Saturday, January 12, 2019

a piece from March 2018 by Fahad Siadat on the future of choral music

I've been reading articles at the Future Symphony Institute over the last few years and I'm sympathetic to the proposal that what we generally think of as classical music is continued as a realm of creative activity.  I do love the arts a good deal, even if I confess to being ambivalent at best about the nature of the arts as industry in the contemporary West.  It's not that difficult to find articles in which someone insists that orchestras are too parochial and staid and should be open to new music and to be aware that that's not necessarily disinterested rhetoric.

It's possible to see advocacy for new music as advocacy for new music over against the symphonic warhorses that reflects a "we should have our turn".  But the symphony was not always the most prestigious pinnacle of musical prestige.  Let's take Scott Joplin, the American composer of ragtime who died before he could complete or publish a piano concerto he was sketching and who was known to have composed musical-dramatic works such as "A Guest of Honor" and Treemonisha.  There's an effort under way to update the text of Treemonisha while attempting to keep the music.

Though I admire Scott Joplin's music I am not sure that attempting to update his opera is necessarily the way I would go.  As a guitarist I have other interests.  But I cite this effort to show that in Joplin's lifetime the most prestigious musical form in the high art traditions he was working toward were the piano concerto and opera rather than the symphony.  If you've read Douglas Shadle's Orchestrating the Nation it's not hard to speculate that Joplin knew enough about the concert music America of his time to realize that symphonies had pitiably short lives in the United States.  My own take is that as a form of popular song ragtime evolved into jazz which evolved into R&B and rock and that American popular song even now has a residually ragtime feel once you've internalized ragtime to the point where you can hear how it's riffs and gestures evolved.  I think there's still plenty that can be done to move Joplin's work and musical legacy into more explicitly contrapuntal directions and to assimilate it into more complex large-scale forms. 

Yet for all my interest in chamber music and music for classical guitar, that gets to a theme that has run through the Future Symphony Institute writings and writers that I've been thinking about. 
As a guitarist whose primary musical experience in educational and performance terms was in choirs, I admit that there's something about the Future Symphony Institute I don't quite connect to ... namely the symphony part.  Why are we invited by way of the institute's name to consider the future of classical music to be a symphony in an orchestral sense?  I'm not saying there won't be symphonic music in the future or that I don't like symphonic music.  As a guitarist and composer I feel, if anything, that guitarists and guitarist composers can only benefit from immersion in symphonic music, chamber music, keyboard literature and so on.

But I was also choral singer in school (Tenor II and/or Baritone as needed) who had the pleasure of singing Byrd, Tallis, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Poulenic, Messiaen, and Alice Walker arrangements before I ever got around to writing (or playing) my first guitar sonata.   If you think about Western music as a continuous line of musical activity across the Western world over the last 1,200 years maybe as much as a quarter to as little as a sixth of that time has gone by in which instrumental music was thought of as the apotheosis of musical art in the West.

Which is to say that if people think the future of classical music is the symphony that might be an ultimately reactionary stance. The foundations of what we think of as the Western art musical canon emerged in vocal and choral music and evolved to include instrumental traditions over the course of centuries before what we can properly think of as the symphonic literature evolved.  And when I say symphonic literature you probably didn't reflexively think "Oh, right, we totally need a Vanhal revival right now!"  You probably just asked "Who's Vanhal?" if you're not already steeped in musicology discussing 18th century composers.  Now maybe we will, in fact, get a bit of revived interest in Vanhal symphonies but, who knows?  My jocular point is that a great deal of symphonic music is as unknown or more unknown now than it ever was in the lives of the composers who made it.  It may be axiomatic that the higher the pinnacle of a musical culture the more parochial it must inevitably be about what repertoire it presents and preserves. 

But I have been thinking for a few  years now that the future of what's colloquially known as classical music may be returning back to vocal idioms.  On that note ... here's some of an essay at New Music Box about the state of American choral music.

Here’s a common experience I have as a publisher of choral music: I’ll receive a piece with all the hallmarks of a composer who knows what they are doing. The piece is well engraved, follows the rules of voice leading, is idiomatically written for the voice—and is dull. But then I’ll do a little sleuthing and find samples of this same composer’s instrumental music, which will often by contrast be lively, engaging, and innovative. Nothing drives me battier than to see this separation between the two mediums, and I’ll often write an impassioned reply to the composer asking why they are so apparently willing to stifle their creative voice when it comes to choral music. Nine out of ten times, they respond with something akin to “thank you for giving me the permission to write the music I want to write.” These experiences have lead me to the belief that while there is plenty of newly composed music for choir, it is not part of the same contemporary conversation around new music as its instrumental and solo counterparts.

It’s no shocker to say that the choral and instrumental worlds have evolved quite separately over the past century. Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs, and the deep exploration of timbre found in instrumental pieces from later in the 20th century has mostly been ignored in favor of the pervasive choral sound inherited from the English cathedral tradition. Not only have the two worlds evolved separately, but their cultural importance is weighed differently as well. Using the Pulitzer Prize as one limited metric, it’s worth noting that, until The Little Match Girl Passion in 2008, an a cappella choral piece had never won the prize. This fact is confounding if we consider that choral music is the single most popular activity among adults in America. [emphasis added] It is estimated that 32.5 million adults in America sing with a choir on a weekly basis and that ensemble singing is the most popular arts activity among adults in the United States. While the majority of choirs are religious or school ensembles, it is conservatively estimated that 12,000 of US choirs are community and professional groups. That’s 10 times the amount of community and professional orchestras in the United States. It’s entirely possible that the Pulitzer committee shares the same perspective as much of the new music world, that choral literature is not in the same “high art” category as its orchestral counter-part. And to be fair, the largely avocational nature of choirs contributes to the cultural sense that, as a whole, it need not be taken as seriously as instrumental music.

