Monday, September 02, 2019

Is "everyone always stealing" black music? Wesley Morris' NYT 1619 project piece flips the script of the German Romantic ideal but still seems to play by it

I know there have been any number of conservative writers objecting to the New York Times 1619 project.  Highlighting the extent to which the slavery of blacks was a key element of American society should get detailed attention ... and yet ... there's a Wesley Morris piece that has me wondering whether or not the cliches of the Romantic era and the German idealist project haven't merely had the script flipped by American music journalists.   I'll take the liberty of quoting Morris at moderate length.

For centuries, black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom. No wonder everybody is always stealing it.

By Wesley Morris
AUG. 14, 2019

“White,” “Western,” “classical” music is the overarching basis for lots of American pop songs. Chromatic-chord harmony, clean timbre of voice and instrument: These are the ingredients for some of the hugely singable harmonies of the Beatles, the Eagles, Simon and Fleetwood Mac, something choral, “pure,” largely ungrained. Black music is a completely different story. It brims with call and response, layers of syncopation and this rougher element called “noise,” unique sounds that arise from the particular hue and timbre of an instrument [emphasis added] — Little Richard’s woos and knuckled keyboard zooms. The dusky heat of Miles Davis’s trumpeting. Patti LaBelle’s emotional police siren. DMX’s scorched-earth bark. The visceral stank of Etta James, Aretha Franklin, live-in-concert Whitney Houston and Prince on electric guitar.

But there’s something even more fundamental, too. My friend Delvyn Case, a musician who teaches at Wheaton College, explained in an email that improvisation is one of the most crucial elements in what we think of as black music: “The raising of individual creativity/expression to the highest place within the aesthetic world of a song.” Without improvisation, a listener is seduced into the composition of the song itself and not the distorting or deviating elements that noise creates. Particular to black American music is the architecture to create a means by which singers and musicians can be completely free, free in the only way that would have been possible on a plantation: through art, through music — music no one “composed” (because enslaved people were denied literacy), music born of feeling, of play, of exhaustion, of hope. [emphases added]


Chromatic chord harmony wouldn't be characteristic of all "white", "Western" or "classical" music.  Some styles of music eschew chromaticism and stick to largely modal diatonic scales.  I don't hear a lot of chromatic inflections or chromatic-chord harmony in the shape-note tradition, for instance.  Since I've been on a bit of a microtonal kick listening to music by Wyschnegradsky, Haba, and Johnston I can't say that "chromatic-chord harmony", if by that Morris meant music organized based on 12-tone chromatic half-steps has been all that typical of "western" or "classical" or "white" music until the equal-tempered tuning system was developed.  We don't have recordings of music as it was performed in the 17th and 18th centuries because, obviously, mechanical recording wasn't invented, so while we don't see any indications of microtonal inflections or adjustments to a seventeenth century Italian musical work doesn't mean it couldn't have happened.  That doesn't mean it did, necessarily, but I'm describing what I perceive as Morris' attempt to set up a duality between black and white music that I am not sure I can take as given. .

When it comes to ideas and ideals I've been pretty anti-Romantic my whole life.  I don't dislike German music as such, but I'm more of a fan of Schutz through Haydn than I am a fan of Beethoven through Brahms.  

Improvisation can be presented as a crucial element in black music but anyone who has studied European concert music from roughly 1600 to 1740 has probably run into figured bass continuo scores and realized that there's a lot Heinrich Schutz expected you to come up with from the skeletal score.  If you've ever tried reading medieval music scores you get to find out how very little is written down compared to 18th and 19th century repertoire.  I'm starting into a monograph by Angela Mariani on inventio and improvisation in medieval music and she sets out early in her book that there is a lot in performing medieval music that depends upon improvisation.  

Conversely, George Walker's scores are pretty lean, clean and clear.  His piano sonatas don't seem to call for improvisation but who on earth could say he was not a black American composer?  Joseph Bologne was an African-European composer who wrote out works that could have included some improvisation but as galant music specialists have been pointing out for a generation or so, improvisation was a key element in 18th century music.  Recently scholarly work reviving focus on the Italian partimento traditions of music pedagogy are shedding some light on ways in which improvisation was prevalent in music education for generations.  

Let me literally underline this for emphasis, the raising of the individual to the highest place within the aesthetic world of a song happens in "Western music" in the cult of the genius and in the singer-songwriter concept.  It's not that there aren't identifiable distinctions between African and European musical idioms, there surely are--the trouble is that Morris describes a number of things as being somehow essential to black music that exist in many styles of music across the entire planet.

