Saturday, January 24, 2015

"people will look back on the current era of new music and characterize it in terms not far removed from tourism", by "new music" let's say new concert/classical music

wrote ... :
 
I sometimes wonder if, several decades from now, people will look back on the current era of new music and characterize it in terms not far removed from tourism. Because if there’s one thing common to the various kinds of music going under the new music banner right now (and a lot of music beyond that), it’s the pursuit and/or assertion of an aura of authenticity. Traditions, styles, vernaculars—so many new pieces I hear these days pledge allegiance to some form of authenticity, some repertoire, some community. A lot of times, such pieces are the result of a deep engagement with the cited style on the part of composer and performer; a lot of times, it’s simply an expression of momentary curiosity. But much of the listener’s intended satisfaction is to come from the feeling that the experience has been both unfamiliar and authentic. In other words: the ideal tourist experience. Which means that the real version and the airport version might, in fact, be equally effective.
...
Early American hymnody and shape-note singing might be two of the most quintessentially American musics there are, in that they live at a nexus of American anxiety—the disconnect between the way the country ought to be and the way that it actually is. Both were aspirational forms, specifically designed to be specifically American, and both were, in turn, often rejected as being too provincial and unpolished. You only really get a sense of this stew of influence and counter-influence in the context of its relatives: the more buttoned-down, reactionary New England hymnody of the later 18th century, African-American gospel, Gilded Age grandeur, maybe even modern Christian rock-pop, a continuous negotiation between exaltation and populism.
 
There might be something to this.  In popular music there seems to be a broad leveling of the aesthetic parameters.  There's a propensity for pop songs to start sounding the same across formal distinctions of style and genre.  If you use Marshall amps and old Gibsons you might be rock and if you use a Telecaster you "might" have country but the I, IV and V and vi may pretty much be the same.
 
In more "classical" parts, especially in what is sometimes known as new music, the dynamic can be a bit different.  Heard a piece a couple of weeks ago in which music had been composed around field recordings of frogs in Bali.  For those not familiar with the field recording approach to the more avant garde classical stuff ... well .... Wenatchee's not going to pretend to be intimately acquainted with that field of music.  There's some fun and interesting stuff in it but perhaps it is most emblematic or symptomatic of a kind of compositional tourism. 
 
Concert programs can tend to just get that way.  Mostly Mozart. Guitarists tend to inevitably get to music from Spain or central and south America.  Matanya Ophee used to talk about how he'd hear Polish guitarists playing Catalan folk songs but never recalled hearing Catalan guitarists playing Polish folk songs. 
 
One of the advantages of living in a place liked the United States a decade or so into the age of the internet is that we have access to unprecedented amounts of music with an unprecedented variety of styles.  A potential pitfall to this may be that what we do with that amounts to the above mentioned musical tourism.  If someone were sufficiently lefty or progressive in thoughts the idea of musical tourism as a compositional approach could be construed as symbolic of the imperialistic/colonial imagination in which Americans perpetuate a hegemony of cultural assimilation in which everything in some form eventually becomes "American".  :)  A kind of cultural Trapper Keeper 2000 ...
 
Since, as proposed above, attempts at genuinely American musical forms could be viewed as too provincial or ineffective it may be a fate of American music to always be an assimilative process. 
 
Two articles in the Atlantic spring to mind.  There's a more recent one discussing a book about the American songbook.
 
And a thematically related one about the end of jazz.
 
... The great overlap between the Songbook and the jazz catalogue largely explains a fact that troubles Gioia—that his book can enshrine “few recent compositions”—and raises doubts about his assertion, supported by passion rather than by argument, that “the jazz idiom [is] a vibrant, present-day endeavor.”
 
The Songbook and jazz evolved symbiotically. As the critic Gene Lees showed in an important essay in The Oxford Companion to Jazz (2000), the creators of both were musically sophisticated men and women who inevitably and profoundly responded to each other’s work. (Lees’s scholarship made clear the deep musical education of the jazz pioneers, and in the process put to rest the “subtly racist” idea that “jazz was created intuitively by a gifted but ignorant people in some sort of cultural vacuum.”) The result: the Songbook formed the lingua franca of jazz; its material provided the basis on which to assess a performer’s improvisations; and jazz musicians constructed their own compositions on the chord structures of its entries.
 
