Saturday, July 01, 2017

Washington Post article on the decline of the electric guitar considering that guitar era that Kyle Gann thought might exist circa 2003 that might still just be the musical subculture it's possibly always been

I've enjoyed reading Kyle Gann's blog when he's blogged but I can't help remembering that waaaay back in 2003 he wrote:

Something else I meant to add about my students and the piano: Perhaps it’s just Bard culture, but I see many students today, perhaps a majority, coming to musical creativity from the guitar rather than the piano, as they used to, or any other instrument. This could have profound consequences. In the Renaissance, composers usually got their start as child singers. Baroque and Classical composers were often string players (Corelli and Haydn, the violin; Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, the viola). Romantic and modern composers were more often than not pianists. Such choices have profound consequences, and if there really is a sea-change of composers now coming from the guitar world rather than the piano, that alone could bring about a rift in musical eras. Berlioz, who played the clarinet and guitar, was almost the only non-pianist composer of his era, and as a result became its most innovative orchestrator. Guitarists visualize music theory in more contextual, less fixed and abstract, ways than pianists do. Interval size is less of a constant for them, melodies more conveniently leap throughout the register than proceed by steps, and their instruments are easily retunable and portable, tremendously louder (if electric), and carrying no upper-class connotations. By their 20s, these composers have been conditioned by a completely different relationship to pitch and volume than the pianist-composers of my generation and earlier. I’m curious as to whether professors in other music departments notice the same demographic change.


I don't know if I'd call it profound consequences as such but let's take note that here in the year 2017 Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar have finally been published.  German Dzhaparidze's cycle of 24 preludes and fugues has been recorded in the last three years.  Igor Rekhin's cycle of preludes and fugues has not been recorded in its entirety but about two thirds of it as performed by Vladimir Tervo is able to be ordered as digital music for those who know where to find it.  My set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar now exists as a duet cycle, too, and ... that's been recorded and is available somewhere.  Which is to say that here in 2017 there are AT LEAST four cycles of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar out there.  At least two of those four cycles were composed by guitarists and if Dzhaparidze himself is a guitarist that would make for three.  There's a cycle by Puget Sound area composer/guitarist Philip Quackenbush, too, but I haven't been able to see the scores for that cycle. 

Not that fugues have to be composed for the guitar in sets of dozens.  Friedrich Zehm has a set of six preludes and fugues I haven't gotten to yet but hope to get to in the future.  Gilbert Biberian has written fugues into a couple of his guitar sonatas.  There's also the Brouwer fugue, and a fugue. Alexandre Eisenberg has a prelude, chorale and fugue I've got, too.  Ideally you get the idea that fugal composition for solo guitar is by now, if not exactly the stuff of musical legend, at least so firmly established as to be beyond any serious scholarly dispute.

If there are profound consequences for those whose commitment is to the preservation of the art music traditions that are informally understood to be of Western European lineage one of those consequences "could" be this--if it's possible for fugues to be composed for solo guitar and at least four guitarist composers have composed large-scale contrapuntal cycles, then would this mean the guitar has finally reached a level of respectability that was perhaps not attained in Segovia's time by dint of guitarists being busy transcribing Bach rather than more directly contributing to the polyphonic literature?    Well ...

What Gann had to say in 2003 may well have a kernel of truth if we're talking what could be called classical music.  If arts funding keeps getting sliced and if the symphonic and traditional ensemble formats suffer in the wake of such cuts then a way the art music idioms could adapt and survive could partly lay in the hands of guitarists.  I think there's at least some basis for such a move.  I admit to being highly biased in favor of this approach as a guitarist. 

But there are two ironic twists.  First ...

Long-time electronic composer and general Downtown raconteur Tom Hamilton sends me an interesting fact in response to my perceptions of the guitar’s takeover of the composing world:

In 1995, an industry group called the Guitar and Accessories Marketing Association (GAMA), along with the NAMM and MENC, started a launched a program to train teachers to start guitar programs in middle and high schools. That group estimated that by 2001, over 200,000 students have learned guitar in school, and over 38,000 students bought their own guitar. They project a trend that by 2010, will have over 1.5 million students learning guitar in school programs, and over 300,000 students purchasing guitars. And that’s just through one school-based program! My observation is that most guitarists learn through woodshedding and private lessons without any institutional structure at all.
So no wonder young guitarists seem to be coming out of the woodwork: it was a calculated industry initiative!  ...