Well, call and response is a pretty normal thing in human music across the world and it happened a lot in Renaissance vocal music.  What Morris seems to have done is to set up black American music as the music of freedom that, as the title indicates, is something that "everyone" steals.  But does "everyone"?  My concern about the NYT piece is that Morris seems so insular in defining music in American terms and in terms of an American narrative that there's not much about black music that he asserts as true that can't be found in other styles.  Does call and response music-making not exist outside of black music?  The entire polyphonic vocal tradition of Western Europe involves calls and responses, subjects and answers, cantus firmi and descants.  

The idea that plantation music wasn't "composed" because slaves were denied literacy is a category mistake.  Music can be composed in a lot of detail by people who are not literate.  In his books on early music in European traditions Bruce Haynes pointed out that many musicians who were musically literate enough to play in concert contexts may nevertheless have not been literate in the sense of being able to read books or contracts.  This doesn't mean they could not improvise music or compose out musical works.  Morris seems to be writing mainly about American popular music rather than about any other styles and it's understandable that popular music developed by African Americans represents a paradoxical musical freedom that emerged from those who were slaves or who were so low in socio-economic standing and legal rights no one would consider them "free".  

But couldn't that be said about Native Americans during the same centuries that African Americans were developing popular music?  Because Native American songs were tied with religious traditions that were frequently suppressed and because some tribes held their song traditions to be sacred and for initiates only Native American song may have had a number of obstacles to influencing American musical life that were not necessarily obstacles African American musicians may have faced in the same way.  Dale Cockrell's recent book Everybody's Doin' It charts the evolution of dance hall music as a popular range of musical styles connected to minstrelsy and also to the sex worker industries of New York, and Cockrell declares that New York's musical elite was searching in the wrong place for America's music, which was not in the symphony halls but in the concert saloons where men and women of every color danced and made music and had sex.   

Morris, too, demonstrates an awareness of this underclass wellspring of music-making across color lines. Yet Morris pauses a moment, considering the anti-racist aspect of America's grand history of racial mixing by way of popular music, and writes: ...

Sometimes all the inexorable mixing leaves me longing for something with roots that no one can rip all the way out. This is to say that when we’re talking about black music, we’re talking about horns, drums, keyboards and guitars doing the unthinkable together. We’re also talking about what the borrowers and collaborators don’t want to or can’t lift — centuries of weight, of atrocity we’ve never sufficiently worked through, the blackness you know is beyond theft because it’s too real, too rich, too heavy to steal.

...  This is the music of a people who have survived, who not only won't stop but also can’t be stopped. Music by a people whose major innovations — jazz, funk, hip-hop — have been about progress, about the future, about getting as far away from nostalgia as time will allow, music that’s thought deeply about the allure of outer space and robotics, music whose promise and possibility, whose rawness, humor and carnality call out to everybody — to other black people, to kids in working class England and middle-class Indonesia. If freedom's ringing, who on Earth wouldn't also want to rock the bell?


But couldn't this be construed as merely flipping the script of some post Johann Gottfried Herder style volksgeist?  Wanting a music that is too deep to be "stolen" or emulated sounds soulful and spiritual but it reminds me of Richard Wagner's screed about how Mendelssohn, being Jewish, could acquire all the slick technique to make passably competent music but could never have "soul".  I'm skeptical about the way "soul" gets used because I've seen that term used in just enough anti-semitic rants about Jewish music being soulless that I'm hesitant to endorse "soul", even when I have some idea of what is meant.

I understand that it is used with positive intent to describe music that leaves room for spontaneity and invention and is not technocratic ... but in that sense I could say the music of Ellington and J. S. Bach has "soul", the music of Toru Takemitsu has "soul", too.  There's some ... I don't know ... call it a golden mean mediating the extremes of writing-it-all-down and leaving-room-for-you.  Mileage varies on that.  I have no use for Elliot Carter or Milton Babbitt or Pierre Boulez because their music seems clinical and inhuman to me and yet I can think of a few people who revere the music of those composers.  If I read someone say that the music of Jacob Collier lacks "soul" I can even make a guess as to what is meant by that, and my version of that is to say that Collier has jaw-dropping technique that is not necessarily matched to a commensurate sense of interacting with the music of others, to invoke a Richard Taruskin style invective, Collier's style is a hothouse growth that comes across like the endpoint of a technocratic educational culture that can impart to eager students what they want to do but doesn't necessarily bring with that social connection through which music can find the extra-musical moorings needed to communicate beyond a restrictive niche.

