Wednesday, May 02, 2007

the strange nexus of parody, hommage, and idiom: or a Hot Fuzz comment that turns into comments about ragtime

On Tuesday night I saw the movie Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright and co-written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the guys who gave us Shaun of the Dead. Awesome. Simply awesome. The local paper The Stranger filed a review by Andrew Wright that had the complaint that the movie was a bit slow and could have been better with 20 less minutes. Yeah, right. The movie is easiest to sell as a send-up of Michael Bay but enough distinctly British cop/detective movie conventions are being sent up by the film that I think Wright just misses the point, which isn't a big deal because the movie is amazingly funny. In fact I find it more of a viscerally enjoyable comedy than Shaun of the Dead. The story-telling is tighter and there are more jokes but they are woven more organically into the fabric of the narrative than even in Shaun of the Dead, which ought to be saying something even if people have no reason to take my word for it.

In fact even speaking as a Spiderman fan (comics, and the movies) I'd be hard pressed to imagine how on earth Spiderman 3 could be more fun than Hot Fuzz. Now I want to enjoy Spiderman 3 and will give it a good shot but I think I've already seen the funnest movie I'm likely to see all year. Wright and Pegg could tackle just about any genre next and I'd go see it.

One of the problems we composers have is that we tend to write music at the very limits of our technical capacity as musicians, which means we have to spend a whole bunch of time practicing what we ought to be able to play ourselves. A music teacher once told me about this inevitable paradigm and that it is one of the ways we know that Bach and Beethoven were amazing masters of the keyboard. Writing the fugues Bach wrote suggest a certain, base-line of technical mastery at every level. If that was Bach writing at the general limits of his technical facility then his technical facility in mind and body was simply awesome.

Well, my technical and theoretical facility is considerably less awesome than that, especially as a self-taught pianist. In fact there are some things that so daunt me I'm avoiding them for at least about a year, like choral writing. Certain types of musical writing lay bare your limitations so mercilessly I can see why composers don't dig them. I've heard Copland didn't enjoy choral writing and when I hear his choral writing I can see why! Beethoven's choral writing was just plain awful. And there are other composers who write sublime choral music who can't be trusted to write at the same level of genius in instrumental genres. At the risk of sounding like some kind of Phillistine I've yet to hear an instrumental work by Poulenc that is anywhere near as amazing as his choral writing, which is where he sounds most distinctive and capable to my ears. Much as I love hindemith's music at so many level his choral music is almost invariably a bore.

It seems the great composers manage to write consistently enough across the different expressive media of art music that they remian fairly well-represented and wrote consistently. No one who composes mostly for one instrument, even the piano, seems to establish as much of a musical legacy. And often people who excel in one expression of musical literature for one instrument become established in the repertoire but at a very limited level. Scott Joplin is here to stay because of his ragtime but any detailed study of piano repertoire reveals that structurally there isn't much to composing in that style once you've got the basic technical facility down. What makes good ragtime hard to write is that the formula is so hard to exploit with any real invention because Joplin and others did so much.

My solution was to retain Joplin's strict approach to the structure and drastically alter the tonal vocabulary. Not that any one has heard a ragtime I've written or even could from this blog but it seems like people who have tried writing ragtimes could explore ways of unifying themes. Ragtimes are so disparate in cross-thematic motific relationships within any given ragtime that the genre is defined too readily by a set of cliches in h armonic movement. The second strain invariably seems to get built around an oscillation of the dominant to tonic in the tonic key. There's usually no real connection between themes which means you get a very cut-and-paste effect, like any kind of ragtime strain could be put together. It's sort of like rolling dice. Any combination could work and it wouldn't effect the ragtime feel.

But what if you worked to ensure that a ragtime was bound by some over-arching thematic paradigm? I toyed with one ragtime that had all of its strains derive from the motific material of two themes from a sonata form I had written a few years ago. I liked this idea a few years ago and I still like it. If Americana as a genre has any potential whatsover (assuming it ever did) then it seems like one way to develop that potential would be to find American popular musical idioms that could be reasonably substituted for forms in the traditional sonata cycle. And I'm sure it's been done thousands of times. It just seems that what hasn't always been done is finding ways to get these forms to sound like something that isn't artificial.

And if they are really FORMS then why stick to the tritest variations? I decided to write a ragtime where almost everything was in a minor key. Ragtime is really about the raggy rhythms and the structural relationships than about being in a major key. Joplin experimented with minor themes in subsidiary strains of his ragtimes so why not write ragtimes where the prevailing mood is minor? Better yet, why not also do this while establilshing a thematic connection between the strains instead of just throwing in any old melody that will plug in the requisite structural spot for a ragtime?

So my solultion for this was to compose a ragtime where the same four measure gesture appears in different forms in each strain, a kind of hybrid of ragtime with a few arbitrarily settled on techniques from twelve-tone. The initial strain employes the four measure motto in its primary form; the second strain employs the motto in retrograde; the third strain (the C of AABBACCDD) employs a retrograde inversion in relative major which is the only place where the piece sounds most like a traditional ragtime except for the fugato part; and the fourth strain is built from the inversion of the four-measure motto.

And, as I mentioned earlier, where I finally settled on a fairly traditional major key ragtime idea for the C strain I offset this by making heavy use of the lydian mode (an inevitable outgrowth of using the retrograde inversion of an idea in C dorian),. I also offset it by employed a fugato in which one of the other key gestures of the first strain becomes the basis of a fugato where voices enter at the tonic, then the leading tone, and then the submediant respectively to create a three-voiced sort of exposition that leads to a very trite but satisfying ragtime gesture. This is to say that as I see it I made the trite ragtime passage more interesting by withholding it until the third and, if you will, climactic strain of the rag.

This is all very geeky as far as music goes. I can't expect anyone to care about this the way I care about it because you didn't write the ragtime. I like ragtime and I enjoy trying to play the stuff. But I also feel that a composer can pay hommage to ragtime and drastically alter any number of its elements while still being faithful to the core of the material, writing a sort of novelty piece and a serious piece at the same time. Come to think of it, I guess I'm thinking about this as a composer and a musician because Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are so good at doing the equivalent in their movies. They can make a send-up of the action genre while writing a movie that is itself simultaneously a perfectly good (and even better than average) exponent of the very genre that is being sent up. That's a rare gift. If I could do that at a musical level, making fun of ragtime conventions in the process of writing an actually decent rag, I'd be happy to be able to do so.