Saturday, June 08, 2019

a piece by Jeremy Reynolds at San Francisco Classical Voice reminds me how boilerplate talk of blurring genres is in "Are We Done With Genre Yet? ... "

I guess since I fit into the category of "Generation X" I may not entirely relate to Millenial music journalism ... but it doesn't matter what age a music journalist is, I just don't buy the idea that we are, have been, or ever will be "past genre".  Of course ... editors can often choose titles so if an article opens with a headline "Are We Done With Genre Yet?" there's a decent chance the journalist didn't come up with that title at all!  

During the years when I was blogging studiously about what was once the church known as Mars Hill I was told by a writer who's done work in journalism and book writing that "the institutional press only takes itself seriously", to quote as best I can from memory.  There could be all sorts of things going on but if the institutional press isn't covering it then people in the institutional press don't think it exists.  What that meant in the period from roughly 2011 to the first two thirds of 2013 was that things didn't seem to be going that badly in the former Mars Hill Church because nobody in the Christian media was getting a real sense that anything hugely important was going wrong and the mainstream and secular press sure didn't get a sense anything was wrong.  Within Puget Sound there were subterranean currents of unrest and fury at how abusive and corrosive the leadership culture was and people who had invested years of their lives in the church were resigning at a rate that meant that the reported growth was kind of a compensation for the church bleeding members and burning through staff.  But for journalists there was basically no news until a couple of people who were recognized by the institutional press began to say things on the record about whether Mark Driscoll's books were entirely his ... and thus a plagiarism controversy erupted.

Take the classical guitar ... by contrast and comparison, we live in an era where I can think of half a dozen cycles of preludes and fugues that have been composed for the guitar in the last twenty years because I care about that kind of thing and have gone looking into that stuff.  You will "maybe" read that Nikita Koshkin has published his cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar and ... even that cycle, which I like quite a bit, has virtually no coverage.  Classical music journalists by and large don't tend to recognize that the guitar exists within what some call the Western literate musical traditions.  It's not that I couldn't walk you through centuries of music for the six stringed guitar here in the West or write about the rudiments of the Russian seven-stringed guitar traditions ... it's that for music journalists in the United States those traditions spanning centuries might as well not exist.  I could digress into Jacques Ellul's description of how the arts critic emerged in the bourgeois era as the stock broker of that class interest in making sure to invest in the right sorts of art products but ... let's get to this piece.

I bring this up because more and more I get a sense that music journalism in general and classical music journalism in particular can come off as insular.  Not all the time ... but ... a piece like this I'm about to quote from does ...

It’s easy for musicians to become trapped in the strictures of genre or style. How many times has an orchestra or chamber group been accused of playing Beethoven “too romantically” or a historical performance ensemble of failing to adhere to some anachronism or another? Crossover music, despite the name, deliberately upholds these sorts of distinctions, as the whole point is to attract listeners from multiple traditions. Conversely, the advent of the internet has allowed artists around the world to experience and assimilate new musical ideas and idioms.
In contemporary art music (we really need a better term than “contemporary art music”), lines between styles are blurring, or have always been blurring. Artists are reaching out not just to absorb new styles, but to invite performers with diverse backgrounds to collaborate and actively participate in the creation of new work.
As I was saying, I don't think we ever have been, can, or will be "past genre".  When people try to describe their music or music that they are writing about as somehow beyond genre this seems patently lazy.  If there's a percussionist and guitarist duo that plays around with electronically modified sounds and signals and plays ambient music that is used to accompany performance art and dance then, well, that's some kind of genre.  Now it's not exactly my preferred thing but I heard a woodwind ensemble work inspired by EDM that sounded great but the composer, whose name I can't recall, alas, made a point of saying he wanted to transfer the rhythmic vitality of electronic dance music into the instrumental possibilities of a more traditional woodwind ensemble.  

If there are journalists who tire of "crossover" perhaps there's a way to describe why so much of what is passed to readers as "crossover" doesn't tend to stick in the memory.  In too many cases bids at "crossover" fail to demonstrate enough mastery of either one style or the other and there is no crossover at all.  

As the Cuban guitarist composer Leo Brouwer once put it, fusion has been going on across genres for half a century now but it doesn't tend to get discussed by academic musicologists and theorists because they are, by their nature, interested in categorizing stuff.  Something similar could be said about music journalism but the "beyond genre" group may be a new "ism", one that attempts to engage what's regarded as the hegemonic influence of the classical music canon while trying to avoid both crossover as a description and also still trying to discuss whatever this music is in the context of concert life that might as well be thought of as concert music.

