Saturday, October 26, 2019

Kanye West has a gospel album out, which shouldn't be as surprising to some as perhaps it is, a little digression into gospel quartet singing and timbrel change in gospel as musical tradition

Over the last thirty years and some there have been polemics against hip hop as being unmusical and rife with terrible stereotypes involving violence and women and sex and vulgarity and while, yes, a whole lot of that has appeared in American popular styles of musical entertainment there have been other tendencies and directions.  

I get the impression that for a few who used to attend Mars Hill Church there is a lot that, in hindsight, they regard as altogether bad.  A thread that I sometimes see among former members and attenders is that they liked the music.  A subset of music and the history of the former church is that Christian hip hop has been a thing for decades, even if it's a subgenre of rap or hiphop that people might not know existed.  

West putting out a gospel album isn't the least bit shocking if you've heard of this genre of hiphop before.  Now usually when I blog about music it's about classical guitar music and formal analysis but I have been known to write about Taylor Swift when something newsworthy comes up about her and, so, there's room to write about West, too, when something he does gets my attention.  

I'm also reading about the evolution of black gospel music as commercial music in the 20th century and there's fascinating stuff about how there was a tension between the newly emerging gospel blues and blues as popular sheet music in the vein of Thomas Dorsey and the concert spirituals and classical music works of composers like William Levi Dawson.  The popular musical style(s) prevailed in the 1930s through 1950s and so black American music that was developed in what is known as the concert music traditions (aka classical) has been less thoroughly discussed at the level of popularly read music journalism and history.  That's kind of obvious that pop music history, criticism, and discussion would skip past African American concert spirituals and sacred choral works but West's gospel album being released might be as good an occasion as any to recollect that it hasn't always been about blues, and even gospel blues in the style of Mahalia Jackson caused a stir because it wasn't blues as was thought of in secular terms on the one hand, nor was it the kind of church music people were used to hearing.  Mahalia Jackson was described as too much in the style of "sexy singer" for more mainstream/mainline African American churches.  

As I've been reading through scholarship on gospel music and, of course!, listening to the music I can hear something like the opening from "Everything We Need"

and it's not hard to hear how this kind of introduction draws on a rich tradition of gospel quartet singing.  Quartet singing goes back into the 19th century as a popular style and Scott Joplin had some of his musical development in the quartet idiom.  

Take "The Devil with the Devil" by the Golden Gate Quartet

There's some fun vocal mimicry of the plunger mute technique for cornet and trumpet that starts about 1:28 with a pure ragtime set of chord changes.  

Since the Golden Gate Quartet is pretty spectacular, let's just keep running with them for a bit.

Years ago Kyle Gann blogged about how he would show students that the strict technical mastery required in a lot of popular musical styles meant they needed to beware of thinking that going into popular styles meant not as much work for them as in classical.

Gann wrote:
I’ll contextualize. I don’t teach modulation until March, and nearly all classical music modulates, while in ragtime and barbershop I can get a dense wealth of varied harmonic functions without having to worry about changing key. Plus, classical music is so varied in its techniques that I used to spend a lot of time cherry-picking my examples to find pieces with which to teach a certain principle. Contrariwise, if I want to teach common-tone diminished sevenths, almost any ragtime will do; if I want secondary dominants around the circle of fifths, any barbershop quartet will do. If I need further examples, I just turn to the next page. When I teach pivot-chord modulation I’ll turn to Schubert and Schumann, though even there, mid-century Broadway tunes offer wonderful modulation paradigms within a three-page song, and West Side Story gives me both those and a lot of imaginative uses of the French sixth chord. Besides, the complexities of these chords from “Lida Rose” already had the students pretty distraught:

Brahms would have been easier. I don’t mind letting it viscerally sink in that they would need to develop a stricter range of technical skills to pursue a career in Broadway music or film scoring than to hang out a shingle as some anarchic avant-garde composer. They need some respect for the amount of expertise even a supposedly “fun” musical career will demand of them.

To give a personal for instance, picking up ragtime on the piano is technically very demanding.  I managed to learn just enough piano to teach myself to play J. S. Bach and to teach myself to play Scott Joplin ... and Paul Hindemith.  All three composers made me work pretty hard, if in different ways, to learn how to play their piano scores.  I had to teach myself stretches of Ludus Tonalis because my piano teacher wasn't a Hindemith fan and I wasn't really a music major to boot.

