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

Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Here's hoping for a happy and healthy 2008 for you and yours.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The next-door-neighbor 4-year-old passed the day with us as her parents went off on an outing, which she decided to skip in favor of playing with our son. I took them to an art museum. They pointed things out to each other in the pictures. On the walks there and back they chased around and played. We stopped and got hot chocolate, and I dozed off at our table as they made up a game with the art post cards I had let them pick out at the museum store. The girl’s parents got home just as our dinner was about to go on the table, so her dad brought over beers and joined us for a chat as we ate. Afterwards it was time for them to go home, and our son’s friend cried, so sad that the party was ending. And I thought of Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert crying at the end of the tea-party-on-the-ceiling in Mary Poppins, so sad that the party was ending, and then I cried too. Why must the party ever end? I need more sleep.

* * *

Speaking of regrettable partings, Ange Mlinko’s 6-month blogging gig for Poetry magazine is over. Her farewell post is a deeply resonant juxtaposition of photos and text, calm and lovely and generous.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some musical responses are innate.

Sudden LOUD!

. . . is startling.

Climbing pitch = climbing intensity. It would not surprise me if this were a global response.

We hear these musical values in everyday speech.

Music precedes speech. Babies respond to music before they learn words. They sing before they talk.

Short! Sharp! Notes! have a different feel than a smoothly flowing texture. Again, think of your response to the spoken word.

Has any composer besides Cage sought to circumvent these pre-conscious rhetorical musical values? (The music resulting from these attempts by Cage can be very beautiful.)

By and large, “vernacular” performers -- jazz, pop, etc. -- have a much more nuanced approach to the “vocal”-like subtleties of tone in the musical phrase than do classical performers. And if you consider that “vernacular” means the language as it is spoken, it should come as no surprise that “vernacular” musicians perform more closely to speech values.

I hear this in classical singing, especially when classical singers attempt popular or folk material: Rarely do they “act” the text or phrase well. Their concern is with the overall tone or mood of the piece, the river as a whole, not the twists and turns along the bank as the piece flows.

The recent spate of rock singers attempting the “standards” reveals rock to be closer to opera than to jazz in this regard. By and large, the rockers phrase with less nuanced attention to the connotations of individual words than the pre-rock pop singers.

The “tone of voice” is like the color spectrum, continuously and spectacularly subtle in its gradations. Great vernacular singers like great actors know this. Instrumentalists can know this too. The handsome classical violinist Joshua Bell plays with spectacular varieties of tone color and shading. The passions can be like swiftly moving skies. Tone color paints the intelligence of the passions.

* * * * * * *

Considering an image to accompany this post, I looked for a cymbal crash but gave up after a few unsatisfactory images, then thought of the Big Bang -- that macho name for a cosmological thesis about the un-apprehendable mystery of the origins of existence, and found the lovely uncredited image at the top of this post at a Bible-thumping site seeking to debunk the Big Bang, and while I have no attachment to the Big ol’ Bang other than its vivid and attractive and mildly comical name and my provisional faith in the good faith of scientists, the Bible thumpers remind me -- the Biblical Creation begins with Sound -- before even the Sound of God talking -- God granting permission to light, to be -- before that even, is the sound of wind on the water, the spirit of God hovering over the deep. Listen to that fluttering, the moment before God speaks.

The Hindus say, Om. The sound, the sound -- not a word -- a syllable, a music, a self-generating music of which all existence is an elaboration, a rhythmelodic unfolding.

Photo of Om graffiti taken by Jerry Whiting in West Seattle, (c) 2007.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Is The Nutcracker the first great pop album or what? Tunes tunes tunes tunes tunes galore. Lively tone colors. Exoticism, nature, romance. Family, love, dread, sexual anxiety. Dreamlife, giant mice, international fantasy, coming of age. Baby that is rock and roll!

My family went to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet production designed by Maurice Sendak today, taking the almost-5-year-old for the first time. He was absorbed throughout, and I was thrilled and moved -- several times my heart beat in excitement at the music, the dancing, and the stagecraft, and twice tears came to my eyes -- unexpectedly.

On the way to the theater I called my mom, who is visiting a cousin in Arkansas and arrived safely today, to tell her we were going. She said that she had sung in the chorus 25 years ago in a production in Kalamazoo, during the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.”

So it may be because of the familial connection that that scene especially delighted today, but I loved the nature-music and the nature-dancing. Snowflakes! Flurrying about, in the music and on the stage, all those swift and skillful dancers. I thought of 20th century efforts toward the music of nature, but the tradition goes back through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at least. Still -- love that musical, terpsichorean snow.

And all the hits! A lithe and lively overture that Duke Ellington dug so much that he made two different arrangements of it. The March, the Dance of the Reeds, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Trepak, the Waltz of the Flowers, the Snowflakes -- they just keep on coming.

