Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, March 31, 2004


My report of Saturday night (March 27) may have greatly exaggerated the death of alternative rock. When I got in the car to run an errand this evening, my wife had left the radio tuned to a classic rock station. Or that’s what I thought. I’m 90% sure Chris Cornell of the ‘90s grunge superstar band Soundgarden was singing. Beautiful voice, great singer. At the end of the song (which I didn’t know, not being a big Soundgarden fan but an admirer of their Superunknown album), the station ID announced its slogan: “Alternative Seattle.” Sounded like a ‘90s focus, but I’m not sure.


I don’t want to give the impression that I think classical fans are the only music snobs. Some station ID’s from Seattle radio:

“Where the music matters.” (College nonprofit station, all music.) Terrible slogan! And -- sometimes they play kitschy ‘60s records, like Herb Alpert, as “ironic” background for community announcements. Herb Alpert -- either he ain’t playin’ music, or it don’t matter! (I like those records!)

“For people who like music.” (Adult contemporary rock.) The yuckiest slogan of all! That station’s other slogan is “quality rock,” which is, you know, at least kind of funny.

“Seattle’s hottest music.” (High school student run nonprofit dance music station.) Boastful, but it works for me. Because I think it’s true! And those high school kids are charming. Especially when they haltingly read the news headlines every hour. Ending with, “And now, you’re up to date!” Hey, thanks, kid. Your halting ineptitude is 10 times preferable to smirking professionalism or bored above-it-all-ness.

“Fun oldies.” (‘60s rock hits.) Dull, but no problem with that one. But sometimes they say something about, “No rap or disco.” You know what? We already know you aren’t going to play rap or disco. No need to boast about it.

“Great songs, great memories.” (Non-rock pop going back to Glenn Miller.) Always said with a spritz of merriment. Most of the DJs sound kind of swishy. I like them a lot. Very cheerful. Even when they’re boastful. Made-up example: “Coming up we have Anne Murray, Elvis, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra. Makes you wonder what the *poor* stations are listening to.” So ridiculous, it doesn’t really bother me. Much. A similar station I heard once about 10 years ago in the San Jose area had a much more culture-war-like slogan, said very deep and chesty, “Our kind of music.” Emphasis on “Our.”

“Country on!” (Contemporary country station.) I’ve only heard this ID once, and I liked it. Shouted enthusiastically, riffing on the great exhortation, “rock on!”

“A world of music and ideas.” (College non-profit music and alternative [non-NPR] news.) My favorite ID in town -- so open-ended -- visionary, even. They also have my two favorite show names, a “world music” show Monday through Friday from 3:00 to 5:00 called “Daily Planet” (holy Clark Kent, Batman!), and the Friday morning “world music” show, “Caravan,” after the Juan Tizol tune from the Duke Ellington songbook. (Tizol was in Ellington’s band.) “Be-bop Spoken Here,” another morning show, also has a nice name.

Turns out I like more slogans than I dislike. That’s nice, and it surprises me to find out.

Seattle’s for-profit classical station has a plainly descriptive slogan, “Seattle’s classical station,” said in that mellow sonorous deep friendly classical DJ voice. Most of the other stations -- the ones I know -- are pretty self-explanatory too, “Classic country,” “Classic rock.”


Horrible, gruesome, heart-breaking news of Iraqis rejoicing in murdered Americans in Iraq today. I heard the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” 3 times on the radio. A song about the king violently repressing Muslim self-expression. I’m way way way not into the self-expression of anybody exulting in anybody else’s murder -- it's horrifying -- but if the DJs are calling for indiscriminate bombing in response, they can go to hell. And in the unlikely eventuality that the DJs may be so passionately opposed to the American conquerors that they're using the Clash's ambiguous chorus as applause for the murders of Americans, they can go to hell.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004


I didn’t mean to imply in yesterday’s post that the 20th century gave us no heavy dark classical composers who showed us new rhythms. Ives’s polyrhythms and Stravinsky’s slightly later and very different polyrhythms; Cage’s silences -- but brilliant as they were they didn’t much penetrate mass consciousness, except unconsciously, with Stravinsky’s influence on film music. Ives and Cage made deep contributions to the meditative tradition in music.

I keep coming back to them, but the first group of classical composers to come up with a new beat that affected the pop world were the minimalists, specifically the “pulse music” minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich (with Philip Glass coming slightly later).

In its original state Pulse Music isn’t popularly danceable. But it connected with the pop world not only because it was simpler and more accessible than the rhythmic innovations of Ives, Stravinsky, Varese, and Cage, but also because it provided a model not so much for cosmological or psychological insights but for new and current facets of western social life. The steady stream of pulsing beats echoes the data stream of the information society, everything in speedy pulsing slowly-evolving-motion but not with a danceable beat. It remains meditative music. Its pulses seeped into dance beats and rock songs.

Typing this I realize that the traditional 19th century classical piece does provide a model for bodily experience. As Susan McClary and others have written, the tension-and-release pattern of harmonic complication and resolution in 19th century music provides a model for what someone called a mystico-sexual obsession with orgasm. (I think I got that phrase from David Toop.)

Interesting historical sidelight: The first piece of Pulse Music was “In C” by Terry Riley, but the idea for the pulse came from a band member who happened to be a drummer, who happened to be a guy named Steve Reich. Riley approved the idea and gets credit, but without the collaborative band dynamic it might never have happened the way it did.

My friend Jake London writes in response to last night’s post:

I think it might also be worth thinking about high/low class distinctions with respect to the body and rhythm. Seems like the high brow concert hall of the 20th century is very much about carrying upper class/victorian body repression forward (i.e., one's spirit should be experiencing the music rather than one's body). Whereas the lower class traditions are more about a full body experience of the music.

John replies: Thanks -- excellent point!
And, as we were talking about over dinner tonight -- the classical concert trip is to hold applause between movements of a suite or symphony or concerto or other multi-part piece. Hold it in, hold it in, hold it in, hold it in, then, when it’s finally over, EXPLODE with applause. More orgasms please! (Just no dancing, and no moaning or groaning before the climax.)

Monday, March 29, 2004


In my post last night I wondered why a ‘30s recording of Fred Astaire singing an Irving Berlin song sounds less contemporary than the Aria from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in the context of a ‘90s romantic movie soundtrack. Immediately after posting I went to bed where the answer hit me like a ton of pillows and I fell asleep.

Context is part of it, sure. According to the booklet note, the film’s director had instructed composer Gabriel Yared to use the Aria and a Hungarian folk song as the starting points for his composition. Yared complied and came up with a lot of nice stuff.

But even if the Aria had not been an inspiration for the whole soundtrack, the ruminative, leisurely-paced mood in which the pianist played it fits right in with romantic movie-music style. Subtle shifts in tempo increase the distance from dance music and reinforce the similarity to the moody intentions of film music on the listener’s unconscious.

Music’s relationship to dance holds the key to period style. ‘30s swing sounds dated because it is. Not as dated as the more frenetic Charleston of the ‘20s, but dated, especially when surrounded by moody ruminative non-dance music.

By the time the record and radio industries exploded in the early 20th century, classical had been moving away from dance music for 100 years. Strauss led a dance band and is considered “light classical” now, but by the standards of Leonard Bernstein, which my friend Jay wrote in about two days ago, his most famous pieces are not classical at all. His “Blue Danube Waltz” doesn’t develop any of its melodies; it’s just a string of really catchy tunes; I forget how many. (I counted them once. My son dug waltzes several months before he dug marches. And we listened to my wonderful cheap-o bargain Strauss CD quite a bit, before he could crawl, and I’d dance him around the room. Another new parent told me she’d read that babies like waltzes.)

The “heavy” classical (or is the antonym to “light” classical, “dark”?) 19th century tradition rarely intersects with dance music. (Not counting ballet.) (Tchaikovsky is the shizzle.) (Tell Chuck Berry the news.) (Chuck Berry is the shizzle too. Love that song about Beethoven. And a Bunch of others too.)

19th century heavy dark classical rarely intersects with dance, especially not in the prestigious forms of “symphony” and “concerto.” Chopin and Brahms and Dvorak all wrote dance suites, either with nationalist or exoticist leanings. Brahms’s “Hungarian Dances” and Chopin’s Waltzes remain among their most popular works. But the symphonic boys tend to group these hits close to the “light” classics. With a definite connotation of ranking lower.

The turning-away of classical from popular dance parallels the growing sense of introspection that happened in “page” poetry in the 19th and 20th centuries. W. R. Johnson, in his brilliant and witty book The Idea of Lyric describes how the meditative tradition in lyric poetry gradually supplanted the I’m-Talking-to-You-whom-I-Love-And/Or-Hate tradition. As poets stopped addressing beloveds (or behateds) so frequently, the typical human relationship in a lyric poem tended toward the poet’s relationship with his or her own self.

Introspection, meditation, soliloquy -- these words start to get at how moody romantic film music works. If dance beats occur for dramatic effect, they tend to be fleeting, and they tend to be in today’s dance style (whenever the “today” of the making of the film happened to be). A rubato-laden interpretation of the “Goldberg” Aria fits right in.

Swing tunes and instrumentals from Fred Astaire and Benny Goodman embody a more social, outward approach to music. Rhythms made for dancing, in a song about dancing “Cheek to Cheek”; a lyric in which an ardent Fred addresses a beloved “You” around whom he wants his arms. Goodman touted as the King of Swing, a happenin' dance genre.

