August 9, 2017
An article showed up at Jacobin that significantly condensed the content showed up at Jacobin.

January 2020

This condensed version was what Ethan Iverson saw and responded to.

Jacobin being Jacobin I'm afraid that my initial take is that they dumbed down Halle's earlier, longer chain of thoughts in the process of editing it into something Jacobin would publish ... which is sort of my discreet way of saying it's a reminder to me why I don't tend to read Jacobin overall although I'm happy to read the work of some people who contribute to it (Halle and Reed Jr. specifically).

Ethan Iverson made a point of pointing out WHY Methany wrote as he did about Kenny G and it seems that since I have made a point of reading both Iverson and Halle over the years I could see if it's possible to propose points where the two might be writing past each other, if you will.

What Methany wrote inspired him to write on the topic of Kenny G at all was ... :
As a composer of even eighth note based music, he SHOULD be compared to Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver or even Grover Washington. Suffice it to say, on all above counts, at this point in his development, he wouldn't fare well.

But, like I said at the top, this relatively benign view was all "until recently".

Not long ago, Kenny G put out a recording where he overdubbed himself on top of a 30+ year old Louis Armstrong record, the track "What a Wonderful World". With this single move, Kenny G became one of the few people on earth I can say that I really can't use at all - as a man, for his incredible arrogance to even consider such a thing, and as a musician, for presuming to share the stage with the single most important figure in our music.

This type of musical necrophilia - the technique of overdubbing on the preexisting tracks of already dead performers - was weird when Natalie Cole did it with her dad on "Unforgettable" a few years ago, but it was her dad. When Tony Bennett did it with Billie Holiday it was bizarre, but we are talking about two of the greatest singers of the 20th century who were on roughly the same level of artistic accomplishment. When Larry Coryell presumed to overdub himself on top of a Wes Montgomery track, I lost a lot of the respect that I ever had for him - and I have to seriously question the fact that I did have respect for someone who could turn out to have such unbelievably bad taste and be that disrespectful to one of my personal heroes.

But when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis's tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible. He, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that Louis Armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician. By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture - something that we all should be totally embarrassed about - and afraid of. We ignore this, "let it slide", at our own peril.

His callous disregard for the larger issues of what this crass gesture implies is exacerbated by the fact that the only reason he possibly have for doing something this inherently wrong (on both human and musical terms) was for the record sales and the money it would bring.

Since that record came out - in protest, as insignificant as it may be, I encourage everyone to boycott Kenny G recordings, concerts and anything he is associated with. If asked about Kenny G, I will diss him and his music with the same passion that is in evidence in this little essay.

Normally, I feel that musicians all have a hard enough time, regardless of their level, just trying to play good and don't really benefit from public criticism, particularly from their fellow players. but, this is different.

There ARE some things that are sacred - and amongst any musician that has ever attempted to address jazz at even the most basic of levels, Louis Armstrong and his music is hallowed ground. To ignore this trespass is to agree that NOTHING any musician has attempted to do with their life in music has any intrinsic value - and I refuse to do that. (I am also amazed that there HASN'T already been an outcry against this among music critics - where ARE they on this?????!?!?!?!, magazines, etc.). Everything I said here is exactly the same as what I would say to Gorelick if I ever saw him in person. and if I ever DO see him anywhere, at any function - he WILL get a piece of my mind and (maybe a guitar wrapped around his head.)

So what exactly makes Louis Armstrong sacred and Kenny G profane?  What makes the recordings sacred?

In a way this reminds me of progressive rock and its rise and fall and critical rejection of it.  Perhaps the bluntest and easiest way to describe how American rock journalism turned on progressive rock while UK rock journalism didn't turn on it in exactly the same way is that in a UK context musicians could mention drawing upon classical music and European folklore and folksong and even more upon the liturgical legacy of Anglicanism.  In short, British prog rockers didn't want to imitate or pretend to imitate black American vernacular music so they decided to draw upon the folklore they knew was theirs.  For a time in the wake of the Beatles this was okay and then by the later 1970s there was punk and disco and prog rock came to be seen as self-indulgent.  At another level it was too white, too European, too set on incorporating styles of music that had been cordoned off from "real" rock and roll.