“Tunesmith” and “composer” really do have different job descriptions. Tunesmithing requires a gift for melody, composing does not. Historically, composers have felt no compunction whatsoever in lifting tunes from the “folk” or the “pop”-ulace, the only difference now is that copyright laws compel Philip Glass to pay royalties to David Bowie and Brian Eno when he “borrows” their pop songs.

Lots of composers hate Tchaikovsky, one of the all-time great tunesmiths. Great orchestrator too -- and -- how’s this for pop? -- he raced to complete the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in order to beat Rimsky-Korsakov to the use of the exotic new chime-sounding keyboard, the celeste, which Tchaikovsky had heard in Paris.

The most famous music from Shakespeare’s England is a pop song written by an unknown tunesmith -- “Greensleeves,” still sung today, and beautiful.

I’m a tune guy. I love Tchaikovsky. And I love what composers do too. In 20th-century pop, pre-rock division, the tunesmith wrote the melodies and chords, and for the Broadway and Hollywood productions, an “arranger” wrote the orchestrations and variations and dramatic builds and crashes. In the 19th-century composer’s world, the arranger would have gotten the glory. Since copyright laws got tougher in the last century, the songwriter has gotten top billing in that milieu.

Composers of course do lots else too.

* * *

The dream of Clara -- the girl to whom the eponymous toy is given as a Christmas present by her eerie magician godfather -- proceeds from the attack of the giant mice through a gorgeous Sendak dream boatride to an opulent exotic tourist locale and then a romantic dance of love. The exotica delights completely unconvincingly -- that isn’t Arabian music, but it’s lovely! That isn’t Chinese, but it is sweet; I recognize exotic, castanet-laden Spain, and that’s terrific too.

The love duet that follows feels anti-climactic -- how predictable it seems -- and the music feels like a heavy ‘30s film weepie after the tastier exoticisms; but I notice that the melody is prettier than the Hollywood norm, and then a cymbal crashes as the orchestra swoops dramatically and the prince shoots the dream-Clara high above his head, and I cried. They got me!

Sendak took liberties with the traditional scenario. The Arabian Dance has nothing to do with Arabia and instead is a gorgeous peahen dance. So I don’t know whether the ending suddenly shifting to Clara waking up after the dream is in the original, but it got me again -- all that preceded is the dreamlife of a girl on the edge of adolescence, her fears and yearnings and curious imagination.

And it occurred to me: The classic dream tales of the last 200 years are of girls: Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz, Clara in the Land of Sweets. You go, girls.

Photos of the PNB Sendak-designed production from 2005 by Angela Sterling, Seattle Times.

we are born into language -- our mother tongue -- and the language forms our awareness, we pull and stretch at the edges of the words, infinitely pliable, words burst forth from other words, burrow through from somewhere inside their clutchy roots, dirt and hair and stones clumped together, when outblossoms a bud and we drink in our old friend, the deep contentment of branching together, the contentment being the content, edging into the substance, the standing under, the stationary trip verging unto one, wonder, neither won nor lost but given, the present.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

In an argument about aesthetics, I was tempted to call any sincere use of the word "kitsch" inherently kitschy, but that sort of self-reflexive irony is kitschy too, as is this "having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too" usage/non-usage of the term. It's as if I'm trapped in a kitschy hall of mirrors where I neither believe nor disbelieve in the concept of kitsch, when I really (mostly) don't believe.

When I stop wanting to trade insults with my interlocutor, the hall of mirrors disappears, and I'm left on a vacant plain where a sinister amusement park had swirled around me.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

As I think of the ability of Christmas to make symbolic peaceniks, if only for a day, of the most bellicose and jingoistic Christianists, my gratitude for the season grows. "Peace on Earth," said the Heavenly Host, praising God.
I enjoy the seasonal hubbub, and it's been more hubbub-ful than usual for me this year, and I'd love to tell you about it sometime, and all about the significance of a Merry Ganesh Christmas, but for now -- with a song of love in my heart -- I only want to wish you well, and Peace on Earth, Good Will Among All People.

* * *

Update, Dec. 26

Early in the month we had gone to a Saturday morning concert of “old-timey” music at the Museum of History and Industry, the ticket of which included an entrance into the museum, which I had never visited, so after the concert we looked around. An interesting and well-put-together museum, focussing mostly on Seattle history; lots of stuff I didn’t know, fascinating maps and absorbing photos. Santa was hanging out in the museum foyer, which was awesomely convenient: The kid wanted to visit Santa, and now we wouldn’t need to go to a mall! Santa had a 19th-century sleigh for picture-posing, and we all wanted a picture of the kid with St. Nick, so we paid and the kid sat up there clutching a teddy bear and some random bit of paper he had acquired from one of the exhibits, happy to be with Santa, who, this being the Museum of History and Industry, had told the kid all about the provenance of the sleigh. Terrific all around -- this wasn’t about consumerism -- wasn’t in a mall -- it was about face time with the gentleman in red. Funny thing was, the photography technology was historic too, and instead of an instant digital print, we would have to come back the next week to pick up the evidence.

