Thursday, October 30, 2014

another linkathon with a theme and some variations

Why middle-class Americans can't afford to live in liberal cities.  From the Atlantic

From the Guardian (a reprint, actually) "we need to talk about TED" Not the most warm and fuzzy take on TED talks but it was an interesting read.

Even older but somewhat thematically related, a piece from Wired called "When it comes to security we're back to feudalism", a piece about how the feudal lords of our age are information gateway companies whose conduct and methodologies we don't really understand and don't have much impact on.

From JazzWax, a blog WtH only recently came across, a musing on how even The New Yorker is guilty of what is dubbed "jackass culture", in which brazen and provocative attempts at humor put outrageous claims out on the net under the rubric of "satire" without necessarily explaining or giving a complete context for the joke.  In this case the musing from a couple of months ago was about how a raft of quotes attributed to but never uttered by Sonny Rollins was in bad taste.

There's a question from the piece that seems worth quoting so here we go:

Why would The New Yorker, one of the country's finest and most esteemed print magazines, wade into the jackass morass? The only reasonable answer is ivory-tower insensitivity or ignorance. In the case of the Sonny Rollins spoof, there's a disturbing subtext. Boiled down, the fun at Sonny's expense seems to be saying something more—that jazz is a joke and a futile endeavor, that Sonny is a fool and a laughing stock who has been wasting his time with that saxophone of his, that jazz's struggle to remain relevant in an age of nihilistic pop is side-splitting funny—like videos of an injured giraffe repeatedly struggling to get to its feet. This message alone is below a magazine that prides itself on its arts coverage

Having seen more than just a handful of incompetent and unfunny attempts at "sarcasm" on the net, usually in the form of one or two line remarks this little excerpt seems pertinent about impertinence:

Simply put, passing information along as fact under the assumption that everyone will know it's a joke is poor editorial judgment. But in the new jackass culture, anything goes, and if you feel offended, well, you clearly can't take a joke (I was on the receiving end of a few of these today).

There's a Jewish proverb about how someone is like a man throwing lit firebrands and death about who deceives his neighbor and then when challenged says "I was joking".  There's a point at which the context of a conversartion or a venue is better served by seriousness.  If even The New Yorker took a stab at effrontery then, well, maybe we "do" live in a Pussified Nation where everyone has dreams of being a William Wallace II, even people writing for The New Yorker.  Well, if so, that's our collective loss.

And, just because we're already on a jazz themed linkathon, Do the Math features Ethan Iverson writing some fun stuff about Teachout's biography on Duke Ellington and some curious reactions to ita fascinating discourse on appropriation and mutation within classical and jazz contexts (Ellington and Stravinsky); and some more about Stravinsky's brilliance by way of emotional ambivalence within his music a brutal quote attributed to Stravinsky about Mahler.

Stephen Walsh quotes the young Stravinsky’s derision of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. “I find that the only quality in this symphony is the inflexibility of utter barefaced platitude... Fancy that for two hours you are made to understand that two times two is four, to the accompaniment of E-flat major performed fffff by 800 people.”

Ow.  Seeing as I can't quite stand Mahler (but respect his influence) I'm not entirely against Stravinsky on Mahler.  But Stravinsky could frequently be, to put it delicately, a jerk.

Because fusion, as the Cuban guitarist/composer Leo Brouwer once put it, has been the musical movement in the last fifty years most ignored and least appreciated by academic musicologists, something Iverson wrote at Do the Math seems worth quoting at some length:

Jazz appropriations work best when they are almost totally sublimated, as in Gould’s Symphony of Spirituals. Literal appropriations are problematic. When walking bass shows up in Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes for Paul Klee, it mars an otherwise excellent work. I see Shaw’s Partita and "Improvisation" in exactly the same light: one is vital, the other is flat.

Steve Reich always talks about Kenny Clarke, but he never tried to make some classical percussionist play a swing beat on a ride cymbal. Instead Reich wrote his own rhythms that have become venacular for modern chamber ensembles.

I predict that the path for appropriations of rock and electronica by classical composers will be similar. As always, an echo of folkloric music will inspire new transfigurations from those most inspired by full notation. It’s already happening but the best is surely in the future.

One of my most unshakeable objections to a lot of what has been passed off as crossover on the pop/classical divide has something to do with what Iverson describes as connection to the folklore.  But being the kind of composer/classical guitarist that I am I guess I would say that the failures tend to be of a kind you can bracket in two distinct ways depending on which side of the pop/classical divide you're on.  Pop musicians who try to go classical may demonstrate (rather than discover!) that their musical vocabulary is simply not very well suited to the forms of thought that are common in concert musical forms.  Here we get varying degrees of success from pop musicians and jazz musicians in tackling oratorios or instrumental suites.  On the other hand, classical sorts have the forms often in hand but tend to fail to make a convincing case that the vocabulary of more popular styles is a natural and convincing language they normally use.  The appropriation and affectation is too overt because the musical vocabulary isn't assimilated so much as appropriated.