What might have seemed an organic grassroots shift had a great big corporate explanation.

But the ironic thing is that just a few weeks ago the Washington Post had this:

The electric guitar, that emblem of rock music and rock culture, has been on a decline. There aren't guitar heroes these days like there were in days of old.  The guitar heroes there are, are getting old.  If some believe that what is needed these days if for there to be heroes of the guitar do those heroes have to come from a rock or pop or jazz setting?  If Taylor Swift inspires kids to take up the guitar, as one source quoted in the WaPost article described, are there guitarists who will turn up their noses at the prospect that girls, wanting to imitate Taylor Swift, decide to take up the guitar?  Considering how many times I've seen people say that guys take up the guitar just to get the girls I'll just overlook that dubious kind of condescension.  Some of us take up musical instruments because we love music and not because we're trying to improve our odds on the local dating scene. 

Now perhaps there was, as some say, a bubble on the manufacturing side.  But we've blogged about this before here at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  There was also, apparently, a bubble on the observation side.  First we'll revisit a comment by an author at The Guardian describing rock music as having entered its "jazz phase".

2. Rock music is in its jazz phase

And I don’t mean it’s having a Kamasi Washington/Thundercat moment of extreme hipness. I mean it’s like Ryan Gosling’s version of jazz in La La Land: something fetishised by an older audience, but which has ceded its place at the centre of the pop-cultural conversation to other forms of music, ones less tied to a sense of history. Ones, dare I say it, more forward looking. For several years, it seemed, I was asked by one desk or another at the Guardian to write a start-of-year story about how this was the year rock would bounce back. But it never did. The experts who predicted big things for guitar each year were routinely wrong. No one asks for that story any longer.

Indeed!  We've just seen an article on the slow death of the electric guitar!

Then there's this thing called the Shazam Effect mentioned a few years back:

Billboard replaced its honor system with hard numbers in 1991, basing its charts on point-of-sale data from cash registers. “This was revolutionary,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s current director of charts. “We were finally able to see which records were actually selling.” Around the same time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio airplay through Nielsen.When that happened, hip-hop and country surged in the rankings and old-fashioned rock slowly began to fade—suggesting that perhaps an industry dominated by white guys on the coasts hadn’t paid enough attention to the music interests of urban minorities and southern whites.

What if beyond the bubble in manufacturing in the 1990s there was this bubble in measurement that took place on the measurement side.  Rock seemed to be the big thing because rockists ran the industry.  When the systemic biases toward rock and against rap and country were eliminated by more direct metrics tracking, hip-hop and country came to dominate the charts. 

Not that music relying on the sampling of existing works is without it's own potential risks.  Let's not forget that it was just a couple of years ago the "Blurred Lines" verdict came down.

Hip-hop in particular has proudly thrived on borrowed sounds and vibes, and has clashed with the courts over the years because of sampling. In the wake of the ruling, Questlove of The Roots sent (then deleted) a tweet with the hashtag #NiceKnowingYouHipHop. In 2013 he told New York that  “If it were a case of melodic plagiarism, I would definitely side with the estate,” but then explained why he thought Thicke and Pharrell were in the clear:
Look, technically it’s not plagiarized. It’s not the same chord progression. It’s a feeling. Because there’s a cowbell in it and a fender Rhodes as the main instrumentation — that still doesn’t make it plagiarized. We all know it’s derivative. That’s how Pharrell works. Everything that Pharrell produces is derivative of another song — but it’s an homage.