Kyle Gann once wrote a blog post called "make way for the guitar era", or something close to it.  As a guitarist I'm happy to consider the possibility that the last century has, in fact, been the era of the guitar.  It might not have been the era of the classical guitar in the way that Andres Segovia wanted us to think about the classical guitar and probably "just" the classical guitar, but it was arguably a guitar era, an era which is in some sense already past us here in the 21st century.  But for the classical guitar it could be hoped that the instrument and the musicians who compose for it and play it are on the cusp of some interesting things.

We may have been back in the era of song at the level of popular song and also in terms of a proliferation of choral societies.  Yet if the standards of the best music have been refined in the last few centuries from instrumental models then a great deal of choral and vocal music will not pass the muster of "deep" or "serious" because the music does not conform to the ideals extracted from the most established instrumental works in the long 19th century.

As I've written dozens of times by now, I think that what would most benefit the "high" and "low" musical arts is that they would actually interact again.  The respective trenches of popular music and classical music, and even the subsidiary trenches dug within these respective trenches, seem at times to be too well set.  Whatever the future of what we call classical music may be I am not suggesting there won't be symphonies or orchestras at all, but a world in which there was no practically existing thing as a symphonic art and practice certainly existed in the Western past and it's possible that the future of classical music may not actually be all that much in the symphony, it may be in choral and vocal music, at least in the United States. 

a back and forth at Slate in which it's asked whether the pop narratives have drowned out the music in 2018

Dear Music Club boos,

Rawiya’s question about whether “stories” are more important than music now nudged up against a thought that I had several times over the course of 2018. While 2018 was a better year than 2017 for Taylor Swift, for instance—because of her nemesis Kanye’s fall from grace, and because of the emergence of “Delicate” as the true signature Reputation single, after last year’s misfires—it would be hard to deny that her most important release this cycle was her October election endorsements. She finally realized that trying to stay politically neutral (a policy Nashville would have drummed into her young) was costing her more than it gained, making her seem programmed and out of step with her generation.

Online videos were often much bigger events than albums or songs—personally I don’t think Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” stands up so well without the video, but that clip was an earthquake. I know middle-aged folks who hadn’t paid pop music any mind for years who got obsessed with it (one even went to a Gambino show, his first concert in years, as a result). Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Apeshit” video had a similar effect, as did Drake’s “Nice for What” video, and Janelle Monáe’s “Make Me Feel” and “Pynk” videos (less so the full-length “emotion picture” that went along with Dirty Computer), and Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock and Future’s “King’s Dead,” and Cupcakke’s Rabelaisianly NSFW “Duck Duck Goose” clip—and of course, all of “Beychella.” Not to mention the music-oriented movies: A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Greatest Showman (whose soundtrack is the best-selling album of the year in the U.K. and no slouch in the U.S., but generally ignored by critics), and to some degree Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, etc. This hierarchy of the visual over the aural is nothing new, but it’s another part of the dynamic.

To extend the question further, can we really still maintain the illusion that people like music better than they like Instagram? Or Fortnite, for that matter? Even the degree to which a year-end music discussion compels us into analysis of the details of streaming illustrates how much more energy tends to accrue to talking about platforms than to talking about music. I’m not raising this as a Luddite protest, because on a basic, Marxist level, debating those centers of economic power and social capital probably does deserve priority—it’s just less satisfying to the aesthete in me, which is a lot of me.

Another excerpt, in this case mentioning that in the midst of pop narrative and music and video it can be possible for work that is maybe a bit underwhelming for someone at a musical level compensates at the level of cinema ... and that ... might not necessarily be a great thing.  Here's an author admitting that Donald Glover, however compelling he is as actor and screenwriter, has not quite "gotten there" as a songwriter yet but ... 


Speaking of virality, one of the most talked-about and frequently watched songs of 2018 was Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” While I’m an admirer of Donald Glover the actor and screenwriter, I’ve never much warmed to Childish Gambino’s music. Early works like Camp and Because the Internet felt like topiary with nothing behind it, elaborate hedges of winks and smirks for people who like rap to be good for a laugh. With “Awaken, My Love!” in 2016, Gambino seemed to put away childish things and declare that the joke was over, but just because you’ve decided to take music seriously doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve gotten better at it, and I found “Awaken, My Love!” to be a lavishly produced exercise in paint-by-numbers re-creationism by a guy who still couldn’t sing or write songs.

And then this year came “This Is America,” which used a stunning music video to pull a characteristically underwhelming song to the top of the Billboard charts this past spring. (Pace Chris, with whom I rarely disagree, but in this case the best explanation for the song’s underperformance on radio may be the most obvious: To my ears, it’s just not very good.) “This Is America” was widely touted as a career pinnacle for Childish Gambino but almost always with the insistence that song and video were inherently inseparable, which felt like a bunch of people besotted with Glover’s work on Atlanta moving the goal posts on his musical alter ego’s behalf. Making a great television show doesn’t make you a great musician, and hiring Hiro Murai to direct your music video—a terrific filmmaker long before he started working with Glover—doesn’t necessarily prove you’re a poly-artistic visionary, it just proves you’re well-connected and, it must be said, rich. (For a sharper and far more eloquent rebuttal to the “This Is America” hype than mine here, see this great essay by Israel Daramola in Spin that Chris mentioned as well, one of the finest pieces of cultural criticism I read this year.)