But the trouble is that "soul" can often be a shorthand for ethnicity and as many whites looked askance on blacks being able to make music at the level of German masters, many whites regarded Native American songs as not even music or music of any value at all.  When Ida Halpern began her recordings of Pacific Northwest tribal songs it was partly because she'd invested in living with and working with the tribes for decades but also because the older men and women who knew the songs realized the younger men and women had no interest in the traditional songs and that if Dr. Halpern didn't record at least a few of them, the songs would die with the last generation that sung them.  So Halpern was given permission to undertake her recordings of music by the Nootka and other tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Morris settles on a definition of black music that trades on the "authenticity" that would not be in any way out of place in a post-Herder conception of The Folk.  Wesley Morris may have flipped the script of the German Romantic artist-seer and ascribed those divine and inscrutable qualities to blacks on plantations but the core mythology and script is kept securely in place.  What if the evolution of American popular musical styles in dance halls, concert saloons, brothels, and red-light district hotels is not just explicable in terms of a flipped script from the legacy of German idealism?  What if American popular styles that evolved from minstrelsy and coon songs and marches and other lower class dance styles developed as part of a larger street level tradition of lampooning the highbrow art-as-religious-experience ideal?

In his 2018 book Making Light: Haydn, musical camp, and the long shadow of German idealism, Raymond Knapp made exactly this case.

Making Light: Haydn, musical camp, and the long shadow of German idealism

Raymond Knapp
Copyright (c) 2018 by Duke University Press
ISBN 9780822372400 (ebook)
ISBN 9780822369356 (hardcover)
ISBN 9780822369509 (paperback)

pages 217-218
German Idealism’s new paradigms for Music privileged musical experiences that involved quasi-ritualistic practices of contemplation, often communal and ceremonial but in any case accompanied by attitudes of reverence (e.g., concerts in established venues such as municipal concert halls). Music thus became experientially similar to religion, most specifically like Protestant Christianity. Like religion, it imposed a purifying conformity and seriousness at the same time that it promised access to an otherwise inaccessible and mystical realm. (127)  Moreover, music conceived in these terms became a political instrument, often associated not only with aspirational cultural values but also with establishing mainstream respectability as the basis for broad communality and, often, nationalist projects in which the relevant “people” are unified by a shared history and culture. Such is not an environment that might be happily embraced by marginalized groups, be they (specifically) working class, racially or ethnically “other,” or homosexual. There was thus quite a lot at stake for such groups, both in undermining this top-down way of organizing who belonged and who didn’t, and in furthering through theatrical representation and performance a more participatory basis for community, giving literal voice to the particularities of difference—even if often disparagingly and, in the case of minstrelsy with regard to blacks, also patently disenfranchising.

I'm going to interrupt this Knapp quote to highlight something I don't agree with.  Knapp describes the German Idealism paradigm as music being like attending a church service.  What I gather Knapp was attempting to say was that in German Idealism music in art music traditions came to be regarded as something so high and holy and so expressive of the inner being and soul of the Artist it gained a sacramental function, a literally sanctifying power.  To take in some German symphonic work of a master would be like taking Eucharist.  

Now I have seen some clear and earnest arguments that classical music concerts have to stop being like church services but ... let me put it this way, I grew up in Pentecostal churches and there is no way, no way at all, that the average Pentecostal church would resemble an Anglican service or a Catholic mass! 

The kind of music Pentecostals have had was so lowbrow and terrible to middlebrow and highbrow aesthetics that in his book discussing how rock and roll emerged from Pentecostalism Randall J. Stephens records that one observer of Pentecostal services remarked that the music resembled dance hall music and in light of books on dance hall culture from the 1880s through into the roaring Twenties we should not forget too quickly the dance hall scene was regarded as a front  by respectable society for racial mixing, drug dealing, prostitution and other forms of vice.  Pentecostal music would not, in sum, fit the paradigm of German Idealism Raymond Knapp likened to attending a Protestant church service.  

Elvis, Aretha, James Brown, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, and Ray Charles may have all been really bad, bad Pentecostals in terms of the holiness thing from the Holiness tradition but they helped pioneer early rock and soul music.  The possibility that the lowest of low brow musical styles associated with dance and prostitution couldn't be assimilated into the American musical mainstream without a little help from a purifying fire of a form of American Christianity that in its earliest years had an egalitarian streak in which women preached and color lines were ignored might be something for scholars to explore.  The rowdy low-brow music of dance halls and brothels was, as Dale Cockrell has put it, beneath the level of record--crime reports mentioned more music was loud, boisterous and not quite music than mentioned the music in ways that help us understand what it sounded like.  Yet to compare scholarship on dance hall musical culture to observations about Pentecostal musical idioms invites the possibility that the music of dance halls and brothels might not have mainstreamed into American popular culture without first having a bit of sanctification at the hands of Pentecostals who found ways to make the songs about something besides sex.  