I was reminded ... since I'm rambling anyway, of something Kyle Gann wrote years ago that I'm going to quote.
A person convinced that there will be no more movements is a person for whom the history of culture is basically over, a person who believes that everything possible has already been perceived, and that there are no new avenues left open to us. We whine about the sanctity of the individual, but art grows by leaps and bounds when groups of people start to have collective realizations. 18th-century music sprang out of a 30-year slump in 1781 when Mozart and Haydn started copying and combining each other’s ideas – neither of them had been able to do it alone. Wagner’s music burst into flames when he discovered Liszt’s harmonic innovations. Modern art changed forever when the Abstract Expressionists started meeting every night at the Cedar Bar. Occasionally one person creates a compelling new language on his own, but it’s extremely rare. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our music, and consciousness of those things is not likely to dawn on only one person at a time. Artists need each other, and the anti-ism diehards want to imprison them each in solitary confinement. A sense of creative community, so crucial to the development of an art, is devalued by the ideology that pooh-poohs purported movements. ...

When I think of the stuff that intrigues me as a guitarist and a composer it's easy to think of what has caught my attention.  I'm interested in the work of Atanas Ourkouzounov, who has been melding avant garde idioms involving extended techniques with folk music from central and eastern Europe and jazz influences.  Nikita Koshkin has been steeped in the classical guitar traditions of East and West as well as having played Led Zeppelin numbers in his youth.  Dusan Bogdanovic is another guitarist who has been playing with a kind of classical/jazz fusion.  Roland Dyens ... I could cover a few guitarist composers at this point but I find that guitarist composers from central and eastern Europe are coming up with the kinds of classical/jazz/rock fusions that I think actually work because they are steeped in all of these styles as a matter of performance.  By contrast, I have not heard attempts at fusion or crossover by musicians and composers whose training is in the traditional symphonic instrumental scene or even the keyboard.  I don't mean "fusion" as a jazz style, I didn't warm up to that.  I don't even mean Third Stream.  

What I mean is something else--when I say that I think of myself as a fusionist it's more of a social musical goal, the aim is to find some way to melt down the high-and-low stratification of vernacular styles and concert music.  I like Haydn and I like Hank Williams Sr. so why shouldn't I see if I can compose guitar sonatas that make extensive use of bottleneck technique and American vernacular idioms?  Is that beyond genre?  No, of course not.  I know Mars Hill, if anyone remembers it at all, will live in infamy but in the earlier days it was kind of like an evangelical Christian arts commune.  I met a lot of writers, musicians and artists in those early days and we had an interest in experimenting with what kinds of things we could do that simultaneously preserved the traditional art stuff we liked while not rejecting avant garde possibilities.  I remember talking with Matt and Jeff about Glenn Branca and Arvo Part and lending Jeff and his wife an album of Steve Reich's earlier works.  I lent another friend who is of Polish descent some Lutoslawski recordings.  I'd compare notes with friends about various anime.  American journalism has declined to a level where too many journalists seem to struggle with the idea that observantly religious people could even make any art, let alone make art of some note.  Yes ... it's been a while since Byrd and Tallis and Bach but ... Messiaen wasn't that long ago.  I digress.

But what all of that refers to is how there were enough artists in the Mars Hill scene that we interacted with each other, traded ideas, experimented with stuff.  Since one of my interests as a classical guitarist and composer is to maintain a synergistic relationship between what would be called vernacular or popular styles and the concert music traditions then it was a good time for me.  I was able to hear what people were listening to (even if I can't stand Radiohead) and get a sense of continuities of popular music while going and listening to the Samuel Jones Tuba Concerto or digging into the work of the aforementioned guitarist composers.  

There was an older jazz musician/composer Ethan Iverson interviewed once who pointed out that half a century ago there was, so to speak, a climate where everybody was listening to everything.  Jazz musicians were listening to classical, classical musicians were paying attention to jazz.  The genre-based listening had not quite taken hold ... and if I may be permitted to make a cranky proposal, music journalism had not mired itself in the insular genre patterns that, as best I can tell, is what music journalists are complaining about.  It's not that there has somehow magically been less music or fewer styles of music, it's that music journalists, to the extent that they still even have paid work, tend to make their livings covering beats.  