What you'll have heard in the Golden Gate Quartet recordings is how fluently the group mixes different vocal timbres within their performances, something for which Western notation has basically no significant taxonomy or terminology.  It's not that abrupt shifts in vocalization aren't called for in "classical" vocal music.  Xenakis wrote some far out a cappella music.  Wait, if memory serves Caroline Shaw's probably covered that somewhat with Partita.

Although even that isn't as "crazy" as might first seem if you have some familiarity with Greek folk music.

Now something I want to suggest, since it's the weekend as I'm writing this, is that we should not settle for some stupid axiom that Western musical notation doesn't have the tools to articulate differences between timbres in vocal production.  We do.  All we'd need to do is reassign the noteheads of the shape note tradition so that each differently shaped note in that tradition would no longer be assigned to a space or line on a musical stave but, rather, could designate one form of vocal timbre or another, whether a straight tone, a nasal tone, a hollow "headvoice" tone or something like that.  American choral/vocal traditions in church music have already provided a possible option for designating changes in timbre for vocal music.  I'm rusty on choral music after so many decades of digging into chamber music for guitar but someone has probably already done plenty using different note heads to designate different timbres.  The problem is not so much that Western musical notational conventions "can't" designate timbre, it's that the accumulated weight of musical practice didn't call for it often enough to lead composers to develop a solution.  If it took microtonalists generations to develop something like Ben Johnston's approach to extended just intonation in his string quartets it may take a similar generational shift from Partsch through Johnston for consolidating timbrel transformation in vocal music.  Or maybe someone has already done that.  

Now West isn't likely to ever be my personal favorite in terms of listening music but his dropping a gospel album doesn't seem like a shock in itself.  Maybe he hasn't spoken and behaved in a way that makes it seem like a gospel album would be likely but Johnny Cash managed to live a pretty rough, sinful life amidst a life in which he also kept coming back to gospel music, didn't he?  

Randall J. Stephens' The Devil's Music did a pretty good job exploring how early rock and soul pioneers were steeped in Pentecostal musical traditions.  I don't know that West is Pentecostal but the books I've been reading by Stephens, and Mark Burford and Anthony Heilbut lately have a theme in common, a lot of important developments in American popular music have connections to Pentecostal music and black Pentecostal traditions more particularly.  Of course Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were white guys but they came up from Pentecostalism.  Even the Baptist Mahalia Jackson was open about how she preferred the Sanctified (i.e. Pentecostal) approach to music and worship.  I find that interesting to read about, being ex-Pentecostal that I am for doctrinal reasons, because although I've got reasons as big as rejecting futurist dispensationalist eschatology and associated modes of biblical interpretation, I enjoyed the Pentecostal musical styles and the more I read scholarship on the evolution of those styles the more it seems that what the Pentecostals managed to do was literally (or figuratively) sanctify street level "dance hall" styles.

Which brings things round to Kanye West.  Kanye West putting out a gospel album can be a usefully instructive moment about how hiphop can be a style that is used in the traditions of church music.

There's a lot about my time at the former Mars Hill Church I regard with regret but one thing I am grateful for is it was a big enough of a Christian community that within it I got to learn about just how diverse the range of possibilities can be for kinds of gospel music.  I've made this polemic before but I find it interesting how in Anglophone musical contexts musical innovations have seemed to emerge inevitably from high church Anglican contexts while in American music history the most substantial musical innovations that made it into histories seem to come more from Baptist and Pentecostal traditions, i.e. innovations tended to come from the low church traditions in America.  That's a very rough theory for a weekend post, mind you, but it's something I've been thinking about over the years.  

So I don't know if I'll go and actually get the Kanye West gospel album but it's interesting to hear of it.  Bryan Townsend was blogging about the album this weekend, which got my attention.  

Thursday, October 24, 2019

incubation but with some brief mention of planned future writing (well, okay brief for WtH)

Someone(s) has a new book out.  Wenatchee The Hatchet will eventually get to it.  Win Your War is out and on the topic of spiritual warfare, though as a self-help book, more or less.  It's been interesting to consider how and why in the wake of the 2013 plagiarism controversy and the 2014 ResultSource controversy Mark Driscoll has shifted from A Call to Resurgence to publishing a couple of self-help books through Charisma House in a market that is already oversaturated ... to put that as nicely as possible. 