Now, we'll get back to Knapp, who discusses how minstrelsy, despite its racism, could be seen as a powerful cultural current with an ethos and praxis set against German Idealism: 

Minstrelsy, notwithstanding its inherent racism, created a space of carnivalesque inversion to attract and entertain working-class audiences, involving marginalized populations (most often Irish Americans early on, and later African and Jewish Americans) who purported to depict an even more marginalized group (everyday African Americans). Minstrelsy’s music was often raucous and rhythmic, if sometimes sentimentally nostalgic, but always cutting against the grain of more serious, high-toned music. As well, minstrelsy mined a rich vein of humor grounded in the interplay of surfaces, taking the specific forms of masks (blackface), stereotyped personae, drag, and outrageous wordplay.

Camp, as it took form in theatrical cultures, became a mode of performance and appreciation that tore at the serious core of art (as espoused, for example, by musical idealism) and especially the high-art ideals of all-embracing unities (Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerken), by drawing attention to supposed inessentials and thus enacting an implicit metaphor for celebrating the margins. At the same time, camp established a coded means of communication through which those “in the know” might recognize each other, creating in-groups that early on might have included a variety of specific groups attracted to the theater, such as Jews and other urbanites, but came in the crucial middle decades of the twentieth century to consist mainly of closeted homosexual men.

The way Richard Taruskin described this kind of ideal was to talk about a Matthew Arnold style art religion, the kind of high and elevated art that, should people expose themselves to it, would elevate the good people to a still better spiritual plane.  The flip side was a belief that listening to the wrong kind of music would thrust people toward moral evil.

Taruskin's attack against this kind of art religion has two prongs.  The first is to highlight the ways in which the "low" music was often judged such because of who was making it and what the words in the songs, where applicable, seemed to be promoting rather more than on what was going on in the music itself.  This ties back to my suggestion above that it may have been historically necessary for the music of dance halls and brothels to get a foothold into American culture through a Pentecostalism that figuratively or literally sanctified the street level styles of the dance hall before they had a chance at making it "higher" in American society.

The second prong in Taruskin's attack is a more obvious one, advising us look at the Holocaust and ask why we should think that listening to Bach, Schubert and Beethoven elevates us.  This isn't because Bach, Schubert or Beethoven wrote bad music that we shouldn't listen to, it's that the beauty of their music has little observably to do with people being averse to mass murder.   Taruskin's admonition (and it's an admonition!) is that we should find other reasons to appreciate the beauties of art than appeals to its allegedly civilizing power.  As someone whose Native American father shared a bit about how Native Americans got treated by white guys who regarded themselves as civilized I admit to being pretty much completely sympathetic to Taruskin's polemic.

Which is why I find the ideal of authenticity hard to take seriously.  I take the idea of making music that can be regarded as well-crafted within an idiom seriously.

Then again ...  I am a Hindemith fan, and if there are composers who would be considered to have less "soul" by Americans than Hindemith I hesitate to guess who those could be!   I guess it might follow that a Hindemith fan cares about craft and creativity regardless of the elements of a particular style.  If musical mastery depends upon a craft, a craft that involves intellectual discipline and physical training and social interaction, then it is something that does not have to be beholden to some essentialist concept of a volksgeist, whether The Folk with the musical real deal are white or black.

But there is another ironic element about Knapp's observation about German Idealism and American popular music, something that has to do with the King of Ragtime.  When Edward A. Berlin has reported in his biography of Scott Joplin that when Joplin heard a Wagner opera he expressed admiration for the work and clearly aspired to write both opera (Treemonisha) and a piano concerto, which has been lost.  Joplin wanted his work to be taken seriously as art and Stark certainly marketed Joplin's works as being worthy enough to be played alongside Chopin and I agree with Stark!  It's taken a century, basically, but Scott Joplin's piano works have made it into the classical canon and become part of the foundation of jazz and just about any American music I would consider worth talking about!

But we can have more than just Joplin's music, or the ragtime masters, and I think we should.  Florence Price wrote concert music which is now getting a hearing again. Someone should take the time to record her string quartets, pretty please.  Will that happen?  Well ... in a way that gets me to what Morris' piece has gotten me wondering about.