Needless to say, unless you’re well over 60, you’re not dancing to swing any more without a displaced sense of datedness. Listening to the movement-oriented Strauss (the Waltz King) and Sousa (the March King) produces similar senses of displacement and datedness. Dance rhythms are intimately bound up with their times, and with how people conceive of and carry their bodies. Our bodies. Much as I love Sousa and Strauss, I keep my marching and waltzing to my living room, fully aware of how ridiculous my movements would be translated into social space. Swing dancing is more socially acceptable but still an antiquarian taste.

And after Haydn, heavy dark classical for the most part had little to say about the body. Conductors passionately waving their arms became the heroes who got to express their bodies for the rest of us. And I would guess that classical music fans are as apt to be Air Conductors as rock fans are apt to be Air Guitarists. Even if only in the privacy of their living rooms.

Sunday, March 28, 2004


Every once in a while I stop in the junk shop a few blocks down the street and check out what they have on the shelves. Today I picked up the soundtrack to “The English Patient,” music by Gabriel Yared. I hadn’t especially liked the movie, nor had I remembered the soundtrack, but for 3 bucks you can’t go too far wrong, and the case listed some attractive ‘30s hits they included for “period” effect.

The orchestral writing mines that moody angsty romantic movie soundtrack vein nicely. It’s a 100-year-old (at least) musical vocabulary that retains contemporary currency, at least in the movies, where it signifies conscience-riddled passion and depth of soul. The period pieces -- Fred Astaire, Benny Goodman, a group called Shepheard’s Hotel Jazz Orchestra -- come on like jarring surrealism, sounding way out of date next to the orchestral writing which has naturalized itself as contemporary-sounding, the sound of the modern movie-going soul. Post-Dylan rock would be less jarring, sharing the romantic movie-soundtrack idiom’s seriousness of tone.

The soundtrack also has a contemporary pianist named Julie Steinberg playing the Aria from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” It sounds less dated than the Astaire and Goodman in this context. Sounds out of place, though -- too many other associations. Bach wrote it for harpsichord. Glenn Gould famously recorded it on piano; others have too. It sounds less contemporary on harpsichord.

Some of the orchestral licks sound lifted from Nat King Cole’s recording of “Stardust.” I don’t know who wrote that arrangement, but it’s great -- lush, maybe Debussy-esque lush.

Not sure what to make of Bach sounding more contemporary but more out of place than Fred Astaire. I don’t get it.

Saturday, March 27, 2004


As it happens, I have a CD of Sousa marches which I bought for 3 bucks a few years ago in a supermarket outside Kalamazoo Michigan, out near where my parents live. We listened today and the baby danced for longer than he ever had before without interruption. Later, at nap time, I put the CD in again and he fell asleep before the second march was over.

I've always loved Sousa. Invigorating rhythms and catchy tunes very well-put-together. The intense minor-key interlude between repeats of the gentle "3 cheers for the red, white, and blue" theme that closes "The Stars and Stripes Forever" -- it gives me chills.


In denigrating their tunes yesterday I gave no details or description as to why -- a stupid, unfair omission. The melodies tended to alternate between punk rock shout and nursery-rhyme-ish singalong. While some of the songs in each category worked for me, I don't know the band well enough to know their names. In the late '80s I bought one of their albums on cassette shortly after it came out. It didn't make much of an impression.

They do seem like nice people.

My guess is that the "anybody can do it" myth contributes to their appeal. Very interesting myth. While it may be true for singers and maybe rhythm guitarists, it's not true for drummers. The Mekons' drummer is an ace pro. Without someone of his skills in that chair, the band makes no impression. Same with the bassist -- rocksolid. Without that, the band has a severe uphill climb. The rhythm guitars rocked solid too; but their lead playing drove straight into downtown whatever shrug city.

Interesting: of the four band members who most impressed me, three of them were the three women in the band: the bassist, the violinist, and the only singer who didn't play an instrument.


"Is the theater really dead?" -- Simon and Garfunkel

The critic Greg Sandow has been exhorting the institutions of classical music to work on their marketing. One of his suggestions for his own "downtown" new classical milieu is to adopt the "alt" prefix of alt-country and alt-rock: alternative classical.


I've had a lot of mixed feelings about the "alt" rock and country sub-genres. I wouldn't recommend "alt classical" at this point. Whatever my personal ambivalence, my hunch is that "alt classical" would play as desperate and pandering and, worse, behind the times. I never hear of any alt-rockers or alt-country acts using the ye olde "alt" word any more, except sometimes tongue-in-cheek.

Despite my skepticism, Sandow's suggestion has worked brilliantly in practice, only without the verbiage. Two of the most successful classical recording acts of the last 20 years have been Kronos Quartet and Nigel Kennedy, who all adopted New Wave garb and attracted younger listeners. Before them, Glenn Gould's eccentricities helped market his recordings; his maverick status retains its myth-and-marketing power to this day. (I'm susceptible.) Similarly the minimalist composers: the first generation began by playing their music in art galleries and other genuinely alternative performance venues. (La Monte Young still does.) In each case, the artist's "alt" stance, appearance, and appeal helped market their music.

Sandow has other good, positive suggestions as to how classical music can improve its marketing, and I hope he intends the blog titles for entries which quote real-life examples of dreadful marketing to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. "How to kill classical music," he calls them. Classical ain't dying. BBC's classical magazine reviews 150 new CDs every month. Each issue also provides a smartly put-together, attractively packaged CD of exclusive new recordings. $8.50 for the mag and CD together feels like a good deal, if you dig the music and like reading music magazines.

But Sandow may be entirely, justifiably serious with his blog entry titles. If classical dies, the triumph of serialism will be a contributing factor. Kyle Gann at his blog PostClassic describes how 12-tone music still rules the roost in Europe. I've enjoyed listening to Schoenberg and Berg and Webern, the little I have, but their school is almost 100 years old now. If the European followers of latter-day Schoenbergian Pierre Boulez still dominate university music composition departments, classical is dying. A school built on rules designed to produce music that the vast majority of people actively dislikes. Bizarre. In architecture it would be as if new versions of the ugly modernist buildings of Mies van der Rohe were still being forced on everybody's eyeballs. If you like Mies and Boulez, that's cool, that's fine, but there's nothing new about what they did any more, and expecting a relationship with the public built on mutual hostility to result in beaucoups public bucks is insane.

The other day I wrote asking why the branch of classical that produced lively, tonal, national-flavored music died out. Maybe the composers who followed Sibelius and Falla and Vaughan Williams and the others lost the battle of the academy to the princes of dissonance.


My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, country-rock musician (among much else), writes in:

Been following your discussion on "classical" music on the blog. Bernstein in the Harvard lecture book I just read talks briefly about what he thinks seperates the classics (actually he means makes them better)? from whatever, that is, its emphasis on development. Sequential thematic development begets rules, which institutionalizes form. Development, of course, also demands a longer form. It follows that, though some songs share a harmonic sensibility with classical music, they are (mostly) too brief for real thematic development. LP sides, such as Duke's suites, would qualifly, though, no?

There was a Richard Rogers bio on PBS that I wanted to catch, and thought it was long gone. They showed it again the other night during the beg-a-thon, and I fell asleep right after the beginning.Damn, I do that often in my middle age! Now there's a guy who went from light (Hart) to heavy (Hammerstein). Anyway, they had "The Sound of Music" playing under the narrator over the intro. That song has a very Russian Romantic flavor, for sure. And I, as I drifted off, I remembered reading that Hammerstein eschewed rhyming as trite, and realized how beautifully rhythmic and balanced those lines are sans rhyme -- that's hard to do!

John replies:

Hammerstein didn't criticize rhyming or avoid it. He criticized himself for not being able to produce double and triple rhymes as brilliantly as Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin, and he focused his lyrics on developing character and narrative through song. His songs rhyme, lightly. And "Sound of Music" is beautiful.

The hills are alive, people. ALIVE.

Friday, March 26, 2004


Went and saw a rock show last night. Something I rarely do any more. The club is three blocks from my house, my friend Jake was going, and a good friend of Jake's -- John Ramberg, a real nice guy and a fine musician -- was opening the show. Unfortunately I missed John's act because my wife had to work late, but I caught the headliner, the well-regarded English punk band the Mekons.

Hearing live rock and roll in a small club was a blast. Literally -- a blast of sound and energy as the 8-piece band blasted away. Great drummer, rocksolid bass, with guitars, accordian, and a balalaika-type instrument they call a saz melanging together at you, along with an excellent violinist sawing away. Lots of group singing, which I love, 3 or 4 people singing together mostly in unison; and at other times 4 different people trading lead vocals, including one excellent singer, Sally Timms, the one member of the band not playing an instrument. Engaging and charming spontaneous repartee between Timms and the apparent bandleader, guitarist-singer Jon Langford. A feeling of a party, old friends having a blast together. Perhaps "old" friends is an unkind way to describe them. Middle-aged friends -- older and grayer than me. I'm all for people grayer than me having a rockin' party. The group's probably genuine "regular left-liberal folks" collective persona fit with their apparent solidarity and comradery and helped create a sense of sol & com with the certainly mostly left-liberal audience.

But despite so many appealing qualities, I ended up not liking the band. Loved the first three songs, but liked songs only intermittently after that. I didn't understand the appeal of most of the melodies. The most memorable song was also the most irritating, with a sing-songy chorus repeating over and over, "I love a millionaire." I'm pretty sure it was supposed to be satirical. The group didn't build enough differentiation within the wall of sound or enough variety from song to song. About half the band members appear to be no better than any living-room musician, which is part of the point of "anybody-can-do-it rock-and-roll," I'm sure, but doesn't make it necessarily more fun to listen to, especially at $12 a ticket.

I left before the set ended and enjoyed the quiet night air, my eyes burning from the smoke, bringing back warm childhood memories of Christmas Eves past, when my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles would spend hours together smoking as me and my brother and sister would play on the floor. Which gives me another reason to go to rock clubs. Childhood nostalgia.


