Sunday, January 12, 2020

actual links for the weekend post, deaths of Neil Peart and Roger Scruton inside one week--Ethan Iverson sees a recent version of an argument from John Halle and, as a reader of both, I consider where they might be writing past each other

For those of us who either respect or, further, enjoy progressive rock, it has to be mentioned that Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the band Rush, has died.

When I was in my teens I found Rush aggravating.  Geddy Lee was one of those rare voices in rock who sounded like he maybe never quite got out of puberty.  One of my relatives was excited about Rush and Pinkfloyd and in my tween years I didn't care for either of them.  The parents strongly disapproved of both bands.  In a weird irony I would later get into Pinkfloyd and listen to Dark Side of the Moon rather than The Wall and the parents decided they thought the band was great after all.  They never, however, warmed up to Rush.

Ironically, ten years later from my first initial and unhappy exposure to Rush I'd end up in an aspiring progressive rock band that covered "Tom Sawyer", "Spirit of Radio" and "Zanadu".  I went from hating the band to respecting the musicianship of all its members.  This fan of Bob Dylan, Pinkfloyd, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, J. S. Bach, Haydn, Shostakovich and Bartok never quite warmed up to Rush enough to like them but I came to respect their musicianship and, compared to Yes, their song structures, no matter how complex, still broke down into discernible forms.

I've read about a half dozen of Roger Scruton's books, chiefly on the topic of music.  I found myself disagreeing with him about a few things.  His rebuttal to the ideas and legacy of Adorno, for instance, was paradoxical inasmuch as Scruton retained much of Adorno's arguments against popular music in terms of aesthetics and technique while jettisoning the Marxist aspect of Adorno's approach (though not necesssarily Adorno's debt to Idealism).  The irony that the most substantial of Adorno's criticisms of mass and popular music culture has lived on in the last half century through the writings of the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is probably an overstatement to those who want their left and right thinkers to be cordoned off in realms where none of their ideas can possibly overlap but I don't think anyone has any real obligation to do that and the kinds of ideologues who do make that move, who do separate "left" and "right" are the sorts of people who I have come to disagree with.

Although I got a sense that he set up a number of Adorno's positions in straw men formats Scruton was right to say that those of us who disagree with Adorno on issues like Marxism and capitalism have an intellectual and moral obligation to engage with Adorno's work.  There hasn't been a philosopher dealing with aesthetics who broached the subject of tensions between "high" and "low" art cultures, techniques and mentalities more directly and thoroughly than Adorno.

Another layer of irony in Scruton's historic antagonism toward Darmstadt style modernism is that in this respect, too, he was like Adorno.  Objecting to inhuman technocratic worship of technique for its own sake bereft of the personalism of a decision-making subject who makes artistic decisions was something that can be found in Adorno and Scruton.  They were obviously on somewhat "opposing" sides on the legacy of Schoenberg but both Scruton and Adorno came to comparable conclusions about integral serialism being an anti-humanistic dead end in terms of aesthetics and artistic agency.

The common thread here with the mentioned dead is that though I disagreed with them and disagree with a few ideas they've expressed I can respect them and send regards and condolances to their families.  There are people in the arts and in philosophy where they do far more for you by giving you ideas and art to disagree with than you might ever gain by finding all the stuff that you hear or see or read that feels like it connects directly to "you".

When I hear how formulaic the 3:30 song format could be from the 1940s to 1960s, hearing just how much of a song factory Tin Pan Alley could get it's a reminder to me that whether or not a Scruton or an Adorno would have had much to say about Neil Peart in particular and Rush in general there could be some agreement that the problem of increasingly formulaic art mass-produced to elicit a mass-produced feeling needed some artistic counter-measures.  Criticism of music that is all feeling and no mind can keep showing up in moments such as when Quincy Jones remarked that too many songwriters seem to believe that you only use the right side of your brain in creative activity when the left side of the brain needs to be involved.

I doubt anyone could make any kind of case that Peart didn't use the left side of his brain to make his music and write his lyrics.

