Tuesday, July 31, 2018

hegemony may be in the eye of the complainer--the Western art music canon or Anglo-American popular music can be the current hegemony depending on what you want to teach in a class vs what you see.

Having only managed to start getting caught up on musicology and new musicology in the last four or five years I'm starting to get a sense that there are academic turf wars of some kind.  Perhaps you've heard of the term "poptimist" and "rockist" 

There's a version of a poptimist vs rockist debate in actual popular music

and another in classical music

That these sides can seem to be ... artificially constructed is a very hard sensation to shake.  I don't blame Adorno for viewing all popular culture as probably the tool of totalitarian regimes a la Hitler and Stalin ... but I think Adorno was still mistaken and hamstrung by his master narrative of history (much like I think that is the serious flaw in Francis Schaeffer's work but I'll try to save what I have to say about that for later in some other context).

But what I have been noticing is that the hegemony of contemporary music, to borrow a line from Ben Kenobi in Return of the Jedi, the hegemony of contemporary music you perceive depends very much upon your point of view.  If you are an academic with a yen for popular music you can survey the Western art music canon and regard it as oppressive and inescapable.  Conversely, if you're an academic and you've dedicated yourself to teaching and in some way continuing or expanding work done in what's colloquially known as "classical music" you'll find that popular music is inescapable and regarded as in some sense sacred on the basis of extramusical associations but also on the basis of dedication to timbres.  Kyle Gann was writing about this a while back.


The Unapproachable Sacredness of Pop

An introvert, in Jung’s view, was someone who not only is focused on his own thoughts and perceptions, but considers his own viewpoint the final arbiter of reality. When popular opinion and one’s own perceptions come into conflict, the introvert cannot but decide that the world must be mistaken. However, in Jung’s view, every conscious principle is balanced by a compensatory principle in the unconscious, and it is common, he observed, almost necessary, for an introvert to elevate public opinion to a deity-like monolith with which it is useless to argue. Secretly, introverts assume they possess the truth, but also assume that the world holds all the cards.

I think composers of my own age and especially younger have internalized some such attitude toward pop music. They’ve studied classical music and can deconstruct it and criticize it, but the very popularity of pop, its perceived universal appeal, makes it, for them, immune to criticism. They compensate for a secret guilt over the self-consciousness of their classical background by considering pop music sacred. I’ve encountered this attitude for years with my undergrad students, and I discussed it at length with the more experienced composers at the Atlantic Center, because I truly want to understand it. It’s not a universal opinion, and there are many nuances and varying viewpoints, but the general attitude is too common to be ignored. My teachers’ generation considered pop music beneath serious discussion; my students believe that whenever pop and classical collide, classical must be in the wrong.

I happen to think that pop and classical have a lot to learn from each other, and that neither has a monopoly on musical truth. Sonata form was an important contribution to culture, and so was the concept album inaugurated by Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. I believe, as an ethical principle, that classical composers should learn from pop, and incorporate what lessons they gather – because I think its popularity is based on something real, if not all-embracing. Having come to pop music comparatively late in life, I don’t appropriate its elements much myself, but some of the composers I admire most are those who have tried to fuse aspects of the two: Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Mikel Rouse, Eve Beglarian, Ben Neill, Nick Didkovsky, and so on. I don’t believe, as some of my contemporaries have claimed to, that pop music is kind of a neutral vernacular with the same status as folk music: i.e., that borrowing pop influences is analogous to Haydn inserting rustic folk songs in his symphonies. Far from being anonymous, pop music is drenched in the personality of its performers; every byte of it is owned by someone, and often valued exactly for its personal associations. Nevertheless, if something of the physicality and contagious energy of pop can be imported into more extended or complex notated forms, so much the better for the progress of music.