Fridays are usually childcare days for my beloved spouse. Reading the baby boy one of his baby books, she came across a merry-go-round scene and wanted to hear calliope music. She found some on the internet and played a few. The baby kept demanding to hear one of the tunes again, over and over until he fell asleep in her arms. She played it for me when I got home -- a lovely calliope arrangement of "The Liberty Bell," a march by John Philip Sousa that Monty Python used for their TV theme. Great tune. Never thought of it as a lullabye. Who knew?

Thursday, March 25, 2004


In July 1993 a local Seattle singer named Mia Zapata was found raped and murdered in a vacant lot. Her band the Gits was finishing up their second album. I never met her but we had friends in common; I knew all the guys in her band; I was a fan and had the honor of playing on the same bill as the Gits once. Once when I had been going through a bad time, I had listened to their unreleased demo tape over and over again. Her death -- it's hard to talk about. Devastated a lot of people, people who loved her deeply and had pitched their lives together with her.

A little over a year ago they arrested a suspect. He'd been busted in Florida for something, and a national DNA database made the match from traces he'd left on Mia's remains. He'd only been in Seattle a short time. The only proof that he'd even been here was that another woman had filed a complaint about him some time close to Mia's death -- she'd been walking down the street; he was driving slow leering at her; she called in the license plate and it was his car.

Tears came to my eyes when I got the e-mail today saying he'd been found guilty. A small relief of mystery solved; a hope of future horrors prevented. No washing away of the bitterness. God bless the woman who called the cops. May the convict never see the outside of a fence again.

RIP Mia.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004


There’s this book I’m reading, “Music Ho!” by the English composer Constant Lambert (whose music I’ve never heard), written in 1934, and I’ve mostly been really enjoying it -- it’s informative and lively and witty -- except for occasional racist crap about Jews and African Americans. Ugly as it is, though, at least his racism isn’t totalizing. Lambert calls Duke Ellington the most accomplished popular composer since Johann Strauss and more accomplished than many of his “non-popular” contemporaries, and he has grudging respect for George Gershwin despite his despisal of Tin Pan Alley, which he disses because of what he hears as its negative racial Jewish influence.

The book attempts a broad survey of the music of his day and its recent history. His respect for jazz and pop is limited, and his disses of them betray an ugliness in his soul and a weak spot in his mind. But compared with most classical music histories, the mostly benighted attention he pays jazz and pop is more respectful than the usual non-acknowledgment. It’s music, he says, some of it’s good, most of it isn’t, and here’s why. It’s right in there with Stravinsky (whom he dislikes more than Tin Pan Alley) and Debussy and Bartok and Mussorgsky (all of whom he respects enormously).

Who would attempt such an argument today? Classical writers, to the extent they acknowledge pop, don’t dismiss it, but don't know what to do with it either. Pop writers tend to be more open to classical music than the other way around but even less well informed than vice versa. Almost everybody respects jazz at least in theory. But nobody attempts a general overview.

The fields have become incredibly diffuse. New classical itself is broken up into factional forces that rarely communicate with each other. Rock and pop the same, with racial and class and generational divides between R&B, alt-rock, modern country, alt-country, dance music and its myriad sub-genres, adult-contemporary rock, hip hop, rap-metal, Broadway, and so on. The traditionalists and the modernists in jazz keep away from each other but occasionally interact with musicians from other fields. Every year more music in America alone is commercially released than there are hours in a year to hear it all. And this is just American music, more or less.

I'd love to see a general overview written from an ecumenical spirit; one that avoids cliched, conventionally inaccurate versions of any of the particular genre's histories; one that has a broad scope but a personal point of view.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Rhetorically, I’m of the “shoot off my mouth first, ask questions later” school of rant. My confidence . . . can be unwarranted. Sometimes, however, I get something right; or, if not necessarily right, at least not forlornly wrong all by my lonesome in a wrongness of my own making.

This is from a 1937 book on classical music called “Of Men and Music,” by Deems Taylor, confirming some of yesterday’s speculations about Johann Strauss, John Philip Sousa, and Victor Herbert; the focus is on Sousa, who died in 1932: “Wherever he has gone, I am sure he has found a welcome. There is a dining hall in the Elysian Fields, marked GRADE A COMPOSERS ONLY. If you could look in at the door tonight, you would probably see him there; perhaps not at the speakers’ table, with Wagner and Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and Debussy and the rest, but somewhere in the room -- at a small table, possibly, with Herbert and Strauss and Delibes.”

(This book is on my shelf. I may have read the chapter on Sousa 9 or 10 years ago; if so, it sunk into my unconscious, where I forgot it. I haven’t read the whole book; I don’t remember reading the Sousa chapter, but can’t say for sure.)

(Now I want to read the whole book. I mean, jeez, the insight of the guy!)


Typing late last night, I lost my beginning point by the time I finished. To wit: The pattern of music history suggests that it is only because of the advent of records that the great Broadway composers of the 1910s, ‘20s, & ‘30s aren’t considered light classical operetta composers like their stylistic forebears Herbert, Sullivan, and Offenbach.


Somewhere along the line, 20th century classical music advocates adopted the “no pain, no gain” ethic. That was a new thing in the classical tradition, and it narrowed classical's parameters to its own detriment.


I ask myself, why do I care? I started running down this rabbit-hole in response to stuff I read decrying (on the one hand) the dearth of orchestras in America compared to Europe and (on the other hand) the difficulty contemporary composers go through getting their music rehearsed and played and heard. The self-inflicted narrowing of classical's parameters may be related to these woes.


Sousa and Strauss led their own bands. The first classical composers to influence pop music after Debussy and Ravel did too: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Riley never had an on-going band, but he put ad hoc bands together to perform and record his music. That these composers were able to put bands together was an early mark of their aesthetic success; before they made any money, their music attracted players who wanted to rehearse and play it.


Philip Glass’s first big splash came with his opera “Einstein on the Beach.” After its original New York production he went back to driving cab. The show was a big hit, and he lost money on it. Just like a rocker with his day job.


Traditional composer writes music. Players play it. The best players get paid upper-middle-class salaries to play in the best ensembles. A gig is a gig, and and a big city orchestra is a good gig.


As a songwriter, I’m much more hep to Young and Reich and Glass’s model. Rather have people playing the music because they’re into it. Not that cash equates with unenthusiasm necessarily, but it can. (Sure, I'd love to get paid big cash for my music, and I'd love to pay my handsome ensemble handsomely.)


Social relations.


The article decrying the puny number of American orchestras compared to Europe called for far more public funding of the arts. I'd rather see much more money go to arts education. Make participation in the arts and consumption of the non-profit institutional arts readily available to every school kid in the country. A pipedream for now, related to the goal of adequate education for everybody, period. But arts education would build the constituency for greater arts funding.


Alex Ross in the "New Yorker" quoting Alban Berg talking to George Gershwin: music is music. Yeah yeah.

Monday, March 22, 2004


I’ve recently read some hand-wringing articles about the death of the orchestra and the death of classical music. My question is, when was classical music invented?  People point to Mendelssohn’s presentation (in the 1830s?) of 50-years-dead music by J.S. Bach as the beginning of classical music’s retro-perspective.  But newly minted classical compositions remained in the mainstream of culture -- popular culture, that lots of people like -- through the first 4 or 5 decades of the 20th century.

A week ago I posted fuzzy speculations on the possible effects of the birth of the record industry on classical music.  Today I’m thinking the effect was more profound than I had guessed.  Before the record industry, any notated music could get more-or-less absorbed into the classical tradition.  Johann Strauss led his own dance band and played his own fabulous waltzes to great popularity in Vienna in the mid-19th century.  Less known is the fact that his orchestra also played music by Wagner.  Sometimes people call Strauss “light classical,” but “light” is still “classical.”  It was pop in its day, as were Mozart and Beethoven, to a large extent.

John Philip Sousa led his own brass band and composed his wonderful marches for them.  Sousa is perhaps even “lighter” classical if people consider him classical at all, but either way, symphony orchestras play his stuff, and classical record labels put it out.  Which means it’s classical music, right?

The inclusion of Sousa and Strauss on the classical team points to another possible classical history. Along with Strauss, the original composer of musical comedies, Offenbach, whose most famous tune is the "Can-Can," gets included on the roster. Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert &) has a spot further down the bench than Offenbach, but he's on the team. His American disciple Victor Herbert, who wrote "Babes in Toyland," barely makes the team. The people who followed Herbert on the musical comedy stage -- Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin (who's a special case), Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers (to stick with the pantheon) -- get cut. Why? How come? I don't get it.

Unless it's because the classic Broadway composers included the influence of jazz, and their works were genuinely popular (as were the works of Herbert, Sullivan, Offenbach, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Wagner, Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, and Handel). Jazz, if handled too -- what's the word -- intimately? -- does that disqualify you from the team?

Because bona fide classical team members Milhaud and Stravinsky and Satie "employed" jazz and ragtime in their compositions too. Ah -- but not so popularly, more dissonantly; they didn't try to write hit songs.

The Broadway composers' opening themselves to the influence of African American jazz (and, to a significant and less recognized extent, Eastern European klezmir) finds parallels with a genuinely popular, genuinely classical nationalist tradition in the 20th century. The Finn Sibelius, the Spaniards Falla and Rodrigo, the Russian Prokofiev, the Frenchman Ravel, and the Armenian-Russian Khachaturian wrote lively and wonderful and popular classical works well into the 20th century, all of them at least sometimes opening their music to the influence of the folk music of their native countries.

One thing about these composers -- while some of them wrote symphonies, that's not what they're most remembered for.