I have been reading a few books in the last year that have gotten me an idea that we might underestimate the importance of the high and low liturgical backgrounds in the reception and rejection history of prog rock.  Anthony Heilbut has made a case that the early soul pioneers got most of what they learned of singing craft from the black Pentecostal church and that the history of rock is not just a story of American running with black music in general but drawing and not necessarily giving credit to black Pentecostal worship music styles in particular.  This has gotten some pushback by scholars in the last few decades, first by Heilbut and more recently by Randall J. Stephens' book highlighting how the early rock pioneers were Pentecostals and drew on styles that evolved in the black Pentecostal church scene.

I just finished Mark Burford's spectacular monograph on Mahalia Jackson and it was not the least bit surprising that one of the warnings she gave people regarding music was that the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of Jesus Christ regardless of the musical style.  Thomas A Dorsey added a little bounce to the musical message but that bounce isn't the main thing.  In other words, for religious musicians their religion was their religion, not their art.  This isn't to say that musical atheists couldn't make daring sonic art.  Xenakis immediately comes to mind.  But it's interesting that musical revolutionaries ranging from Olivier Messiaen to Thomas A Dorsey could be revolutionary and religiously observant at the same time.

What Halle wrote about got me thinking and what Iverson mentioned about Methany's reaction to Kenny G's overdub on top of Armstrong got me thinking.  It may be that with the passing of Roger Scruton I'm thinking about this in terms of his observations about the Idealists and German Idealism, how the Romantic era thinkers arrived at an idea that in the absence of older more traditional forms of theism music could fill a space that had previously been reserved for religious observance.

Here we are in the early twenty-first century and agitation by Americans against the stifling aspects they see in the legacy of German Idealism mediated in musicology and musical canons can reject the sacredness of Beethoven and replace it with the sacredness of Armstrong.  The cult of the genius has had the script flipped with respect to skin color and a few other things but it could be there's a residually Romantic aspect to Armstrong veneration.  I'm not saying don't admire Armstrong, I'm saying that Armstrong could privately think "Hello Dolly" was a stupid song but still be glad it became a hit for the sake of it being a profitable venture.  Even a musical titan such as Armstrong had bills to pay.

Halle's rejoinder to Methany may not have been as direct in addressing the art-as-sacrament aspect that might lurk behind Methany's reaction to Kenny G overdubbing himself atop a legendary Armstrong recording.

Maybe it's just me but having spent half a decade binge-reading Theodore Adorno on the one hand and genuinely enjoying the Puritan Richard Sibbes on the other and mulling over how the post-Weinstein #metoo era seems to be a Donatist controversy for contemporary Western art-as-religion it  seems that Halle's overarching point is that bourgeois respectability partly depends on an art-religion of sacred and profane consumption and production in which an Armstrong has been made sacred while Kenny G is profane but that this contemporary division has been taken up by the jazz faithful after the canonization has been completed and largely without engaging the ways in which earlier musical canons were rejected or supplanted along the way.

I haven't gotten around to The Jazz Bubble and not sure if I'll have time for that if I'm going to do my intended projects for 2020--the insularity of jazz as a self-contained highbrow style would be impossible to imagine a century ago when we weren't even in what was called the Jazz Age yet and proto-jazz by way of ragtime and blues was starting to become known and popular--but I've read enough about and around the book's topics to get a sense that there's a kind of finance class respectability to jazz that flies in the face of what jazz was like generations ago.  Jazz pioneers wanted the music to be taken seriously as an art and paradoxically one of the difficulties for jazz is that it is taken seriously as an art form and bankrolled by the sorts of people who would have possibly sniffed at it or dreaded it as race music who have in the last century co-opted it.