Although I trained for it I never ended up getting into arts journalism over the last twenty years.  There was a comment I made at another blog and I'm taking the liberty of quoting what I wrote over there.

I think what tends to go on more than I'd like with these pieces about "can we be done with genre" is it tends to presume a hegemonic style that hasn't been the case since somewhere around 1913. We've lived in what Leonard B. Meyer called a polystylistic steady state since more or less the dawn of the last century and yet most music journalism and commentary from "the youth" assumes a dominant 19th century Romantic paradigm even if virtually any random composer of note did or wrote something to dismantle that status quo, whether Stravinsky or Schoenberg or Messiaen or Stockhausen or even Hindemith or beyond the Western world someone like Takemitsu (coming around to question the assumption that East and West couldn't arrive at a mutually beneficial fusion, if I recall correctly).

What most attempts to say we're "past genre" seem to mean is playing with language in music rather than diving into formal and structural analytical work. If we're going to move "past genre" what won't happen is that music will be made that cannot, eventually, be placed in a category. Fixations on the late/high Baroque era withstanding, one of the qualities we find in the span of the era of figured bass is that there were a lot of forms and styles and mixing and matching them was practical because musicians and theorists knew enough about the various styles and forms to encourage those kinds of fusions. Thus ... J. S. Bach. He could blend Italian, French, German, English and Polish musical idioms because he had enough mastery of forms and styles to do that. This gets back to what you've described as synthesist vs innovator and I think too much of journalistic discourse on "past genre" is still trapped in a battle with the Romantic legacy of a linear philosophy-of-history approach to music and style. 

I do think forms of genre fusion are possible and practical. I've been incrementally tinkering with ways to develop some kind of jazz/classical fusion but the most substantial progress I think I've made in that direction came from decades of formal analysis of Haydn's work on the one hand, and a dive into Charles Rosen, Hepokoski & Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory and books like that. I would also say my experience has been that people who want to be past genre rarely go back to a style that genuinely exists in the liminal space between classical and jazz, ragtime specifically. If we want to go back to a style or genre that exists in both the "literate musical tradition" of Western art music and serves as a foundational precursor to jazz ragtime would seem like the most natural style to go back to. If we can formulate a way of writing sonatas and fugues based on ragtime then a "post genre" idiom that, really, tends to be an unrecognized code for a restored synergistic relationship between popular and art music styles, could be more feasible. Most of the elements people want restored to classical music are in jazz, but many of these seem to have been in the galant style, too, it's just people haven't read widely enough on the topic to realize this. I've written this before, but people seem to not realize their beef is with the legacy of German idealism and the Romantic canon rather than with the thousand year history of Western music, which isn't holding them back (whatever that means) if they engaged with more of the music itself rather than the constraints of contemporary music journalism and press materials. 

A lot of what gets presented by music journalists as the insularity of the concert music scene and music journalism is, I think, more of a terrible reflection of how insular music journalism is and how insular the concert scenes can be at a regional level.  It isn't an indication of how classical music or post-classical music is somehow dominated by the same old same old.  I suspect the future of whatever we call classical music will not be symphonic.  Choral music will stick around and I am biased but I think the guitar is a great instrument to write for.  It may be the educational industrial complex is shifting gears and the art of the long 19th century is harder to find relevant but ... I don't buy that, either.  There was a jazz critic who wrote a book in which he observed that the average rock critic is musically illiterate and was an English major or a writing major.  They probably couldn't say anything about the music as music but they can write extensive essays on the cultural or ethnic or social or political extra-musical aspects and personas of their favorite or hated musicians of the day.  

If I had not already happened to hear songs by Beyonce or Taylor Swift I could not for the life of me have guessed what their music actually sounds like from the majority of music journalism I've read from writers who take these two women up as their subjects.  Now I can scarcely think of any writing on music that deals with music itself in arts journalism.  I've been reading Robert O Gjerdingen's Music in the Galant Style this year.  It has me thinking about how many of the schemata he describes could be found, without too much searching, in popular song from the last century.  Let's take "Let it Be" by the Beatles.  Couldn't we describe that as basically a kind of romanesca followed by a prinner?  That's as galant style as you can get.  So the idea that genres get blurred or classic rock and classical music don't overlap because Lennon and McCartney didn't know or pay attention to the rules is dubious.  They had Stockhausen on the cover of their most famous album.  I think Revolution No. 9 is kind of a lame knock-off of Stockhausen's deal but I'm not hear to go on about how I think the Fab Four are an overhyped boy band who got good because George Martin was their producer and a spectacular corporate infrastructure backed them ... . 