Even if he was slumming it Donald Glover as Lando was an absolute blast!  One of the only things about the Solo movie I actually liked. And his almost sleepy turn in Spiderman: Homecoming was still pretty entertaining to me. Why do you keep trying to upsell me, man? I said I wanted something subtle.  May Glover continue to have a long and illustrious career in acting.

But I admit that I, too, thought the song "This is America" was ... alright.  I mean, I realize how cosmically unfair it has to be to compare the song to "Living for the City" and find it wanting!  Or Duke Ellington's "Koko", let alone his "Come Sunday" on which Mahalia Jackson sang.  But one of the things about virality is that it's possible for something to go viral as a total work of art in a Wagnerian sense that is in many respects so much more than the sum of its parts that there's a halo effect about the parts that, once you separate them, turn out to be ... maybe not quite what you thought they were. 

Of course being interested in music criticism and arts criticism in spite of my at times ambivalent feelings about it, I am, of course, going to link to the Daramola.

Israel Daramola // May 8, 2018

Donald Glover is always doing a bit. When he first started performing as a rapper named Childish Gambino, it seemed like an excuse to record updated backpack rap full of dopey punchlines and Asian girl fetishizing. Despite the Gambino persona gathering a legitimate audience over time, it was hard to separate him from his persona as the goofy and unthreatening black guy in Community, Girls and Derrick Comedy. This would be frustrating to any black performer obviously but Glover himself did not seem intent on making the distinction clear. His 2012 standup special is full of wincing moments like him bragging about dating, what he calls, “the blacks girls of every race.” This comedy, present as well in those early Childish Gambino records, heavily relied on his “otherness” from the rest of rap and street culture in a way that read as condescending (see much of the Culdesac tape and 2011’s Camp). Gambino could be as coarse, misogynistic and offensive as the rap he distanced himself from, but at least he could make literary references. At that point in his career, that was enough. Childish Gambino was mostly successful even though it was panned, with Glover collaborating with rappers-by-trade and scoring a radio hit with the lead single (“3005″) from his sophomore album Because the Internet. In the age where Drake, J. Cole and Big Sean were rising stars, nerdy rappers bragging about finally becoming cool was a successful enterprise; Gambino, and Glover himself, fit in perfectly.

By 2016, in the post-Trayvon, post-Ferguson, #OscarsSoWhite era of black activist art, Glover emerged with Atlanta. It’s a good show that benefits from prestige television’s elevation of Lynchian weirdness and high-art storytelling. Glover finally got the black acceptance that eluded him for so long by making a show about real black people, but in a bizarre world that felt new and progressive for television. Glover made the most of this new framing of his career. Two months after Atlanta debuted, he released Awaken My Love!, a watered down Funkadelic album that differs from the rest of his catalogue. Perhaps Glover, who had just become a father, connected with the familial funk and Afro-futurism’s promise of a better, blacker tomorrow. Or perhaps he saw an opportunity in the new age of “woke” black identity art. With his new song and video, “This Is America,” Glover-as-Gambino seems to make use of his new goodwill to attempt a more sonically and structurally ambitious social commentary. The visually stunning and well-choreographed video displays the kind of ambition that leads people to use the word genius, but in a way that is predictable for something so heavy-handed.

Neither the video or the song are aware of what they think they’re aware of. The former deals in shock and violence to distract you from the fact that the latter is a B-grade attempt at a Kendrick Lamar song, capitalizing on the culture’s growing numbness to seeing black people being murdered while claiming to be making a point. Glover depicts violence done to black people in graphic detail–at one moment even showing himself gunning down a black choir in what feels like an allusion to the Charleston church murders–while rapping about partying and making money. The juxtaposition of the two things is obvious and feels infuriatingly cheap. It is pandering to the current cultural climate’s need for art, particularly black art, to be serious, woke, and important without actually having anything to say. At worst, it’s an arrogant finger wag at the culture’s money-hungry attitudes and vapid partying in the midst of racial violence; at best, it’s a lazy critique of capitalism and America’s gun problem. Its argument against treating the death of black people as callous and inconsequential is to depict the death of black people as callous and inconsequential.

"B-grade attempt at a Kendrick Lamar song" ... ouch!  I think, maybe, I can hear what Daramola means, though, since I have heard a little bit of Lamar's work.  I'm still a lot more partial to Linton Kwesi Johnson myself, in terms of Johnson's harmonic palette (back when I was in high school I tried out listening to reggae and discovered I was indifferent to Marley but was drawn to Johnson and to Judy Mowatt who has what I consider to be an Aretha Franklin level voice but whose songs have been comparatively unknown).   So ... I kinda get that Glover's songwriting chops are not at the level of his cinematic work. 

And yet... if I compare even that to ballads by Vance Joy, John Mayer, Jason Mraz and the like I'm not sure I'm going to fault Donald Glover of a finger wag.  I'm getting really, really, really tired of bro-balladry on an endless cycle of I-V-vi-IV loops.  Phrygian cadences are a cliche in Spanish classical guitar music and folk, perhaps, but there's a case to be made that letting the cliches of different styles intermingle is what keeps styles from getting stale.  My frustration with both popular music and what's known as classical music is that it seems in the respective trenches the styles have too often become too self-contained and that the metrics and algorithmic approach to monitoring listening habits can further entrench rather than diversity listening patterns and, with that, compositional approaches.  I'm not too worried that active musicians are likely to fall prey to this in a direct way but ... this lets me transition to something I read at The Baffler.

The Baffler being The Baffler, it had an end-of-year rumination on one of the other traits of our contemporary pop music culture, that if technology isn't neutral and our listening habits get shaped by the technologies we use, then streaming listening culture may be changing our cognitive approaches to music for the worse. 