A week went by and then another, and then finally it was 8 days before Christmas, and I needed to mail off presents to relatives in Michigan, Chicago, and California. My beloved spouse’s employer had unexpectedly sent her to Centralia, 100 miles south, to help people displaced by the flood that had buried parts of I-5 under 10 feet of water and had for three or four days sent travelers between Portland and Seattle on a 150-mile detour across two mountain passes and through Yakima. She was to be gone for four days which thankfully ended up being three. And since we had ordered an extra Santa photo to send to my mom, I had to pick them up on the way to dropping the kid off at pre-school.

The museum seemed empty except for the two clerks, a friendly young man and woman, who asked us to look at the contents of our envelope before leaving, to make sure we had the right pics. The kid opened the envelope and the young man and woman laughed in a friendly manner as his eyes grew big at seeing himself with Santa. Awesome. We had the right photos. For several days the kid ate breakfast with his photo set up in front of his table so he could commune with Santa while eating his oatmeal.

He turns five in a few weeks, and this is the first year he has had consumerist ambitions for Christmas. He wrote Santa a letter, and all he wanted was art: A statue of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed god; a statue of the Buddha; a book of Japanese art post cards that we had seen at a terrific exhibit of Japanese art at the Seattle Art Museum; and landscape paintings of the rain forest and the desert, the inspiration of which desire eludes me. He knew, vaguely, about Ganesh and the Buddha partly from a lovely children’s book about customs around the world, called People, by Peter Spier; also his last daytime babysitter before he began pre-school was a Buddhist woman from Sri Lanka whom the kid loves.

But the kid has been concerned for Santa’s welfare too. Christmas Eve he asked if I had Santa’s phone number; he wanted to call.

“Why do you want to call him?”

“I want to ask him if likes to play golf in the summer.” Stone cold serious.

“You thought you might like to give him golf clubs as a present?”


Our neighbors whom we see all the time play golf, so maybe he got the inspiration there; it wasn’t from me or my beloved spouse.

I was going to take Christmas Eve off, but last week a new prospective client whose name appeared to be Muslim called requesting a meeting, and I would have had to have waited until after the New Year if I said No to Christmas Eve, and that didn’t seem fair, and we are making an effort to improve client satisfaction in our office, so I went in for a morning meeting, which ended up going longer than usual, in part because the couple was from Iraq and we got to chatting about the Middle East. A very nice couple, bitterly critical of Saddam and the current car-bombers, and terribly sad about all the destruction of the current war, but they expressed no anti-war sentiment, and so I didn’t either; we spoke more generally of the cultural history, and they in particular about Iraq’s history of peaceful religious cohabitation; the wife wore a head-scarf -- my guess was right -- but they spoke with cultural, Iraqi pride about inter-religious marriages among their social circle, Jews and Muslims marrying, Muslims and Christians.

After the meeting I had some last-minute Christmas shopping to do, and my beloved spouse had the inspiration of getting a scooter for the kid, so I ended up heading to the mall after all. And when I got there I was shocked and amused to be hit with a wave of consumerist lust for the first time in my adult life
(aside from book and music lust): I wanted to buy every toy and trinket for the kid, just for that momentary hit of delight when he ripped open the wrapping paper. I held back and only bought a few things, including a Hot Wheels car, and a used, four-dollar Christmas CD from 1966 by Julie Andrews with arrangements and harpsichord by Andre Previn for my spouse’s stocking, which I knew she would know was more for me and laugh about, even though she likes Julie Andrews and Christmas music too.

Christmas Eve afternoon the kid and I did some Christmas shopping for the woman of the house, which I enjoyed last year too: Picking out blouses for her at the second-hand store. The kid’s eye is at least as discerning as mine, and he has a generous attitude; and we went to a toy store to get last-minute gifts for the next-door neighbors, who had surprised us with a gift for our kid. Our kid knows what their kids like -- they play together all the time -- so that was fun. On the way to the neighborhood toy store -- this was a foot trip -- I speculated about the store’s name. I had thought that it was Izilla with a long “I,” but the kid said no, it’s Izilla with a short “i.” I said that I bet the owners have a daughter named Isabell and her nickname is Izilla. I asked about the name as we paid for our items; the owner’s son is Isaiah and Izilla (long “I”) is his nickname. Now he’s seven-and-a-half, and he just goes by Zilla, and yes (I asked), they have had his photo taken by the Zillah town sign (a small town near Yakima). I love guessing things.