But since his last book didn't even chart and it's not yet clear that this one will with both names attached, WtH will get to the book but not before reading other more interesting books first.  When I do get to Win Your War the goal is to situate it more broadly in connection to Spirit-Filled Jesus and A Call to Resurgence and also situate the new self-help book in connection to Mark Driscoll's 2008 spiritual warfare seminar that was given in the wake of what could realistically be considered the kangaroo court proceedings that Bent Meyer and Paul Petry were subjected to. Mark Driscoll has a history of broaching the topic of spiritual warfare in contexts where he made it fairly clear he regarded dissent against his long-term plans for leadership as literally and figuratively demonic.  There's a whole set of tagged posts on that topic, the 2008 spiritual warfare session teaching, which is accessible at a dedicated page.

But simply discussing the book isn't the long-term plan.  Situating Driscoll's history on the topic of spiritual warfare in terms of his history of using recovered memory counseling techniques (which is really where his temporarily semi-infamous "I see things" was coming from, for those who didn't investigate that) will involve looking at some other work by Clinton Arnold (whose writings Driscoll explicitly references in the newest book).  It will also be useful to situate spiritual warfare in the context of 20th century deliverance and exorcism ministries in low church Protestant movements and it doesn't just so happen Wenatchee The Hatchet has picked up a monograph on that topic that looks like more interesting reading than Win Your War, which has one of the flimsiest bibliographical rosters of any book Driscoll's published to date.  It turns out a book that Driscoll approvingly makes reference to is Michael S. Heiser's The Unseen Realm, which I remember because Jim West reviewed that book, writing that if you want to read an evangelical commentary on the difficult texts relating to the heavenly court that it's a pretty good book on that topic.  You might be better off just reading that book and skipping the Mark and Grace Driscoll book Win Your War altogether, since Heiser has a book on demons titled Demons coming out early next year.  If you have the option of reading a book by a former gigachurch pastor who got embroiled in a plagiarism controversy and a ResultSource controversy and a scandal of sorts about having a draconian leadership style and reading a book by an author who has had, as best as can be determined right now, none of those controversies, the decision would seem clear.

But I'll get to Win Your War, I hope, in 2020 because I am curious to see how much material from the new book recycles content and key ideas from the 2008 spiritual warfare teaching seminar.  I am also wondering whether Rebecca Brown MD soul ties type stuff will show up.  The "father wound" seems to be tied to an "Absalom spirit" in the new Driscoll book, and the Absalom spirit, on the whole, seems to be Jezebel spirit applied to dudes.  For those who have never been in charismatic or Pentecostal churches to say that a woman has a Jezebel spirit is probably a Holiness circumlocation for saying someone is something that is a monosyllabic word that starts with the letter "b" or an adjacent letter in the alphabet.  Don't say that a woman has a Jezebel spirit would be my advice. 

But there are other, more fun things I'm reading lately, such as Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field.  I've been reading a lot on the history of gospel in the United States and am meaning to get to a monograph on Thomas Dorsey and the evolution of gospel blues.  I've mentioned Randall J. Stephens' The Devil's Music earlier and that, too, is part of a larger project that's incubating.  There's been some excellent scholarship on the connections between early rock, gospel, soul and the connections these styles have to Pentecostalism.  In other words, we could jokingly say that Wenatchee The Hatchet is middle-aged and taking stock of interesting analyses of 20th century Pentecostalism in terms of its theology of diabology and deliverance ministry and its influence on what we'd call early rock and soul music. 

Not that I consider myself Pentecostal or charismatic anymore (I differ on the second blessing teaching and a few other things, to be brief) but it's interesting to read that scholarship in the last few years has connected dots between early rock figures like Elvis, Jerry Lee, and soul pioneers like Ray and Aretha and James Brown, and even country rock icon Johnny Cash all hailed from Pentecostal churches.  They were, probably needless to say, not the best-behaved Pentecostals but it's interesting to see how a religious movement that has often been viewed in derogatory terms and considered heretical by many a Christian preacher and theologian has had such a formative influence on what's been called the devil's music.  May not necessarily do a ton of writing about that here.  There's some projects incubating that are for other contexts. 