I find it terrible that in the last twenty years I've been put on hold to the sounds of Kind of Blue.  That is, in a sentence, part of what seems to have changed about the fortunes of jazz and the fortunes invested in and maybe made on jazz.  As a classical guitarist that's not my wheelhouse in terms of what I play but I love Ellington and Monk and Brubeck and Mingus and Roach and I like the George Russell I've heard.  Sun Ra I can handle in small doses.  Coleman has done some amazing stuff.

But is this work sacred and if it is, why?  Halle may actually benefit from not being so invested in and involved in jazz that he can't step back and ask why there are so-sacred-as-to-be-sacramental jazz artists and profane musical  lepers.

I had meant to dedicate the above to a separate post but my attempts to finalize all my blogging about Nikita Koshkin's preludes and fugues in light of Asya Selyutina's superb Naxos release that came out last month of the first half of Koshin's set of 24 preludes and fugues has kept me a bit distracted.  Plus I'm practicing my own stuff and sketching out another cycle of preludes and fugues for guitar as I go and reading a bit.  I managed to finish Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History and Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field last month.  Also been reading a fascinating monograph by Eric Oberle on Adorno and "the wound" that I may try to write about ... later.  Incubating a more expanded thesis on ragtime and sonata forms that may or may not end up going up here, too.  I have way more things I've been thinking of writing and publishing here than I may realistically have time and energy to do.  There have to be posts on Gilardino's amazing guitar sonatas and the guitar sonatas of Matiegka down the road ... I trust you get the idea.

But before I read about the passings of Peart and Scruton over the weekend the plan had been to blog about the Iverson/Halle back and forth and, well, I ended up shoving that into "links for the weekend."  The material deserves a separate post but I'm only human so I am economizing number of posts to run with the thoughts I have at the hour, such as they are.

Greta Gerwig's Little Women is an awful lot of fun, by the way.

POSTSCRIPT 1-12-2019 8.45pm

I've had my disagreements with things written by Scruton and Adorno but to borrow an observation that, if memory serves, was made by Terry Teachout, a great critic can be wrong but wrong in a way that spurs on the art and thought of criticism.  Critical theory may get some things wildly wrong since Adorno but Adorno's way of grappling with aesthetic problems in the arts in technocratic societies has, if wrong, been wrong in ways that have spurred thinkers across the spectrum to wrestle with the issues in his work.  Scruton and Adorno have laid out positions I think were basically wrong in terms of solutions artists can use but they may have been most useful for the lucid ways in which they articulated what they considered to be the aesthetic problems of their time.  Philosophy of New Music laid out what Adorno regarded as the fracturing of music cognition into two modes he saw as being irreconcilable in terms of the capitalist systems of his time and place. Scruton's work recapitulated the observation of a rupture between "argument" in sonata form and "groove" in dance music without necessarily doing much to add to the overall observation.  Where both Scruton and Adorno did not in the end address how the rupture between "argument" and "groove" could be addressed some American composers, specifically George Rochberg and Ben Johnston, have come up with theoretical responses to the fracturing by building a set of terms that musicians can use to think through what these contrasting modes of music cognition are and how they could in some way be reconciled.  I don't agree that the two modes became "false" but that's another topic for another time.

a little piece I saw awhile back "Some kinds of journalism aren’t worth saving", not arguing against journalism as a discipline but proposing the "newsroom" era of journalism has been crumbling in the last two decades ... Captain Obvious though that is

a link for the weekend, just this link, for the time being. 

The question of how we save journalism (meaning newsrooms) will begin to shift to how do we save journalism (meaning the process).

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Ethan Hein has been blogging about the Bach Chaconne, and I consider his great point about how surface complexity in music can benefit from underlying simplicity in formal designs ... with a digression into prog rock

There's going to be Bach in this post but also some references to Haydn and Yes and ELP and Pinkfloyd and Stevie Wonder along the way.  For those who haven't read what he's been blogging on the Bach Chaconne .... here's what Ethan Hein has been up to at his blog.

