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

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.

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