But, as I’ve documented here before, I am not encouraged by the public reception of music that explores this aim. Music that borrows pop elements is rushed into an inevitable comparison with pop, and never to its advantage. Restrict yourself to cellos and oboes and marimbas and accordions and you can write whatever you want, but the second you insert an electric guitar or trap set, you’ve conjured up the genie of a pop-music comparison, and it is not going to go back into the bottle. For a hundred years or more, composers have been gleefully divesting classical audiences of their expectations: expectations of first and second themes, of tonality, of stylistic consistency, and a hundred other things have been thrown on the dust heap of history. But the expectations raised by comparisons with pop music are not to be denied. They are sacred.

For instance, many composers, in the habit of determining every rhythmic detail of a piece, have tried notating rhythms for trap set. But god help you if your drummer plays those rhythms accurately and doesn’t swing them, if they sound measured out rather than improvised in the heat of the moment. Pop fans are accustomed to a certain kind of time-distorting drummer energy, and if you tie your drummer down to a 32nd-note grid, it makes no difference at all how brilliant your rhythmic structure is: they are not going to be impressed. Pop musicians also determine their personality by the obsessive search for a particular high hat sound, an exact guitar distortion. Classical composers have never been in the habit of notating music with specific sounds in mind; you write a drum part, you notate the cymbal, and you assume that the drummer, whoever he turns out to be, owns a high hat cymbal. A little bit of classical new music gets made with exact timbral specificity – Poème Electronique springs to mind – but it is entirely exceptional.

In short, the pop record has turned its fans into cognoscenti of precise timbres. One reads constantly how proud they are of being able to recognize a tune or album from the first split second of a single note. There are possibly classical music mavens so familiar with recordings of the Brahms symphonies that they can recognize which orchestra is playing from the first note; but what does that have to do with Brahms’s intentions? Most instruments are neutral, and can be easily dissociated from the music they are associated with. We can hear a piano without being disappointed that it isn’t Chopin or Horowitz or Bud Powell, we hear an oboe without thinking of Mozart or Strauss, even an accordion without necessarily thinking of polkas. But trap sets and electric guitars, at this stage of the game, are not neutral, and cannot be bent to any compositional use the composer imagines. They make musicians want and expect to hear a certain kind of energy and virtuosity, and no music that fails in that comparison will be well received.

For those conversant in the literature about this Theodore Gracyk, if memory serves, coined the terms "ontologically thin" and "ontologically thick".  Classical music as it is generally and colloquially known is the ontologically thin music, which is to say it is often as Kyle Gann described above.  The aim is not to control timbre all that precisely whereas you are likely to be specific about pitch, duration and rhythmic relationships.  "Ontologically thick" means you care whether Dave Gilmour was playing a Fender Telecaster or a Fender Stratocaster and whether he was playing that guitar through a Marshall amp or a Peavey or maybe whether Clapton was playing through a Marshall or a Pignose on Layla.

There's expectations and conventions attached to instruments thanks to the history of popular styles of music and popular songs.  If I had a Telecaster, for instance, someone might declare that I should be playing country on that thing and not rock and most certainly I shouldn't be playing Toru Takemitsu's "All in Twilight" on a Fender Telecaster (I have done it, though, and it was a blast!).  Classical music can be "ontologically thin" to the point where music written for the classical guitar could be played on a solid body or hollow body electric and so long as the appropriate notes get played the timbres are less important.  In an age in which an electric guitarist can arrange a movement from a Shostakovich string quartet for electric guitar ensemble I hope we see and hear more of this kind of thing. By the way, if you want to get a sense of what it sounded like as originally written go over here and start at 5:33.  Just to put my cards on the table, my favorite string quartet cycles from the 20th century are by Shostakovich and Bartok.  All that to say that we're in an age in which there are musicians and composers on either side of the "rock" or "pop" or "not classical" side of things and the "classical" side that have fun exploring just hwo permeable the barriers and conventions across and within styles and traditions are.