Being a guitarist who is also a fan of J. S. Bach the thing that's fascinating about both the Chaconne and the C major violin fugue is that despite the plethora of complexity on the surface of the variations and the counterpoint conveyed in the fugue respectively, Bach keeps the macrostructural nature of the large-scale movements simple as can be.  The variations in the Chaconne are by the dozens but can be organized and heard as being organized in a giant ternary form, ABA in which each A section is a set of variations in D minor while the B section is in D major.

It's perhaps not entirely true to say sonata forms weren't options in Bach's time although sonata forms as defined by 19th century theory and pedagogy didn't exist because nobody was writing those in the 18th century ... but that's a polemical point I'm bringing up as I'm reading Robert O Gjerdingen's work on the galant style.  Bach didn't "need" to use sonata forms when he had recourse to other ways of organizing material.  To put this another way by reference to Haydn, Haydn made use of some complex musical structures but his surfaces are generally clear and immaculate.  He wrote sonatas that used the same initial idea in the spaces where the textbook "Theme 1" and "Theme 2" were supposed to be in 19th century explanations of sonata.  Clementi wrote monothematic sonatas, too, for that matter and my digression here is to point out that in the later 18th century in the galant style the forms could and did become significantly more complex in terms of key relationships and the rhetoric of musical "argument" because the galant style made a point of encouraging music that was written to give people a chance to demonstrate their taste.  Clever manipulations of stock ideas to see how quickly people could recognize those ideas was often part of the musical game.

Complex forms were a way to make the game more fun is how I'm going to put it--the larger-scale forms in galant music could get complex and twisty in part because a lot of the ideas were so clear and easy to grasp on the surface.  Any first theme of any string quartet by Haydn or Ditters or Vanhal or, yes, Mozart, would be clear enough while you're hearing it but the fun surprises are in what they do with those themes and how they jump from theme to theme along the way.  Classic era music (which Robert Gjerdingen has argued is more accurately called "galant" since nobody in that era thought they were living in the Classical Era but they would identify their music as in galant style).  "Classic" era music stripped things down to a more direct, "expressive" approach to music and form could become more complex because the directness and simplicity of the musical language on the surface, compared to a fugue by Bach or Buxtehude or a polyphonic setting of the Psalms by Sweelinck, left room in the cognitive bandwidth of composer and audience for simple materials to be worked through in complex forms.  Exploring the complex possibilities and potentialities latent in a stock musical formula is another matter.

I trust by now you get that though the priorities seem inverted comparing sonata forms from the galant style to a chaconne by Bach there's an underlying principle we can hear, that there's good reason in terms of traditions and respecting what levels of attentions we humans can give to music at different levels to make sure that complexity at one level of perception can be offset at other levels by keeping things simple.  Bach's Chaconne may be exhibit A in the history of Western music for having a vastly complex musical work on its surface organized at its largest perceptible structural units in one of the simplest forms in the history of Western music.  You can't really get much simpler than ABA.

Bach's Chaconne isn't exactly a musical game but it's an interesting example of how a sea of complex textures, counterpoint, harmony and melody at the surface is offset with an elegantly simple and comprehensible large-scale handling of form.  This can be observed in some late Beethoven, too.  The Grosse Fugue (which I regard as the better ending for the late B flat major string quartet) is easy to hear is a gigantic five-part rondo once you've established that you're listening to a big fugue.  You are listening to a big fugue in that quartet but you can also hear that that big fugue is broken up into chunks that make it possible to figure out where you are in that musical moment.

Pertinent to the topic of European appropriation and assimilation and interest in non-European musical ideas I've picked up Michael V Pisani's Imagining Native America in Music (Yale University Press, 2005) and a volume edited by Victoria Lindsay Levine called Writing American Indian Music: Historic Transcriptions, Notations, and Arrangements (A. R. Editions, Inc. (c) 2002 by American Musicological Society).  The short version, for now, is that transcriptions of Native American songs by Europeans go as far back as apparently the 1550s.