The symphony -- that's a Germanic thing. And, here's the rub -- the Germanic thing has held sway over the common-wisdom rendition of classical history.

In the Faustian technological modernistic west, histories of the arts that focus on "technical" developments tend to make their way into the text books. Something deep in the western psyche likes to see the March of Progress, or liked to, anyway, at least until we progressed ourselves into Mutually Assured Destruction. What's odd is that this March, in music history, focuses on developments in harmony, primarily, and orchestration, secondarily. Rhythm only enters into it when things get provocatively unruly, as in the Stravinsky's rousing "Rite of Spring." And what makes the Spanish and the American Broadway composers so distinctively Spanish and American is their use of popular Spanish and American popular dance rhythms. Which is not at all inimical with most of classical music history -- the minuet, the waltz, the gigue, and the chaconne all started as popular dances. The 20th century Spanish and African American rhythms are New in the history of classical music, but the March of Progress view of history downplays them. Not sure why. Maybe because of their origin with the People, rather than with a Singular Genius Breaking Down Barriers (Stravinsky).

Sometime in the middle of the century, the only composers seemingly left on the stage were the March of Progress descendants of the Schoenberg the Progress Marcher. Pierre Boulez and John Cage being paradigmatic, the first as a super-dogmatic atonalist, the second as a dogmatic and paradoxically spiritually liberating aleatorist.

My question is -- why did the genuinely popular nationalist strain of 20th century classical music fizzle out? What happened to it?

And -- when did the cut-off date for the possibility of "light classical" occur? Or are we still negotiating it? (There may be signs that we are -- classical singers recording Broadway tunes, orchestras playing them.) And -- did the cut-off really happen partly for racialist reasons, which is how it seems from this perspective?

And -- why are dance rhythms before Wagner fine with classical music history, but not afterwards?

And -- why does the Germanic symphonic March of Progress view of music history still hold so much sway? I mean, come on, the arts aren't equivalent to car manufacture. There can be an emotional thrill to driving faster and making sharper corners, true, but that's not the only emotional satisfaction of music or of driving.

Sunday, March 21, 2004


I can listen to music for hours at a time. Usually while doing other things too -- driving, cooking, the dishes, eating, reading. Sometimes, though, after hearing something particularly deeply satisfying, I stop and bask and don’t listen to anything else for a while.

Recently came across this lovely quote from Terry Riley in a booklet note to a CD of his music: “[A]s anyone who has experienced the full rush of radiant sound knows, when it ends there is a marvelous aura of un-sounded sound floating in the afterimage, disembodied, carrying the spirit but not the gravity.”

Saturday, March 20, 2004

EPISTEMOLOGICAL AND COSMOLOGICAL UNDERTONES OF SWING (Part 10 of Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

The English composer Constant Lambert, writing in 1934 in his book “Music Ho!”: “The most irritating quality about the Vododeo-vo, poo-poop-a-doop school of jazz song is its hysterical emphasis on the fact that the singer is a jazz baby going crazy about jazz rhythms. . . . Folk songs do not inform us that it is great to be singing in 6/8 time, or that you won’t get your dairymaid until you have mastered the Dorian mode. . . . It is almost impossible to find a quick foxtrot, however, that does not inform us that it is in a particular variant of common time, and that it is very gay as a consequence. Martin Tupper, who claimed to be the first since King David to set words to a dance tune, has a heavy onus to bear if he is the father of the numerous technical songs such as ‘I’m going to Charleston, back to Charleston’, ‘Crazy Feet, I’ve got those Crazy Feet,’ and ‘I tell you Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing of to-day.’ What should we think of a concert aria which kept harping on the fact that the singer’s mouth was open and that her vocal cords were in prime condition?”


One of my favorites of the swing era’s manifesto songs is Duke Ellington’s “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” of 1932. Duke’s song, more ambitiously than any other manifesto song I can think of, equates the condition of meaningfulness with swinging. Not just, Roll Over, Beethoven -- the song says: Beethoven has no meaning if he doesn’t swing. Unintelligibility. Banishment.


The dogmatism of Ellington’s song gets an unexpected echo from American avant-garde minimalist La Monte Young. In an interview with British author and musician David Toop, published in Toop’s 1995 book “Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds,” Young said: “God created the body so that the soul could come to earth and study music so that it could have a better understanding of universal structure. Music can be a model for universal structure because we perceive sound as vibration and if you believe, as I do, that vibration is the key to universal structure you can understand why I make this statement.”

Young elaborated: “From the beginning of recorded time, people have always wanted to understand their relationship to universal structure and to time. Even in as simple a way as where do we come from, why are we here and where are we going? I point out that our entire concept of time is dependent on an understanding of periodicity. Time is depending on night and day, the periodic rotation of the planets, the stars, the periodic functions of our bodies and the seasons, all of these various periodic events, and without them we really have no concept of time. Time is really a very important aspect of universal structure.”


Young is saying, Ellington is right, because everything is dependent on swing. More affirmatively and explicitly than Ellington’s song, Young’s argument posits that everything swings.


Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing.


(When I wrote in my post of Sunday, March 14, that Terry Riley and Steve Reich were the first classical composers since Debussy and Ravel to have an influence on pop songs, I neglected to include La Monte Young in the list. John Cale of the Velvet Underground played in Young’s band and imported Young’s conception of the drone into rock via such Velvet songs as “Heroin.” Riley played in Young’s band too, and Reich played in Riley’s, as did Jon Hassell. Tom Constanten, an early member of the Grateful Dead, played previously in Reich’s band. The minimalist moment.)


La Monte Young’s comments help me articulate what it is I hear in Ives’s polyrhythms (which I wrote about on March 15) and similar polyrhythms of Armstrong, Monk, Mingus, Kirk, Ornette, and Hassell (which I flailed at on January 30 and 31). Ives, Ornette, and Hassell explicitly produce music with non-periodic polyrhythms: polyrhythms that don’t link up in simple overlapping periods. African and Latin American polyrhythms tend to be variations of 4/4 over 3/4, where one measure of 3/4 being played by one player takes the same amount of time as a measure of 4/4 being played by another player. Ives’s polyrhythms in his Fourth Symphony usually require two or three conductors to delineate. Players like Armstrong, Monk, Mingus, and Kirk very occasionally suggest non-periodic polyrhythms through highly personal use of rubato and rhythmic obliquity and displacement in their solo improvisations over dance-related rhythm sections.


Young’s comments also articulate why this type of musical phenomenon excites me so. “Music can be a model for universal structure.” The word “model” is key. Not “metaphor,” which implies a verbal construct. A model to be experienced, with music being more explicitly body-ful experience than that of language.


My other favorite swing manifesto-song is “Vote For Mr. Rhythm,” which Ella Fitzgerald sang with her peerless ebullience as a member of Chick Webb’s Orchestra. “Vote for Mr. Rhythm / Let Freedom Ring! / Soon we’ll all be saying / Of thee I swing!”


Ella was, as her long-time producer wrote on the liner note to her summit album with Count Basie in 1964, the swingingest of swing singers. And -- the First Lady of Song, by acclamation, for decades, and without a presidential husband making her so. On her own terms.

Friday, March 19, 2004


It was several months ago. I was hanging out with George Harrison. He was still alive, even though he had recently died. He was showing me around his enormous gorgeous estate in England. We were checking out an underground stream -- we were in some sort of primitive wall-less elevator to get down to it, and we had stopped to play guitars. I sang him one of my songs and got embarrassed and said, “You play one.”

“No, that was great, you play another,” he said, smiling and encouraging.

Then, last night, John and George were both alive, and I was in the Beatles, trying to facilitate a reunion. Paul had edited a new version of “Dig a Pony” (one of my favorites), adding his own song “Carry That Weight” to the middle. I never liked “Carry That Weight,” and the new version really bugged everyone and I said so. Paul got really huffy and hurt and I was like, hey man, don’t take it so personally, I didn’t like what you did with the song but I love you, bro. And that mollified him.

Thursday, March 18, 2004


I recently lost my notebook. First time for me. Interesting experience, confronting my intellectual vanity. The writing-item I most miss is a 20-ish page long rant written a year ago about the imminent invasion of Iraq. Every night before going to bed I would write a couple few pages, for about a week. I stopped when the invasion started. I had thought about posting it here on the anniversary of the invasion, but now I can't. Probably just as well. A lot of it was ad hominem invective.

I speculated about the psychology of our bastard executive branch and their addiction to "shock and awe." ("Bastard" as in "illegitimately produced.")

"Chickenhawks" was a good description for the bastards, but I liked "bully cowards" better. Cowards, because those of them who needed to put energy and ingenuity into avoiding combat in Viet Nam, the invasion of which they supported. Bullies, because now that they have their cowardly fingers on the levers of war, their strategy is to try to scare the crap out of their perceived and real enemies and send American soldiers out to kill the ones who won't be intimidated. Bully-cowards, because, in their blindered narcissism, they assumed that the threat of death, which shocked and awed them, would "shock and awe" their adversaries. Pathetic, disgusting, ignorant, and to use a macho-speak that doesn't typically occur to me -- these people are weak. Weak minded, weak spirited, weak in courage. Weak.

The bully-cowards' justification for the war ended up hinging on whether the WMD's existed. That bar is appallingly, indecently, absurdly low. Before we knew that the WMD's didn't exist, we knew that containment worked against Saddam. He was a canny fascist who had clawed his way to the top. He knew how he got into power, and keeping it was his top priority. He wasn't an undeterable suicide-killer. To the extent that this wasn't common knowledge, it was easily deduced.

There's still an outside chance that a human-rights-based democracy will emerge from the Bully-Cowards' Folly. Signs aren't good, but we can hope. How many Iraqi, American, and allied dead would such an outcome be worth? Who is qualified to answer such a question?