One of the problems with a mythology of black raw authenticity in underclass music is that while there's a lot of beauty to that music flipping the script of the German idealist project makes it less likely that black composers who aspired to "serious music" will be heard in the way they should and the irony of this potential predicament is that pop music advocates who set up an artificial opposition between highbrow and lowbrow in which "black" is authentic compared to a white highbrow tradition may have an incentive to just never get around to learning that composers who were or are Afro-American (George Walker), Afro-Cuban (Leo Brouwer, a personal favorite and a remarkable guitarist composer), or Afro-European (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, for instance) exist and have published works.  Would a Wesley Morris regard any of these composers as writing music that would be "black" or "black enough"?  Of course we're discussing black composers but the question that isn't even latent in Morris' working definition of blackness is whether any of these black composers have written work that fits Morris' working definition of musical blackness.  I regard Brouwer as a brilliant composer, one of my favorite living composers.  I also like what I've heard from George Walker.  I'm still digging into Price.  Coleridge-Taylor, I think, is probably too beholden to Charles Stanford era post-Romantic music to ever catch on in the United States and his music has been dubbed "not black enough", which would be a shame because which version of "black enough" are we talking about for those who would say this about his music?

This is where Raymond Knapp's work comes to mind.  As Knapp put it in his preface:


1. US American popular music grew up primarily in theatrical contexts, including minstrelsy, variety, and operetta, all of which largely opposed the strictures of an emergent “classical music” culture that was based in German Idealism. 

2. These origins and their significance for the emergence of popular music in the twentieth century have not been joined well by popular-music scholarship; indeed, advocacy for twentieth-century popular music seems most often based on rationales borrowed from the very musical culture its forebears had rebelled against.

3. Camp—a hallmark of popular musical theater—has been particularly ill served by popular music’s advocates. While this may be due in part to camp’s association with gay subcultures, it probably stems more fundamentally from camp’s fascination with the artificial, the contrived, and the theatrical—preoccupations anathematic to the cult of authenticity that has taken over popular music studies.

4. Camp itself has not been properly understood within historical contexts, perhaps because of a widespread insistence on understanding it as essentially gay, even though that association took hold relatively late and has been steadily eroded since Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” in 1964.

In other words, the German Idealist standards of authenticity and soul were at work in jazz and rock criticism in American 20th century advocacy.  The script was flipped from the Artist-Prophet being some "pale male and stale" symphonist as Guardian contributors like to put it to the black musician playing a juke joint and singing the blues ... but Knapp's contention is that the underlying script is actually the same.  The irony of this script flip, Knapp argues, is that it flies in the face of what he regarded as the aims and interests of the musicians who developed the popular styles of American music that explicitly rejected the German Idealist legacy both in terms of the dance idioms and theater music of popular song and the bawdy lyrics.

Knapp's book delves at some length into minstrelsy and camp, since the subject is making a long-form case that Haydn's music is so steeped in camp it cannot be squared with the German idealist ethos and praxis that dominated classical music and held sway in American music educational programs.  I don't take seriously the idea that Mozart or Beethoven are actually the least bit more "profound" than Haydn because Romantic era journalists and composers decided that they were.  Haydn was popular enough to inspire the foundation of a Handel and Haydn Society in America.  Joseph Bologne, an African-French musician, is recorded as having played a role in Haydn's Paris Symphonies getting into the world.

American journalists can talk about the need to revisit the history of slavery and blacks and the beautiful musical traditions developed and refined by blacks in America ... but as I get older and consider my own mixed lineage of Native American and white parents, and also consider my basically lifelong objections to the ideologies that evolved during Romanticism, my concern is that if all we Americans do is flip the script of the German idealist mythology of authentic and true artistry we'll be enslaved to that mythology through the ways we try to rebel against it.  My concern is that what Wesley Morris has done is basically just flip the script when what I believe we should do is reject that script.  As I've been trying to put it, I've been an anti-Romantic pretty much my whole life.  Maybe that makes me more sensitive to noticing when advocates of black American popular music make Coltrane or Prince the new Beethoven or Mozart in how they talk about the music they love.  You can love all of those musicians as far as I am concerned.  Despite the differences I had with Andrew Durkin about what kind of "authenticity" he tried to take on in Decomposition, I think that taking down the idea of "authenticity" is necessary--but the problem is that if I take Wesley Morris as a guide for how American journalists write about American popular music the German Idealist standard of authenticity is as alive and well in popular music journalism as it was in nineteenth century advocacy for Beethoven.

The flipped script can manifest in Guardian pieces that lament the "pale, male and stale" symphony and ask that we get more women and composers of color.  Now I am absolutely all for someone recording the Florence Price string quartets instead of yet another Schubert or Mozart cycle!  Bring it on!  It's just that one of the risks I see in music advocacy is this Romantic script, merely flipped, being the way we still talk about music.  Loving as I do the music of Haydn and Stevie Wonder I believe there has to be some other way to express admiration for these musicians than trafficking in the myths of the Romantic era. I love listening to John Lee Hooker and I love listening to the organ music of Buxtehude.  If I could decree that a composer's works for double bass and guitar could become a canon for study I would declare Annette Kruisbrink's duets for double bass and guitar should be the foundation on which double bass and guitar chamber music should be built.  Had to throw in a good word for her music while I was at it.  There is not, alas, a box set with all of George Walker's piano sonatas on it but I would highly recommend his piano sonatas and I'd like to say a brief word of thanks to Ethan Iverson for blogging about Walker's work, which is how I learned about him.

