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

Thursday, September 16, 2004


Trying to think about why I haven’t felt like writing about the much of the classical music I’ve been listening to -- it’s because most of it hasn’t gotten to anything more intense than “quite pleasant!” for me lately. I really like “quite pleasant,” for obvious reasons, but it hasn’t been inspiring new thoughts.

I had to drive for 50 minutes Tuesday morning, hither and yon, in the car with a CD player, so I dug into a 19th century symphony I’d never heard. Some nice tunes, but when the tunes aren’t hitting for me, I often get bored. Classical’s big advantage over almost all other music-types is an access to formal complexity that the others lack. But formal complexity in and of itself is neither strength nor weakness, it’s just a possibility. When it’s working, accute tenderness & intense stress can alternate within one piece, and it can make sense.

To my ears, when it’s not working, the period rhythmic styles remind me of their original European aristocratic milieu -- especially in the period after Bach and up to Debussy and Satie. Rhythm is about dance, and both rhythm and dance are about carriage and comportment. & unless I’m swept up in a piece of particular gorgeousness, I can’t relate to the carriage & comportment of aristocratic pre-industrial imperial Europe.

Listening to Ives on Monday night, I realized so many of the rhythms are based on marching band rhythms and Protestant church hymn rhythms, which are American middle-class rhythms, not European aristocratic rhythms. Though Ives was born 89 years before me, the marching band and Protestant church rhythms of Ives’s childhood were still part of my social life growing up in my family’s dual religion of Protestant Christianity and Michigan football.

When the aristocratic European stuff is working for me, I dig the comportment that the rhythms imply. When it’s not, I don’t. Stuff that’s closer to home -- Ives or swing, for example -- it’s easier for me to relate even when the stuff is not at its most inspired.

Interestingly, the early 20th and late 19th century classical of Debussy & Stravinsky & to a lesser extent Schoenberg feel closer to home too. Not only was their historical milieu post-aristocratic, but their influence is all over soundtrack music, and what cultural experience could be homier than the movies?

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