Of course there's also long-term plans to write about guitar sonata cycles by Gilardino, Brouwer, Matiegka, and to get back to blogging about Koshkin's preludes and fugues (and German Dzhaparidze's cycle, for that matter).  There's also some plans to do a more extended take on an earlier essay examining the theoretical and conceptual basis for ragtime sonata forms, adding ideas drawn from polemics from Theodore Adorno about jazz and popular music; theory regarding conceptions of musical time by George Rochberg and the concept of proportionality as an ordering paradigm by Ben Johnston; and some observations about patterns of recapitulation in ragtime from ragtime scholars. 

It would be one thing to develop a simple visual chart that shows how easy it would be to create a ragtime sonata form (which I've totally done) and another thing to establish from theoretical writings in musicology that such a practical project can be explained on theoretical grounds, too.   I don't think we should just say that Adorno was wrong about jazz because he had racist, chauvinist, anti-Slav views because as tempting as it would be to take that simple approach, Adorno was wrong about the expiration of tonality and forms ostensibly associated with tonality.  I have believed for several years the best way to prove Adorno was wrong is to restore a synergistic relationship between popular musical styles and complex approaches to gestural development in sonata and fugue.  A fusion of the vocabulary and style of ragtime with sonata forms and even fugue is not so much difficult as it's been rendered theoretically improbable by mythologies developed in multiple directions by people who write about music.  Ragtime is a beloved style but it is a style that can be regarded as musical ice cream and not simply because John Stark had an early career in selling ice cream before he switched to being a music publisher; Tom Wolfe wrote that ragtimes were featured at the start and close of concerts that included works by Easeley Blackwood because there had to be some sweet at the start and end of a concert with so much sour.  That seems a bit unfair to Blackwood, whose string quartets I think are actually alright but I digress ... as often happens.

So, there won't necessarily be a ton of blogging in the immediately foreseeable future but there are some things generally getting mapped out for projects that I hope to tackle in 2020.  Meanwhile, there's such a thing as enjoying life and reading things for fun ... which is not how I'd categorize getting to reading Win Your War.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

conventional wisdom from Ted Gioia with a "subversive history" of music--songs by outsiders and J.S. Bach as mid-20th century rock star

It might not be a surprise that a jazz musician who has become a writer on music might default to a grand narrative in which everything about music that's considered innovative would be made by outsiders.  There can be cases that innovations in music often get introduced by people who are at the margins rather than the center of any given mainstream.  I prefer William Byrd to Palestrina ... but Byrd was still a court composer even if later in his life his Catholic works constituted underground or "indie" music.  In its time Mass for 5 voices by Byrd was more underground music than everything Kurt Cobain ever did as a pop star.  That's not a misreading of Cobain's career, he was a pop star.

I came across this by way of reading a music blog over the weekend, and as Gioia's book on music, billed as a subversive history, hits the market, these kinds of excerpts are showing up in a few places online and in print.

I saw this by way of ArtsJournal earlier this week.

Yet the real-life Bach was very different from this cardboard figure. In fact, he provides a striking case study in how prickly dissidents in the history of classical music get transformed into conformist establishment figures by posterity.

Bach wasn't a pietist, and pietism was considered a prevailing movement in Lutheran music during a good stretch of Bach's life, but Manfred Bukofzer has written, if memory serves, that it was the non-pietists who ended up being more formally innovative by not leaning on newly composed sentimental songs as much as they reworked existing forms and conventions such as ricercar (fugue) and other idioms.  Most music instructors I had in college who broached the subject of J.S. Bach said he was regarded as a throwback, too old-school for many of his contemporaries, and even more so for his sons who would play a role in pioneering what eventually evolved into the galant style.

Being the twelfth or fourteenth generation in a family of professional musicians hardly seems like the role of a prickly dissident or outsider.  Yes, there was the jail time.  Yes, there was the time Bach pulled a knife on someone.  Yes, in the days of Woody Allen the idea that a middle-aged man would marry a woman in her twenties sounds racy but such age discrepancies in marriage in older societies don't need to be construed as selling a mythology that J.S. Bach was as iconoclastic as a first generation rock star in the 1950s.  People did complain about Bach's music and one of the complaints was that it was so esoteric, learned and bursting with opaque compositional symbolism rank and file pew sitters would have no idea what Bach was doing.  So, yes, there are aspects that we can point out in Bach's works that could be regarded as expressionist or avant garde but this might highlight something Richard Taruskin pointed out, that when it came to using Bach as a touchstone there's a fabricated Bach for the right and a fabricated Bach for the left.