We went to the house of friends for Christmas Eve dinner, a family with three kids whose mother is a convert to Hinduism, who was tickled that our boy wanted Hindu and Buddhist icons for Christmas. They have three kids age 16 to 21, lovely kids (two of them are adults now, I keep forgetting!) who have all baby-sat for us. Another family and three other friends of the hosts’ sat around the long table and discussed slang. Sandy, our Hindu host, had embarrassed her 16-year-old son by interjecting into a conversation he was having with two of his friends in their dining room, “That’s totally G!” And then laughing so hard at her own faux-slang that she cried. She had plotted the interjection for weeks, ever since Martin, the son, had responded to her discussion of her belief in reincarnation by saying, “Wow, Mom, that’s totally sick,” to which she had calmly replied, “Now Martin, I am respectful when you talk about things of importance to you,” not realizing that “sick” means “cool” in the current parlance. (I would have been confused too.)

Needless to say, the dinner was totally G.

After dinner we started a game of Cranium, which neither my spouse nor I had played and which we all were enjoying, until our son started crying in pain, coughing and saying he couldn’t breathe. Obviously he could, but he was in distress, and this went on for some time, and so we went to the hospital.

After an hour the distress went away, and other than a fever he was fine, but they ran a bunch of tests, thinking it might be strep throat. It wasn’t. He had had a cold, and his tonsils had suddenly, briefly swelled to the point that his throat started to close off. The first doctor had been concerned that the swelling could continue until the air passage were completely blocked -- our concern as well. The second doctor said that if it happened again we shouldn’t worry until his lips started to turn blue. Easy for him to say! The kid didn’t like getting jabbed for the blood test and the IV, but once the IV was hooked up he thought it was cool that a bag of saline solution was dripping into his arm. He didn’t fall asleep until past one o’clock, and we didn’t get home until 2:15. And then we had to wrap presents.

Wrapping presents was pleasant, my beloved spouse and me on the floor around the Christmas tree, and then she went to bed and I had a few more to wrap. By this time it was past 4:00, and I hoped we would sleep late. I ate a piece of shortbread that the kid and I had decided to leave out for Santa, and part of a carrot for the reindeer, and a glass of milk and eggnog, and artfully left the crumbs, empty glass, and a crumpled napkin by the mantle.

Around 9:30 the kid crawled into bed with his mom for a snuggle. I said Merry Christmas to him and the words made him very happy and he repeated them and promptly fell back asleep until noon. Which we all needed. Fever gone, just slight a cold. Phone calls from relatives had started coming in around 11:00, which I had fielded, and then, exactly like a cartoon dad, I got excited and wanted to wake the kid, but my spouse didn’t let me, which I knew was the right decision, and I fell back asleep too.

First question after “Did Santa come?” was whether we had left a snack for Santa, and my spouse’s face froze in a moment of fear, but relaxed when she saw that I took the question calmly. The kid was very excited to see the remains of the snack, and for a moment I felt that yes, Santa had come; the awe of a kid can be contagious. I did a lot of theater in my early 20s; a performance of mine in a Brecht play got a good review in the Yale Drama Review; I had a leading role in the first play by one of America’s best and most prolific playwrights; stupendously talented and lifelong dedicated theater artists let me work with them -- but all day long until I washed the dishes last night I felt that that arrangement of crumbs had been the best bit of theater I had ever been involved with.

The kid was amazed that Santa had given him things that he liked even though he hadn’t asked for them (a toy car, a bottle of root beer, a mask-making craft book). After our 2:00 PM breakfast it began to snow, but the snow had turned to sleet by the time my spouse and I went for a walk as the kid went to play with neighbors. Phone calls from friends and family. Dinner at the home of friends across the alley.

December 25 started with a bang in the emergency room; I ended up being more grateful than usual for health and family. Sleeping until noon was weird but necessary and Christmas afternoon could not have been lovelier. I hope you’ve been having a good solstice season, a merry Christmas if that’s your persuasion.

Friday, December 21, 2007

We have no Day of the Dead in North America, that time when we honor and mourn and celebrate our dead. The closest we have is Christmas, celebration of the Babe, the Birth, the Incarnation; the Homeless Family, the Holy Family, the Holy Homeless Family, the Baby in the Feed Trough; the Shepherds, the Terrifying Angel, the Singing of the Angels, Peace on Earth and Good Will Among People; Singing, Singing, Singing; the Wise Men of the East, the Astrologers, the Travelers, the Camels, the Caravan, the Gift-Givers, Gift-Giving; Solstice, Rebirth, Evergreens; Lights, Colors, Candles; the happy generous red-suited white-bearded fat man Santa, Flying Reindeer, Chimney Entrances, Wish Fulfillment, Magical Generosity; Cookies, Fudge, Eggnog, Candy Canes; Cards, Pictures, Friends, Family, Feasting.