I'm suggesting that if you dig deeply into formal analysis and analytic literature about music you'll find points of commonality.  You can apply insights from a book like Gjerdingen's to popular song.  Let me give another example of the applicability of a romanesca to a popular song.  Let's take "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey.  That's a standard I-V-vi-IV progression and we could call it a romanesca but what makes it distinctive?  If the Beatles song presents a romanesca in a fairly cliche form what makes the Journey song stand out from so many four-chord choruses is that while the root movements are all there for the romanesca gesture the bass line keeps rising as it moves through the root movements.  In other words it's a cliche but it's not completely the cliche.  Plus ... this is Journey we're talking about and if there was a popular singer who can belt out the most trite and timeworn lyrics like his life depended on it it's been Steve Perry.  I made fun of them off and on decades ago when it was the 20th century but after hearing twenty years of where popular song has gone since ... Journey was a pretty good pop band.  I'm also a lot more forgiving toward the music of Hall and Oates now, too, but that's something for some other time.  

You probably can't blur the boundaries that define a genre if you aren't musically literate enough to what those are.  You can't move past genre, no matter what you do, because assuming your music even gets heard at all, someone will find a way to describe it.  That doesn't have to be a bad thing.  I love Scott Joplin and Stevie Wonder and Blind Willie Johnson and Hank Williams Sr. and I also love Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Hindemith, J. S. Bach, Haydn, Byrd, and a lot of other composers.  I'm not one to think I am beyond genre.  I play classical guitar and I compose for the guitar.  I am interested in the idea of stylistic fusions and I'm interested in the possibility (and the reality) of composing a fugue for the guitar that has triple counterpoint for its subject and two countersubjects but you play it using bottleneck technique like it's a fugue that emerged from the mists of old Hank Williams Sr. and Roy Rogers albums.  

I'm very partial to the idea that a thorough immersion in Haydn's use of monothematic sonata principles could be used to create a ragtime/blues sonata where, ideally, nobody who isn't already steeped in Haydn's string quartets would even hear that there's a sonata form going on, that element of the art could be thoroughly disguised.  This sort of guitar sonata would only look like a sonata to a musician reading the score who could pick up that the work draws on Charles Ives' use of cumulative form as a way of organizing the sonata movement around some old shape note hymn.  This could be a kind of being "past genre" but it's the kind of thing that can't happen so easily if you just got out of college and haven't spent your entire life steeped in both vernacular/popular idioms and in score study.  

By the way, the idea that stylistic shifting is post-modern is not something I think I buy at this point.  Sure, shifting styles and quoting could seem post-modern if we're talking Schnittke or Rochberg but I was listening to a duet for flute and guitar by the Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay and he starts with a Bach style overture and moves through Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert styles in a suite that was composed around 1930.  The idea that a cyclical work could tour centuries of styles couldn't have been post-modern as we know it in 1930 and Rebay probably didn't write it as a "post-modern".  That's another composer whose name you wouldn't even have heard of unless you were into studying lesser-known composers from the earlier 20th century.  I still have to write about Rebay's guitar sonatas at some point ... . 

It has really struck me in the last few years that when journalists and aspiring musicians lament the insularity of classical music they seem to really be bristling at the stifling aspects of the long 19th century and its musical canons.  There's a tendency to see the musical canons and, more particularly, how the German-centric approach to the canons and the philosophies of history associated with them, seem stifling.  But ... to throw all these dead white guys a bone, they were not writing and opining in an era of mechanically recorded music.  They did not imagine a future in which a thousand years of musical history were going to be accessible at a few key strokes.  They were also not imagining that the arc of human history was going to pass through two World Wars that they started.  This century's stifling canon was a daring and revolutionary bid for freedom centuries ago.  It's another reason to have some skepticism about the ardor of contemporary folks who aspire to transcend genre and not be bound by the fusty old rules because ... ah, right, writers like Charles Rosen and Leonard B. Meyer wrote about how the Romantics thought that way.