It can be easy for those who have never bothered to read up on Luther at all or Luther's role in dealing with diabology to not know, as Jeffrey Burton Russell chronicled in his five books on the evolution of Christian and Jewish and Western thought on the devil, that Luther sometimes advised that joking around and having fun is a way to antagonize the devil and so, fart it up.  No, literally, fart humor was apparently at some time or other a Lutheran way to show spite to the devil.  Seems improbable but it's worth noting.  The sainting of J.S. Bach since the Romantic era as an artist-as-god myth isn't going to be unseated by Gioia's bid at Bach-as-rockstar-rebel myth.  To put this in starker terms, worldly musicians with worldly interests have long wanted J. S. Bach to be a less devout and less stringent Lutheran than he would most likely prove himself to be were we to meet him in the here and now.  This is not a new idea.  Last year the New York Times ran an article titled "Johann Sebastian Bach was More Religious Than You Might Think".  Being more religious than a reader of the New York Times in twenty-first century American might think might not be all that difficult.

Michael Marissen wrote

The current fancy is that Bach was a forward-looking, quasi-scientific thinker who had little or no genuine interest in traditional religion. “Bach’s Dialogue With Modernity,” one recent, indicative book is called. In arriving at this view, scholars have ignored, underestimated or misinterpreted a rich source of evidence: Bach’s personal three-volume Study Bible, extensively marked with his own notations. A proper assessment of this document renders absurd any notion that Bach was a progressivist or a secularist.

Perhaps no one embodies the current fancy about Bach as well as Gioia lately.

Gioia is right to suggest that as Bach became sainted in nineteenth century revivals of his music that the historians and musicians and music theorists of that day began to fashion his image so as to fit the agendas they were working on.  But for anyone who reads moderately in Luther and post-Luther Reformation writing brutally earthy humor shows up, a lot, particularly in Luther's work.

Had Gioia modified his overall thesis a bit to suggest Bach, for instance, was a marginal insider, that would make more sense.  There are outsiders who have influence in the arts but they can have influence within their own field of activity.  For instance, Robert Johnson was fairly popular and successful as a blues musician and Elijah Wald has pointed out he was popular.  His records sold fairly well and he was able to cut quite a few sides.  Eventually Johnson became spectacularly influential on second generation rock music (or third) thanks to discovery of his recordings.  Blind Willie Johnson is a hero to almost any Anglo-American guitarist who is gone to the trouble of learning bottleneck technique on the six-stringed guitar but Blind Willie Johnson was a marginal figure overall, even if a few of his singles sold really well.

To put my point more plainly, really outsider figures are excluded altogether from consideration or participation.

Gioia makes a claim that Bach subverted the conventions of his day about music-setting and biblical text.  That seems a bit on the sketchy side, though perhaps there's more to it.  I'll get at another reason I can't take his claims much at face value on another topic in a bit. I've mentioned that in Bach's time pietism had a substantial influence on musical thinking and practice.  Because Bach may have had some pietist sympathies but was ultimately not a pietist himself his rejection of musical conventions popular in a school of thought about Lutheran music he wasn't part of doesn't necessarily make him a rockstar rebel as much as it may have made him a more conservative traditionalist than pietist aesthetics may have preferred.

One of the things we can establish about Bach was that, as Daniel Melamed put it Listening to Bach: The Mass in B minor and The Christmas Oratorio, Bach had mastered what were regarded as the old and new styles and combined elements of old and new styles.  Melamed has gone so far as to say the musical topos of Mass in B minor is demonstrating that the old and new styles that persisted in the era of figured bass could be juxtaposed and combined and that J. S. Bach demonstrated that styles that were often in his day regarded as contrasting could be combined.  But that musical styles could be reconciled in musical works by Lutherans who would know Paul wrote that it pleased God to reconcile all things to Himself in and through Christ would not be an impious stance to take.  If anything it would be a most traditional sort of piety that could inform what Melamed describes as Bach's titanic labors in musical synthesis, and titanic examples of self-recycling at that.

Then Gioia wrote the following:

Bach, blues guitarist Robert Johnson, and ragtime composer Scott Joplin are scandals in their own time, but legends at a to-be-determined later date when their legacy can be appropriated by a sanctioned narrative.