And, with family, inevitably, the absence of family.

I hear my dad puttering around. Settling in a comfortable chair with a drink, ready to tell a story. He is a friendly ghost.

So many family traditions, so dependent on particular members.

In my family, growing up, Christmas feasting began Christmas Eve and lasted for 24 hours. Christmas Eve dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s -- Mom’s parents -- and opening presents, and my parents and grandparents and my then-unmarried aunt, and sometimes my grandpa’s unmarried brother or sister, and all of the adults smoking, and my brother and sister and I retreating to a side room to watch something boring on TV, or to read a new gift book, while the adults smoked and drank and talked, until we piled into the car happy and full and red-eyed from the smoke. In junior high or high school our friends the Godfreys started coming over late Christmas Eve after we got home from Grandma and Grandpa
s ; the parents would drink and talk in the living room and us boys would gather in me and my brother’s room to listen to records (my sister, who was younger, had her own room, and years later told me she felt left out); this tradition lasted until my parents moved out to the country about 12 years ago. Christmas morning, presents at home, grandparents and aunt and visiting others over for brunch and more drinking. After brunch, maybe a walk in the snow, and playing with new toys, or listening to new music or reading new books. Christmas afternoon with Dad’s family, for dinner and more presents with 20 or 30 people, sometimes at our house, more often in Battle Creek, 30 miles down the road, where Dad grew up and a lot of his family still is, at one of four uncles’ houses, my dad’s two brothers and their families, or my dad’s uncle and his family, or my dad’s cousin and his family. My dad’s dad hosted the party until he died -- when I was 3, 41 years ago, a few weeks after my brother was born. The last thing he said to my dad was asking after my newborn brother, whom he never met.

My mom’s parents are gone; Christmas Eve dinner is a long gone tradition. Now dad’s gone, one of his brothers is gone, his uncle and aunt are too old to host the party, and his cousin is divorced and doesn’t have a big enough house for the party. Which leaves my dad’s one surviving brother, now 75, and his wife, to host, and one of their sons and his family, the one who has done well and has a big enough house. My brother closed on his house yesterday; maybe he’ll host it someday. Or maybe when the senior uncle and aunt die, this party will fade away too.

The dead return at Christmas. I’m happy to see them in the vividness of the mind’s eye, and I miss them.

The deep dark dread of the bright merry season. Pass it well. Peace, goodwill.

* * *

Record producer Joel Dorn died this week. He produced an astounding series of albums for Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as well as pop gems from Roberta Flack and the Allman Brothers and Donny Hathaway, and the marvelous, eccentric debut of Leon Redbone.

I’d been thinking of him lately because the 30th anniversary of Kirk’s death passed this month.

Here is one obituary and another.

Condolences, in this time of darkness and dread, to his family and friends.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

by Picasso, 1920

Irresonsible blogging! Irresponsible blogging!

I mentioned at the outset of my post on Alex Ross’s book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century that I read the book on loan from the library and had since returned it. I posted on it without being able to check my memory. I’ve since acquired a copy, and it turns out I got something wrong.

I accused Alex of telling charming stories of John Cage running around shouting, “Beethoven was wrong!” and of not explaining what Cage meant. I was wrong.

Alex wrote that in 1952 Cage

scandalized a crowd at Black Mountain College by saying that Beethoven had misled generations of composers by structuring music in goal-oriented harmonic narratives instead of letting it unfold moment by moment.

This is well said. I apologize for the false accusation that Alex had not explained what Cage had meant. And -- by making it without checking the book -- irresponsible!

Alex’s paragraph continues -- and this is the part I was remembering --

At a New York gathering, he was heard to say, “Beethoven was wrong!” The poet John Ashbery overheard the remark, and for years afterward wondered what Cage had meant. Eventually, Ashbery approached Cage again. “I once heard you say something about Beethoven,” the poet began, “and I’ve always wondered --” Cage’s eyes lit up. “Beethoven was wrong!” he exclaimed. “Beethoven was wrong!” And he walked away.

* * *

The paragraph immediately following the one just quoted talks of the marathon premiere performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations that Cage put together. Vexations:

is only a page long and would normally take just a minute or two to play, but at the top appears this instruction: “In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities.”

Cage arranged for a concert performance of 840 iterations of Satie’s piece by a tag-team of 12 pianists in 1963. It took 18 hours and 40 minutes.

Teams of people have repeated the 840 repetitions of Vexations since then. But I have never seen any evidence that anybody has actually followed the score.

Satie’s headnote is a Dada-esque non sequitur, not an instruction. Did Cage and team prepare themselves “in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities”? If they did, it has not become part of the Vexations lore.

Furthermore, Satie’s score is clear: If the motif is to be played 840 times, one performer should do it. Not a team.

