Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Calm Blue Oceans & Thunderstorms, instrumental pop and bad classical music

A friend of mine lent me an album of rock instrumentals in 2001, Zooma, by John Paul Jones, our famous bassist from Led Zeppelin. I knew Jones was responsible for the added arrangements in many a Led Zeppelin song; that he was responsible for the brass arrangement of “Mellow Yellow”; and that he could find his way well enough around a keyboard. Jones is by all accounts a capable musician but I wasn’t expecting much from the album and my expectations weren’t disappointed. Zooma is largely a yawn.

It’s not that the album isn’t full of loud music and heavy grooves. No Zeppelin veteran could go for a fifty minute disk and be all quiet. It has songs with fittingly post-Zeppelin titles like “Snake Eyes”, and of course “Zooma”. There are a couple of nice solos and an interesting string arrangement that rounds off one of the tracks. But in the end Zooma is just plain dull, a series of riff-bashing exercises unsullied by the interference of the human voice. Jones has obviously mastered his instruments and yet his tracks feel like jam sessions that wanted to become songs. Jones didn’t give them that luxury. It’s impressive, I guess, that Jones can play four or five different kinds of bass and make instrumentals using only his own set of basses but what’s the point, really, of playing a solo on pedal steel bass? The simple fact that he can? That seemed to be the whole point of Zooma and I’ve been wondering if that’s reason enough ever since.

Lest anyone think this will be about popular music alone, let me share another story. This was also the year I heard the work of guitarist/composer Andrew York. I met a guitarist who said he was planning a recital. He said the recital was going to be a program devoted entirely to the music of Andrew York. “Who’s that?” I asked. “You don’t know who Andrew York is?” he asked in amazement. The guitarist urged me to listen to Andrew York. I figured this recital of his would be the best way to find out.

As a matter of curiosity and friendly acquaintance I went to this York recital. I was disappointed. York’s music consists almost entirely of pretty filigree patterns that are moved up and down the fingerboard. When there are tunes in a York piece the tunes outstay their welcome by dint of repetition. I don’t deny that Andrew York must be (or was) an excellent guitarist but I’ve since learned it’s not without cause he’s one of the flagship guitarists on Windham Hill since the passing of Michael Hedges.

You may object to my examples but the judgment of critics reflects this powerful bias as strongly as the buying public. If I rattle off names like John Tesh, Yanni, Kenny G, or even Phil Collins and Sting many of you think something like MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch put-down “elevator-prone sissy rock.” There are classical equivalents, to be sure, but most classical music is usually too long to get played in an elevator or department store. In fact much of this music is barely distinguishable from the background sounds that might accompany it: a calm blue ocean, or a distant thunderstorm.

Not a few people I know who have had anything to say on the subject of instrumental rock or classical music say the following: “If it doesn’t have a voice I’m not interested.” Fair enough. Even I said Zooma was a bunch of instrumentals that needed to be songs. A lot of people only like music that sings.

That’s one of the reason bands like Yes and Genesis aren’t considered good rock and roll. All the lengthy instrumental breaks are seen as pretensions to classical music or distractions from what could have been a straightforward song. We don’t have to stick with “lite rock” to find this pattern. Consider the Robert Fripp/Andy Summer’s collaborative album. I know they made one but I don’t even remember the title. That, too, was all instrumental and barely memorable. A lot of the progressive rock of Yes and Rush is so fraught with instrumental breaks it is virtually de facto instrumental rock. What is it about this stuff that drives people up the wall? And what is it about the music recorded on the Windham Hill label, for instance, that gets so many people cringing and inspired a nasty skit from Mystery Science Theater 3000?

I don’t think the song-theory alone can explain this. Ellington and dozens of other jazz musicians made livings off of instrumental music. Miles Davis didn’t have to sing anything to get people to buy his albums. People buy more recordings of Beethoven than almost any other classical composer. From Phil Collins and Stevie Wonder through to Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica we see rock and pop bands writing instrumentals that are genuinely interesting pieces.