Scott Joplin was not a scandal in his own time.  Having read Edward A. Berlin's biography on Scott Joplin thanks to a review of it I read by John McWhorter, I know that scholarship on Scott Joplin has established that Joplin was not a scandal in his own time.  Ragtime was a scandal in its heyday, and it was because ragtime was a genre of popular song far more than it was a genre of instrumental piano music of the kind that has passed into the classical music canon to the point where Joplin's works are a Dover publication mentioned in the back of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution.  Ragtime was regarded as being as unsavory and unmusical in its day as rap and hip hop were often regarded as being a century later but what Berlin and others have established is that Scott Joplin himself was a widely admired and respected musician in the ragtime field.  So Gioia's assertion is provably false with Joplin's life.  Joplin complained of ragtime that if the songs didn't have such ghastly lyrics the music could be appreciated for its beauty.  Joplin worked on a piano concerto, long since lost, and a couple of operas, only one of which has survived.  Joplin heard and admired works by Wagner and aspired to make ragtime into a respectable high class musical style.  People who disparaged ragtime overall nevertheless had high praise for Joplin as a musician and a person.  Since this has been sufficiently attested by biographical work on Joplin it's worth bringing up.

The kind of sweeping assertions Gioia traffics in are the current sanctioned narrative.  Few things are more iconic in our era than a meta-narrative that all of the best art was developed by iconoclasts of one kind or another.  A subversive history of music that sells us on a mythology that all the cool stuff about music is a sanctioned narrative of the historical significance of someone or some group that was outsider in the past has been the standard line for long enough that an iconoclastic stance toward that kind of standard line might be what we need more than more of the standard line.

Gioia comes across as cooking the books for a pre-determined "outsider" narrative that I find implausible.  Outsiders do make pioneering contributions to art but how do we define "outsider"?  I'm reading Mark Burford's monograph Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field right now.  It's a remarkable book and I highly commend it.  Burford highlights some interesting things about how Thomas Dorsey and Jackson pioneered a new kind of gospel blues popular music, a commercial endeavor that wasn't opposed to piety (far from it) but which was viewed with suspicion by classically trained black musicians in American churches.  The suspicion was not so much that the new music was impious or badly made (at least not when it came to Dorsey and Jackson, whose respective levels of musicianship were widely praised) but that as a field the new popular song based gospel approach would in some way "dumb down" the musical proficiency of the field.  In response to these kinds of criticisms Dorsey made a point of ensuring and insisting on quality control.  The upshot of this, as I'm still going through Burford's book, seems to be this--the legends of today were in various ways able to be regarded as sell outs in their own time.  That Mahalia Jackson was the Queen of Gospel and has in the early twenty-first century faded into obscurity compared to other popular musical stars can be a reminder that no matter how great a star can fade in and out of prominence.

As Richard Taruskin put it about J. S. Bach, the Romantic era had particular use of him and fashioned him into an image and narrative that was useful to them, whether or not it was necessarily an accurate reflection of who Bach was, to the extent that we can know who he was.

There is a pretty good chance Johann Sebastian Bach was the kind of conservative Lutheran whose view of Jews would be regarded as ghastly to contemporary Americans.

I'm reminded lately of something Adorno wrote in one of his works about how there are some foundationally misleading assumptions and assertions about European musical history that have been incorporated into some American conceptions of musical history.

Theodore W. Adorno
Polity Press
(c) 2009 by Polity Press
Introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4285-7
ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4286-4(pb)

page 190

The allegation that Haydn "standardized" the sonata form, is a fatal blow to the life of musical forms. Standardization is a term applied to industrial mass production and not to works of art, but apparently the commentator is under the spell of the industrial age to such an extent that he does not even notice its inadequacy. Haydn crystallized the sonata form, not as a rigid standard, but as a highly dynamic framework responding to any impulse of the composer in the specific work he is writing. The standardized sonata form would cease to be a living form and would become nothing more than a schoolmaster's set of prescriptions. The real danger in such statements is that they promote the idea that it is the task of a composer to "make things easier", as if it were Haydn's merit that after him it was easier to compose; actually and fortunately, it became more difficult after Haydn to write symphonies. Musical development is not like gadgeteering. 

As long as the idea of making things easier prevails in musical education, no actual musical understanding can be expected to develop. Such understanding consists in the very spontaneity of the listener's response that is jeopardized by the feeling that everything has been settled for him by other people who have standardized the forms. 

