Wednesday, December 16, 2015

a few belated thoughts inspired by Ethan Iverson's Ducal Updates--a shift in paradigms from organicism and procedural development to expanson and juxtaposition

Reading Iverson's reactions to Terry Teachout's book has been interesting.  Much has been made by a number of jazz bloggers about Teachout's verdict that Ellington never mastered the techniques and concepts applicable to large-scale and long form composition.  I've been wondering if perhaps Teachout could have benefited from a reformulation of where he may have been going.  This idea was prompted in part by Teachout's observation that Ellington, like Beethoven and like Stravinsky, was not necessarily a gifted melodist.  Well, what a melodist is might be overly defined by a theater critic with a frustration about the pervasiveness of the commodity musical but let's riff on something.

What Ellington and Stravinsky may have in common could be highlighted by an observation in an Ethan Iverson interview with another person, the composer George Walker.

There is much in Stravinsky that is striking. After his early Symphony in E flat, his works are consciously formatted with new material that is juxtaposed  (that is without any connective elements). This approach deviates from the classical concept of organic development.

What Ellington and Stravinsky were masters at was a compositional approach that involved juxtaposition of contrasting or complementary episodes rather than composing in a way where everything is unified in some obvious or subterranean way the way we'd see in a work by Beethoven or Sibelius or even to some degree Charles Ives.  Teachout may be perfectly right to say Ellington did not master the concepts and tools of long-range large musical form if by this he was meaning to say that Duke didn't go in for what the musicologist Leonard B Meyer described as organicism.  Organicism could be likened to the idea that the bggest tree grows from the small seed, that the way a work of art or music emerges should reflect organically on the nature of the catalyst, the inspiring material.  Take the Hammerklavier and its relentless and obsessive outworking of median relationships in keys and in melodic gestures and the ancor pitches in the giant closing fugue.  Thirds across the board.  Ellington didn't approach composition like that.  Neither did Stravinsky, it seems.  George Walker pointed this out about Stravinsky in an interview with Iverson and it seems Iverson could have brought that observation to bear in a rebuttal to what he felt was an overextension of a critique from Teachout about Duke's shortcomings.

From the standpoint of Romantic era compositional ideologies, yeah, Ellington's use of juxtaposition rather than organic development of an idea could be taken as a shortcoming.  But .... Charles Rosen once quipped that the Romantics were so busy trying to prove they mastered long forms they sometimes overlooked that their genius was for miniatures. 

Now I largely agree that Ellington's longer forms are not as compelling as his unmatched miniatures but then that can be the case with a lot of Romanti era composers from Europe, and much of that music I find annoying.  I prefer the Classic era composers because they tended (Beethoven clearlye xcepted) to have more pop musical senses of attention spans.  Haydn and Mozart have their strucutres but their episodes within the structures tend toward proportions not unlike those of pop songs.  From Beethoven and beyond (and well before cinema or TV) we get longer and bigger.  It was as if the 19th century art music composers had to biggie size everything and Meyer's proposal was this was to obscure their reliance upon the formal and syntactic conventions of the 18th century.

Except when we get to geniuses like Ellington and Stravinsky we're looking at composers who could be aware to oen degree or another of the development of organic ideas and processes but just not use them.

If Teachout had finessed his case to include something like this set of ideas I think he could have said what he seemed to be trying to say in a way that would be less controversial to jazz fans.  It would also have given space to observe that the shortcomings in Ellington's approaches to long-scale forms as recounted by Teachout could also be applied (as Iverson duly noted) to a lot of 20th century classical composers. 

But Iverson and Teachout manage to be pretty nuanced and careful in how they say stuff even when they say stuff I can't really agree with.  But in thise case their conversations about Ellington were intriguing and I think, however wildly belatedly, Iverson's interview with George Walker provided a key to getting a sense of where Teachout and Iverson were coming from from a composer whose work I'm glad to know about through Iverson's blogging. 

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