Thursday, January 21, 2016

Roger Scruton on teaching judgment and some comments about classical vs pop music and his surprise at learning he had more in common with metal fans than he would have anticipated

Scruton's passion for music would be easier to admire if he didn't seem so condescending toward pop music.  I like some pop music and dislike some other pop music but I find Wagner's music detestable and Wagner to be not so admirable as a person to boot.  On the other hand, I adore the music of Haydn and I adore the music of Stevie Wonder. 

Scruton observing that the voice leading in U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" is a mess reminds me that it's a category mistake to measure a pop song that's a power ballad on the basis of any kind of polyphonic writing.  Sure, perpetual motion riffs aided by reverb and delay pedals over a relentless bass might seem like bad voice-leading ... but ... perpetual motion over a steady ground isn't unheard of in classical music.  Sometimes that gets known by the jargon "passacaglia" or "chaconne" and involves oblique motion.  Oblique motion's an approach to voice leading where most voices stay put and just one voice shifts in a way that transforms the harmony.  U2 does that, a lot of pop music does that.  It's a way to get as much harmonic mileage as possible from having very limited technique.  It's not necessarily a sign of being a bad musician, though.

I feel obliged to point out Scruton mistakes classical music for not trafficking in endless sets of variations on an unchanging theme as a contrast to pop music.  That's obviously not true.  Not even the most ardent Led Zeppelin fan would try to subject "Black Dog" to as many iterations of its core theme as Bach did with the double theme in the Goldberg variations.  The Diabelli variations are another case in point of an epic cycle of variations on a single theme.  Yes, classical music doesn't approach development and variation in necessarily the same way as pop music but it's not altogether accurate to say classical music "does" stuff in contras tto variation.  Let's remember that many of Haydn's sonata forms are monothematic forms.  Was Haydn an artistic failure for having single themed sonata forms?  No.  What it might help to remember, as Charles Rosen put it, is that in Haydn's era the distance between a popular style and a scholarly style, at least in Haydn's case, was not so great. 

It's not surprising the metal fans were quickest to appreciate some of the ideas Scruton wanted to convey.  This isn't surprising because once you factor out timbre there's a lot about metal that is pretty easily traced to "classical" traditions and folkloric influences.  Besides, as Richard Taruskin has quoted a famous Russian opera singer as saying, the whole of opera can be described as "educated screaming".

Surely we could propose that for theatricality in musical presentation and educated screaming metal "could" be carrying on the traditions of a Wagnerian opera. :)

For a decade or so there's been talk of problems in classical music, a crisis in aging audiences and a lack of interest.  Some of the lack of interest is a lack of interest in hearing the same things over and over again.  Some of it may be that the same stuff we hear over and over again we can hear a lot more cheaply by buying a recording or listening to music online than dropping fifty bucks on a concert. 

But I'm not as sure that a "solution" will necessarily be in trying to save the symphony.  The symphony doesn't seem like it's necessarily going away but its placemen tmay change.  We're more likely to have non-classical fans hearing symphonic music in the context of a film score than a concert.  People may be more likely to know John Williams by his Star Wars scores than know Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra. 

But it can seem that the alarms can forget the troubled history of written-down music.  It wasn't always easy, obviously, but let's remember that the Thirty Years War did a number on a ton o fpeople and the arts were effected.  Heinrich Schutz had to scale back, drastically, the kinds of musical forces and resources he could realistically compose for.  If we're seeing a drop in music for the symphony or the opera composers may want to cast about for cheaper and more accessible alternatives.  Being a guitarist I'm hugely biased in favor of the guitar for what should be obvious reasons. 

But we guitarists, the classical guitarists, can often bring our own trouble.  I have read and heard guitarists say the classical guitar isn't really all that suited to all major and minor keys and that thigns like sonata or fugue aren't really truly possible on the instrument.  Why?  Because the guitar has a collosal decay rate?  It does ... but that doesn't mean counterpoint isn't possible or that a sonata form can't be written for the guitar in a remote key.  If we aspire to preserve the classical musical traditions that does not preclude adapting to the resources available.  If more and more people are taking up the guitar than the piano or the clarinet we can write for the guitar.  Guitarists like to say, after all, that the instrument is like a little orchestra. 

But the guitar has been at the margins of the academic musical world.  Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music basically treats the guitar as not even functionally in the literate musical tradition.  Now if he heard the guitar sonatas of Matiegka, Sor, Giuliani, Carulli or Diabelli he might conclude they weren't worth mentioning in a history of literate music ... but for we guitarists there's plenty of evidence the guitar has been part o fthe literate music tradition for centuries now.  But, at Matanya Ophee put it years ago in his lecture on repertoire issues, the guitar has often been treated as an outsider or as a second or third-rate member of formal music. 

Given the crisis many have been saying classical music has been in for audiences (and a comparable low sales rate seems to apply for jazz) maybe not being in the mainstream has an advantage.

There are some who look down on popular styles as bad or shallow and art music/classical music as deep and good.  I prefer a good chunk of classical music to a good chunk of pop music but that's not necessarily because I think one tradition is better than the other.  What I would suggest we can see in at least some composers, whether Haydn or Villa-Lobos, is that there have been composers in any given age that demonstrate an appreciation of the high and low, so to speak; an appreciation of the refined and the common. If in the last century classical and popular music have diverged it may have been to the detriment of both traditions.  Now this is just a personal musing but it seems that the pre-World War II blues and country idioms were not always as distinct from each other as they would later become.  You had urban and rural music but that might matter more than "blues" and "country". 

Blues is almost a century old and there's no reason you can't have a sonata allegro form in which the first theme you get actually is just a 12-bar blues.  There are people at Yale who may decide not to teach jazz or blues as part of the Western canon but the vastness of that mistake should speak for itself even if people won't see it.

I've been thinking for a while that we should not abject one tradition over against another in music.  Scruton's welcome to love the music of Wagner and Schubert and I'm welcome to find them both rather boring or interminably maudlin.  Wagner's Ring cycle, in the 21st century, has been supplanted not just by Tolkien for popular appeal but by the ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe. 

At one point Taruskin was writing his Oxford history with the idea that what he's called the literate music tradition was essentially ending.  That was years ago, now he's not sure that's the case.  The tradition is changing and the kinds of patronage dynamics that were taken for granted half a century ago no longer apply.  I would suggest that the patronage dynamic we have now is not necessarily foundations or academies as corporations that promote pop music.  A lot of it may sound alike but then if we are willing to be a little jaded about the high art of the Baroque era might a lot of it be self-aggrandizing bling presentations for autocrats proving how enlightened they were?  There may never be an era in the history of humanity in which those who financially backed skilled artists didnt' have some self-promotion afoot.  What's stuck with me for years since Miyazaki's last film, The Wind Risess, is his gloomy observation made through Caproni about art, would we choose to live in a world with or without the pyramids?  The pyramids are feats of engineering and works of art but in a sense Miyazaki was throwing out for our consideration a possible idea, the idea that all art is in some sense a reflection of the anxieties and aspirations of an empire, whatever that empire may be.  Some of us may be adep tat convincing ourselves we just want to make something beautiful but that doesn't entirely exonerate us, does it?  Or does it?

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