In spite of the genteel and gentle associations waltz might have for us in the twenty-first century in Everybody's Doin' It Dale Cockrell pointed out that the waltz was considered vulgar and risque around the early 19th century.  To shift gears a bit on the connection and disconnection between music and dance, many a scholar has concluded that the riot that greeted Rite of Spring had more to do with the choreography and the dance than the music by itself, which later went on to become a staple in orchestral music when presented on its own.  Pertinent to Dale Cockrell's books on minstrelsy and blackface and the evolution of dance hall music in connection to the sex industry in New York, it's useful to remember that the scandals associated with music were often about what kind of dancing was being done to the music, enforcers of public order left us relatively little if anything by way of descriptions of the actual music.  We might want to remember that when the term "discordant" is used to describe a musical performance that might not mean people in dance halls were playing anything "discordant" in the style of Scriabin or Mosolov.  There's stacked quartal chords and unresolved major sevenths in the Louis Chauvin strains of "Heliotrope Boquet", though.

Transcriptions of Native American songs from the 1600s demonstrate that changing meters across sections of song happened in, for instance, Iroquois song.  There's an Alaskan native song that has the meter set up as 3/4 or 2/4 depending on measure, while a lot of transcriptions present the Native American songs in mono-meter in the Levine edition.  These transcriptions being collected across centuries and published at various dates between 1600 and the present, one possibility that comes up is that when there are no ways to mechanically record music a transcriber can be tempted to flatten songs out into uniform meter while other transcribers made a point of highlighting Native American songs using asymmetric meter and microtonal shifts in melody such as Dr. Ida Halpern noted about Native American song in the Pacific Northwest.   None of this is to suggest the chaconne actually derives from a Native American musical tradition as such, I'm just pointing out that Ethan Hein mentioned that it seemed the chaconne was ...

Based on what I can piece together, I’m sensing a narrative: Iberian colonists hear some West African and/or Native American rhythm and they like it. They learn to play it, or an approximation of it, and they bring it home, where it’s received as a “saucy,” “sexy,” “primitive” dance. Then it takes on a life of its own independent of its cultural origins, higher-class people pick it up, the edges get sanded off it, and then the “serious” composers start adapting it into the abstractions we know from the classical canon. In the process, the rhythms lose their idiosyncrasies, and get simplified and mushed together. There’s probably a parallel to the way that white musicians describe any Latin-sounding beat as “salsa” or “mambo” or “bossa”, often without realizing that these rhythms are all quite different from each other. I’m also guessing that it’s a similar story to the evolution of “Kumbaya” from the syncopated groove of the Gullah original to the foursquare version we all learned from Joan Baez. So it would appear that Baroque dances aren’t just a music history topic; the steady appropriation of “lowbrow” dance musics originating in the African diaspora into “highbrow” art music is evidently many hundreds of years older than I thought.

In the days before musical nationalisms evolved as self-conscious movements mixing and matching styles was encouraged, particularly in the Baroque era.  Bach's English suites might just sound like Bach to us but he made a point of writing English suites and French suites.  It's possible a disadvantage of a monolithic approach to musical canons can be that over time, without background in the dances in the background, Bach just sounds like Bach.  His mastery of musical styles making callbacks to English, French, Italian, German and Polish music will sail past anyone who hasn't made a point of digging into that musical background.

To put it another way, when Dale Cockrell describes the waltz as a lascivious dance to cultural commenters in the 19th century during the Jacksonian period we might want to keep in mind that some of the dances that seem sedate and "white" were not necessarily as sedate "then" as we think of them now, however "white" they may or may not have actually been. Depending on which English person you talked to centuries ago the Irish wouldn't be "white" the way we've come to use the term.

Conversely, as I've done some reading in Alexandra Harmon's work on the history of Pacific Northwestern tribes interracial and inter-tribal marriage was relatively common in the PNW.  What the Native peoples of the region would not have very quickly done was share songs.  Given that many of them believed that songs were gifts from spirits and given that PNW Natives subscribed to something that we'd have to translate into contemporary jargon as a concept of intellectual property, you wouldn't get to hear, let alone sing, a song unless the person sharing it had decided you were worthy enough a person to receive it.  So it's ... possible that when music specialists such as Ida Halpern mentioned that some of the tribes in the Puget Sound area seemed to not have much by way of musical culture that "could" be true or it could potentially be true there were plenty of songs but that the spiritual beliefs of the tribes in the region were such that there was a cultural disincentive to share those songs with someone like Halpern.  But I digress ... a little.