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Music is the juice of life. So sweet, the beating heart. And not without hints of life’s transience, the inevitability of bitter loss.  It's all there.


Yesterday I asked how lengthy recordings were able to be preserved in the pre-LP era, since 78-rpm records maxed out at less than 4 minutes a side. My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, wonderful musician and acclaimed record producer, wrote in with the answer. Thanks Jay! His answer:

“Radio transcription discs. Very large, like 3 feet across.”

Large indeed!

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

YOU’VE GOT TO BE MODERNISTIC (Further thoughts on sound recording, photography, Ives, Kronos, and so on)

Tuesdays are usually child care days for me. Today the baby boy got two of his electronic gizmo rhythm-and-tune generating toys together and played them simultaneously. An Ivesian moment.


One of the tunes on my son’s toys is “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Coincidentally, the very first song ever recorded, by Thomas Edison himself.


When my beloved spouse and I got married in 2001 (a marriage odyssey, said our friend Slim), she owned an ‘82 Datsun and a bike, and I owned a bike. Shortly before the baby was born we bought a new Subaru wagon. The baby’s car. All the new cars come with CD players now. No objection here. In some respects the nicest stereo we have.


Listened to a lot of “Nuevo,” the recent CD by Kronos Quartet, in the car while running errands. Heard details I’d missed before, like the “psychedelic” stereo effects on the tune by the ‘60s Mexican lounge-kitsch-hi-fi composer Esquivel. Was digging that, until the end of the tune when I heard one of the Kronosians say something about “blow your mind, man,” an unamusing ‘60s-esque sarcasm. To reply in ‘90s - ‘00s sarcasm, “Whatever.” If you think the music is lame kitsch, Kronosians, don’t play it. I thought it was a catchy tune with some rhythmic spice and first-rate arrangement and lively production effects.


The idea behind my post two days ago about the effect of sound recording -- or phonography -- on the course of music history came to me while reading a blog post by Kyle Gann at his blog “PostClassic” (link on this page) about computer notation programs. I wrote to Kyle and sent him my post, telling him I was a fan of his writing. He kindly wrote back. Among other things, he said, “Recording has certainly had the effect of homogenizing classical performance since the 1940s, but that's a relatively recent development.” His comment crystalized for me a thought that had hovered at the edge of my mind while posting the other night. Namely, that at first, the quality of recording wasn’t very good, and that it took even longer for people to develop recording-playback formats that would accomodate more than a four minutes at a time.


By contrast, very early in its history, photography looked impressive. Though limited to black-and-white for many decades.


I forgot to mention in my post yesterday that Kyle Gann is also a composer. I’ve never heard his music. Thinking about this, I realized I’ve never heard any music by Charles Ives performed live. Same is true for most 20th century composers I love. I should make more of an effort. If I were to take every possible opportunity to hear live performances of music by Ives, Cage, Riley, and Reich in my home city Seattle (and lets just stop with four for now), I bet it would take years before I heard music by all four of them. Unless maybe I got on some university music school concert mailing lists. Painful confession: I lack motivation to do this! Thus, my sole acquaintance with the music of these composers will likely remain through recordings, at least for the foreseeable future.


If I were to go hear Kronos, I’d probably hear a lot of pre-recorded music broadcast along with their live sawing. Most of their records feature guest musicians, and I read that their sound technicians have to know their scores inside and out in order to know when to plug in the samples. I’ve got nothing against samples, but if you’re going to have someone generating them, put them on-stage with the rest of the band. And -- if the samples are really a fifth (and sixth and seventh and so on) musician adding more parts, well, that’s lame. I don’t know if that’s what Kronos does, but that’s what it sounds like from what I read.


I once, several years ago, at the New York apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend, heard a cylinder player. My recollection is that the sound was thin. The same F.O.A.F.O.A.F also had a hand-crank 78 player with a horn for a speaker. No electricity involved, just crank the machine up and put the needle on the record. It sounded beautiful. Warm and woody.


I have a CD of Yehudi Menuhin playing violin concertos by Mozart and Paganini with l’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, conducted by Pierre Monteux, recorded in 1934. One of the movements is twenty-one and a half minutes long. If 78 rpm records could only accomodate 3 or 4 minutes of music on a side, how was this recording preserved? I have no idea. Anybody reading this who can answer this, please do! Thanks!


Old recordings often sound beautiful to me. L’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris sounds muffled and warm on this CD.


The cover of the Menuhin CD has a photo of the conductor, Monteux, who gets top billing. I’ve never heard of him, but maybe he’s famous in France -- the CD was made in France. It’s a studio portrait of Monteux, with a paragraph-long inscription to someone named Piers Coppola signed by Monteux. Studio portraits used to be pricier, more of a big deal, than they have been for several decades.


I remember reading a review of a biography of Duke Ellington that dissed Ellington for being conceited because he inscribed photos of himself to his parents and sister. Dude biographer didn’t know that it was common practice until -- when -- the ‘40s?


In a Gershwin biography is a photo of Fred and Adele Astaire, inscribed with fond compliments to their great friend George Gershwin.


The other day I wrote enthusiastically of Kronos breaking down barriers between pop and classical music. Today I don’t care. It’s all music, and if I had to classify, I’d call them a pop back-up band that plays with all sorts of cool musicians and also plays 20th and sometimes 19th century classical music. “Nuevo” is a great pop record with only two tunes with any sort of “classical” provenance. (One of them is one of the best things on the album.) Nothing wrong with being a pop band -- except that they get all sorts of grant money from public and private institutions, which just ain’t available to other pop bands. Well, good for them. Just make sure to pay your guest soloists, OK?


Even though recording quality has improved dramatically, listening to records (including CDs) is nothing like live. Example: “Bolero” by Ravel. Starts with a solo oboe (I think) and ends with a full wailing symphony orchestra. If you turn up your stereo loud enough so that the oboe will register, by the end of the piece you’re blowing out your speakers. Or, at least, I am, and I’d bet it would be true for most people.


If you never listen to classical music, you won’t have this problem, because no other genre allows its recordings to have much dynamic range. There’s a whole complicated technology and psychology involved in creating the illusion of dynamic range in pop (including rock) records. It’s pretty cool, but I don’t feel like talking about it now. Kronos albums, including “Nuevo,” have wide dynamic ranges -- so maybe they are classical after all.


When I lived in Ann Arbor in the early and mid ‘80s, a local bohemian named Arwulf Arwulf hosted a show on the campus station called “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.” As I recall, the show featured music of the 1920s. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that he got the title for his show from a tune by James P. Johnson, the great stride pianist and composer of the “Charleston.” Johnson was a friend of and big influence on Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. I’ve never heard the tune.

Monday, March 15, 2004


The terrific critic of new classical music Kyle Gann writes in his blog, PostClassic (linked on this page), of a wonderful dream he had in which he met the great American composer Charles Ives, who died in in 1954, and Ives gave him his blessing.

Ives is one of those people, like Whitman and very few others in my experience, who just makes me shake my head in something like awe. I came to him through extra-curricular college-era reading of John Cage's "A Year From Monday," and dug him immediately. The use of collage in Ives -- and reading about and hearing and seeing Cage and Rauschenberg's collages too -- inspired me to make multiple-source collage music starting in '82 or '83, at the age of 19 or 20. I haven't made music in that way in many years, but the experience was wonderful, and I'm proud of the music I was part of. (Some of the works were collaborative -- all of them were in one respect or another, even when I was the "composer.")

The impulse to quotation and collage runs deep through American music, from Carl Stallings (as John Zorn and others have pointed out), through pop-song quotation in improvised jazz solos, through the use of collaged pre-recorded music in some of the free jazz of Charlie Haden (starting in the late '60s), until its apotheosis in hip hop. The first time I heard De La Soul, I nearly fell out of the car -- so "arty," and so fresh and accessible -- danceable! Ives is the founder of this American tradition.

More deep, for me, than Ives's exploration of collage and alternative placements of instruments, as genius and prescient as they were, is the Multiplicity such explorations point to and enact. The awareness that More Than One Thing Is Going On at Any One Time. It's Ives's awesome, awed sense of Multiplicity that blows me away more than anything. And it's a feeling that's rare for me to find in any music at all. Occasionally in some free jazz; extremely occasionally when a rare jazz soloist in a more conventional setting is able to suggest, through extremely-difficult-to-notate rhythmic obliquity and displacement, a multiplicity of rhythms less predictable and regular than the wonderful polyrhythms of African and Latin American music. The only soloists who've struck me this way -- and only very rarely -- are Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk, and Thelonious Monk. Ornette Coleman and Jon Hassell too, but their settings are intentionally multiple. (I posted about this on January 30 and 31, if you're interested in the archives.)

I have no doubt that Charles Ives blessed Kyle Gann, because Ives, like Whitman, blesses us all.


Last Wednesday, March 10, I wrote about Kronos Quartet's recent CD, "Nuevo," and mentioned that one song featured a Mexican musician playing an unexplained instrument, the "musical leaf." My friend Steve Austin wrote to tell the story.

Steve writes:

"NPR has a stringer in Mexico City, his stories are always good, often great, but he doesn't get on except once every couple months. Late last year? he did an incredible story about the grass leaf player, who is to my recollection an elderly guy who has been picking a leaf from the same vine everyday(this story could be growing in my imagination!) to busk on the street at the same spot in the midst of urban meltdown Mexico for the past what? 30 years and the take is the sole support for he and his elderly wife. Utterly unique, something like a kid playing a blade of grass, invented his own instrument, a natural ancient resonance in the heart of the world's largest city.