Alex calls Cage’s performance of Vexations his “definitive refutation of Beethoven.” I would put one of
Cage’s own compositions forward. The performance of Ryoanji by Joelle Leandre and Ninh Le Quan on this disc is gorgeous. Four 6, which I heard performed live by friends of my brother’s 3 years ago, would appear to be at least as anti-Beethovenian as a disputable reading of Vexations. Myriad beautiful and/or interesting compositions would be plausible candidates. None of Cage’s music follows a harmonic narrative.

* * *

Alex’s writings on Vexations inspired its most recent marathon group performance, just last month. I caught some of it on web-cam. The theme is lovely, and I listened a few times, which seemed like plenty. Listening to it more than 20 or 25 times must be a unique experience. Congrats to all who made it happen.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

[Updated and corrected below.]

As I got near the end of Alex Ross’s 540-page history of 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, I grew sad, as when the end of one’s vacation at a beloved spot draws near: It is so lovely to be there that one does not want to leave. His voice is so companionable, his knowledge so broad, his ear so acute, his love so deep, his gift for storytelling so opulent -- but take one’s leave one must. The stories that began with 20th century classical music have not ended yet, but any particular story teller’s time with them must.

I became acquainted with Alex about four or five years ago through a music listserv, got to know him better through the medium of blogging, and subsequently met him very briefly in person after hearing him lecture on 20th century musical history. I am slightly embarrassed to say that I never read his column in the New Yorker until I “met” him online. Some of this book originally appeared in his regular magazine column; if you have read him there, the only stylistic surprise the book reveals –- and it is mightily impressive -- is his skill at large-scale composition. For a long time I have thought of him as the American music critic most beloved by his constituency. In my own experience, he is an unfailingly courteous and kind correspondent.

I read the book on loan from the library, riding the bus to and from work, on lunch break, late at night after everyone was in bed. I finished a few days before it was due; I couldn’t renew it because the reservation line for it was long. Since returning it I have wanted to refer to it as I’ve begun to explore music that the book hipped me to: “Now what did Alex say about Krenek?” It’s a book I will want to have around.

The night before I finished, I wrote Alex an email.

* * *

Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007

Subject: your book

Dear Alex,

I'm almost done, and I'm sad!

Tons to say, with a continual conversation going on with you in my head.

You are a gifted storyteller. And you have great ears. I'm especially glad that you gave so much emphasis to the dissidents from dissonance. Even though I'm not a huge fan of Sibelius or Copland (though I adore adore adore the "Fanfare for the Common Man" and love "Quiet City"), and I barely know Britten at all, their music belongs, and their relationships with changing fashions in classical music have a lot to say about the centrality of fashion to culture. I've been thinking about how Dylan and Charlie Parker *changed everything* in their respective scenes when they made their breakthroughs. The stories you tell relate to those stories.

More to say when I'm done -- suffice it to say for now that,

1. your book's going to be around for a long long time, as far as these things go;
2. you deserve the praise you've been getting;
and 3. thanks!


* * *

Alex has solved the puzzle of how to write panoramic cultural history without falling prey to over-generalization by refusing the panoramic perspective. He writes from the ground view, he keeps it personal. Many of the chapters close with the satisfying click of the end of an episode in a novel. Click, the door on this scene closes. Next scene.

The storytelling pulled me along like a novel. The deft sketches of vivid characters, and, in the book’s center, their complex public and private relationships with the political realities of their times: Richard Strauss in Nazi Germany, Aaron Copland in New Deal America, and, most compelling and haunting of all, Shostakovich in Soviet Russia. These three along with Schoenberg and Stravinsky emerge as the main characters in this story of 20th century classical composition, with long set pieces devoted to Sibelius and Britten.

Sibelius and Britten stand slightly apart from the main narrative because they were indifferent to the 20th century trends. Stravinsky’s rhythmic innovations, Schoenbergean atonality, ‘20s neoclassicism, ‘30s social realism, and post-WW2 serialism all had their followers, with many composers passing through more than one camp as trend followed trend. For several decades Schoenberg and Stravinsky played roles comparable to those played by Charlie Parker in jazz and Bob Dylan in rock as innovators and trend-setters. Indeed, like Parker’s and Dylan’s, their influence has not completely dissipated. Fascinating parallels between classical and “vernacular” music emerge from Alex’s telling of modern classical history.

* * *

The Rest Is Noise does not subscribe to the outdated theory that popular music is ephemeral while “classical,” “serious,” “concert,” “notated,” “composed,” or “art” music is for the ages. But the notion still circulates -- oddly enough, in pop music circles.

The pop milieu boasts a long, distinguished history of modesty. In 1914 Irving Berlin wrote this for an ASCAP celebration.