The question of whether or not Native American musical traditions were even really music or worth using was often answered in the negative in earlier periods of United States history.  There were, of course, the Indianist composers in the later 19th and early 20th century but they didn't have much long-term influence in their day and they tend to be viewed retroactively as guilty of cultural appropriation.  Now I realize that in many a Native American context song, speech and generative language are normative and that language is viewed as generative rather than representational.  That being noted ... the first documented musical work using Western notation published by a Native American seems to have been Thomas Commuck's shape note hymnal contributed to the musical traditions of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In other words, the work was in an "American" style but one that had been used by church singers and composers in the north American continent for a couple of centuries.  The short argument for why what Commuck did wasn't cultural appropriation was that he was Native American and also an active participant in the church and its traditions to which he was contributing.  The Indianists, by contrast, were not generally doing that.

A composer we now think of as German copying aspects of French, Polish, English, and Italian music could have been doing cultural appropriation by contemporary standards but the Baroque era, which has increasingly been labeled by specialists as more accurately likely the era of figured bass, already had two prevailing styles, the old style reflecting ars perfecta vocal music and dance-based instrumental music that included turns toward opera and the panoply of what we could call, for the sake of a blog post, all of that figured bass music.  Many a great "German" master found it beneficial to study the works of Italian composers intensely.  Bach was not exactly as marginal or "outsider" as some contemporary writing about him would have us believe.  He was not an unknown and yet he was also not a superstar.

Ultra-large scale variation is tough to do well.  J. S. Bach handled it brilliantly.  Beethoven was pretty good at it, too, although the Diabelli variations don't win me over personally as much as Bach in general does.  Haydn should not be overlooked in his handling of variation but I'm going to try to stick to Bach for the home stretch.  There have been landmarks of variation in more recent music.  I haven't heard the Rzewski yet.  I have to admit I'm underwhelmed by the Ponce variations on La folia despite the fact that it's considered one of "the" large-scale variation works in the guitar literature.  I mean, I do respect the Ponce variations because variation forms in the guitar literature can ... often leave me more than just cold.  Episodic variation can really highlight whether you like the foundational theme or not and if you find you don't like the opening theme then you know you're in for a really long haul if there are a lot of variations.

Now the thing about chaconne and passacaglia, as they've evolved over centuries, is they are part of what's known as continuous variation technique or continuous variation as a form.  The theme gets presented and then variation after variation are presented not just without a break but often seamlessly.  A chaconne or a passacaglia falls into this approach where as a more modular approach would be Goldberg variations or Beethoven's Diabelli variations where when the final cadence of the theme is reached that variation comes to a full stop before the next one happens.  That Ponce chose that approach for La folia may be one of the reasons I can't quite get into it.  I'm okay with George Rochberg doing that in his Caprice Variations on a theme by Paganini but that reminds me that ...

in the 20th century with composers ranging from Charles Ives to Benjamin Britten to George Rochberg we got an innovation that seems important to mention, colloquially known as "reverse variations" or described in some contexts by Peter Burkholder as "cumulative form".  The dramatic transformations and mutations of gestures and harmonic progressions from the theme emerge in sequence and coalesce into the final arrival of the foundational theme rather than having a variation movement that states the theme up front and goes along as we would hear in, say, the Bach Chaconne.  Call it the burden of history and influence but I find it interesting that composers began to develop "reverse variation" building up to popular songs or already canonized musical themes.  I'm speculating wildly that Anglo-American composers dealing with a predominantly German 19th century legacy seemed to play with reverse-variation as a way to do what Leonard B. Meyer said Romantics were doing,  having their conventions but hiding them.  You can have that iconic "everybody should know this piece" moment but we're saving it til the very end and you won't get to hear it before the composer has done a lot of other stuff.  In a work by Charles Ives where he doesn't get to "Jesus Loves Me" until later in the work, the recognizable popular camp meeting song has an electrifying effect, a moment of recognition where you finally (if you ever went to camp meetings, at least) can say, "Wait, I KNOW this song!"