So what about the cases where we have a Gershwin or an Ellington or maybe some moments from Ravel or Stravinsky?  Well, I'll hazard a guess, however much the crossover ultimately failed, if we're hearing a case where there is at least a rough match of the vocabulary and the form we'll be okay with what we hear.  Sure, Gershwin's jazz vocabulary by itself might not have been convincing and sure his handling of concert forms may be lacking but there's a delicate but for the most part absolutely persuasive balance between the vocabulary and the formal mastery that works.  It works for Gershwin's music and it works for Ellington's music, certainly in the works they have done that have become classics.  Stravinsky found that magical balance of vocabulary and form in Rite of Spring and Petrushka.

There will continue to be crossover but perhaps I'm not the only one who thinks that the end point for these various types of crossovers could be an eventual synthesis.  I've heard it suggested over the years that maybe in a way a sonata is like a pop song.  There's a way to understand that verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus can be understood as an exposition where there is theme 1, a transition, theme 2, and you repeat the exposition and follow it up with a development before getting to the recapitulation.  There is a sense when that charts out as though the two seemingly contrasting forms of a strophic form song and a sonata allegro form could be the same kind of thing.

A                           A                                B                      A
pop song
verse and chorus   verse and chorus       bridge              verse  and chorus 

sonata form
Exposition            Structural Repeat      Development   Recapitulation
1. theme 1             theme 1                     Development   1. theme 1
2. modulating       modulating                                        2. non-modulating transition
transition              transition
3. theme 2/end     theme 2/end                                       3. theme 2 (in tonic key, often)

See, I can chart it out in a way that would make it seems as though something by Ellington and something by Haydn are basically the same overall form.  But there's no way you could listen to "Dusk" and the Fifths string quartet and imagine that the Ellington ballad and the first movement of Haydn's Op. 76, 2: movement 1 are really the same form are present easily comparable musical experiences.

It doesn't just so happen I've gone through most of my life adoring the music of Haydn and Ellington.  And I love counterpoint whether it's counterpoint from Bach or, as I wrote years ago, "Counterpoint According to Stevie Wonder".  Sure, Bach and Wonder are operating in drastically different musical worlds but they're both true to their respective musical languages and they both display a mastery of the forms and vocabularies they developed.  When Wonder uses a simple modal mutation in "Where Were You When I Needed You (Last Winter" (which I blogged about over here) it's an idea so banal in its simplicity it shouldn't work, but Stevie Wonder makes it incredible.  Not too surprisingly to me someone else who could take an idea, subject it to modal mutation and transform happy to sad or sad to happy would be someone like Beethoven, or Haydn, or Brahms ... you probably get the general idea.

But it may have taken a whole century of fragmentation and mutation for musicians in various streams of performing traditions to also have opportunities to play with how these seemingly divergent and contrasting styles may not be entirely separate.  I played with how a Christian quoting Galatians could make a case that in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female and that this could be a theological underpinning for the proposal that in Christ there is no high or low, no mainstream or indie, no pop or classical.  It's not to say that these distinctions don't actually exist or that those differences never matter but that as a theological proposal a Christian believes that Christ reconciles all things to Himself and that in that sense what so many have considered irreconcilable styles of music that represent cultural norms and values that have no common ground, that may be our hang-up and the apostle Paul wrote millennia ago to warn the Galatians that that set of expectations and boundaries that were believed to be hard and fast have not only become more permeable with the advent of Christ, those boundaries are destroyed by the blood of Christ on the cross and reconciliation is possible through the resurrection.

And, of course, not everyone is going to go along with that.  But I mention this not merely in passing because in his biography about Ellington Teachout noted that Duke was, in his way, serious about religion and Christianity.  Ellington said and did a lot of stuff that might make people disbelieve the reality and sincerity of his Christian profession ... but as regular readers of Wenatchee The Hatchet may nave noted, I've had some pretty stern things to say about problems with the sayings and actions of Mark Driscoll and leaders at Mars Hill without presuming to question the sincerity of their Christian professions. 

And perhaps that gets us to another little moment.  Over at Wedgewords, Steven Wedgeword sums up a transition I've found in my own life.

As I never tire of saying, “Ideas don’t have consequences. People with ideas do.” And those people often act upon a variety of more or less consistent motivations and impulses, some rational and some visceral. Pretending that this isn’t the case and that we can solve societal problems with ideas is the surest way to never find a solution to any particular problem. We can’t let worldview, whether religious or political, become a new opium for the people.

There could be more that could be written, since as someone once put it of the writing of books there is no end, but this might suffice for a night.

There's another MH/MD related blogging project incubating but it will take some time.  There are a couple of bits for posterity that seem worth discussing but it won't be a small task.


C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

The musings on music are refreshing. I once made the error of suggesting that chic corea[1] was doing something Bach like in front of a semi-serious violinist. Since then I have had little contact with the Seattle music crowd other than a violist from the Symphony who used to cuss me out on a regluar basis in seahurst park. Listend to some MarsHill "indie" last night just to find out what it was.

[1] The Sky, My Spanish Heart

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...


I've been meaning to write a LOT more about music this year than I have so far. Looks like with today's news (and wrapping up a couple of related projects) there will be a lot of time in 2015 to get to writing about the evolution of sonata forms in classical guitar literature.