I"m sympathetic, more than that, really, to the idea that we could benefit from shaking free from ideologies and ideals that developed during the Romantic era.  I don't have a real issue with the sounds developed during the 19th century as such.  I'm preparing to study some Liszt, for instance, and his approach to thematic transformation across large-scale forms is interesting to me because I want to look at prototypes for thematic transformation that can be used as a springboard for starting a sonata exposition in ragtime before transforming the theme into more of a Texas blues style recapitulation using bottleneck technique a la Blind Willie Johnson.  I don't think that's the kind of musical experiment that can be pulled off merely at the level of playing with musical language and trying to "get past genre" or even by blurring genre.  There are conventions and expectations where if you're really going to break those down you have to know exactly what conventions you're breaking, how you're breaking them, where you're breaking them and why.

Musicians who are only determined to just blur the boundaries and not fit into preconceived notions of genre won't actually do that.  At best they will come up with something that can, eventually, get designated with a genre by the kind of music journalist who, as almost always, somehow finds a way to put a label on things.  At worst it will lead to music that is going to go in one ear and out the other.  George Rochberg's barbed observation about much of the music of the 20th century that sought to shake off the constraints of older idioms like tonality was that the composers of such music doomed their music to a deserved oblivion.

I've been reading enough stuff from guys at the Future Symphony Institute that I can confidently say that for conservative or reactionary types in the arts blurring boundaries will fail but ... and this is where I throw those guys a bone, their complaint is that people who try to be beyond category can be beneath competence in the styles they're trying to blur.  The even more vitriolic way that Adorno put it was that many composers who were beyond tonality, so to speak, never mastered the tonal materials and so couldn't do anything interesting with the atonal materials because if you can't figure out how to compose hummable tunes in tonal music you're less likely to come up with stuff people can remember when you insist on never using tonality.

So my personal project has been exploring ways to compose sonatas and fugues and traditional 18th century forms and processes of development using  American vernacular, folk and popular idioms because that is what guys like Roger Scruton or Theodore Adorno said lacked developmental "argument".  Note, if you've read both Adorno and Scruton, that even though one is anti-Marxist and the other was Marxist they could have the same chauvinistic highbrow elitist snobbery.  Don't be fooled into thinking that because your personal politics are progressive rather than reactionary that you can't be a condescending elitist chauvinistic racist asshole.  If you really do think that, however, go immerse yourself in how progressive attempts to educate Native Americans played out in practice.

I exist because a Native American guy and a white woman got married so I'm sympathetic to the idea that boundaries that historically separate can be negotiated and overcome.  This is not even a particularly progressive goal.  There are some Christians who would be thought of as the most fundamentalist sort who have cared about racial reconciliation.  The early Pentecostal movement, for all its problems, had a strong component of racial reconciliation as part of its goals.  I would also add, though I'm ex-Pentecostal for a lot of reasons, that we can't fully understand the development of early rock and roll if we only look at it in terms of race and not also in terms of class.

To put it another way, there's been some work done recently on how early rock emerged from Pentecostal musical circles rather than Baptist or Anglican circles and that when someone like Martin Luther King Jr. spoke against rock music we could consider that opposition as potentially in keeping with some traditional distrust between Baptist and Pentecostal groups.  But I digress ... again.  This is part of a larger case that if we want to figure out how to blur boundaries we need to be aware, maybe even acutely aware of how many boundaries exist across ways of making art.  It doesn't surprise me at all when college educated musicians who are, if they got churched at all, were steeped in the high liturgical traditions, are completely incompetent at mastering the musical styles of the low church American Pentecostal idioms.  If you want the rhythmic vitality of Pentecostal music but not the mind-numbing propensity to vamp endlessly on a single chord then you have to be able to separate the elements of rhythm from the harmonic practices.  You might also potentially want to cut back the shlocky late 19th century Romantic elements of the melodic writing depending on what your interests are. That's all just a for instance.

I've tended to think of myself as moderately conservative and I am ... but the last twenty years of reading about music and thinking about conservative and progressive debates about music has gotten me thinking.  To put it in terms of someone like a Roger Scruton, the question conservatives don't seem to ask is "What are we really trying to preserve and why?"  They will say they want to preserve the timeless eternal verities revealed in the highest and greatest art but ... that's a pretty Romantic notion.  J. S. Bach was probably not thinking in those terms at all most of the time.  He certainly had a sense of posterity and legacy but may not in the artist-as-prophet/priest in a Wagnerian idiom.  Heinrich Schutz was probably not thinking that way, either.  Jacques Ellul wrote a wry comment in The New Demons about how the mythologies and myths of the West have tended to be invented by the left and then appropriated, transformed and codified by establishment and reactionary groups.  An observation Adorno made was that the revolutionary and populist ideals of Beethoven's 9th symphony got transformed into an anti-revolutionary establishment ideal of perfect art.  So .... when I read in the era of Trump this or that comment from an academic about the dangers of populism I ... get that ... but would the academic have told that to Beethoven or revolutionaries in France?  One of the paradoxes of contemporary writing about the dead white guys is that we can find a lot on the white supremacist element ... but that sin is starker for us being able to see how it flew in the face of the ideals proclaimed.