It was easy to regard progressive rock as a pretentious and portentious dead end as a musical style, a sea of arcane technical and technocratic musical athleticism divorced from "soul" but that is a genre stereotype that we can set aside and lay to rest.  There were flaws in progressive rock that I have thought about over the years.  Way back in 2006 I posted "Calm Blue Oceans and Thunderstorms" and more recently piggy-back blogged on some observations Ethan Hein made about how the complexity of Bach's Chaconne at the polyphonic surface is counter-balanced by a beautifully simple ABA form at its largest level of structure.

They are still not my favorite band but compared to a lot of prog rock I'd say Rush found a delicate balance between moment-to-moment complexity and a grasp of simpler underlying structures.  They made long suites that are still not exactly my favorites but they really did master the simpler forms.  To put all of this another way, Rush entered and stayed in the pantheon of prog rock because although as part of the progressive rock vanguard they explicitly rejected being constrained by Top 40 pop song formats they demonstrated in later work and some early work that the absolutely could do those four-on-the-floor kick-out-the-jams rock numbers.

On other musically connected links for the weekend stuff.

This was posted August 9, 2017
An article showed up at Jacobin that significantly condensed the content showed up at Jacobin.

January 2020

This condensed version was what Ethan Iverson saw and responded to.

Jacobin being Jacobin I'm afraid that my initial take is that they dumbed down Halle's earlier, longer chain of thoughts in the process of editing it into something Jacobin would publish ... which is sort of my discreet way of saying it's a reminder to me why I don't tend to read Jacobin overall although I'm happy to read the work of some people who contribute to it (Halle and Reed Jr. specifically).

Ethan Iverson made a point of pointing out WHY Methany wrote as he did about Kenny G and it seems that since I have made a point of reading both Iverson and Halle over the years I could see if it's possible to propose points where the two might be writing past each other, if you will.

What Methany wrote inspired him to write on the topic of Kenny G at all was ... :
As a composer of even eighth note based music, he SHOULD be compared to Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver or even Grover Washington. Suffice it to say, on all above counts, at this point in his development, he wouldn't fare well.

But, like I said at the top, this relatively benign view was all "until recently".

Not long ago, Kenny G put out a recording where he overdubbed himself on top of a 30+ year old Louis Armstrong record, the track "What a Wonderful World". With this single move, Kenny G became one of the few people on earth I can say that I really can't use at all - as a man, for his incredible arrogance to even consider such a thing, and as a musician, for presuming to share the stage with the single most important figure in our music.

This type of musical necrophilia - the technique of overdubbing on the preexisting tracks of already dead performers - was weird when Natalie Cole did it with her dad on "Unforgettable" a few years ago, but it was her dad. When Tony Bennett did it with Billie Holiday it was bizarre, but we are talking about two of the greatest singers of the 20th century who were on roughly the same level of artistic accomplishment. When Larry Coryell presumed to overdub himself on top of a Wes Montgomery track, I lost a lot of the respect that I ever had for him - and I have to seriously question the fact that I did have respect for someone who could turn out to have such unbelievably bad taste and be that disrespectful to one of my personal heroes.

But when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis's tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible. He, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that Louis Armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician. By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture - something that we all should be totally embarrassed about - and afraid of. We ignore this, "let it slide", at our own peril.

His callous disregard for the larger issues of what this crass gesture implies is exacerbated by the fact that the only reason he possibly have for doing something this inherently wrong (on both human and musical terms) was for the record sales and the money it would bring.

Since that record came out - in protest, as insignificant as it may be, I encourage everyone to boycott Kenny G recordings, concerts and anything he is associated with. If asked about Kenny G, I will diss him and his music with the same passion that is in evidence in this little essay.

Normally, I feel that musicians all have a hard enough time, regardless of their level, just trying to play good and don't really benefit from public criticism, particularly from their fellow players. but, this is different.

