Tag Archives: think classical

Ivory Towers of Glass II

Continuing along with this post, I’d like to touch on another sweeping generalization about pop music. And, much like last time (and in general on this blog), by “pop music” I mean the overly-broad designation referring to commercially successful styles and their satellites, however remote, ranging from Stephen Foster to Tom Jones to Radiohead to White Zombie to Gwen Stefani and everything in between. The last post touched upon misconceptions over pop music’s substance and content, relating to Mr. Arepo’s post on the topic on Think Classical. Here, I’d like to engage with his other post, that of pop music’s economic and social context.

Mr. Arepo lays it all out in the title of this post (“Pop Music: the Most Insidious Form of Capitalist Brainwashing“), going on to rename pop music as “commodity music.” I certainly agree to a point – commodity musics abound in Western society, though such trends aren’t isolated to rhythm sections and lead guitars alone – yes, André Rieu and Kenny G, I’m looking at you. While I don’t completely buy into the “brainwashing” aspect of the argument, I believe that money is the ultimate goal instead of art in most cases. Much like there’s ultimately no overarching liberal or conservative media, but rather a money-making media more concerned for its financial interests than anything else. Selling itself is what what matters, not necessarily what is being sold. And in many cases, consumers are happy to buy in. As much as we don’t want to, we must accept that many folks just don’t want art, they just want “something nice/fun.” I’ve learned that truth by playing a few too many wallpaper gigs in a variety of styles over the years. And, personally, I don’t fear the word “entertainment” itself. But that’s another topic for another day. (Further reading: My dear friend Pat Harris does this argument justice in his 06.05.14 blog post.)

So, I agree to a point. However, one can’t throw pop music at large under the bus of financial greed. Yes, there’s a capitalist context concerned with financial gain. But the mixing of money and music – and art in general – is not a new phenomenon. Musicians have been trying to make a living off of selling their music for hundreds of years, be it through publishing or subscription concerts. Yes, we now have capitalism and its ugly sibling advertising. But what about the centuries-long tradition of religious patronage? The are myriad examples from the Catholic Church (Palestrina, de Lassus, Gabrieli), Protestants (J.S. Bach, Buxtehude, Sweelinck), and more. And how about aristocratic patronage? Louis XIV employed Lully, and Haydn enjoyed a lush post at the Esterházy court for decades. Yes, Mozart and Beethoven fought against aristocratic patronage via a variety of means, but rich friends and public concertizing helped subsidize along the way. Should such performances, be it for the public or for private subscription concerts, be considered too different than a rock band playing a club in the city – or, for that matter, a house party? Even Wagner – a shared love of Mr. Arepo and myself – owed money throughout Europe and in part relied on King Ludwig II for financial stability. Musicians, including yours truly, have long relied on teaching as supplemental income, and the university has created a modern-day patronage system, albeit one whose bubble is starting to burst and will likely implode in the near future.

All of the aforementioned contexts are simply to say that if today’s pop music is nothing more than a tool of the corporate machine, then should Haydn’s output be rejected en masse as aristocratic brainwashing? Are Perotin and Bach simply religious pawns? Gesualdo, widely and rightly considered a radical composer, was himself an Italian noble, and yet he exemplified the  “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle as much as Marilyn Manson, although perhaps not as much as Varg Vikernes and a few other elite scumbags.

Mr. Arepo hangs much of this post’s hat on quotes by Theodor Adorno and Noam Chomsky – two intellectual heavyweights who provide much insight on a host of topics. They are good quotes and thoughts in and of themselves. However, the curated and annotated quotes are undermined by red herrings: some sensational pictures of Marilyn Manson, Katy Perry, and a Suicide Girl-esque model in kitschy Nazi regalia. I won’t go into my full-throated defense of Marilyn Manson here (though I could). Yes, he’s at times silly, but overall there’s arguably more meat than on Gaga’s dress. And I’m no fan of Ms. Perry, even if I live in the next neighborhood over from a landmark. As for the “hotsy-totsy Nazi,” I thought he’d at least include Michelle “Bombshell” McGee – and her supposed white power tattoos – if going that route, but my guess is that he opted for the random swastika-clad totty for effect. If so, how is that so different from Lady Gaga’s meat dress? Aside from actual white power music, there’s a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the inclusion of the swastika in punk rock artwork and fashion, but I doubt that Mr. Arepo had that in mind, though I could be wrong. (Speaking for myself, I consider using the swastika for shock value by punks to be an empty and pointless gesture. Sorry, Sid.)

The real dilemma here – and it’s indeed a dire one – is that of the corporate machine versus the grassroots. Wall St. vs. Main St., canon vs. the avant-garde. It’s not the musical style but rather the commercial context. Bob Shingleton polices this trend in classical music wonderfully at Overgrown Path. Orchestra halls, opera houses, radio programs, and universities worldwide obsess over classical music’s Top 40 at the expense of artistically equal but much lesser known figures. But, rightly or wrongly, executives keep programming the same few dozen composers and their works season after season, hoping (and often failing to maintain) financial stability. As someone who teaches music appreciation to non-musicians, one of my fondest memories was seeing such positive reaction to a performance of Harry Partch’s “U.S. Highball” from The Wayward. How is this much different than radio, television, and record executives misappropriating and exploiting various styles of popular music until said style burns out and the next is grabbed off of the conveyor belt? For example, the grunge sub-genre began as rock’s grassroots reaction to 80s mainstream excess until grunge itself was (mis)appropriated and run into the ground in the early 90s via Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and more, and distressed flannel and denim entered high fashion. (For a musician’s perspective, hear Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell discuss this in a recent interview with Marc Maron on WTF.) Wash, rinse, and repeat for every mainstream style of the past several decades.

But the misappropriation of a style is just that: a misappropriation. Do we then throw out the baby with the bathwater? Again, I turn to Mr. Arepo’s nuanced and beautifully-written posts on the Third Reich’s misappropriation of Wagner that led to the fairy tales and conspiracy theories that Wagner was himself the Führer. Therein lies the rub for me with these posts: to go from such thoughtful writing to a wholesale dismissal of valid music based on some preconceived notions and some well-placed, self-fulfilling quotations. Speaking for myself, a musician who is in the trenches with various styles of music, I’m fortunate enough to have a number of very talented friends and colleagues who create some truly moving art in myriad styles: rock, electronic, Americana, experimental, jazz, contemporary classical, and more. And yet, because of the corporatist leviathan that is the music business, many of them are relatively little-known and under-heard, yet they admirably continue to press on regardless. It’s such a crime because many of them are as talented – if not more so – than many of the “name” musicians you’ve heard of in _____ style(s). You can of course argue that I’m just playing favorites with my friends, but I really don’t believe that I am. (With the proper time, I’d like to perhaps start a “spotlight series” on this blog so that interested readers may judge for themselves.) If all of these little- or semi-known practitioners quit today simply because of bad apples and bad behavior at the financial top of their respective style or genre, how would the music continue to grow, or continue at all?

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.