The week that “Psychopath” was released, it was quickly serviced to official Spotify playlists including Pop Rising, Indie Pop, Pop Right Now, Fresh & Chill, Swag!, Indie Stage, Front Left, Left of Center, Easy, Get Popped, Pop Relax, Chill af, as well as dozens of New Music Friday playlists around the world. The next week, Spotify began removing it, and by mid-May it was gone from pretty much all official playlists. Even someone like Matt, who wholeheartedly loves Spotify-pop, agrees that it’s an environment that devalues music: “It’s disposable AF. It’s too disposable. New Music Friday has seventy-plus songs every week. Who is actually supposed to hang on to any of those songs? There’s too much!” This is a symptom of the attention-driven platform economy as well: the churning stomach of the content machine constantly demands new stuff. In such an economy, music that doesn’t take off is dropped once it has outlived its usefulness—either as a brand prop or as playlist-filler.

What is considered useful to streaming services? Music that streams well. This is all part of what independent artists are up against today: a supposedly neutral platform that manipulates them into creating value on its own terms (more recently in the form of free #Wrapped advertising), one that cares more about playlist streams than creating a sustainable situation for artists. The problem is not the chill-pop musicians, but a self-replicating system that continuously rewards the same styles—the ones that users will stream endlessly, whether they’re paying attention or not.

Maybe ... but that sounds more like a function of the listening habits of people who habitually listen to radio.  I stopped seeking out radio listening experiences decades ago.  I'm pretty sure that you're never likely to hear the string quartets of Ben Johnston played by the Kepler quartet on your local radio station ... although if you do, that's great! 

So, a few things from a Slate music round-up I meant to get around to earlier but I just didn't feel like it.  But, seeing as there's a weekend after the holiday season has come and gone, I'm trying to get a little bit back into this thing I've done called blogging.

at JSTOR Matthew Wills plays with the idea that literary modernism of the 20th century kind was designed to exclude the working class

In Wills' telling the mania for Shakespeare and Victorian literature stemmed from the books being cheap because none of the literature was under copyright.  The literary boom was a literary boom of public domain literature.

Meanwhile, by the late nineteenth century, inexpensive reprints of classics by authors such as Swift, Pope, Fielding, Byron, and the Greek philosophers were becoming popular. Many of these were cheap because they were out of copyright. This occurrence, combined with the growth of public education, soon had ordinary folks reading more and more books, including seeking out more contemporary writers. Rose has an interesting theory about how this trend helped to create the literary movement of modernism:
The intelligentsia was driven to create literary modernism by a profound loathing of ordinary common readers. The intellectuals feared the masses not because they were illiterate but because, by the early twentieth century, they were becoming more literate, thanks to public education, adult education, scholarships, and cheap editions of the great books.
It wasn’t until 1929, for instance, that the Edwardian giants H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were discovered by one of Rose’s sample readers. Rose writes about a tailor’s son from the rural north of England who couldn’t have known that Wells and Shaw were considered passé by middle class readers like Virginia Woolf. On the contrary, Shaw and Wells were “the last word in subversive literature” for the tailor’s son. In other words, this working class reader, among many others, was what Rose calls a “combination of political radicalism and literary conservatism.”
Class is always about distinctions in what you say, eat, wear, and act compared to others higher or lower on the economic rungs. In this case, it was a question of what you read. As working-class readers got deeper into the canon, Rose argues, the canon’s goalposts were moved farther away from them:
If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.
Rose’s take on a class-based history of reading certainly makes for interesting reading.
The book in question ...

Now Dwight Macdonald's claim was the modernist writers who were known retroactively as the avant garde didn't even see themselves as such. They were trying to combat what they regarded as the nearly universal kitsch to which arts and letters and music had devolved by the end of the 19th century.  There may still be quite a bit in favor of that observation but it might also be true that the elitism of the highbrow and the old left was just as real. 

This may help me get at a point I've struggled to make about what it is I enjoy about Haydn compared to Beethoven.  Beethoven's music is not exactly aristocratic in means or ends but it can be labeled as fit for an aristocracy of spirit, if you will.  It's elite music that demands elite learning and attention.  I love the late string quartets and piano sonatas but as some members of the Emerson string quartet have put it, you can feel Beethoven's ego permeating every page!  You don't get that sense from Haydn.  A way to translate this is that Haydn's music gained elite status while being popular and yet Haydn's approach was not, however learned within his cultural time, what we would call elitist, and this despite the fact that he made music to order for aristocrats.

I can't go even one week without reading something in arts coverage about the dangers of the Trump era that are specific to the arts and, well, I sometimes find it frustrating that it seems to be taken as a given that any kind of populist sympathy, any kind of notion that there doesn't have to be a galaxy-sized distance between high and low art traditions and practices, has to be indicative of anti-intellectualism.  Maybe Adorno was right when he declared that up through the end of the eighteenth century it was possible for something to be genuinely popular and still qualify as working at the highest level of art but what has never been adequately explained to me is why Adorno's assumption that that stopped within the 19th century and since has to be taken as given.