Conversely, when someone like Scruton sniffs at the lack of "argument" in popular styles does he stop to think of how much this makes him like Adorno?  I admit that I think in the era of 45 it is potentially harmful for academics and folks steeped in the liberal arts traditions to turn up their noses at "populism" because ... Trump.  If anything I would suggest that in such a time as this some kind of considered, thoughtful, careful and scholarly commitment to populist aims in the arts could be valuable.

So much of what I see musicians and music journalists writing against is cast as white patriarchal repression.  I half get that ... but I've been listening to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor lately and he was a student of Charles Stanford and the first part of Song of Hiawatha is fun.  The late George Walker wrote five piano sonatas I admire and he won a Pulitzer for his work.  Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint Georges composed violin concertos that fit comfortably within the idiom of Haydn ... and it's fun that his work is getting recorded but if we run with American stereotypes about what black musicians and composers are expected to write based on scholastic presumptions about style then would Joseph Bologne's music sound "black" enough?

I'm still collating material for a new take on why I believe sonata forms and ragtime lend themselves so readily to each other.  I need to put together the musical examples (thanks to IMSLP having most of the great rags now that we're here in 2019!).  I also need to put together quotes from guys like Adorno and Rochberg and Hepokoski & Darcy or maybe William Caplin, too.  Academics are not (or don't have to be) adversaries of fusion and populist interests ... even if they may be tempted to be in the era of 45.  I hope I've been clear at this blog when I write about music that I care a great deal about composing for the classical guitar in a way that restores a synergistic relationship between what most people would call classical music and the popular or vernacular styles people will more often hear sounding from the six strings. Guitarist composers have been working on this issue for generations and I believe some compelling solutions have been given to us in what guitarist composers have been doing on both the popular and classical side of the divide mapped out by journalists and scholars.  I don't think we need to blur any boundaries between genres in the end.

I just name-dropped Ellul so here goes, many of the concerns about blurring stylistic boundaries may be more the result of legitimate worries that knowledge and practical specialization in technocratic societies has fractured what in earlier eras of artistic and cultural life may have been more integrated, paradoxically and ironically in eras in which racial and ethnic segregation was more prominent and vicious than it tends to be in the artistic scenes we have in the contemporary West.

As manifesto writing goes I probably won't improve on what I did as a guest piece of Internet Monk.

But it's more a personal statement than a manifesto because I'm only writing on behalf of myself.
It's one thing to say that genre doesn't exist and assert that for the sake of press releases and marketing concerts. It's another thing to articulate why you believe that is true and on what basis genre distinctives can be regarded as permeable boundaries.

The way to prove that guys like Scruton have missed the boat on the possibilities of popular styles (and to prove Adorno wrong along the way) would be to show that you can take blues and jazz and country and rock riffs and transform them into fugues and sonatas and double variation movements and so on.  It can be done.  In fact it's not even that difficult once you start doing it.  To paraphrase on observation George Rochberg made back in the 1950s, to insist on form being some natural outgrowth of the inherent tendencies of the material is to deny the decision-making capabilities of the composer.  This was, in sum, Rochberg's point of contention with Boulez ... and yet the applicability of this objection goes the other way, to guys at the Future Symphony Institute like Roger Scruton or John Borstlap.  The irony of men like that being able to write about popular styles being limited due to the inherent nature of their materials is that they perpetuate an ideological stance about musical language and content transcending human agency that, half a century ago, Rochberg was criticizing as the ideological dead end of someone like Boulez.

We seem to still live in an era in music and musicology where there are debates about what musical language should be the norm and screeds about how we should be done with genre are really simply a part of that trend.  It's easy to say that genre doesn't exist or that genre is imposed on musicians by capitalists or scholars but then, so what?