It's axiomatic, as Garrison Keillor put it, that the best music in America was made by people on the wrong side of the tracks in the bad part of town doing things that were definitely illegal but that outlaw mythology has not been the whole history of American music, let alone music in general.  Wat Adorno highlighted above was a superimposition on musical history of a concept, mass production in the post-machine era, that would not even be meaningfully applicable to Haydn's approach in his own time and place.  Keillor's axiom is a process of standardization and mythologizing.  The objections I have to varieties of "subversive" histories of the arts is not that there's never been iconoclastic elements, it's that Gioia's approach is the standard narrative.  Dale Cockrell can celebrate the musicians, pimps and sex workers whom he regards as having pioneered the real musical sound of America in contrast to the highbrow artists in music who aimed at respectability but this, too, is a myth, a myth indebted to post-Herder forms of Romanticism that I will admit I've never been much of a fan of.  The possibility that dance hall music styles were so disreputable that their eventual transformation into the popular musical styles that dominate American and to a lesser extent global music markets may have benefited from being literally as well as figuratively getting sanctified on the path from underground brothels to Top 40 radio.  This would be why, in brief, the path from underground dance hall music in the nineteenth century to Michael Jackson's Thriller may have needed to pass through not just Little Richard and Ray Charles and The Beatles but also Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson along the way, too.  Gioia can probably account for the back and forth between iconoclastic and iconic in the larger history but the "subversive" is the selling point in the title.

Adorno may not have been altogether wrong to point out in his time that a lot of what we consider the real raw blues or folklore was, in the actual time it was being sold as commercially appealing popular song and dance music, the result of what Adorno regarded as the culture industry, the sale of an illusion of freedom passed off as real freedom to those convinced to buy it.  I think there's a lot wrong with that but it can be useful to have Adornos in the history of Western music to provide a contrarian view to popular musical styles that have been elevated into a kind of collective musical pantheon of pop canonicity.

As it stands we live in a time in which Americans in musicology might not always care that J. S. Bach can be presented as some iconoclastic rock star in a popular level "subversive history".  Contrary to some conservative and traditionalist polemic, J. S. Bach is a composer whose reputation is secure even among fans of jazz and hip hop.  I could quote Ethan Hein or Charles Mudede on their high esteem for J. S. Bach even as people who have little use or affection for "classical music" in other styles and forms.  Bach may need to be a dissident for Gioia's mythic account of music but more recent scholarship on Bach, such as Daniel Melamed's work on Bach's use of parody technique and stylistic juxtaposition, invites what I consider to be a more persuasive and plausible account of Bach's continued relevance to music and musicology.  That Bach was so successful at fusing and synthesizing the prevailing styles of his time could be translated for our era by invoking Gunther Schuller's writing about third stream or "fusion".  Bach was a master fusionist/synthesist.  Music writing at a popular level can often traffic in mythologies of "real" or "authentic" or "raw" music, music not mediated by, informed by, corrupted by, or influenced by other styles.

Bach may persist because he solved problems at a musical level in his time and place that, when we study his work, can help us think about ways to solve comparable or corresponding problems in ours.  Obviously Bach was not setting out to solve a problem such as how to develop a synthesis of blues, ragtime, and country riffs with what we'd call sonata forms, but when I have studied Bach's approach to contrapuntal writing and thematic development that is what I find myself getting out of Bach's work.  To put it in simpler terms, the craft displayed in Bach's omnivorous approach to writing music can teach us a lot about how to approach the juxtaposition and exploration of ostensibly contrasting styles and practices in our time.  That's not iconoclastic or dissident musicianship, that's possibly just what passionate and accomplished musicians have so often been inspired to do.

There can be misrepresentations in a Gioia style "subversive" history of music.  Take his invocation of Robert Johnson.  To borrow Elijah Wald's observations about the reception history of Robert Johnson, there are a lot of people who insist that we understand Robert Johnson as a the outsider who played the raw, real folk blues rather than listen to his recorded output and notice his sophisticated instrumental technique and clearly masterful assimilation of ragtime as the popular style of the day into his songwriting.  The age of ragtime had only recently transformed into the Jazz era when Johnson was cutting his sides to record.  Rock and roll and jazz writers have mythologized Robert Johnson as some outsider on the margins whose work was raw and real rather than engage with Johnson as a popular musician working in the realm of popular recorded music whose work caught on, stayed fairly respectably popular and then went on to influence generations of rock (i.e. white guys who played blues songs).