Ethan Hein on receptivity to Ellington and jazz, a reminder that the debate about jazz continued what happened in late 19th century debates about ragtime

I first learned about Ethan Hein's blogging through Slipped Disc.  Now I'm relatively sure regulars at that website might not be happy to know that their vitriolic reactions to Hein's blogging would pique my interest in his blogging.  Though I think of myself as a moderately conservative stick in the mud sort on many things I'm sympathetic to what might be called avant garde ideas about the arts.  I am particularly interested in restoring a synergistic or, if you will, dialectical relationship between "high" and "low" arts that I believe have balkanized and separated since the dawn of the Romantic era.  So even if I don't share Ethan Hein's fondness for hip hop I am sympathetic to his interest in music theory and showing ways in which music theory can be applicable across styles.  I probably won't agree with him on any number of topics being a semi stick in the mud Presbyterian on the West Coast, but I like reading his blog lately.  Chalk it up to yet another author where irascible comments from the likes of John Borstlap boomerang and get me interested in reading someone to find out if they can even be half as bad as has been said.  I ended up binge-reading about half a dozen Adorno books that way!

So, anyway, here's a post Hein wrote that I want to look at.  It's been interesting reading how debates about the musical legitimacy of jazz in the 1920s seem to have more or less taken up the debates that were had about the musical legitimacy of ragtime ten and twenty years prior. 

While music educators acknowledged the popularity of jazz, they saw its main virtue as being effective bait to lure young people into the study of “serious” music. The Etude, a music education periodical, devoted its entire August 1924 issue to “The Jazz Problem.”

In his introductory essay, editor James Francis Cooke wrote that jazz would need to dramatically transformed by composers before it would have any real value: “In its original form it has no place in musical education and deserves none” (quoted in Maita, 2014). While other contributors to the issue had more conflicted and nuanced views of jazz, the general tone was dismissive. Viewed against this context, Grainger’s enthusiasm for jazz is remarkable—he even wrote a pro-jazz rebuttal in the following issue of The Etude.
Ellington was the first jazz composer to be taken at all seriously by classical critics, though even his supporters found ways to demean him, intentionally or otherwise. In June of 1932, R. D. Darrell wrote the first in-depth critical review of Ellington’s music. Darrell praised Ellington for “economy of means, satisfying proportion of detail, and the sense of inevitability—of anticipation andrevelatory fulfillment—that are the decisive qualifications of musical forms” (58, emphasis in original). However, when he placed the music in context, he was stunningly offensive by modern standards:
[W]hen I upturn treasure in what others consider to be the very muck of music, I cannot be surprised or disappointed if my neighbor sees only mud where I see gold, ludicrous eccentricity where I find an expressive expansion of the tonal palette, tawdry tunes instead of deep song, ’nigger music’ instead of ’black beauty’” (58).
While Darrell came to admire “Black and Tan Fantasy,” his initial reaction was derision:
I laughed like everyone else over its instrumental wa-waing and gargling and gobbling, the piteous whinnying of a very ancient horse, the lugubrious reminiscence of the Chopin funeral march. But as I continued to play the record for the amusement of my friends I laughed less heartily and with less zest. In my ears the whinnies and wa-was began to resolve into new tone colors, distorted and tortured, but agonizingly expressive. The piece took on a surprising individuality and entity as well as an intensity of feeling that was totally incongruous in popular dance music. Beneath all its oddity and perverseness there was a twisted beauty that grew on me more and more and could not be shaken off (58).
In fairness to Darrell, Ellington’s instrumental timbres are startling even now, as I will discuss below.
The British critic Constant Lambert was another early champion of Ellington from within the classical music world, but he too felt the need to qualify his praise with condescension. He prefaced his discussion of Ellington by observing that “Negro talent” was “on the whole more executive than creative” (Lambert 1934, 206). However, he found Ellington to be “a real composer, the first jazz composer of distinction, and the first negro composer of distinction” (Lambert 1934, 214). Unlike Grainger, Lambert recognized that Ellington frequently through-composed his music. Also, Lambert recognized that the canonical form of an Ellington piece is the recording, not the score. The Philadelphia Record interviewed Ellington soon afterward and asked him to respond to Lambert’s praise. They probably took wide liberties in representing his responses, describing “a look of simple wonder” on his face and rendering his quotes in dialect, e.g. “Is zat so?” (quoted in Tucker 1993, 112).
Beyond his love for black culture, Ellington was not overtly political. For example, he declined to join the March on Washington in 1963. However, he did play a role in what Kelley (1996) calls “infrapolitics”—subtle protest undertaken in cultural and informal spheres. Ellington cultivated a dignified and decorous public persona, one that demanded respect not just from whites, but from other blacks who disdained jazz as unseemly. His dandyism made a comparable statement to the prewar black fashion for ostentatious zoot suits:

What’s intriguing about Ellington’s public persona of respectability and dignity in his musical work is that he was, in a sense, reproducing what Scott Joplin did in the 1890s through to Joplin’s death in 1917 during the Ragtime Era.  Duke’s regal and well-spoken take had precedents in the black musical community and history of the U.S. which is not to say he necessarily copied Joplin.  As Edward Berlin’s work on ragtime has shown, Joplin felt that the lyrics to ragtime as popular song trafficked so freely in racial stereotypes and caricatures and celebrated violence to such a degree he felt the music would be easier to love and appreciate if it wasn't tethered to the coon song traditions.  

Fortunately for Joplin's work and legacy we think of ragtime now as primarily a genre of instrumental piano music and not as the genre of popular song that it actually was in its day.  The parallels between the vitriol directed at ragtime in the 1890s and early 1900s as musically worthless garbage by colored people and debates about rap and hiphop are hard not to notice.  Whereas in the late 19th century the lament was it took no musical talent to play ragtime compared to the classical piano literature, Edward Berlin and others have highlighted that "ragging the classics" was popular.  To translate that a bit, sampling classical literature into what was then a contemporary popular style was a well-known habit within the style.  It was even done into the 1920s.  George Cobb transformed a Rachmaninoff piece (Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2) into a "Russian Rag", for instance.  