"I guess the reporter had encountered him before, and in this story he brought him the Kronos CD and played the track for him right there on the street. The leaf player had been brought into a studio to record his part, didn't know it had made it to CD, and had never been given a dime. He hears the CD, with his track mixed in, can't believe it, and breaks down and starts crying. On the way home he has the reporter play the track for some humble acquaintance, a shoe repair guy? and is past crying, now a little bit proud. The story ends with a recorded call to Kronos's publicist who says that the arrangement was made through some studio or arranger, to whom payment was made in full. The basic corporate blow-off. And then the reporter contacts some one in the group directly, who takes a much more humane line about getting this guy some money.

"Just an awesome radio news story. So many different elements in it. Must be indexed at NPR. Your mention of the grass leaf brought it back like a bolt."

John replies:

The story is indexed at NPR, and includes photos of the leaf player, Carlos Garcia, and a link to a recording of him. Thanks Steve!


Sunday, March 14, 2004


It’s a truism of art history that photography changed painting. Until photography, the only way to preserve a likeness was through drawing or painting or sculpture. Once photography took care of that, painters realized they had other things to do too. And photography took on a huge debt from painting. Photography is almost always in a painting-esque frame, the good old rectangle, with post-Renaissance perspective and all.

Until sound recording, notation was the only method of preserving music, and it didn’t preserve something that could be listened to again, only instructions for performing something again. The notated tradition, which until Edison invented sound recording is more-or-less the classical tradition, is pretty much all we know about pre-Edison music, because notation-literate musicians did very little to record the folk musics of the world before records.

Did the advent of records change classical music as photography changed painting? I can’t see how it couldn’t have. Aaron Copland said something about records that I’ll have to paraphrase, having no recollection of where I read it. According to him, the problem with recorded music is that the interpretation never changes. Every time Copland played a piece on piano, his interpretation would differ. He couldn’t imagine wanting to listen to the exact same version of any piece more than once.

By far, most of what I know about music comes from recordings. And I’ve noticed that with the classical repertoire, getting to know a second interpretation of a particular piece can be hard -- the first record I get to know becomes the norm, and subsequent interpretations seem too fast or too slow, depending.

I can’t help feeling, though, that the advent of recording had a smaller effect on “classical” music than it did on -- well, the word isn’t “classical” painting, is it?

Maybe that’s the crux. To a large extent, the “pop” and “folk” and “commercial” western art traditions post-date photography in a way that the “pop” and “folk” traditions in music do not. “Folk” visual traditions that pre-date photography, such as quilting, are largely non-representational and share little or no visual turf with photography. The popular tradition of amateur drawing of likenesses fell away with photography. (An exception: Cartooning and caricature pre-date photography too, and that tradition is continuous with today’s practitioners.) Similarly, for 70 years people have complained that fewer people learn to play musical instruments because records make music too accessible.

Despite that parallel, the effect of mechanical reproduction on music has been very different. The mode of music reproduction before recording -- notation -- is also a mode of musical communication between the composer and the players. When recording came on the scene, composers still wanted to communicate with their players in the same old way. Nothing wrong with that, and a lot of “popular” composers still do communicate with their players in the same way.

Jazz, being a more collaborative art, frequently departs from the notated score, and not just with the improvised solos. Plenty of the small-ensemble jazz has never used scores; Count Basie’s big band used them sparingly in the 1930s and ‘40s. Duke Ellington’s scores when read today sound famously different than the records based on them, because the members of his orchestra frequently modified and personalized their parts through the rehearsal process. Mingus’s 8 and 9 piece bands in the early ‘60s used no scores for complex pieces of music. Mingus would teach the parts to his band members by ear, playing the parts for them one by one on piano until the players had the piece memorized, at which point the composer would urge them to personalize and elaborate on their parts.

Recording ended the monopoly of notation over music preservation. It changed music tremendously, but how it changed the “classical” tradition, I just can’t put my finger on, at least until the ‘30s, when John Cage started incorporating pre-recorded sounds in his compositions. A coincidence that strikes me as odd is that the disappearance of the virtuoso soloist-composer from “classical” happened around the same time as the appearance of recording. Liszt, the last of the line, died in 1886. Edison invented recording in 1877. Jazz and rock, of course, have embraced the virtuoso soloist-composer.

Another oddity. The last “classical” composers to have an influence on “popular” stand-alone music (until the 1960s) were writing around the time of the early growth of the record industry. The music that Debussy and Ravel wrote in the 1890s and 1900s influenced jazz and popular music of the 1920s and ‘30s. Bix Beiderbecke, Gershwin, and Ellington all acknowledged the influence, particularly in harmony. Schoenberg and the kings of dissonance had an enormous influence on movie soundtrack composers, especially on suspense and horror movie music. And while soundtrack music is a popular form or mode, it rarely generates radio hits; the music goes with the visuals of the film. Which is not to say that it can’t stand by itself: it can and does, and classical symphonies now play soundtrack music in concert and on records just like any other stand-alone classical music.

The first “classical” composers since Debussy and Ravel to have an effect on pop music have been Terry Riley and Steve Reich, whose pieces in the 1960s using tape loops, phasing, and electronic sequencing influenced the Who, Eno, Kraftwerk, and present-day DJ-sampling dance etcetera music. The Who named “Baba O’Riley” after Riley, and the keyboard part shows the influence of Riley’s semi-improvised keyboard pieces like “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” Another parallel with past classical music: Riley was and still is an improvising virtuoso soloist-composer.

I’ve always assumed, without knowing exactly why, that the turn away from lyric melodicism and “listenability” by classical composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky in the 1910s paralleled the turn away from representation by artists like Kandinsky and Duchamp at about the same time. Photography and recording made images and music ubiquitous. Maybe the new mechanical accessibility to tunes let "classical" composers know that they had other tasks to accomplish, just like in painting. I wonder.

Salt intake warning: I’m a rank amateur of the history of art and music. My ignorance far outweighs my knowledge. Anybody happening to read this who comes across howlers or bungles, please let me know of my errors of fact or interpretation -- I’m just trying to figure stuff out.

Saturday, March 13, 2004


Every once in a while on an oldies station they play a song I loved at the age before the names of the singers and groups registered with me.  Music was just something on the radio or my parents’ record player, or something you played on the piano -- I had piano lessons and my grandma was a terrific pianist and my mom still is darn good. Or something you sang. My grandpa was a great singer of the Terrible Voice But Tremendous Enthusiasm School. The pre-teen years.  Anyway, I heard one of those songs the other day -- “Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again.”  From the early ‘70s.  Always loved that song. Still do. Couldn't tell you more than a handful of the words. "That rainy day feeling" is evidently not a good feeling, even though the music is lovely and energetic. I think the singer mentions that soon his tears will be falling like rain.


Been listening a lot to Charlie “Bird” Parker lately.  For my 15th birthday my parents gave me the 6-record set “Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz,” from ragtime (represented by Scott Joplin) and rural blues (Robert Johnson) to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.  Bird was the last music I got into from the collection.  Free jazz appealed to me pretty early on.  Every few years I’d check out Bird again, and he’d grow on me every time.  Now he’s a king.  Incredibly fleet harmonic imagination and great melodicism and real swing at terrific speed -- swing, with that element of relaxation, even at burning tempos and with constantly twising accents and phrasing. 


Bird and that Rainy Day Feeling.  In classical Indian poetry, or so I’ve read, the Rainbird is a symbol of eroticism.  Fertile rain.  Sexy bird.

Friday, March 12, 2004


At first I was pulling for Dean, his righteous anger and his campaign creativity. Then I liked Edwards talking about poverty, and his eloquence and optimism. But I ended up pulling for Kerry just because of the macho jerk-off factor. Bush wants to run as a macho jerk-off, and Kerry can out-macho him easy. Americans like macho. And, I have to admit, so do I, sometimes. Kerry was brilliant for saying, "If George Bush wants to make national security the central issue in 2004, I have three simple words for him I know he understands: Bring it on."

The other day Kerry was overheard referring to the Republicans as the most lying, crooked people he’d ever seen. When the Republicans went apeshit and demanded retraction, he said, “I have no intention of apologizing.”

When Kerry doesn't apologize, he signals to the American people that he's not a wimp.  Richard Goldstein has had great stuff on this issue in “The Nation” and the “Village Voice.”  We want a butch president.  That's why Kerry won the nomination, and that's why he's a better candidate for this election than Edwards.

One of the constant subtextual questions of "The West Wing" is, who's more of a bad ass in any given confrontation?  Usually President Sheen is, but not always.  And when dealing in a treacherous world, with enemies within and without, the president should be a bad ass.

A bad ass doesn't apologize for speaking his mind.  Americans respect that, and sensitive Alan-Alda-weaned me is coming around to seeing the value.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


Channel flipping on the drive home tonight, I caught the beginning of “Hey Jude” and it really hit the spot. Such wonderful arrangers, all fab 4 of them, John and George changing backing and harmony vocals from verse to verse, Ringo’s drums with his super tasty fills, Paul’s lovely voice singing that lovely melody.

And then the ecstatic transition to the joyous coda, with Paul’s rousing improvisations. Na na na na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, Hey Jude. Drive time is a good time for counting. They made it through 16 complete 4-bar “na na na” sections, each one of them different, either with a different vocal improv from Paul on top, or a different George Martin orchestral backing beneath, or both. On the 17th the song faded out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


Got a killer CD by Kronos Quartet from the library yesterday.  It's their recent collection of Mexican music, "Nuevo."  The producer is an Argentinian pop guy who produces the Mexican mod rock group Cafe Tacuba, who appear on one tune. 