There ARE some things that are sacred - and amongst any musician that has ever attempted to address jazz at even the most basic of levels, Louis Armstrong and his music is hallowed ground. To ignore this trespass is to agree that NOTHING any musician has attempted to do with their life in music has any intrinsic value - and I refuse to do that. (I am also amazed that there HASN'T already been an outcry against this among music critics - where ARE they on this?????!?!?!?!, magazines, etc.). Everything I said here is exactly the same as what I would say to Gorelick if I ever saw him in person. and if I ever DO see him anywhere, at any function - he WILL get a piece of my mind and (maybe a guitar wrapped around his head.)

So what exactly makes Louis Armstrong sacred and Kenny G profane?  What makes the recordings sacred?

In a way this reminds me of progressive rock and its rise and fall and critical rejection of it.  Perhaps the bluntest and easiest way to describe how American rock journalism turned on progressive rock while UK rock journalism didn't turn on it in exactly the same way is that in a UK context musicians could mention drawing upon classical music and European folklore and folksong and even more upon the liturgical legacy of Anglicanism.  In short, British prog rockers didn't want to imitate or pretend to imitate black American vernacular music so they decided to draw upon the folklore they knew was theirs.  For a time in the wake of the Beatles this was okay and then by the later 1970s there was punk and disco and prog rock came to be seen as self-indulgent.  At another level it was too white, too European, too set on incorporating styles of music that had been cordoned off from "real" rock and roll.

I have been reading a few books in the last year that have gotten me an idea that we might underestimate the importance of the high and low liturgical backgrounds in the reception and rejection history of prog rock.  Anthony Heilbut has made a case that the early soul pioneers got most of what they learned of singing craft from the black Pentecostal church and that the history of rock is not just a story of American running with black music in general but drawing and not necessarily giving credit to black Pentecostal worship music styles in particular.  This has gotten some pushback by scholars in the last few decades, first by Heilbut and more recently by Randall J. Stephens' book highlighting how the early rock pioneers were Pentecostals and drew on styles that evolved in the black Pentecostal church scene.

I just finished Mark Burford's spectacular monograph on Mahalia Jackson and it was not the least bit surprising that one of the warnings she gave people regarding music was that the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of Jesus Christ regardless of the musical style.  Thomas A Dorsey added a little bounce to the musical message but that bounce isn't the main thing.  In other words, for religious musicians their religion was their religion, not their art.  This isn't to say that musical atheists couldn't make daring sonic art.  Xenakis immediately comes to mind.  But it's interesting that musical revolutionaries ranging from Olivier Messiaen to Thomas A Dorsey could be revolutionary and religiously observant at the same time.

What Halle wrote about got me thinking and what Iverson mentioned about Methany's reaction to Kenny G's overdub on top of Armstrong got me thinking.  It may be that with the passing of Roger Scruton I'm thinking about this in terms of his observations about the Idealists and German Idealism, how the Romantic era thinkers arrived at an idea that in the absence of older more traditional forms of theism music could fill a space that had previously been reserved for religious observance.

Here we are in the early twenty-first century and agitation by Americans against the stifling aspects they see in the legacy of German Idealism mediated in musicology and musical canons can reject the sacredness of Beethoven and replace it with the sacredness of Armstrong.  The cult of the genius has had the script flipped with respect to skin color and a few other things but it could be there's a residually Romantic aspect to Armstrong veneration.  I'm not saying don't admire Armstrong, I'm saying that Armstrong could privately think "Hello Dolly" was a stupid song but still be glad it became a hit for the sake of it being a profitable venture.  Even a musical titan such as Armstrong had bills to pay.

Halle's rejoinder to Methany may not have been as direct in addressing the art-as-sacrament aspect that might lurk behind Methany's reaction to Kenny G overdubbing himself atop a legendary Armstrong recording.

Maybe it's just me but having spent half a decade binge-reading Theodore Adorno on the one hand and genuinely enjoying the Puritan Richard Sibbes on the other and mulling over how the post-Weinstein #metoo era seems to be a Donatist controversy for contemporary Western art-as-religion it  seems that Halle's overarching point is that bourgeois respectability partly depends on an art-religion of sacred and profane consumption and production in which an Armstrong has been made sacred while Kenny G is profane but that this contemporary division has been taken up by the jazz faithful after the canonization has been completed and largely without engaging the ways in which earlier musical canons were rejected or supplanted along the way.