This video is probably the best example online of how "ragging the classics" works. There are other videos where translating classical piano repertoire into ragtime happens but this is a case of a historically known ragging within the ragtime era before it mutated into what has since been called the Jazz Era.

Ragtime as a popular style so permeates the American musical legacy that ragtime scholars have made effective cases that you can't fully appreciate the evolution of country music as we have come to know it without some at least passing knowledge of ragtime.  Country, which is stereotypically thought of as the whitest of white music, has some debt to ragtime.  

I've published this in the past but here's a brief list of some books on ragtime

Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History
Edward A Berlin
Originally published by the University of California Press
Copyright (c) 1980, 2002 by Edward A Berlin
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3064-9

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his era (2nd edition)
Edward A Berlin
Oxford University Press
Copyright (c) Edward A. Berlin 1994, 2016
ISBN 978-0-19-974032-1
ebook ISBN: 978-0-19-024605-1

Ragtime: It's History, Composers, and Music
edited by John Edward Hasse
Copyright (c) 1985 by John Edward Hasse
Schirmer Books
ISBN: 0-02-8716507
ISBN: 0-02-872650-2 (pbk)

I feel obliged to cross reference to Raymond Knapp's monograph on Haydn and camp, which I discussed last year.

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)

During the late 19th and early 20th century ragtime was regarded as low-grade scandalous popular song.  White and black clergy were set against it because of the bawdy lyrics and degrading racial stereotypes that were seen as presenting African Americans in the worst possible light.  It was also considered noise any incompetent musician might play rather than dignified classics.  Interestingly, some ragtime specialists have suggested that some of the roots of ragtime can and should be traced back to solo banjo music, with an observation that one of the insults shared in correspondence declared that when African Americans tried to play the piano and played their rags they sounded like they were playing the banjo rather than playing the piano.  Lowell H. Schreyer discussed this in the Hasse book on ragtime, pages 55-69.

As if being the musical domains of African American composers weren't troublesome enough for those who believed the future of American music was in the highest of German highbrow, ragtime was also a popular style with some significant contributions by women composers.  Music that was seen as the domain of African Americans and also of middle-class white women entertaining house guests was probably about as far removed from the high ideals of German idealism as you could get, and given the extent to which popular musical styles owed some debt to minstrelsy and African American song many of the more popular American styles simply had the wrong pedigree to please those advocates of high culture music that wanted musical America to sound like Beethoven and Wagner rather than Scott Joplin and his musical descendants ranging from Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington through to contemporary African American popular music.  In Raymond Knapp's reading of American musical history, the history of American popular music has been musical camp and that ties back more readily to the legacy of the knowing joker Haydn than to the serious prophet-of-art Beethoven. 

But while I find that comparing some of the polemical writings for and against ragtime to remind me of polemical writings for and against rap there is a difference.  Ragtime was a popular style of song and instrumental music that exploded on the American scene in the 1890s but was already developing. It remained immensely popular into the 1920s when, as ragtime and jazz historians have generally established, the Ragtime Era transformed into the Jazz Era.  Many of the polemics for and against ragtime were, if you will, transposed onto jazz when you compare what was said in one era to what was said in another.  

But one of the key differences between the ragtime controversy and rap was the mediating technology.  Even though ragtime was a form of popular music it was still a form of popular music that evolved within the context of what we would now think of as traditional musical literacy and music publishing.  The ragtime masters such as Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb all had at least some familiarity with and affection for what would be considered staples of the classical music piano literature and concert music.  Joseph Lamb read The Etude, for instance.  In writings about Lamb it's been noted that Scott Joplin advised Lamb to revise a work and replace parallel chromatic lines with contrary motion, showing that Joplin had an understanding of what was considered traditionally good voice-leading and encouraged one of his musical friends to follow in that. By contrast, late 20th century rap and hip hop evolved within the context of a stable and dominant recorded music industry in which machinery for recording and replaying music is the dominant means to create and distribute music rather than the printed page.  

Back in my teens and twenties when I contemptuously referred to "crap" I thought it was unmusical and that sampling was not really being creative.  The more I learned about Baroque music practices and the polemics advocates of the Renaissance "first practice" made against what they regarded as the unmusical trash of what we now think of as early masterpieces of the Baroque, the more I concluded that whether or not hip hop became a favorite style of mine (I also loathed country back in my youthful days before I discovered Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash), I wasn't going to say it was unmusical or that it required no musical talent or thought to make the music. 

I generally don't care for the music of John Cage but I refuse to think of him as a charlatan.  In middle age I've reached a place where I may not enjoy music or I may even hate music but I don't want to say that whoever is making the music has "no" musical ability.  Even the person who makes a song I think is insufferably annoying and stupid has musical ability, I just wish they used it to make something else!  The fact that any time I hear John Mayer's "Love on the Weekend" I want to revise into "Blood on the Windshield" might just mean that I don't like the guitar-strumming bro song genre.   Coffee house rock, for want of a better term, annoys me immensely.  If someone can teach aspiring musicians how they can compose and play their own music using songs I hate, though, I can live with that.  

Which gets me to another point I've been wanting to make as I have been thinking about authors with whom I may disagree on a few things but who I learned about by the polemics of John Borstlap.  I disagree with Adorno strongly on the Marxist side of things, and I think Adorno's Marxism blinkered his ability to appreciate the possibility that art can actually emerge from what he regarded as the trash heap of entertainment music.  But I can also say that when he got into the work of analysis and technical discussions of music he was often brilliant and he distilled better than anyone else in the 20th century the chasm between "argument" listening and composing and "groove" listening and composing.  He was far less successful at articulating how to reunite the "argument" and "groove" that he believed existed in the best Western classical music but that was separated in 20th century art and popular musical styles.  

