Thursday, March 14, 2013

The things we sing about and the things we don't

If someone were to corner me about why I love classical music (not that anyone has or likely will) I'd say I love the musical invention involved in the tradition.  There's folk music I like but I've always been willing to admit that folk music is often not quite as interesting to me.  Even when I was a kid I remember Handel's famous chorus more than the folk songs I heard.  I loathed "Old Dan Tucker" as a kid because the melody was grating and the lyrics didn't make any sense.  I also intensely disliked "Turn, Turn Turn" because even as a ten or eleven-year old boy I had read just enough of Ecclesiastes to object that "a time for war" really was in that text.  Yeah, maybe I always had a pedantic and earnest side to me. :)

I do enjoy some popular music.  I like a bit of jazz, rock, pop, country if it's written by people born before 1960 (ergo Hank Williams Sr, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard are all fun and I ignore Garth Brooks and beyond).  I like blues in measured doses and particularly like pre-World War 2 blues more than post-war blues in my listening habits.  But most of what I listen to is, no surprise, classical music. I've listened to way more of Beethoven's piano sonatas in the last few months than I've listened to Portishead or even Stevie Wonder (and I love Stevie Wonder's music and have since I was in my early teens). 

But Beethoven sonatas, you know that gets to the other thing, I love instrumental music and I have met people for whom music that doesn't include the human voice is just not interesting for them.  I find it fascinating and for me it's partly because instrumental music is capable of doing more than just expressing feelings, which all kinds of music can do most of the time.  Vocal music can express feelings and talk about ideas but instrumental music works at another level, where there are feelings but the musical ideas as ideas are what your mind has to engage.

Now if I were to describe a typical sonata allegro form in a Beethoven sonata (with the repeats observed) I could point out that the exposition, development and recapitulation resemble a Tin Pan Alley song.  You have an exposition that repeats and in this exposition you have your first group in one key and your second group in another key mediated by a transition.  Verse, chorus.  This repeats, so you get verse, chorus, verse chorus.  The development section is where the ideas of the exposition are subjected to fragmentation, extension, expansion and, in a word, development.  Take me to the bridge.  The recapitulation is where your thematic groups are brought back and all the groups are in the same key (normally).  Thus the final verse and chorus in your Tin Pan Alley song format.

Classical snobs may not admit the resemblance but Beethoven and Haydn piano sonatas, properly observed for their structural repeats, are writ large anticipations of a fairly straightforward structural approach in American popular music.  But I'm derailing my own topic as I often do.

Back to songs, the actual sung sorts of songs. 

People sing about the things about which they are very engaged.  Songs are exaggerations, distillations of feelings and that means that for any topic to make its way into song it must be a topic with which a person obsesses long enough to turn into song.  A lot of songs in the last sixty years are not about "Yeah, the harvest is here and we didn't die of a famine during the last winter!  Go, go sweet potatoe!"  You don't hear songs like that.  Anyone remember that category of song from folk tradition called the work song?  How many o fthose do you hear in your cubicle?  Right, that's kinda my point.  In the last half century songs about the day job tend to come in a few generic categories: 1) working for the Man 2) the daily grind of being a rock star and 3) satires of people who have jobs we disdain.  Maybe there's a fourth category praising working class heroes or something like that but that category is more political than a discussion of the actual nature of the day job.

There's always sex, drugs and rock `n roll but after thirty years of hearing that it sounds pretty self-reflexive.  Part of why I enjoy classical music in general and instrumental music in particular is that I am simply not going to hear phrases like "ooh baby", ever, in a Beethoven piano sonata.  Better yet, I won't hear in a string quartet a line like "She's just sixteen years old, `leave her alone', they say."  If you want to know one of the lines from a pop song that has never failed to fill me with loathing and revulsion over the last twenty years, well, there you go.  The line stirs me up with feelings of wanting to do violence to some stupid punk who wants to hit on my younger sister.  If you don't know what song that quoted line is from be thankful.

I haven't listened to radio in twenty years so maybe these days rock and roll and pop is all about bad daddies and lazy mommies and "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You" (one of the few songs by Alan Parsons I can remember some two decades later for its acrid but compelling brevity).  But if the Beatles and Bob Dylan are still touchstones of songwriting the falling-in-love and the fell-out-of-love song will still more or less dominate.  For many, many people that's something they relate to because, as a famous song discussing love at first sight has it, "I'm certain that it happens all the time."  Well, not for me, and so many songs about true love and its inevitable end are difficult to find relatable because, while those may be subjects I'll care about ardently enough to write songs about down the road it's been a while since I was at that spot and I don't even know if I'll be at that spot. 

If you've ever sat through a mandatory pep assembly for a high school sports team then perhaps you know the awkward feeling of hearing hundreds or thousands of people around you singing their hearts out over some cause that is completely inexplicable to you.  In that sense I think I can imagine how atheists must feel visiting church services because my inability to grasp why anyone would sing cheers or chants about athletic events has persisted for decades.  I don't get cheering for or singing about athletic achievement.  Then again, I've never been an athlete and probably never will be.  I'm a musician, sometimes, and a composer. 

So it might be a surprise to share that I loathe songs about the power of music.  I don't think the art of music should be employed in some narcissistic self-congratulatory ode to itself.  As beautiful as music is surely it can beautiful enough that nobody has to write songs extolling the power of music to bring us together.  If I hear a solid love song (and Stevie Wonder has written many) I can appreciate the music and the music can help me appreciate what it can feel like to be in love or feel betrayed by someone you gave your heart to.  But even as a composer and a musician I detest songs praising the power of song.

That was supposed to be more clearly thought out than I'm sure it was.

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