Working within the constraints you live with in your actual life doesn't have to be a bad thing.  I've found that playing music now and then in church has been good for me.  It means I'm playing music with musicians I like to work with and helps me keep playing.  I was happy to play in a progressive rock band that ... didn't go anywhere ... but the fights and collaborations were good for me.  It helped me come to a much clearer understanding that leads me to say that the reason most progressive rock doesn't hold up is because the musicians saturate their songs with too many ideas, more ideas than a normal person can be expected to remember.  Overloading musical works with dozens of ideas is not just a problem in classical music.  When a friend asked me if I would be game to help him play Johnny Cash covers and some original country songs I was happy to play along with him and ... spent decades figuring out how to improve me initially pretty awful bottleneck technique.  If you want to master slide guitar techniques skip Brian Ferneyhough and go listen to Don Helms ... .

That's one of the paradoxes of a lot of this past-genre stuff.  Classical musicians and classical music journalists talk about transcending genre but how many of those people could knock out a Hank Williams Sr. cover if their careers depended on it?  I can assure you that mastering ragtime on the guitar is a decades long challenge.  Adding to that experiments in composing sonata forms and fugues based on the ragtime style is even more difficult!  For me it's been worth it and thanks to Hepokoski and Darcy's work on sonata theory I've been figuring out how to synthesize ragtime with concerto and sonata elements for a work I'm getting ready to perform later this year.  I didn't get to the point where I can do something like this by just saying we should be past genre.  I immersed myself for decades in all the genres I've wanted to synthesize and read .. I don't want to say how much formal analysis ...   .  If you've stuck with me for this long slog you saw that I talked about romanescas and prinners in songs by The Beatles and Journey and name-checked Adorno.  I've read some fairly opaque and difficult books on music alongside thinking a lot about really technical things I like and don't like about popular songs. I might as well mention this great blog entry by Kyle Gann.

"God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys has one of the weirdest bridges in a pop song I've ever heard in my life and usually I hate their bridges but that one works ... I don't know, but it does!

If I had spent the last twenty-five years refining a commitment to twelve-tone technique or the New Complexity or even spectralism I would probably have gone further along in my musical path than the one I've chosen, which is more in the direction of figuring out how to compose slide guitar pieces on classical guitar that evoke Hank Williams Sr. or Blind Willie Johnson but that have the structure of a menuet and trio of the sort that can be heard in a Haydn string quartet.  I've been trying to work out how to take half a strain of a ragtime piece I've written and transform that into the subject for a fugue.  Ragtime fugue writing is ... difficult.

Anyway, that's enough semi-organized rambling for a post for now. 


It is worth noting that the ensemble in the SFCV article that is described as blurring boundaries is a percussionist and a guitarist.  I didn't hear anything that blurred boundaries on my end but I never entirely stopped listening to prog rock, rock, country, jazz, blues, folk or a variety of forms of electronic music.  Negatively speaking, the ensemble Reynolds describes as blurring genre isn't doing any blurring that I could hear, it was coming across as more performance art using electrically modified signals.  Okay, that's 1970s era prog rock and dance music there.  But more positively speaking, a drums and guitar ensemble would be in a better position to not be classifiable in terms of the symphonic and long-19th century music pedagogy conventions by dint of neither drums nor guitar being within the music program canons of classical music. 

But, negatively again, any classical guitarist who has studied all of the Giuliani sonatas and is also familiar with ragtime and American parlor song will find out just how quickly you can take Giuliani's charming tunes and transform them into ragtime strains.  You can do something similar with Carulli themes.  Guitarists may be in a better position to grasp how permeable the boundaries between high and low musical idioms are because, as the Cuban guitarist composer Leo Brouwer put it about guitarists and the guitar, we've known for a few centuries that the high/low distinction for guitarists on genre has never been as fixed as it became in the 19th century symphonic and parlor music traditions as the legacy of German idealism worked itself through European cultures (okay, Brouwer didn't say that second part but that's been something I've been learning in my own reading--I'm noticing, too, that in Spanish language classical music, whether it's Albeniz or Leo Brouwer or Manuel Ponce or in Brazil (I know ... not Spanish but bear with me), these are musical cultures in which the boundaries between art and pop have been more permeable in theory and practice and particularly in the guitar traditions.  So even if I get sick of hearing the same old Spanish and Latin American warhorse pieces on the classical guitar I still admire that aspect of the the guitar traditions in Latin America and Spain where if something sounds cool and pleases the audience well then why wouldn't you play that!?  There's no doubt a eat-your-broccoli listen-to-this-Brian-Ferneyhough composition element in Spanish language musical cultures but in a north American context it hasn't worked its way up here that I have heard of.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019