I haven't gotten around to The Jazz Bubble and not sure if I'll have time for that if I'm going to do my intended projects for 2020--the insularity of jazz as a self-contained highbrow style would be impossible to imagine a century ago when we weren't even in what was called the Jazz Age yet and proto-jazz by way of ragtime and blues was starting to become known and popular--but I've read enough about and around the book's topics to get a sense that there's a kind of finance class respectability to jazz that flies in the face of what jazz was like generations ago.  Jazz pioneers wanted the music to be taken seriously as an art and paradoxically one of the difficulties for jazz is that it is taken seriously as an art form and bankrolled by the sorts of people who would have possibly sniffed at it or dreaded it as race music who have in the last century co-opted it.

I find it terrible that in the last twenty years I've been put on hold to the sounds of Kind of Blue.  That is, in a sentence, part of what seems to have changed about the fortunes of jazz and the fortunes invested in and maybe made on jazz.  As a classical guitarist that's not my wheelhouse in terms of what I play but I love Ellington and Monk and Brubeck and Mingus and Roach and I like the George Russell I've heard.  Sun Ra I can handle in small doses.  Coleman has done some amazing stuff.

But is this work sacred and if it is, why?  Halle may actually benefit from not being so invested in and involved in jazz that he can't step back and ask why there are so-sacred-as-to-be-sacramental jazz artists and profane musical  lepers.

I had meant to dedicate the above to a separate post but my attempts to finalize all my blogging about Nikita Koshkin's preludes and fugues in light of Asya Selyutina's superb Naxos release that came out last month of the first half of Koshin's set of 24 preludes and fugues has kept me a bit distracted.  Plus I'm practicing my own stuff and sketching out another cycle of preludes and fugues for guitar as I go and reading a bit.  I managed to finish Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History and Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field last month.  Also been reading a fascinating monograph by Eric Oberle on Adorno and "the wound" that I may try to write about ... later.  Incubating a more expanded thesis on ragtime and sonata forms that may or may not end up going up here, too.  I have way more things I've been thinking of writing and publishing here than I may realistically have time and energy to do.  There have to be posts on Gilardino's amazing guitar sonatas and the guitar sonatas of Matiegka down the road ... I trust you get the idea.

But before I read about the passings of Peart and Scruton over the weekend the plan had been to blog about the Iverson/Halle back and forth and, well, I ended up shoving that into "links for the weekend."  The material deserves a separate post but I'm only human so I am economizing number of posts to run with the thoughts I have at the hour, such as they are.

Greta Gerwig's Little Women is an awful lot of fun, by the way.

POSTSCRIPT 1-12-2019 8.45pm

I've had my disagreements with things written by Scruton and Adorno but to borrow an observation that, if memory serves, was made by Terry Teachout, a great critic can be wrong but wrong in a way that spurs on the art and thought of criticism.  Critical theory may get some things wildly wrong since Adorno but Adorno's way of grappling with aesthetic problems in the arts in technocratic societies has, if wrong, been wrong in ways that have spurred thinkers across the spectrum to wrestle with the issues in his work.  Scruton and Adorno have laid out positions I think were basically wrong in terms of solutions artists can use but they may have been most useful for the lucid ways in which they articulated what they considered to be the aesthetic problems of their time.  Philosophy of New Music laid out what Adorno regarded as the fracturing of music cognition into two modes he saw as being irreconcilable in terms of the capitalist systems of his time and place. Scruton's work recapitulated the observation of a rupture between "argument" in sonata form and "groove" in dance music without necessarily doing much to add to the overall observation.  Where both Scruton and Adorno did not in the end address how the rupture between "argument" and "groove" could be addressed some American composers, specifically George Rochberg and Ben Johnston, have come up with theoretical responses to the fracturing by building a set of terms that musicians can use to think through what these contrasting modes of music cognition are and how they could in some way be reconciled.  I don't agree that the two modes became "false" but that's another topic for another time.

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