Popular song, you will never be missed
Once your composer has ceased to exist,
While Chopin, Verdi, Beethoven and Liszt
Live on with each generation.
Still, though you die after having your sway,
To be forgotten the very next day,
A rose lives and dies, in the very same way --
Let that be your consolation.

Berlin of course was wrong. Not only did he write two of the most ubiquitous songs in American culture, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” but hundreds of his songs and those by his contemporaries continue to be sung and played today.

Carole King, speaking retrospectively of her own pop heyday, which exploded some 50 years after Berlin’s first boom, said, “The primary purpose back then was to make money.” Berlin and King wrote for the moment, to connect with as many listeners as possible living in the right-now. There is no reason to doubt them that they had few hopes for posterity.

But this indifference to the future always bore traces of ambivalence as well. Berlin’s breakout hit, the song that made his name, included a crucial allusion to a big hit from 60 years before. Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (a/k/a “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”) of 1851 shows up in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” of 1911. Fifty-plus years after that, Brian Wilson wrote new lyrics to “Swanee River” in two different (unsuccessful) songs, and Garrison Keillor wrote new lyrics to the tune again for his 2006 fictional film A Prairie Home Companion. Sixty years from Foster to Berlin, 50 years from Berlin to Wilson, 45 years from Wilson to Keillor, and the same song resounds.

Berlin’s most-sung song today, “God Bless America,” quotes an even older song. Originally made public in 1938, “God Bless America” quotes one of the big hits of 1823, “Home, Sweet Home,” a title that became the last three words of Berlin’s song. A year after Berlin debuted his song, Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale quoted the older song again when she clicked the heels of her ruby slippers together, murmuring “there’s no place like home,” as the 1823 melody played in the film
’s underscoring. Irving and Dorothy were quoting lyrics more than 100 years old, written by someone whose name is not well-known today but whose words still are: John Howard Payne, who died in 1852. Payne and Foster’s roses held their bloom long past their authors’ lives. Indeed, a fragment from “Home Sweet Home” hit the Top 40 in 1962 as the introduction to the Shirelles’s aggressively passive wife-fantasy hit “Welcome Home Baby”; the B-side, “Mama Here Comes the Bride” (a much better song, in which the wife angrily leaves), quoted Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin.

Keeping up with fashion is part of the pop music job description. Novelty dance numbers were hot in the early 1960s when Carole King and her songwriting partner and husband Gerry Goffin wrote “The Locomotion.” Fifty years earlier, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” name-checked the hot style of that moment.

Dave Van Ronk gives a moving account of the shock of witnessing the birth of a new musical trend. He was the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” the king of the New York folk scene, when Bob Dylan came along and shortly dethroned him. Van Ronk:

Within a couple of years, Bobby changed the whole direction of the folk movement. The big breakthrough was when he wrote ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ because in that song he fused folk music with modernist poetry. The tune was borrowed from an old English ballad called ‘Lord Randall,’ and it was in the same question-and-response form, but the imagery was right out of the symbolist school. . . . [T]he overall effect was incredible. I heard him sing that for the first time during one of the hoot nights at the Gaslight, and I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for a while. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.

About later singer-songwriters who thought they could be the “next Dylan,” Van Ronk wrote, “Yeah, sure you could. All you had to do was write ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ -- for the first time. That was what Bobby had done, and none of the rest of us did that.”

Charlie Parker’s innovations hit people so hard that they felt compelled to document their awe. Musicians and fans recorded his improvisations in clubs. The bootlegged recordings have been commercially available for decades. The private recording equipment was heavy and the tape expensive. Parker’s bootleggers turned the machines off when his band mates soloed. Nobody else mattered.

Again and again The Rest Is Noise shows how classical music is no less trend-friendly. Schoenberg’s breakthrough to atonality inspired pupils and rivals for decades. Composers of the ‘30s would be shocked to learn -– though Schoenberg wouldn’t -– that his influence has not disappeared almost 100 years after his breakthrough. The late nineteen-teens saw a fad for jazz among French composers that ended as abruptly as it began. The Great Depression inspired composers across Europe and America to reach out to broader audiences with more tuneful music. The catastrophe of the Second World War produced revulsion for the Western tradition among European composers, and certain circles required hostility to the audience. Some still require it.

Great music in any style has happened regardless of its fashion sense. The Rest Is Noise strikes a good balance between trend-watching and maverick-celebrating. Alex makes clear that the mavericks who ignored classical music fashion, like Sibelius and Britten, paid the price of scorn from their peers. Happily for Sibelius and Britten, audiences did not care about the assessments of the trendy composers and heartily embraced their music. It is no surprise, given its focus on the intersection of music and society, that the book pays less attention to isolated mavericks like Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow. Most pundits consider Ives the Top Name in American Classical (I agree), and giving Copland the lion’s share of attention over him strikes me as odd -– and good for Alex. Whomever he writes about is worth reading about -- and listening to.