But the purity code police do exist for any given genre.  As Gann was describing it, there are sets of expectations about how to play a trap set if you're going to introduce one into an ensemble performance.  Gann, however, went on to point out something else that might possibly get overlooked by people on the side of popular music, which is the amount of money pop has at its disposal compared to other styles.
The attempt to compete timbrally with pop music is usually doomed to failure not only in terms of instrumental deficiencies but in terms of production values. The amount of money that went into making Sgt. Pepper, or any of Bjork’s albums, what they are is unimaginable to the new-music composer. Most of us make do with the machines and software we can afford to own. The great majority of electronic composers skirt the issue by relying on synthesized electronic timbres and gradual sonic transformations that never remind anyone of real instruments. Those of us reliant on MIDI, trying to simulate melodies, harmonies, and rhythms – in my case because I’m looking for tunings and polyrhythms that live ensembles can’t currently play – are generally reduced to a repertoire of sounds summarily dismissed by audio software experts who can recognize their source. And even those who have their own groups and record in the studio rarely have access to the best microphones, the best mastering, the best guitar-shredders in the business.

This isn't just a roadblock on the compositional side.  If a classical guitarist plays some standard repertoire too quickly and too cleanly the insult of choice is to say "this sounds like MIDI rather than a human being". I've seen this barb brought out for Ana Vidovic playing Bach partitas at a tempo guitarists can consider nearly unmusical and yet I can think of a Szigeti or a Hahn performance at the same tempo being just fine.  Violinists can apparently handle tempi that guitarists can't in the case of the Bach partitaas, maybe? 

And finally, some composers will never use pop elements to pop fans’ satisfaction because they’re trying to do something else instead. What classical music, generally speaking, has to offer pop is a more global sense of structure, a reconceived relationship of detail to overall form. For those details to be as imagined by the composer, the performer can often not get carried away. You may set up some nested polyrhythms, or an interaction of two isorhythms, which would lose their rhythmic meaning were the drummer to play them imprecisely. Many composers, myself included, think music through notation, and there are limits to which the performer can interfere. What I listen for in music may be perfectly well satisfied by a composer using vernacular elements. But for most pop music fans, the points of comparison are sacred, and admit of no leeway.

Perhaps ironically what I am afraid may be the case with classical musicians performing music influenced by popular music are likely to do is to want way, way more instructions about timbre and attack issues than would be customary for pop or rock musicians to bother writing down.  I mean ... I'm havin gflashbacks to debates about whether to use a plectrum or fingernails in my rock band days.  I'm remembering how the bassist wanted me to use a pick because it had a sharper attack.  Eventually after a few years he began to feel that I was far, far more accurate using just my fingers than I was with a pick and I was glad of this observation because I got training as a classical guitarist rather than as someone doing metal with a dedicated plectrum or hybrid plectrum technique.  Sure, I could never "shred" at the speed habitually acquired by even mediocre metal guitarists but my compensatory discipline was that I had worked out how to play double counterpoint on the guitar.  But I digress.  Back to Gann.

Well, so what? I find it a little sad, because a tremendous amount of music that I find powerfully written and brilliantly conceived gets dismissed as worthless because of timbral and production-value reasons that have nothing to do with the music’s intent. I trust that the state of affairs is temporary. It may be that a new generation coming along now will become so expert at studio techniques that they will be able to merge a classical sense of composition with the most timbre-oriented recording values. It may be that a future generation less in thrall to pop records than ours will return to the pop-influenced music of the last 20 years and hear all the wonderful things it had to offer without perceiving as a negative the things it wasn’t trying to do. Whatever the case, I think we need to acknowledge that the sacredness of expectations based on pop music comparisons puts the would-be-pop-influenced composer in a difficult double bind. One can continue writing music that has nothing to do with pop, and resign yourself to endless facile charges of elitism no matter how transparent, pretty, or cogent your music is; or you can cross the line and try to draw on the other music you love listening to, and almost certainly draw yourself into a contest you are going to lose. I’ve become convinced: a pop-classical fusion may indeed be the eventual future of music, but given the way people are conditioned to listen today, there is no chance it will be the immediate future. I admire the people who try, but personally I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.
Gann is convinced that a pop-classical fusion may indeed be the eventual future of music.  I agree that it's a future worth pursuing.  I'll admit that it has been an avenue of compositional and theoretical reflection I've been doing for twenty years.  It's only in the last five to ten years that I have felt like I"m getting in the zone of the possibilities of the start of a fusion of, for instance, ragtime with sonata forms or even with fugue and let's all remember that ragtime is a form of popular music that crossed over into the Western canon and can be thought of as proto-jazz or even a subset of classical music that is no less than a century old. 

