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

Monday, July 23, 2007

Reading Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, his insistence that different vocabularies constitute different tools rings my bells, because that's how I think of different styles of music and songwriting. A Tin-Pan-style 32-bar song works differently than a rock-style verse-chorus-bridge song. Blues, talking blues, punk, folk-style ballad-with-refrain, fast-talking country-style patter song, rap, through-composed melody -- they all do different things -- emotionally and rhetorically. They work better or worse with different verbal approaches. I've tried them all.

Which is why it ruins my equilibrium to hear a musician adopt another style sarcastically -- for a fan of a genre, that genre may constitute a significant portion of self-definition. Most music fans take it personally when someone attacks music they love.

200 years ago, classical musicians kept up with contemporary dance styles. Bach wrote numerous gigues, the minuet was the rage for many decades, and then came the waltz -- classical composers wrote piles of them. The march may be considered a social dance: it dictates how one carries oneself while the music plays; it embodies an aesthetic of the body, of social self-presentation, of posture and gait and carriage.

With the advent of recording and mass musical culture, classical composers stopped keeping up with dance steps. The focus on interiority was happening already in late Romantic music. When composers engaged with dance music, it was usually sarcastic. A fox trot! How droll! Or it was sardonic and bitter, denouncing a deathly civilization -- ghastly marches in Shostakovich; Ravel's La Valse, in which he mourned the impossibility of continuing to harbor nostalgic conceptions of old Vienna in the wake of the first World War. The march and the waltz were the last dance steps that classical composers mastered. To anybody who roots for the continuing vitality of classical music, this may present a problem.

I was pleased that Osvaldo Golijov engaged with techno dance music -- somewhat bizarrely, in 6/8 meter, not a typical techno beat at all -- in the recent collaborative suite he headed up, Ayre, but, as anti-pop-rapprochement polemicists predicted, I didn't find the attempt all that successful.

Golijov shouldn't take it personally. I felt the same way about Frank London's fusion of klezmer and techno on one track of the most recent Klezmer Brass All-Stars album.

When musicians from different stylistic traditions collaborate, I'm usually most pleased when both styles retain their identity in the collaboration. Eddie Vedder singing with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack comes to mind -- Eddie didn't try to keep up with Nusrat, he did his thing and he held his own.

I have no idea what a classical version of '70s funk would sound like, nor am I even sure that it would be a good idea.

And I'm not sure what it portends that the most famous painter of the '70s funk milieu -- Ernie Barnes, who painted J. J.'s paintings on the TV sitcom Good Times -- painted in what was basically an updated 1930s style. I do love his paintings though. Maybe the aesthetic success of Barnes's stuff shows that an older style may be used to comprehend contemporary realities. Truth be told, that's been my hope as a songwriter, and though I state, defensively, that I haven't been completely deaf to contemporary styles, I must confess that since the mid-'80s I've rarely done more than dabble in them.

From a 1735 book,
The Art of Dancing, by Kellom Tomlinson (I found this picture by Googling "minuet").
University of Michigan marching band, uncredited photographer, 2004.
Sugar Shack, by Ernie Barnes, 1971 (I didn't know the painter's name, but Googled the TV show he painted for).

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