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kronos.  Some really cool things, some challenging-but-mostly-leaving-me-shrugging things.  Cool for their ambitious eclecticism and challenging the boundaries of “classical”ism.  Really cool for that.  Commissions from current composers, including African and Asian composers (many of whom play on their own pieces with Kronos, echoing the older European tradition of Vivaldi and Paganini and Beethoven and Bach).

“Nuevo” rocks. Doesn’t poke gingerly at the “classical” boundaries with straight-up string quartet arrangements of rock and blues and jazz tunes; or even get nice & respectful as Kronos plays backing band to some hot African musicians as on “Pieces of Africa.” “Nuevo” blows right through the boundaries, like the heroic truckers of the ‘70s hit song “Convoy” who just “ain’t a-gonna pay no toll” and “crash the gate doin' 98.”

A collection of compositions from Mexico released in 2002, an eclectic mix of traditional, folk, pop, and in-the-consciously-European-institutional-influenced a/k/a classical tradition.  With lots of Mexican musicians accompanying them on different tunes, including singers, percussionists, modern rock electric players, trad violinists, players of unexplained local instruments I’ve never heard of such as "musical leaf," and avant-garde electronics players.

From the first piece, which sounds like the quartet has been filtered through a distortion box, the album sends me.  Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington said that he got the idea of distorting the quartet by walking around Mexico City and digging the sound of cheap-ass speakers blaring and distorting recorded music from every storefront.  (Not his exact words.)  It sounds brilliant – so lively, so alive, so . . . new! 

Recordings of street sounds, samples from recordings, a cover of a space-age-bachelor-pad tune by the lounge cult fave Esquivel, an arrangement of an intense piece by the great 20th century institutional-Euro-derived composer Revueltas, a dance remix of one of the tunes by a Mexican hip hop DJ, a trad folk song sung by two passionate singers with the quartet sawing away to recreate a traditional rhythm guitar part; and great arrangements throughout, mostly by the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. Surrealistic quasi-ethnography, a brilliant exoticism made with the (hopefully un-regretted) participation of some of the exoticized subjects; whatever it is, it's terrific music. 

I haven’t even made it through the whole album yet. Stop typing now, go listen for a while before going to bed.

But first, a word about the album’s sponsors: 3 government agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts; 5 charitable foundations; 4 public universities; and 2 private donors not counting the 2 patrons who commissioned an arrangement each. Institutional music gettin’ lively and insouciant. My only querulous cavil is, with all that government sponsorship, how come the CDs still cost $16?

But who am I to complain, I got it from the public library.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


I’ve felt for a while that Bush is going to lose in a landslide, at least a popular vote landslide. At first Bush’s only natural constituents were the rich people who happen not to care about their fellow Americans or fellow humans or life on the planet in general, and single-issue anti-abortionists. Now add to those groups the people who put banning same-sex marriage near the top of their to-do list. And people who really think America should tell every country in the world to go to hell.

Add those people up: his natural constituency is small.

Now that the economy has got the big hurt, and Bush’s piles of lies are starting to catch up with him, and the media have suddenly cut off his supply of “Get Out of A Lie Free” cards, people are grumpy. A lot of people.

Doesn’t necessarily mean Bush’s henchmen won’t find a way to steal it for him. The devil knows they’re gonna try like hell.

And, you know, I thought Kenneth Starr was going to go to jail for the illegal leaks coming from the Office of the Special Persecutor during the Whitewater-Blow-Job scandal. You might want to increase your potassium intake to alleviate the effects of the salt which I recommend as seasoning for my political predictions.


Regrets. And I'll mention one. I regret writing disparagingly of consensus decision making yesterday. Cumbersome, yes. Time-consuming, usually. Maddening, often. And, if it's at all possible, the best way to go. A lesson learned from making music: When people come up with their own parts for a song, they're more deeply into the song and more deeply themselves in the song, and the song almost always benefits.

The great jazz critic Martin Williams, writing in 1969: "The high degree of individuality, together with the mutual respect and co-operation required in a jazz ensemble, carry with them philosophical implications that are so exciting and far-reaching that one almost hesitates to contemplate them. It is as if jazz were saying to us that not only is far greater individuality possible to man than he has so far allowed himself, but that such individuality, far from being a threat to a co-operative social structure, can actually enhance society."

And the Hues Corporation, singing in 1974: "Rock on with your bad self."

Monday, March 08, 2004


I heard part of a Vivaldi violin concerto on the radio this morning and thought -- this rocks! The end of the slow movement was just lovely, the ruminative tempo, lyric melody, and slightly melancholy orchestral accompaniment. It was the uptempo last movement that rocked hard. The sawing of repeated chords in the string section buzzing like a rhythm guitar in a metal band, and the skyrocketing solo violin herkin like Eddie Van Halen himself. Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist who starred in his own concertos, like the later violinist Paganini and the keyboard stars Beethoven and Liszt and Mozart and Bach. Beethoven wouldn’t even write his piano parts out until his publisher bugged him enough. Beethoven liked to keep his own parts open-ended, so he could improvise.

Driving home from work I heard a Haydn-era sounding orchestral piece, played with gusto and drama and verve. In my post of March 1, I mentioned a joke the artist and musician Christian Marclay made about conductors being dictators. Listening to this piece this evening, I thought, you know, it would be hard to pull this off without a conductor. First, to map out the dramatic rising and falling of intensity, and then to keep the ensemble rocking together -- you could do it without a conductor, but it would be hard. If you have experience with group activities governed by consensus, you know what I’m saying. Salman Rushdie in his heartbreakingly beautiful and hilarious book “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” has a weepingly funny account of an army making its battle plan by consensus -- what makes it so funny is that it works, and that the consensus process inspires enthusiasm and loyalty among the soldiers like no other mode of governance can -- just like consensus is supposed to do and so often doesn’t.

It turned out I was wrong on both counts. The piece was by Britten, a 20th century English composer. The piece was his “Simple Symphony,” so maybe that explains its 18th-century-sounding harmonic passages.

And -- the group was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which famously has no conductor. You can read about them here. http://www.orpheusnyc.com/about/process.htm

“Conceived by cellist Julian Fifer and a group of fellow chamber musicians, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra burst onto the classical stage in 1972. The goal was to infuse orchestral repertoire with chamber music principles. The result remains revolutionary: an orchestra with no conductor.

“What is now known as The Orpheus Process® is the very zenith of democratic artistic collaboration. In the absence of a conductor, the individual musicians of Orpheus must rely on one another for repertoire and programming choices, interpretive decisions and ultimately the responsibility of successful performing and recording.”

Rock on!

Sunday, March 07, 2004

AGAINST THE PANTHEON (Part 9 of Driving Down the Mountain with Ella And Friends)

Ella Fitzgerald, along with Norman Granz, her record producer from the mid-’50s through the ‘60s, played an important role in naming the pantheon of classic pre-rock American songwriters. Ella and Granz devoted her “Songbook” series of albums, which appeared between 1956 and 1964, to the songwriters they considered tops. It turns out that the critical consensus that has emerged since the eclipse of the Tin Pan Alley era agrees with their decisions pretty closely. The songwriters: Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and Johnny Mercer.

The songbooks present themselves as summits between Ella and the songwriters, but there’s always a third co-equal creator present. Neither the annals of stardom nor the accounting books of record companies give this third creator co-equal status, but he (and on these records it’s always “he”) has as much to do with a listener’s experience as the chief star and interpreter (Ella) and the songwriter. This intermediary is the arranger.

The arranger. My usually unsung idol. The American pop music invention that encouraged the outrageously gorgeous florescence of American song in the pre-rock period. In the European “classical” tradition, a new arrangement of a piece of music gave the arranger co-composer status. “Fantasy on a theme by Meyerbeer,” by Holst, would be a (fictional) example. In jazz and pop, the songwriter always got paid and the jazz performers and arrangers just did their thing with it.

Nelson Riddle arranged a lot of the songbooks for Ella, and he always comes up with a suitable and lively and usually inventive setting. Some of the other arrangers don’t please me as consistently. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangements for the Duke songbook are nonpareil.

I haven’t heard the whole series, but I’ve heard parts of each of the songbooks and I own copies of a few of them. The series is monumental and frequently glorious. But three facets of the songbook series trouble my enjoyment of them, one of which I already mentioned: not all of the arrangers are as happening as Ella or the songwriters.

“Ella and Friends” is strictly contemporary. Some of the songs are older, but they’re all in the current style of the time they were recorded. The songbook series is retrospective and, with the exception of the Duke songbook, played and arranged with a retrospective sense of monumentality and decorum.

Years ago, when I was first starting to listen seriously to this repertoire, I was struck by the differences in tempo and approach between Ella’s ‘50s versions and Fred Astaire’s original ‘30s and ‘20s versions of some of the same songs. Some of the difference can be attributed to Ella’s consummate swing and the efforts of her arrangers to provide her with sympathetic settings.

The enormously influential French critic Andre Hodeir, in his book “Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence,” written in the ‘50s and translated into English in 1956, names two definitive qualities of swing: relaxation and vital drive. The co-habitation of tension and relaxation in swing is a paradox of the music and a source of its power. It is on these grounds that such jazz-influenced recordings as Fred Astaire’s soundtrack singing can be said not to swing: they have the vital drive, but not necessarily the inherent relaxation.

Hodeir argues that the evolution of jazz can be best heard through an understanding of the transformation of rhythmic style, from Ragtime to New Orleans, to Swing, to Bop. It’s a persuasive theory of American musical history, and it can be applied to American pop music as a whole, not just jazz.

On “Night and Day,” which Fred Astaire introduced in the 1930s, and which Ella sings on her “Cole Porter Songbook,” the two versions are as different as, well, not night and day, but pretty different. Fred sings it at a slightly faster tempo and with an urgency that suits the obsessional unrequited lust of the lyric. Ella sings it more confidently, at a statelier tempo, and with a statelier arrangement.