J. S. Bach didn't have that kind of burden of history of the sort we've been imagining since some guy named Bloom said we had it.  In the eighteenth century, and I venture to propose this was true for Haydn and for Bach and for others, variation was a way for a composer to pull out the stops with something audiences could be expected to recognize but then say, "But did you know that this is something you can do with this tune?  Let me show you ... . "

What's interesting for me, thinking about Bach's Chaconne again, is Ethan Hein has a great point about how simple its underlying macrostructural nature is.  Bach's sixty some variations on a single core idea divisible into a grand ternary form is structurally simpler than "Zanadu" by Rush, for instance.  Yes, Bach's Chaconne has a lot of complex stuff going on in it but you can still break it down into an ABA at the largest possible structural level.  How might you graph out the structurally delineated aspects of "Zanadu"?  It can be done, of course, and long ago in my twenties I played guitar and sang the Rush song with some friends ... twenty-five years and a lot less coffee ago.
Songs from Rush or Yes ("Close to the Edge", for instance) can get in the same range of length as the Bach Chaconne but what's interesting for me, surveying the history of progressive rock and its reception (or rejection!) history in the last fory years is that a lot of progressive rock bands and musicians wanted to incorporate classical music and other not-blues influences into rock.  They were reacting to what they felt had become the stringent and constraining limits of the 3:30 song.  I can sympathize with that frustration as a musician but ... one of the reasons prog rock has come in for so much scorn is because for all the technique prog rockers can display they often displayed a surfeit of technique in combination with a shortage of ways to tie dozens of ideas together into larger-scale forms.

In other words, Haydn's symphonies might display far less surface complexity in harmony, melody and rhythm compared to an album by Yes but it may be a lot easier for someone to remember what Haydn did with his fewer ideas.  As Richard Taruskin mentioned in his Oxford History, Haydn complained in a letter to a friend that too many composers in his day (Haydn's) had too many good ideas without organizing them enough to let the listener remember what ideas they were playing with.  Each of the ideas might have been great but if you pile on enough of them over the course of twenty to forty minutes you can't remember them all unless you're the one who wrote them.  As one of my friends in college told me, the reason he hated Yes as a band was not because they had no good musical ideas, they had way too many good to great musical ideas and absolutely no clearly perceptible sense for how they were structuring them.  Which is to say Haydn called it for his century and for ours, whether he could have realized it or not.  Haydn had been making a point about the symphonists of his day whose works he couldn't remember but it's a cautionary note for musicians and composers to consider in the present, and also when considering the storied history of progressive rock, its fans and detractors.

None of this is to say you can't be into the music of Bach and also listen to Rush and Yes.  I am suggesting, however, that some of us are listening to Bach centuries after his death because he managed to strike that elusive delicate balance between complex surfaces and compellingly simple musical superstructure in ways that an entire era of rock history notoriously by and large didn't achieve.  It's fascinating to consider that some of the bands of the progressive rock movement more generally that did manage to master larger-scale forms in a way that made their music memorable, such as the Moody Blues or Pinkfloyd, don't tend to be thought of as even "being" progressive rock by the fans who are more into bands like Rush or Yes or King Crimson.  But the structural simplicity at the heart of even the longest Pinkfloyd instrumental suites ("Echoes" is not hugely complex in terms of its large-scale structural units) goes a long way toward explaining why they managed to have staying power.  Let me put it another way, I "could" try to listen to "Tarkus" by Emerson, Lake & Palmer but I'd rather listen to "Contusion" by Stevie Wonder.

POSTSCRIPT 1-10-2020 4.50PM

Lest anyone potentially mistake the comparison of Bach to Rush as being inconsiderate in light of the passing of Neil Peart, the news of Peart's passing was announced today and I wasn't aware of that until the last hour.