There are those who regard the verdict as a disaster for music.  I find that impossible to believe but then I'm a guitarist and also a guitarist who has opted to specialize in what's generally known as classical repertoire.  I guess I also fit into what would be called the new music scene, since when I play I play new compositions rather than the usual warhorse literature of Sor, Giuliani, Diabelli or Tarrega (who all wrote some fine music for the instrument, to be sure).  So for me, the "Blurred Lines" verdict has no bearing inasmuch as when I crib music from other composers I make a point of going for works that have been public domain for centuries.  I also deliberately recompose them to the point where only a specialist in music history might necessarily even recognize the source materials.  What does a musician do if they want to work in a musical idiom in which sampling is involved?  Here's one answer:
What some of the early rap samplers went through when, all of a sudden, their music became illegal in that way.
Exactly. And copyright law's getting more and more strict, but you can exist in two ways: You can either be remarkably wealthy and license whatever you want, or you can be really obscure and no one's gonna care. But if you're anywhere in the middle, collage becomes difficult. So I really like working with microsamples and sounds that are devoid of their original context, but exist just as a timbral element. [emphasis added]

Like a pixel, in a way, of music. And to get around copyright issues, you can just use it if it's that small?
Well, I would consider it fair use — because it's completely recontextualized. A new derivative work is made, and there's no way to tell what it was. [Laughing] We should really not talk about this. I'm expecting the emails that are like, "We've identified the microsamples you were discussing ... "

Now I would venture as a matter of preference that you go for stuff that is public domain.  If you need to record that public domain stuff yourself before you then manipulate the audio for sampling that might be even better.  Call it a possible third way between the two extremes Dan Deacon described. 

But for the average electric guitarist there is practically no such thing as a public domain body of work.  One of the reactions I've seen coming more from the wing that regards classical music as some kind of prestige or class problem (generally on the rock/pop/jazz side of sympathy if people situate themselves in class conflict) is to consider the "Blurred Lines" verdict a disaster for music.  It's not a disaster for music so long as you're plugged into some musical idiom that has robust enough a body of public domain works for this to not have to effect you.  If the verdict "is" a disaster for you or your preferred styles of music because nothing in the style you like is public domain then that might be your real problem, both in terms of aesthetic interests and in terms of legally constrained options. 

Generational insularity was often enough a thing in music of earlier eras but back in those days intellectual property was not quite the same thing, either.  Thanks to companies big enough with enough trademarks to protect to have a vest interest in fundamentally altering the range and scope of copyright laws and licensing practices things are different now.  This would be an opportunity for those with a traditionalist bent to argue for the value of the traditions.  What has become a public domain has become a cultural good that can be recombined, recomposed and reinvented in any number of ways for a continued existence.  A culture that is entirely under copyright and trademark is one that may paradoxically not long survive. 

Something I wish had been explained more clearly back when I was in college was the thing about how the composers of old were not necessarily compensated for their music itself, but for their labor.  Haydn was paid to provide goods and services, for instance.  He was under what effectively amounted to a military contract. Scott Timberg found it useful to gloss over that when he wrote that if Haydn didn't show up for work he could be jailed for being absent without leave over at Salon.  Duh, anyone who knows anyone who has been in the military, let alone anyone who's been in a military service, can get why an AWOL incident could get you in a brig.  But Timberg skipped over the parts where Haydn was allowed to write whatever he wanted and got free housing and a food stipend and free medical care.  When a patron doles out that much largesse for a court composer who is expected to compose all major and incidental music for the parties under a contract that has him effectually listed as a military caste participant then, yeah, the day you fail to show up for your job is the day you're in trouble. 

So ... if the guitar manufacturing industry is in a slump ... it may or may not be the guitar era Kyle Gann was guessing we'd have after all.  Matanya Ophee said decades ago there was never a proverbial golden age of the guitar, regardless of the marketing schemes of a select range of guitarists. 

I'm looking forward to blogging about the fugal cycles of Koshkin, Rekhin and Dzhaparidze later this year but you can't just go and just start blogging about stuff like that.  You have to immerse yourself in the scores and stuff.  I think that for those of us who love the six-stringed instrument banding together regardless of formal style and whether or not there are pick-ups installed in proximity to the bridge would be a good idea. 

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