So ... when I read Morris write:

Sometimes all the inexorable mixing leaves me longing for something with roots that no one can rip all the way out. This is to say that when we’re talking about black music, we’re talking about horns, drums, keyboards and guitars doing the unthinkable together.  ...

I don't see what the problem with mixing could be.   A mixed race marriage is how I came into the world.  I am very much in favor of mixing in terms of musical styles and ethnicities.  I'm not even exactly very progressive as such.  Pentecostals have never been known for being exactly "progressive" in the way that New York progressives might think of the term.  Cosmopolitanism may only ever develop in imperial contexts but, if you'll bear with the flamboyant assertion, Catholicism and Anglicanism nailed the imperial context before American deists got around to formulating the First Amendment.

This is another element latent in Morris' writing that isn't on the surface, but the global reach of American popular music can't really be separated from American imperial presence.  Is it altogether good that middle-class people in Singapore can listen to blues?  Black American popular music doesn't have to represent freedom even to Americans just because an American journalist says it does.  My friend who grew up in Nagasaki found blues boring because it was so formulaic and predictable and took time to warm up to any jazz.  There are powerful extra-musical narratives and mythologies woven into our cultural reception of music.  What has happened is that "raw" and "authentic" have been terms applied to black American popular music as part of a journalistic and scholarly and marketing effort to sell music.  The music is, so very often, wonderful.  That doesn't mean it can't be the music of an empire.

When Ian Pace discussed Anglo-American popular music he didn't shy away from having a discussion about how while it's a rich musical tradition with a lot to it he likes but that it is in many respects the most hegemonic musical idiom on the planet.  My own conviction has been that we can't get rid of canons but we can work diligently to make sure all of these high and low and middle brow canons are able to benefit from synergistic interaction and the best way to attempt to do that is to drop the pretenses and master narratives and mythologies of authenticity that are built up around pet styles.  Meanwhile, we "could" accept black American popular music as the music of freedom if a Wesley Morris says so but does the music of Beyonce or Jay Z or Kanye West actually represent freedom?  Why?

Now it's one thing to want to preserve traditions we regard as beautiful that developed in particular ethnic contexts.  It's another thing to melt down myriad music traditions and practice into a binary of "white" or "black".  Michael Jackson had a song about how it didn't matter if you're black or white.  We .. know that there are some significant issues about Michael Jackson ... and yet part of the appeal of his songs is a hope, a hope that at some point in the future these color lines through which so many people mediate their ideas of authenticity and legitimacy won't have to be as stringent as they are. And there is, after all, more than just American black music out there.  There's Ethiopian and Kenyan and Sudanese and South African music (and some of that South African music is made by people who are white.

Even the idea of "white music" as deployed in American music journalism can seem dubious to me.  After hearing French music, German music, Polish music, Serbian music, Croatian music, English music, Irish music, Welsh music, Greek music, Italian music, Finnish music, Estonian music, Russian music, Ukrainian music and ... what am I supposed to believe all of these musical traditions have in common that makes them "white" beyond just the obvious matter of skin?  When American journalists talk about "white" music or "classical" music they are probably talking about duple meter music that sounds German or English, not about Bulgarian guitar music that switches back and forth between 5/8 and 7/8 at a breakneck tempo or Polish or Bohemian music in 5/4.  My concern, as I read journalists attempt to discuss music, is that all too often they fall back on stereotypes about generic "white" and "black" music in ways that I no longer believe are accurate descriptions of the panoply of beautiful musical idioms and traditions across all ethnicities.

Doing battle against an evil and toxic mythology perpetuated by white American racists who held to a fragmentary and historically dubious concept of "whiteness" by just flipping the script of the German Idealist checklist of authentic, raw and "real" music does not seem to me to be a path forward because developing a nostalgic narrative in which black music broke all the rules of proprietary by daring to imagine the never-done-before is inspiring to some but for me, this anti-Romantic sort just sees the same crap that I saw being promulgated by the likes of a Berlioz or a Romantic era advocate of "follow your muse and don't bother with the petty rules."  As best as I can tell sonata form wasn't made into a rigid script for how to write a first movement for a symphony until the Romantic generation came along.