What I'm finding, not so much among actual musicians I have the pleasure of playing music with or talking music with as among ... scholars or academics who blog ... is that there's a kind of turf war afoot on whether classical music or pop music is the hegemony of the day when it seems really, absurdly easy to see how either one can be the hegemony of the day depending on whether or not teaching one of the two but not necessarily always the other is your primary passion.

That people who would like to teach Stevie Wonder songs in music coursework can feel as though there's an institutional expectation that they teach Chopin instead may not even need a linked-to example.  I know I never once heard discussions of Stevie Wonder songs when I was an undergrad in any of the coursework I took for what was possibly one of the larger music minors a person could have had.  It didn't even come up in a course I took called  "Survey of popular music", which I was only able to take, technically, because I was not officially a music major.  I think that music majors should have been "able" to take that course and even, frankly, have been required to take it.  It's not going to kill a music major to be aware of the wealth of popular song as a historically significant part of the last century of Western music--although that does get me to the next thing I want to quote.

There is, after all, something of a case to be made that if someone is studying to acquire traditional musical literacy in the Western literate musical tradition they probably don't "need" to study popular music because there is hardly anywhere these days a person can go in a post-industrial Western "First world" society where you won't constantly be hearing popular music, and Anglo-American popular music in particular. 

But who is the ‘we’, or indeed the ‘contemporary culture’, of which Zagorski-Thomas speaks? Personally, I can rarely go into a bar without being barraged by Japanese gagaku music, cannot go shopping without a constant stream of Stockhausen, Barraqué, mid-period Xenakis, or just sometimes examples of both French and Rumanian musique spectrale, piped over the loudspeakers, whilst when I jump into a taxi cab in most countries, I can be sure that there will be no escape from music of the Italian trecento. This is not to mention the cars going past blaring out the darkest Bach cantatas, or the endlessly predictable torrents of Weimar modernism which the builders will always put on the radio. Or not, obviously; in all of these cases I can be sure to hear Anglo-American popular music from the last few decades, which should make one ask which musical forms are genuinely hegemonic in contemporary culture.

Now I like a lot of popular music myself, of all types, and have done so since very young, but I would find it a bleak world if this was all that was heard, produced or studied. And I would hope that in high-level education we can do more than simply teach students about music with which they are already well-familiar, but open their minds and ears to a much wider range of music and sounds from different times, places, social strata, and so on. Furthermore, that it is possible to study musical traditions in detail, rather than just styles to be surveyed in the manner of a tourist. Many of those studying non-Western musics, music technology and indeed popular music are allowed to concentrate primarily on their specialism; I do not see why classical musicians should not be granted the same privilege, though it is increasingly frequent that this is not the case, at all levels of education.

One of the complaints that can be made about the rockist vs poptimist debate that is intra-popular is that these debates are not necessarily about the music at all but about the non-musical or rather extra-musical cultural associations narratives and sumptuary codes (to get mean about it) that are associated with these styles of music.  Debates about authenticity are debates less about whether it's okay or not for John Lee Hooker to vamp for minutes on end on a tonic chord and never more than implies the harmonic changes of 12-bar in a laconic 12/8 than it is about what kind of cultural narrative about race and class is supposed to undergird the music. 

There are plenty of occasions for scholars advocating on behalf of blues to say it broke all the rules of classical music which suggests a lack of familiarity with how ad hoc and mutable the Western art music idioms have been over the last millennium.  Or someone might talk about how blues and jazz has all this microtonal inflection that can't be captured in traditional Western musical notation and to this there can be at least two rejoinders:  1) go check out the microtonalists and advocates of extended just intonation and you'll discover that Western musical notation has been adapted in the last century the by the likes of Wyschnegradsky, Haba, Johnston and others to reflect differences in pitch as small as a few cents and 2) to even imply that microtonal inflections haven't been part of the Western musical tradition is a dicey assertion and while we're at it there's 3) Native American traditional music can have its share of microtonal inflections as can Czech music and music in Asiatic music traditions so here's hoping that people aren't trying to use a lazy set of generalizations that suggest a glib contrast between African American music and Western musical traditions that may tell more about what some people haven't bothered to learn about the shared legacy of these musical traditions than what they have picked up. 

