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

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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