To explain the weakness of that “elevator prone sissy rock”, progressive rock like Rush, or classical music that puts us to sleep we need another explanation than the innate weakness of instrumental music or of any musical style. The real answer probably lies in an imbalance between instrumental technique and musical form. I’m not the first or best exponent of this idea but here it is: In too many cases instrumental music written by soloists for their own pleasure puts idiomatic command of the instrument above even the barest concept of musical form. This applies to groups and individuals alike. A person writes something because it lets them showcase a technique or they get caught up in the joy of pushing the technique into the domain of making a full study of it.

In classical music these works are called studies and are generally not meant to be concert pieces. In popular music there is no such thing as a technical exercise to promote all-around musicianship so a lot of these finger-walking pieces are recorded as if they were just like any other piece of recorded music, song or not. Thus technical command of the instrument supercedes musical form or entertainment value. Never mind any question of art or substance. This is the calm blue ocean kind of music.

Some folk call these people “fret-board masturbators.” The fretboard masturbator can play hundreds of scales faster than you can say jack-rabbit but you don’t know why they’re doing it or what real music all these scales are supposed to make. It happens that this was the phrase I thought I heard someone say when he heard Joe Pass for the first time. Whether the term should apply to Joe Pass I’m not here to argue. The invective does its job.

The invective can apply to Kenny G, Kitaro, Yanni, or any other “soft rock” you want; there’s no denying every last one of them is a calm, blue ocean. It could also apply to all kinds of metal and progressive rock, too. It applies with brutal accuracy to most nineteenth century classical guitar literature. It doesn’t have to be instrumental to fall into this category. Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” is about twice as long as it needs to be and it has words. Gabriel took more space to get his message across than the text really demanded. Even otherwise solid songwriters and composers can overplay their hand once in a while.

But there’s another side to this imbalance. Rush, Yes, and early Genesis are the major culprits for the opposite of the calm blue ocean, the thunderstorm. With chops of death firmly established the band or composer goes on to make grand musical landscapes with sweeping and drastic changes, occasionally with a text, however superfluous the text frequently is. My favorite example is “Xanadu”. Here’s a piece with at least five different ideas that are cobbled together in a form somewhere between a rondo and a palindrome but not quite either. Cribbing and trimming Coleridge we get a giant prog-rock phantasm that seemed to get its text as an afterthought. Where the other brand of instrumental rock errs on the side of mind-numbing repetition this brand errs in the direction of jumping to the next idea or mood simply for the sake of pulling off a dramatic change. If “Xanadu” were stripped down to the introduction and the sections where Geddy Lee sings the song would be fairly tight, if not wholly enjoyable. As it stands we’re taken through so many storms and eyes-of-the-storm you’d think the storm was a compound eye. Even the awkward metaphor explains the musical shortcoming I’m talking about.

It’s not that musicians in this category never get it right. “YYZ”, for instance, is largely free of the amorphous crashing of the Thunderstorm. Genesis and Peter Gabriel, for the most part, figured out how to strip down their music so that it had a form that made at least some sense; of course they didn’t do it when they were all working together. Other bands like Rush, and particularly Yes, have taken longer to boil their songs down to whatever their essence might be.

Naturally the joy of playing music should always be there when you write music. You don’t write music you don’t want to play. You don’t want to simply pander to some audience, either. But there are limits. The joy of playing should never be pursued without thinking about the joy of listening. You’re not the only one who should be having fun with the music you play. If there’s a problem with Andrew York and John Paul Jone’s Zooma alike, as with progressive rock, it’s that the musicians have not found that happy marriage of musical technique and musical form. The musicians who do and then go beyond that to express something in a unique way (not to say original) go on to make musical history, whatever the musical style may be. Those don’t may become footnotes in music history but they rarely get an honorable mention. The rest have the harsher but finally kinder fate, they get forgotten.

3 comments:

JS Bangs said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this. The discussion of "fret-board masturbators" reminded me first of all of Dream Theater, since I independently coined a similar phrase after listening to them. A guitarist friend of mine adores them, but mostly because he admires their technique and gets off listening to John Petrucci wank his way up and down the fretboard.

A lot of heavy metal has the same problem, and not just "highbrow metal" like Dream Theater. Slayer and Napalm Death come to mind as examples of bands where technique has obliterated melody and song-craft. OTOH there are bands like Metallica and Archenemy that have virtuoso musical breaks, but without losing coherence or melody.

As someone who owns a Yanni album (albeit one I received as a gift), I won't comment on that.

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