The differences suggest a coital theory of cultural evolution. Astaire’s version is all pre-coital uncertainty and urgency. Ella’s is all post-coital satisfaction.

The difference does not reflect a difference in ability or predilection on the part of the singers. It’s a question of historical moment. When Fred sang the song the style was still on the ascendant. Ella was singing when the style had been eclipsed by bop on the one side and was starting to be eclipsed by rock and roll on the other.

You can hear the distinction between pre-coital urgency and post-coital satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in the history of rock too. ‘50s rock is all urgency and energy; ‘70s rock is all sleek and fat.

Sometimes even one band has contained the distinction within its history. The 1930s Count Basie Orchestra was an unbeatable swing combo. The 1950s Count Basie Orchestra (which had very few members held over from the ‘30s) cruised like a gigantic land-whale ‘50s luxury car. The pre-cursor to the ‘30s Basie Orchestra, the Bennie Moten Orchestra, of which Basie and his original and very key bassist Walter Page were members, played with even more vital drive than the Basie band.

Part of the pre-coital urgency could be due to the Eureka factor, the excitement of being privy to new discovery, either as the discoverer or an early follower. By the 1950s, the Eureka factor had disappeared from swing.

Not all late comers to a genre musically live in the post-coital sleek fat Cadillac style. Duke Ellington never entirely lost his urgency; in his 70s he made some dissonant high energy rock and roll, ears still open to the contemporary moment. My post-coital uneasiness about the songbook series does not apply to his songbook.

“Ella and Friends” comes from the heart of the glory of the swing years, and the energy is high and the arrangements unselfconscious.

My third qualm about Ella’s mostly marvelous songbook series: focussing on the pantheon leaves out a ton of great songs. Of the eight songwriters (or songwriting teams) canonized by Ella’s songbook series, only two are represented on the 20 songs of “Ella and Friends”: Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen with one song each. Two further songs represent songwriters who made it onto other people’s pantheons though not Ella’s: Harry Warren and Frank Loesser. That leaves 16 songs from non-pantheon songwriters, with not a bad one in the bunch and a number of classics.

A side effect of missing out on great songs is that an album devoted to one composer and arranged by one arranger can start to sound strained or samey.

The Duke songbook escapes censure on this count. Duke’s songbook represents contributions from many members of his orchestra, most famously Billy Strayhorn, but also very notably Juan Tizol, the composer of “Caravan” and “Perdido.” In addition to Duke, Billy, and Tizol, six members of the orchestra have songwriting credits on the “Songbook” album. It's like a studio approach to post-Renaissance painting, where apprentices contributed to the finished works of the main dude. "From the studio of Duke Ellington," and with goosebump-raising beautiful arrangements.

The Mercer songbook escapes this censure as well, because Mercer was primarily a lyricist who worked with a number of composers, including himself. The 13 songs on Ella’s Mercer songbook represent 12 composers; the only composer with more than one credit is Mercer himself! And Nelson Riddle outdid himself with the arrangements.

The urge to pantheon-erecting is understandable. We come to music through filters -- through radio, magazine articles, TV, recommendations from friends, movies, books. A pantheon of “great songwriters” is a filter with which listeners can start to sort the endless possibilities of past music preserved in sheet music and on records.

And "Ella and Friends" can point us to some of the great songs of the countless accomplished non-pantheon songwriters.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

THE THING OF IT (Part 8 of Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

The THING of IT.

The thing of it IS.

The thing of it is, Ella’s voice glows. When the arrangement fits the song like a well-tailored suit -- when it “suits” the song -- she’ll just illuminate it. And all the arrangements suit up well on “Ella and Friends.”

The other day I was puzzling over the paradox that Louis Armstrong inspires more commentarial verbiage, while I listen to Ella more. And listening to her "Cole Porter Songbook" tonight, it struck me. The consistent glow of her singing warms like a cozy soul-blanket.

Friday, March 05, 2004

The baby noise boy enjoys the noise toys. Electronic gizmos that when you push a button some horribly strangled-sounding electronic jingle with a beat comes out. I never would have gotten one for him, nor would have my beloved spouse, but friends and relations gave some to him, and he very much enjoys them. So it's OK. And he dances. He'll dance to music we choose to put on too, and sometimes when I play guitar, but he likes having control over the rhythm-and-tune generator, and it is to those toys that he dances most consistently.

Dance baby dance.

Thursday, March 04, 2004


There’s a sense in which it’s impossible to understand music apart from its culture. It’s the museum problem. Museums are filled with relics from around the world that have been ripped (off) from their original cultures and contexts and left to hang on blank white walls surrounded by other orphaned exiles. And it’s not only 3rd world art that has been so appropriated -- murals from Italian churches hang in Chicago. Objects of worship have been transformed into objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Same is true with music. The bulk of the western “classical” tradition has been yanked out of its original church and court settings and put into the high capitalist concert hall and the consumer capitalist CD player. And “world” music -- I can’t tell you anything about the original settings of a lot of the music I love to listen to.

I don’t really worry about it. It works in my CD player or on my radio -- it works in the way that I want music to work, wrapping me up in its sound-world, taking me on it emotional-soul narrative trips, grooving me in its bodily rhythms, involving me in its relationships between high and low, fast and slow, loud and soft, background and foreground.

I bring it up because most of us understand our own relationship to music so erratically and unconsciously. We tend to think of music by genre rather than by context and use. Musical discourse tends to focus on music-as-commodity -- CDs and concerts -- and most critics and reviewers are reluctant (or professionally forbidden) to stray away from their chosen or assigned genre: pop, jazz, and classical being the big three divisions.

Meanwhile our lives are surrounded by pre-recorded music. Movie soundtracks, advertising jingles, TV themes, movie company fanfares. And ceremonial music still plays a significant role in our culture: wedding music, church music, football marching band music, the national anthem at sporting events. Mendelssohn’s and Wagner’s wedding marches have to be two of the most widely known pieces of music in America, along with “Happy Birthday.” (Mendelssohn’s is the upbeat celebratory one; Wagner’s is the stately solemn one that popularly goes “Here comes the bride,” though not in the original German).

Last month’s Harper’s magazine had a terrific article by a composer of themes for television news broadcasters. News shows and themes traditionally rely on brass and percussion, the loudest unamplified instruments and the traditional sounds of pomp, splendor, and war. TV producers were meticulous in requesting uplifting music for their current Iraq War stories. An aside in the article that grabbed my attention, because it confirmed my prejudices: archconservative Fox News has been the first network to forego brass and drums in favor of rock electric guitar. (Ever since Lee “Willie Horton” Atwater played some rippin’ blues-rock leads at Bush the First’s Inaugural, rock-as-rebellion has been trapped in an Orwellian-Batesonesque double bind, rattling its cage, screaming to get out, the rattling only tightening its chains.) (Don’t get me wrong. Like a Camus-esque Prometheus, like a Plymouth-bound conquering pilgrim, I will always love The Rock.)

For the last few years, “my” show, the show I try to catch every week (for the last 13 years or so I’ve usually had one), is “The West Wing.” A few weeks ago it struck me that its stately, sweeping theme tune is like that of an old horse opera -- “Bonanza,” maybe, only with less excitement. It’s kind of silly. I like the show, its humor, its fantasy of idealism, the erudition and preternatural articulateness of its characters, its melodrama. And I love its theme tune. I try to make up words, but I never get very far. I just get swept up in its sober, idealistic, yearning patriotism. And I feel giddy with the goofiness of my susceptibility.

Apropos of everything, “Sesame Street” visited the White House in last night’s episode. One of my all-time favorite shots in any TV show ever: the witty, tall, elegant female press secretary CJ sitting silently next to Big Bird on a bench in the White House. Silently for a few seconds. CJ was nonplussed; Big Bird was calm and implacable and sublime. Just lovely.

(After writing about “Sesame Street” two nights ago, I questioned my calling the show’s setting “slum-esque.” I haven’t seen the show in years. Remembering it now, it seems not necessarily slum-esque, but densely urban in a brownstone rowhouse neighborhood. Maybe the love of Oscar the Grouch for trash connoted slumminess for me. I don’t know.)

If you didn’t know the show, what would the miniature-length stateliness of President Jed Bartlett’s theme song signify? Maybe hokey, maybe stirring, maybe both, but why so short? I have some movie soundtrack CDs, and I’ve seen almost none of the movies they come from. And I dig the music. All subterranean emotionality. Meant to be felt, not heard. Would I feel differently about the music if I knew the movies? Probably, yes -- burdened by my memory of the visual images to which they are connected. But maybe not: I love Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” even more than I love the show.

(The all-time greatest TV theme song for wit and brevity: "Dudley Do-right." Two bars of heroic major-key trumpet, two bars of villainous minor-key trombone, a repeated two bars of heroic major-key trumpet, and one bar of coda.)

OK, the statement with which this post started was an overstatement. It’s not impossible to understand music apart from its culture. But one’s understanding is bound to be foreign -- even of music from one’s own culture’s past. I’m only one generation removed from a direct relationship to the swing music that I love. My parents danced to Duke Ellington’s orchestra in school gyms. And I can never know what that would have meant, first hand. How that music related to the other music of its contemporary moment.

Time -- mortality -- mutability -- the big questions. And it’s time for this post to end. Since I mentioned Whitman yesterday, I’ll leave with this quote from “Song of Myself,” this incredible description of what music does:

I hear the key'd cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.
I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music -- this suits me.
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
I hear the train'd soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick'd by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep'd amid honey'd morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

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