As Kyle Gann has put it, eighteenth century music could get a lot weirder than you were probably ever led to believe in an introductory music survey class.  The Anton Reicha fugue in 5/8 in A major where the subject answers at E flat, sweet.  :)  As Leonard B. Meyer suggested, Reicha may have been attempting to assimilate Bohemian folk music into concert music traditions but it wasn't the normal way to approach notating music at the time, whereas in a post-Bartok era this has become more common.  That gets me to another concern, the history of Western art music traditions should warn us that it can take generations, maybe even a century or two, before what Richard Taruskin called the Western literate tradition adds a musical practice into an on-the-page form.

A good deal of music journalism I've seen arguing that we need to stop being pale, male and stale is making what I regard as a constructive criticism of the legacy of German Idealism and the more oppressive aspects of nineteenth century music pedagogy and canon formation ... but the part I disagree with is when music journalists whose background is mainly in more popular styles seem to unwittingly collapse the entire thousand year history of Western musical idioms into a one-size-fits-all German symphonic idiom.  Yeah, there's that, too, and I love a lot of Haydn symphonies ... but it's still a stereotype.  Ideally the goal in any given direction should be to help remove those stereotypes, whether it's a stereotype about German or Austrian symphonies or hip hop or country pieces all being cookie cutter identikit products that lack "soul" because an advocate for one or another says so from an academic position.  Every Robert Johnson blues song sounds the same to the uninitiated in more or less the same way that every Haydn symphony is going to sound kind of the same to the uninitiated.  Music education can, ideally, disabuse the ignorant of both of these misconceptions.

Now, finally, when we're talking about music involving horns, drums, keyboards and guitars doing the unthinkable together ... for Morris it is black American music ... but it could be Edgar Varese or Iannis Xenakis ... only if we refuse to interpret the word "unthinkable" in anything close to a literal way.  There are versions of the guitar across the world, the guitar as a concept, but the most famous guitars were developed in Spain and Russia by way of the six and seven stringed instruments respectively.  If the unthinkable is anything besides hyperbole then the unthinkable will be stuff we've never heard and won't hear because, of course, it's unthinkable.  Truly unthinkable music will never be thought up, let alone played.

To get at what Morris might really mean, I'm reminded of Elaine Sisman commenting on Beethoven's approach to variation technique.  Beethoven did not really "break the rules" of technique.  His counterpoint was solid counterpoint, his embellishments were all of a piece with what composers could do and did do.  What Beethoven was breaching, Sisman wrote in her monograph on Haydn and variation technique, was the proprieties associated with variation technique.  He might introduce violent, dark contrapuntal variation techniques into the first variation in a variation movement, which would in his day have been saved for a climactic or late-stage variation in a variation form.  This is probably closer to what music writers mean by the "unthinkable" and the thing is that that kind of "unthinkable" is virtually standard in a world as big as we have.

For a brilliant musician there's a craft to things.  Long ago I once shared with someone that if you understand the aim of a rule you can break the letter of the rule in order to observe its intent.  Something like that happens in the more capable musicians, a demonstration that part of craft is learning which aspects of a craft help you say what you want to say and which ones, once you understand that those other elements of a craft won't help you say what you want to say, can be dispensed with.  When Stevie Wonder has a neo-galant string quartet backing him up on "Village Ghetto Land" the disconnect between "high" and "low" in terms of extra-musical associations is one of the keys to appreciating the wit and acid observations of the song.  This did not, by any means, mean that Stevie Wonder didn't have any affection for classical music.  He sang Schubert's "Ave Marie", after all.

Had Stevie Wonder decided to do what would be called a "raw" and "rough" blues ballad "Village Ghetto Land" would probably still have been a pretty good song.  I don't exactly embrace the idea that Art has to be done in such a way where it could only be "this" and not something else.  The genius of what Wonder did with his neo-galant setting of "Village Ghetto Land" is he says "Would you like to come with me, down my dead end street ... " in a musical context that tells you that, no, whoever the "you" is that he's addressing in the song is never going to go with him down to Village Ghetto Land ... but that doesn't mean the speaker in Wonder's song can't tell that "you" about the place.  That the "you" Wonder's speaker is speaking to is not the "you" who is you or me listening to the song is part of the craft of the song.

Ironically, perhaps, a quote that comes to mind about the mythologies of authenticity presented by advocates for generic conceptions of "white" and "black" music is from a writer with whom I often ardently disagree.  When he's wrong he's spectacularly wrong but when he is right (in the "a broken clock can still be right twice a day" way) he is, probably, very right.

Perhaps that art alone would be authentic that would be liberated from the idea of authenticity itself, of being thus and not otherwise.
Theodore Adorno, Philosophy of New Music
It's a terrible shame he couldn't follow his own advice on that axiom in relationship to music made by black Americans.  Adorno's Marxist commitment precluded him from recognizing that there could be craft and artistry even in what he regarded as trashy popular song.  Sure, a lot of popular songs are identikit mass-produced products ... but even Adorno could notice that an awful lot of what he regarded as low quality serious music had the same problem.