As Charles Rosen put it about John Donne, one of the myths about Donne was his work languished in obscurity for centuries until a T. S. Eliot brought attention to his work.  It would be more accurate to say that Donne had a niche of devotee respect and admiration among writers and scholars and that Eliot was able to bring Donne's work to light as having been unfairly neglected because a base line of writer and scholar fandom ensured Donne's work had not, in fact, been "forgotten".  Generations of dedicated specialists and admirers of Donne's craft kept his reputation going until someone like Eliot could argue for a reappraisal of the significance of Donne's contribution to literature and his legacy.

J.S. Bach and his music have undergone a variety of appraisals and reappraisals.  We're not exactly seeing a revival of Berlioz' take on Bach, for instance, finding the chorales and fugues so boring and uninspiring but such a take on Bach could return.  Mendelssohn's revival of Bach didn't mean for a second that there were not composers and musicians during the early nineteenth century who didn't see much "need" for the revival and reconsideration of someone so old school as a man who composed music sixty some years ago.

POSTSCRIPT 10-21-2019

Okay, so after mulling it over a bit, the post probably makes my take on Gioia's work seem harsher than, overall, it is.  I'm contesting the "subversive history" angle and take issue with an implication one of his pieces makes about Scott Joplin as a "scandal".  I've been reading scholarly work on ragtime in the last few years and there's consensus that Joplin himself was well-regarded in his time even though ragtime as a style was regarded as being as unmusical and disorderly as a genre of popular song in the 1890s as, say, gangster rap was in the 1990s.

But I happily recommend Gioia's books Love Songs, Work Songs and Healing Songs.  His case that we should remember how much jazz and rock styles have been indebted to church music traditions is a good point and one that's getting back up by more recent work by Randall J. Stephens and to a somewhat lesser extent Mark Burford's superb new monograph on Mahalia Jackson.  The unifying thread I'm spotting in those books is that whether we're talking Elvis or Little Richard or Thelonious Monk some pretty daring mid-20th century music was written and recorded by musicians with musical roots in Pentecostalism.

I've been in academic monograph reading mode on music history and musicology over the last few years and have been working on a new and more explicitly theoretical version of my older essay on the basis for a fusion of ragtime and sonata forms.  So I admit to being passionate and maybe even exceptionally picky on the topic of ragtime because I've been steeping myself in some of the scholarly literature on that style about ragtime and Scott Joplin in particular.  So, yeah, I've got my deeply held skepticism about what I regard as the conventional wisdom of contemporary "subversive" takes on arts history but I've got my criticisms of Richard Taruskin's massive multi-volume Oxford History of Western Music.  What I am sure of is Gioia isn't writing something that's intended to be read as an academic primer of the sort a professor might make you buy for a survey class.

So despite my criticism of a statement that is, in excerpt, in some ways an implication, I've liked Gioia's work.  I think his piece about how "Music Criticism Has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting" was a great thesis.  Gioia's on point about that issue and it reminded me of something Eric Nisenson wrote in his book Blue: The Murder of Jazz, a good deal of music criticism in pop and rock music coverage is written by English majors who have never picked up musical literacy in terms of reading scores or foundational literacy in score reading and playing.

And I do actually plan on reading the new Gioia book when it comes out because even when I think he's getting something completely wrong I still like to read his work.


As I've written here and in comments elsewhere, I get a sense that many Americans writing on music at a popular and an academic level have been grappling with what they regard as the damaging legacies of nineteenth century philosophies about art, nationalism, and ethnicity.  Since I've been something of an anti-Romantic pretty much my whole life, about as soon as I found out what things like Romanticism and transcendentalism were, I'm more or less on board with a wholesale critique of things like the artist-as-prophet-genius-hero-who-is-above-petty-bourgeois-morality as a license to act like a rock star in all the worst possible senses of the term.  If that's where Gioia swerves in his newer writings, well, okay.  I know from his later blogging Andrew Durkin has written that he was trying to tackle the problematic aspects of the art-genius rock star cult.  It's possible for people who are progressive in politics and agnostic on religion and people who are professing Christians who read Puritans for literary pleasure and edification to generally agree the legacy of Herder and Wagner has proven to be a particularly pernicious one .... but ... Wagner has defenders ...

and as a bit of a classicist I suspect the way to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater is figuring out ways to reject meta-narratives that are residually indebted to Romantic era ideologies and mythologies, one of those being a variety of bids at a subversive history of fill-in-the-blank.