Another way to put this is to say that I can go read Ethan Hein's blog and see that he's doing the work of a music educator.  I respect that, despite my profound ambivalence about what I have come to think of as the educational-industrial complex.  I'm not against people teaching people by any means, and I like that when I read something at Hein's blog he breaks down how the theory he's discussing can connect to songs.  By contrast ... when I read Borstlap's sweeping bloviating rants on cultural decline and the loss of music I haven't seen him write about music in a way that has a practical application in terms of chords or voice-leading principles or paradigms of formal development.  

If I had to choose one of two bloggers to suggest to people to actually read to learn about the art and discipline of music, music theory and approaches to thinking about and making music, I'd recommend Ethan Hein's blog over John Borstlap's.  Even though on paper I'm a classical guitarist and I am interested in polyphonic music for guitar with particular emphasis on non-Spanish classical guitar traditions, and even though perhaps on paper that might put me more in the John Borstlap taxonomy of music compared to someone who is into rap and hip hop and popular music, I'm kind of a theory wonk.  I was more than just happy to read Elements of Sonata Theory, I love the book.  

I recently finished a dense but fascinating book by Nicholas Cook called The Schenker Project that 
makes an interesting long-form case that as a Galician Jew assimilated into the anti-Semitic Germanic culture of Vienna, Schenker's lifelong project was building a case for a German canon that culminated in Beethoven and had room for Chopin and Brahms but that was arrayed against a post-Wagnerian conception of German music and the "new German" school.  Cook argues that Schenker took this approach in order to create an ur-German musical canon that preceded the explicitly biologically racist anti-Semitic school of thought that evolved in the wake of Richard Wagner's culturally anti-Semitic stance in the mid-19th century.  

Cook thinks that Schenker was trying, paradoxically, to save the best of German music from the worst impulses he saw in the German-speaking people themselves.  Cook then proposes that what happened to Schenker's theories when they were imported to the United States was they were completely shorn of the cultural conservatism and the Jewish legal and literary traditions that Cook argues are necessary for understanding what Heinrich Schenker was trying to accomplish. Cook makes an interesting long-form case that we can (and arguably should!) reject the totalizing conservatism of Heinrich Schenker's theories but that this doesn't mean we cannot or should not try to situate his often contradictory streams of thought in the society in which he lived, particularly as an assimilated Jew who worked in the Viennese milieu that existed up through to the First World War.  

What can look to contemporary American musicologist like a Schenker who was trying to restrict real music to Bach through Beethoven can certainly still look like that, but Cook makes an interesting and I think persuasive case that within Schenker's own time he was arguing for a German musical canon that stopped right up to the point that German musicians advocated for what we think of as classical music in overtly and explicitly anti-Semitic terms as Schenker understood them.  It's not that we can't find evidence of anti-Semitic ideas in J. S. Bach, far from it.  It's not that the same couldn't be said of maybe Haydn. The difference is, in a name, Wagner.  From Richard Wagner onward a new ideological stance began to evolve that had it that Jews could not be real artists in a truly German sense and "human" sense and this was one of the things Schenker was reacting to.  

Now the legacy of a person's creative work can end up being at odds with what they may have thought they were doing.  I doubt that when Joseph Campbell finished The Hero with a Thousand Faces that he realized he was going to codify and commodity the most routine of rote scripting schematics for Hollywood from, oh, Star Wars on into our present day.  The idea that all the world's literature, folklore, myths, fables and religious texts can be distilled down to a single monomyth and/or cosmogonic cycle seems patently idiotic to me.  But Joseph Campbell was formulating his ideas as an American in an American context where we prevailed in World War II, warred our way ouf of the Great Depression, consolidated a global empire of influence and colonial bases, and had mastered mass production and technology.  

If in the dreams of 19th century European modernists the total work of art was to supplant medieval Christendom it lacked a truly compelling religious element for the would be new civic religion.  Joseph Campbell solved that problem, and how!  By transforming all of the earlier religious and philosophical texts into a consolidated monomyth, the Hero's Journey, the stage was set for the total work of art to emerge in American popular cultural as the adventure film in which the hero realizes the heroic destiny.  Campbell may well have been working toward a new conception of self not tethered to nationalist or jingoistic or racialist communal identities but what he inadvertently paved the way for was the most formulaic of formulaic American action blockbusters in which the egoism the monomyth was probably supposed to help tamp down allowed said egoism to flourish.  

By extension, I'm suggesting that Nicholas Cook has made a case that what American musicologists in the wake of Milton Babbitt made Schenker's theories into is not necessarily the same as what Schenker himself hoped to achieve.  I'm happy to do without Schenkerian analysis myself!  But just as I don't want to think of hip hop as not music because it's not my favorite style, I was intrigued by Nicholas Cook's book and his making a case that Americans would do well to try to engage with Schenker in terms of what he was setting out to do, not what his American disciples transformed his theories into.  

As a godfather, so to speak, of the musical styles that became jazz I don't know if Scott Joplin would have known exactly what to make of the music of John Coltrane, or Sun Ra, or George Russell or maybe even Thelonious Monk.  