My conviction over the last twenty years has been that the "high" and "low" have atrophied into formulas because practitioners of musical styles have gotten into ruts, ruts that would seem easy to escape if they restored a synergistic interaction of styles guided by deliberate decision-making; I don't mean all the folks who in some kind of New York music scene are described as "beyond genre". A contemporary Adorno might sniff, with cause, that the kinds of people who say their music is beyond genre might not have any demonstrable mastery of any of the styles and genres they claim their music is beyond.

What my ideal is, as I trust I've implied by so many words about Stevie Wonder, is a level of musical craft in which you can take or leave elements of a style or idiom for expressive purposes because you have mastered enough of those styles to mix and match.  You can't do that if you regard one of them as more authentic than another and this is not a point about pluralism at some ideological level of the sort that conservatives and traditionalists go on about, it's about something more central to the life of a practical musician, what Paul Hindemith used to call craft.  Or as my composition instructor used to tell me, "You can break as many of the "rules" as you want as long as you know what they are and why you're breaking them. That's what I can help you learn." Since he knew I enjoyed some of Mondrian's work he pointed out that Mondrian's later work meant what it did because he had the craft to do other things.  That is what a music education can help you gain.

Someone like Stevie Wonder can write "Superstition" and perform "Ave Maria" and play those brilliant contrapuntal harmonic solos on "Too High" by mastering a variety of styles.  There's a type of plurality of mastery of style that we can find in the seventeenth through eighteenth centuries that may ... drop off a bit in the wake of the Romantic generation as certain elements of craft came to be regarded as too fussy and fusty.  There's nothing fussy or fusty about a fugue if you remember that the heart of such writing is in the tunes.  In principle I think a composer should be able to take a bass line from something like an Aretha Franklin or Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles song and develop a fugue or invention out of that.  It's a hold over from the ideological notions of the Romantic era and what Leonard B. Meyer described as its focus on organicism to claim that there are "inherent" tendencies to the material, or inherent possibilities.  That, I think, depends on craft.  I might find that a theme I wanted to use in a set of variations might sound bad as a variation movement and then I might discover that if I reconceive the work as a sonata form that suddenly things "click" and I can finish the piece.  Something that might not make sense for me as a sonata may work well as a rondo.  I might find an idea that works well as a sonata theme can also work as a fugue subject but if I don't have the craft and knowledge from which to make these decisions I'm stuck.

I've come to a conviction that music education is valuable and yet also misrepresented, particularly as relates to style.  I don't think people cannot be taught styles.  People can be taught jazz and blues and country and all of the lowbrow vernacular styles that supposedly don't follow the rules of classical music.  What people cannot be taught is what decisions to make and this was Adorno's damning assessment of integral serialism and aleatoric music, that both styles amounted to techniques that absolved their users of ever having to make artistic decisions.  I discussed that at some length in "
Between forms of non-choice" a while back, and discussed how Adorno's criticism of the technocratic tendencies inherent in twelve-tone technique could be cross-referenced to Jacques Ellul's criticism of art in technocratic societies.

To put all of that in an old-fashioned Romantic sort of way, the question is whether you master technique or whether technique masters you. The Romantics, I suppose, urged everyone toward the former rather than the latter but the mythologies surrounding the Artist-Hero that have accrued over the centuries and the emergence of technocratic art in technocratic societies of the kind that Adorno and Ellul condemned may suggest to some of us, at least, that the Romantic ideology of authenticity and legitimacy have shifted dangerously in the direction of the mythologies superceding aspects of craft--the way I see the Romantic era of music will not be everyone's cup of tea but I regard Romantic era pedagogy as creating a double bind that music and music education would benefit from finally shaking off, both in terms of concepts of formal analysis and craft and also in terms of what I consider its more pernicious legacy, ideas and ideals of authenticity and legitimacy in art that are, as many a progressive writer has pointed out, too implicitly anchored to colonial legacies.

When I read Wesley Morris' piece there was stuff I admired about the sweeping survey of how popular music performed by black musicians came to gain acceptance and popularity and respect in American history ... but there's a lot in there that as vestigially Romantic ideology that I recognize and reject.  As I've been saying, if all we do is flip the script of the Romantic era German Idealist concept of Art we're still tied to that script.

POSTSCRIPT 9-28-2019

Noticed there was some problems with blogger not letting me shift font colors to delineate quotes and discussion.  So I've been working on refining that, with mixed results.  

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