If the traditions of Tin Pan Alley songwriting, ragtime, and early blues all interacted to synergistically define the jazz age then the decline of the other two would make a decline in a third more or less natural.  If blues and the Tin Pan Alley era songbook have been on a decline or declined then jazz, which owed so much to both, would not be as prominent in the cultural landscape.  In order to appreciate the possibilities of musical reinterpretation and reinvention in one tradition you have to understand its engagement with the other traditions. 
 
By way of a possible contrast, the relevancy of Johnny Cash or Ray Charles may be in some way reduceable to the fact that they may have started in this or that genre but they retained to their dying years a capacity to interpret across formal styles.  The musicians we seem to lionize seem to be either those who are unparalleled specialists in a particular style of music or those whose ability to make music with an encyclopedic grasp of the variety and unity in a multiplicity of idioms.  The coherence of popular musical styles overall can be overlooked, especially by those who just don't like popular musical styles. 
 
If there's any point that can be overlooked in the dominance of popular music it would be the song.  People don't listen to instrumental music by choice in an American popular landscape.  IF we live in an era in which you get put on hold waiting to talk to a customer service representative or a government employee and you hear classical music or you hear Kind of Blue by Miles Davis then classics, whether jazz or concert music, become the sound of people not giving a damn if they respond to your enquiry in the timeliest manner, or that's how you might be tempted to feel about it. 
 
In a polemic over at Jacobin (surprise, right?) John Halle wrote:
 
The rock and popular music canon is almost exclusively defined by vocal music, that is, songs, many of them admittedly great songs. While we might call sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann character pieces, Bartok Mikrokosmos and other staples of the introductory repertoire, “songs” that’s just a metaphor. These are works of “pure” music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms. They are composed within abstract forms, large-scale plans dictating their unfolding in time of which at least an intuitive awareness is required for them to be fully appreciated by audiences
 
In a rare moment of invoking a line from Billy Joel, the musician went through a phase of complaining about "the tyranny of the lyric" and talking about composing instrumental music.  That's an evocative line, that tyranny of the lyric.  Does it suggest, maybe, that people don't want to listen to music that doesn't put the human voice front and center?  Does it suggest that there's a prison inherent in having lyrics because lyrics have to be about something long enough for people to keep listening?  Think of an old line from a Talking Heads album asserting that lyrics are simply a trick to get people to listen to music longer ... .
 
It's possible to lament that pop songs have existed in the straitjacket of the 3 1/2 minute envelope but let's not forget why that was, the limits of recording technology and production.  If Armstrong, Ellington and early jazz musicians mastered saying as much as possible in such a short musical moment the process and goal were pragmatic rather than ideological.  Sure, we can talk about how technology is never neutral but suggesting that Ellington or Armstrong were somehow complicit in some dumbing down of culture in how and why they wrote music that fit the strictures available seems a bit far-fetched. 
 
Now perhaps its possible that the symphony was the great big pot roast and the pop songs are chicken wings but the Romantic era saw an explosion of song, didn't it?  Maybe the shortening of scale has partly been offset by a broadening of horizons in some way.  Listen to the complete recordings of Robert Johnson without an appreciation for detail and you're going to feel as though thirty blues numbers by Robert Johnson sound as much the same as thirty string quartets by Haydn but both are great in their respective ways. 
 
Indulging in some fanciful thought for a weekend, the complaint about the potato chip seems easy to understand but perhaps the advantage the potato chip has is that the potato chip can vary in flavor in a way that a single cooked potato cannot.  We shouldn't forget the penchant for exoticism in concert music has been as much a feature as a bug in the classical tradition as the popular style.  While there are potential flaws with the sampler plate form of cultural tourism via music these days there were drawbacks to monolithic iterations of advocacy for a single culture.  I.e. Wenatchee The Hatchet loathes the music and ideas of Wagner.  If that's the pot roast then by all means let's stick with chicken wings. 
 
Not particularly a fan of "authenticity" as such.  The authentic now seems one of the more easily faked things.  Sincerity may be the new insincerity.  Bear in mind Wenatchee The Hatchet spent a decade inside the culture of Mars Hill so perhaps skepticism about "real" or "authentic" may be an overcompensating impulse. 
 
As for musical styles and the United States, might be impossible to improve upon Virgil Thomson's axiom that being an American composer is simple, first be an American and then just write whatever music you want.  Whether or not that ends up being a kind of composerly tourism or not ... may ultimately not matter.  But it's interesting to think about sometimes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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