The more I read in music history and musicology the more it seems to me that whether we're fans of Baroque music, microtonal string quartets, hip hop, early jazz, ragtime, country, blues or even what would be thought of as high Classic era music, there's a possibility that we all could have common cause in rejecting the music ideologies of the Romantic era that evolved from German idealism.  The music itself I don't necessarily have a problem with.  I can admire a lot about the music of Chopin and Mendelssohn and ... some bits of Schubert.  But I find that I love most the German language music written by composers before Germans became obsessed with establishing how German they were, much like the American music I love most was written by Americans who were more set on expressing themselves as Americans than proving themselves to be the great-American-artist.  Thus Ellington and Joplin and Monk and Hank Williams Sr are brilliant while Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson and many other American musicians who set out to be "the" American musician expressing the people leave me indifferent.  As I think Paul Dini put it in a commentary on Batman: the animated series, the saying is you don't win the Emmy by actually going for the Emmy.  Lately I feel that a great deal of the most brilliant music in the history of the United States and elsewhere was composed by people who were not "going for the Emmy".  

In a typically acidic moment in Aesthetic Theory, I think it was, Theodore Adorno quipped that the people who aim to make "timeless, eternal" art generally never do so and it's often, ironically, because they so completely fail to properly chronicle the struggles and concerns and events and people of their own times.  

That might be something to play with in a later post because I'm reading a book by Daniel Melamed called Listening to Bach, and his thesis about the "musical topic" of Mass in B minor is that J. S. Bach was demonstrating it was possible to develop a fusion of what were in his day the old and new styles of composition, juxtaposing them in various ways and highlighting their points of contrast and overlap.  As a self-designated "fusionist" I am happy to endorse such an understanding of Bach.  What advocates of Bach as "high" culture over against "low" culture might miss in their defense of the high is that Bach fused English and French and Italian and German styles during an era when these nation states and empires weren't always getting along but Bach lived in an era in which such stylistic fusions were praised even if the social and political correlate was not.  Of course the way Bach mediated the fusion and interaction of styles was in the text of the Mass.  As I was saying, that's probably another post for some other time.  

some links for the weekend with a theme of stuff from November 2018 I didn't get around to linking to or discussing.

If you ever wanted to read a longform piece on light music, hold music, etc ...

Often discounted in some circles as a composerly lightweight, Anthony Tommasini makes a case that we should

Is art “a right or a privilege”? This question was addressed by a who’s who of artworld elites in a New York Times feature earlier this year with regards to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s revised policy to charge out-of-towners the full $25.00 admission fee rather than their standard pay-what-you-wish policy. Predictably, this group (many of them known for their overt political or moral activism, like Ai Weiwei) overwhelmingly endorsed its status as a right (there was one dissenter, but even that came with caveats). Perhaps one of the most prominent defenders of this view, because of her station and her institutional influence, is Aggie Gund, President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She frequently states that “art is a right, not a privilege” (as she discusses in the beginning of this interview).

As framed here, it is unclear precisely what their statement is declaring. I understand it to mean one of two things: (1) Access to art is a moral right; that is, the belief that our ability to freely appreciate and produce art objects is, generally speaking, good and ought to be defended. This looks prima facie true to me. One would be hard-pressed to deny the moral good of the freedom to produce and appreciate art, barring extreme cases like hateful art, or propaganda attributed to and distributed by despotic regimes, such as the arts that Hitler or Mussolini championed in their lifetimes. This account would also be protective of art as a facet of free speech, which also seems like a mostly good thing. There is a more rigid account of art as a right, one which makes a more serious claim: (2) Access to art ought to be a legal right; that free access to museums and other institutions housing cultural artifacts should be legally guaranteed to citizens. I believe that this second usage is what is being suggested by Gund and the respondents in the NYT article, because the first claim is nearly unanimous, and anyone who would disagree with it is probably some kind of monster. But it is this second account that I am going to dispute.

And the case gets made, that what is generally thought of as art can be defined as luxury items labeled as "art".  This doesn't mean that the labeled art is more moving or stirring than stuff that isn't necessarily given the same label. 

as would be the case for Hyperallergic, there's an old piece from later last year looking at Saudi money and American art institutions.


The mention of Mr. Williams brings us to a third aspect of the kind of hokku (and renga) that Bashō composed. As you recall, Mr. Williams spoke of “the comparative absence in haiku of witty verbal acts.” In truth, “witty verbal acts” were the essence of what Bashō and his friends were doing. They characterized the type of renga they wrote as haikai, “humorous,” in order to distinguish it from orthodox renga based on court tradition. As writing hokku independently of haikai no renga became more common, the word haikai also came to mean hokku.

And here I thought that writing haiku based on quotidian observations or riffs on current events reveling not so much in nature but in acid word games was maybe not able to be in keeping with haiku as a literary form. 

On literary forms ... 

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Harvest Bible Chapel drops defamation suit after court denies attempt by church to keep subpoenaed documents private

Harvest Bible Chapel says it's dropping its defamation lawsuit against three critics after a Cook County judge Monday ruled against the church's request to keep some documents private.

Harvest Bible Chapel and founding pastor James MacDonald have announced that they plan to drop their lawsuit against The Elephant’s Debt bloggers and Julie Roys after a court today denied the church’s attempt to keep subpoenaed documents private.

MacDonald claimed the defendants had “harmed our ministry through their careless campaign to discredit,” driving more than 2,000 people to leave the church, according to a letter posted on the Harvest website.
Such lawsuits brought by churches against their critics are rare, according to Frank Sommerville, a Texas lawyer who assists churches in preventing litigation but never has worked with Harvest.
That’s “primarily because of just what’s happened here — you bring more attention to the critics, you bring more attention to the reporter’s story than if you had just responded with, ‘We deny everything,’ and just going on,” he said. “The litigation process escalates the dispute to a whole new level.”
By not providing the documents necessary to prove the bloggers’ and reporter’s stories false, the church is “basically conceding” that they’re accurate, Sommerville said. ...