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

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.

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