Ivory Towers of Glass

Sweeping generalizations can be effective. Can be…

I came across an older blog post from Sator Arepo at Think Classical a few weeks ago that has since stuck with me. Think Classical is a “classical music blog” – a term that the author surely hates, for good reason touched upon below – I’ve regularly followed and read the last several months. The posts are, on the whole, informed and thoughtful. Mr. Arepo (I’m guessing the gender based on social media pronouns) is intelligent, well-read, and writes authoritatively on many topics, and I regularly learn much from his posts. A favorite recent series focuses on so-called “Nazi Opera Conspiracy Theories.” I strongly suggest reading it in full if you have the time.

Late one night I was scrolling older entries and came across a couple of compelling posts about the brain-washing evils of pop music. (Admittedly, this is good bait for yours truly.) I read them chronologically backwards, but his first piece criticizes the nature of “genre” in pop music, and the second attacks pop music’s commercialist trappings. (The seedling for both appears to be this one about commercialism.) I’m not setting out to fisk the posts line by line, and I certainly don’t consider this the beginning of some one-sided personal feud with the author, whose blog I very much enjoy, but I believe his notions are symptomatic of a larger problem with criticizing popular music – or, more generally, criticizing music with which one’s largely unfamiliar.

Genre – labeling in general – is a good place to start. I can’t speak for Mr. Arepo, but I believe he and I both succumb to the familiar labels of classical and pop: the former representing Western Art Music of the past ~1200 years, and the latter relating to a continuity of socially and commercially popular but stylistically diverse musics of the last ~150 years (if using Stephen Foster and the national proliferation of minstrelsy in the US as a starting point). (Folk and jazz receive similar wide-ranging labels.) He admits to as much in 2014’s maiden post, rejecting the absurdity of putting Josquin, Mozart, and Birtwhistle under the same “classical” umbrella. His initial point about genre is largely correct: “pop music” is a catch-all phrase connoting commercially popular styles with structural and (musically-)theoretical similarities. Furthermore, these similarities – melody, harmony, rhythm, form – are often simple and benign when compared to other, more sophisticated styles (e.g., serialism). But to then make the leap and say that any and all supposed pop music amounts to diatonic tripe is quite a leap. One could just as easily and incorrectly label all classical music as boring vocal and instrumental music written for the sake of being difficult or abstract, lacking any greater purpose or context.

Curiously, Mr. Arepo uses one pop example (Metallica) and six classical examples (Brahms, Boulez, Mozart, Dufay, Takemitsu, Xenakis) to make his point. What’s more, he chooses some low-hanging fruit from Metallica: “Nothing Else Matters” from 1991’s Metallica (aka The Black Album). Of course, stepping inside the world of pop music, “Nothing Else Matters” was seen as an artistic slap in the face of many Metallica fans who expected more thrash- or speed-metal stylings similar to the band’s previous albums and songs. (Just read this description on this YouTube posting.) “Nothing Else Matters” features the tinny acoustic guitars, lush strings, and lilting 6/8 that infected many ’90s power-ballads. And yes, it’s quite simple harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, and structurally.

Responding in kind, one need only look to the initially ballad-like “One” from Metallica’s preceding album …And Justice For All (’89). Granted, little in this song is intellectually formidable in comparison to many classical (Western Art Music) composers – simple time signatures (3/4, 4/4, etc.), diatonic harmonies and melodies, largely homophonic textures. However, the material is richer here than on “Nothing Else Matters”: motivic development in the introduction (it’s not Brahms or Schönberg, but it’s something), occurrences of polyphony, changes in pulse/feel, virtuosic solo guitar lines (and fast duet lines in parallel motion), and a form that avoids the verse-chorus and strophic trappings. The lyrical content is also of a different caliber: “One” is based on the anti-war novel and film-of-same-name Johnny Got His Gun instead of the woe-is-me “Nothing.” Therefore it’s no surprise that when the band picks up speed the drums often mimic gunfire – a nice bit of text painting. It’s not Xenakis, but it’s also no cookie-cutter power-ballad. I think Mr. Arepo would agree that not all sonata forms are created equal. The same can be said for metal singles (with this radio single being just shy of 7.5 minutes in length).

Of course, as with classical (or any other) music, the ink on the page is only a fraction of the overall story, particularly with piano-reduction-like scores of pop songs. (You’d never guess that these songs include percussion, let alone the exact parts, by looking at piano-reductions.) Instrumentation (dare I say orchestration?), timbre, and dynamics are paramount in much pop music, particularly rock. The electric guitar is a timbrally versatile instrument, rich in overtones and and widely varied depending on the model and player. Lead sheets don’t convey this whatsoever. Musicologist Robert Walser intelligently discusses this and related points in his groundbreaking Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993). Is a voice and piano reduction of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde equally moving as the original orchestration? Hardly.

As mentioned, Mr. Arepo’s classical examples against Metallica aren’t Top 40 material – someone unfamiliar with classical music would likely stick to the greatest hits of Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi instead of Xenakis and Takemitsu. (As expected.) Similarly, straying from the beaten path that is Metallica, I briefly and humbly offer the late Frank Zappa, himself a champion of contemporary music (including orchestral releases), as a shining example of creating art rooted in rock. To offer a richer and more technically impressive example than “One,” without digging too deep in the weeds, one need only listen to Zappa’s so-called “Yellow Snow Suite” that often includes the songs “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Nanook Rubs It,” “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast,” and “Father O’Blivion.” Zappa’s music includes equal parts humor, absurdity, poetry, obscured meanings, and social commentary, but there’s a sincerity throughout. These pieces aren’t just thrown together, over a modified blues or verse-chorus format, but they’re well thought out and executed.

Below are two versions of the “Yellow Snow Suite”: an extended 1978 performance featuring Zappa himself, and a 2006 performance by Zappa Plays Zappa (a top-flight band including surviving band members dedicated to his catalogue, fronted by his son Dweezil). Yes, the songs are mostly diatonic, but there’s a fair amount of chromaticism throughout. (Far more than the above examples, which included none save for a few blue notes.) But the chromaticism works – it’s not at all obtrusive or out of place. Other goodies include: a nice variety of meter (including mixed) and tempi, vocal harmonies, unexpected vocal and instrumental interjections, non-traditional form and structure, a cornucopia of rock and pop styles as well as a great Latin groove, and rich orchestration. While “just a rock band” at first blush, a number of the musicians are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, and they greatly expand the sonic palette for such “commodity music.” The lyrics – equal parts clever and crass – bring the piece full circle. There’s a real rock & roll spirit here with a fun, almost jubilant attitude that’s buoyed by substantial musical content. It’s best to let the music speak for itself. The ’78 clip featuring Frank shows you “the real thing” and grooves hard, while the ZPZ clip features a tighter band and arrangement:

With such well-rehearsed and well-executed live performances, these two groups are arguably more akin to chamber ensembles than “rock bands.”

To close this out for now, as I stress to my Music Appreciation students: I don’t care that they necessarily “like” new styles and sounds, but I expect that they learn to 1) understand them and their contexts, 2) appreciate them for what they are, and 3) can tell me intelligently why they don’t like something, if applicable. And that’s a two-way street – it’s not just for people getting acquainted with Western Art Music. It can also be applied to learning about non-WAM styles, or whatever new genre or style awaits you.

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