The whole problem with this sort of scholarly (or pseudo-scholarly) approach to highlighting the differences between blues or jazz and Western art music is that it has to glide over the most substantial shared legacy all these styles tend to have, the use of equal-tempered instruments.  Attempts at developing instruments able to use 53 pitches spanning an octave go as far back as centuries.  Just because it didn't become conventional doesn' tmean it wasn't tried.  Even in the case of Liszt's proposal that quarter-tones could be used in music, his instructor Anton Reicha had theorized that before him.  I am not even a professional scholar but I can find it distressing how readily people say they are scholars seem content to traffic in stereotypes about "high" and "low" musical traditions in contemporary debates in ways tha tseem ... in light of all the things we can study and discover ... hard to excuse. 

My own feeling has been over the last twenty odd years of my music-making life is that we could do without the academic turf wars for or against high and low and work on exploring ways to rejuvenate a healthy ... you know I might as well use the term since I've been slogging through so much Adorno in the last two years ...  there's got to be any number of ways we can restore the dialectical synergy between high and low art that was observed to have taken place in historical and musical terms up into the 19th century and that, arguably, has probably never even stopped happening in the arts--if it has "stopped" it has probably stopped because of the tunnel vision of academics who have dedicated themselves to turf wars that quite possibly incidental to musical life. 

What poptimists may not realize is something that the old lefties like Adorno or Dwight Macdonald were perhaps too acutely aware of, the extent to which corporate juggernauts produced and promoted what they regarded as the sonic bilge of contemporary mass-appeal popular music.  The assumption they had to make was that the chasm they perceived between high and low was impossible to bridge and that perhaps it wasn't worth it to even try to bridge the chasm from either side.  In the last century advocates for high and low seem to have contented themselves with the idea that consciously setting out to bridge the gap isn't worth talking about because ... I'm reminded of Eric Nisenson's complaint in The Murder of Jazz that most rock critics aren't musically literate in the sense of being able to play instruments or read scores and are, far more often than not, English majors ... it can often seem that what is being discussed is not the music in musical terms but the cultural and personal narratives of the people who produce or receive the music.  I could try to talk about chains of chromatic mediant chords spinning out of an opening tonic or about a descending octatonic bass line and I might be talking about Scriabin or Charles Ives or Stevie Wonder or maybe Dusan Bogdanovic.  The thing about the theory and formal analysis is that it "can" be applied to popular music, too.

I sometimes wonder if it's not in the vested interest of academics entrenched in debates to sideline this fact.  To fans of popular styles the traditional styles have the hegemony while to those who are fans of the traditional styles the popular styles have the hegemony. I've written in the past about how academics can regard the financial one percent as the bad guys while to the financial one percent that may dislike where the theorizing of academics may go about capitalism the academics are the one percent, a cognitive one percent but a one percent.  The trouble with a term like hegemony is that it can be like, well, what Susan R Garrett said about the charge of witchcraft in the ancient world, it can be used as a buzzword allegation by whomever takes it up.  The Demise of the Devil, her monograph on the Gospel of Luke is where I read that, by the way.  Fun book!

So I admit that this is all kind of a vent.  I love a lot of popular music and I love a lot of what would have to be called "classical" music, too.  I can see why to one side the hegemony is all on the other side depending on what the point of view and can also see how in both cases the hegemony is mainly in the eye of the complainer, too.

1 comment:

Kyle Gann said...

You've outdone yourself here, and the linked articles were all well worth reading, especially the Michael Markham. I appreciate that you always present my own ideas so accurately, sometimes even pointing out things I was saying without realizing it. I can use "ontologically thin." I've bookmarked this entry to recommend to my students.