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

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.

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