The Rest Is Noise unexpectedly led me to conclude that the pop world has a healthier attitude about aesthetic trends than does jazz or classical. In pop, a musician’s relationship to trends is irrelevant: Sales will win you respect. Jazz seems to have the least healthy attitude: If you don’t fit into a particular style milieu, you aren’t playing jazz. Classical would seem to be the venue with the most freedom of all, but socially, in the 20th century, the in-fighting between style milieus could get, like, totally high school. It was a big social coup for the Schoenberg clique when Stravinsky, head of a rival clique, adopted some of Schoenberg’s style.

* * *

Because Alex is “Perhaps the least combative and doctrinaire of American classical-music critics,” in the words of critic and composer Gavin Borchert, writing in the Seattle Weekly, his choices are ungainsayable. He isn’t arguing that Britten and Sibelius are better or “more important” than Debussy or Ives or Ellington. His book says: This is music he loves, these are stories he wants to tell. If I think Debussy or Ives or Charles Mingus or Rahsaan Roland Kirk deserves the full New Yorker profile treatment (and I do), well, as other reviewers have mentioned, it is churlish to complain of omissions when what has been included is so splendid.

Alex’s generosity of spirit flags only when he deals with his precursors among popular historians of 20th-century composition. He rightly takes Constant Lambert and Virgil Thomson to task for their racism, but his criticisms of them go beyond the moral. He complains of Thomson’s resistance to some of the masterpieces of modernism as well, and he doesn’t discuss Lambert much at all. Which is perhaps as it should be. This isn’t a history of music criticism; it’s a history of music.

But despite Lambert and Thomson’s moral failings, their writings are the ones that in my experience most closely resemble Alex’s in their lucidity, wit, historical breadth, musical acuity, and generosity of spirit. And note: The pop-affiliated musicians to whom Lambert gave the most attention in his mostly wonderful (though marred by racism) book of 1933, Music Ho!, are the ones to whom Alex pays most attention as well. Seventy-four years later it’s still Gershwin and Ellington. Surely, the reader speculates, there have been vernacular musicians since with vital and complex relationships with the classical tradition. And then who comes most vividly to mind but avant-garde jazz musicians -- Ornette Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor -- none of whom could be classified as popular. As Alex is aware, the decline of contemporary jazz’s popularity mirrors the decline of contemporary classical’s. During Gershwin and Ellington’s overlapping period of popularity -- the 1930s -- contemporary classical had a far higher profile in popular culture than it has since.

Part of the reason I was sad to be winding down with the book was that I sensed a growing sadness in Alex’s writing. The Rest Is Noise is so rich regarding the first half of the century that by the time that Alex gets around to the era’s last third he’s got something like a tenth of his page count left. Which may explain why latter-day classical-minded jazz musicians get less attention than their forebears: their classical contemporaries get comparatively less attention too.

The sadness of the book’s closing even seeps into some of Alex’s calls for optimism. Near the book’s end, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is toasted for a recent concert of modern, dissonant music. Unfortunately, two of the three pieces mentioned are close to 100 years old. They’re both fantastic, but they aren’t contemporary. The Richard Strauss of Salome would not have been celebrating the modernity of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The influence of The Rite of Spring on horror and sci-fi/fantasy movie soundtracks gives it contemporary currency, but chronologically it is practically as old as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

* * *

At one point I suspected that Alex’s lack of doctrinaire argumentation might mask a doctrine of his own. He tells entertaining anecdotes of Cage’s provocative slogan, “Beethoven was wrong!” But he never explains why Cage thought Beethoven was wrong, and by making Cage seem like a goofball, he misses an interesting view of music history. [Update. See below.]

I have always taken Cage to mean that Beethoven was wrong to emphasize harmonic elaboration over other musical elements. While Alex is the better storyteller as well as morally more congenial, I find Lambert and Thomson’s approach to music history more persuasive. Lambert and Thomson, while often disagreeing intensely on other music, both center the 20th century on Debussy’s formal breakthroughs, on his overthrow of the tyranny of development, on his declaration of formal improvisation. Alex focuses more on harmony than on formal breakthroughs. In Alex’s telling, the 20th century doesn’t start with Debussy’s masterfully form-breaking La Mer or
Pelléas et Mélisande, it starts with the bold dissonances of Richard Strauss’s Salome.

But Alex doesn’t neglect Debussy. He begins the book with Strauss and pays much more attention to him than to Debussy, but he understands the magnitude of Debussy’s influence, and the reasons for it. And if Alex’s lack of argument masks a hidden argument, it ultimately doesn’t matter. He makes connections between musicians, their music, and their historical moments so resonant that my wish for a somewhat more persuasive music history fell away. And on the music itself, his enthusiasm is contagious.

Alex sometimes missteps when he considers music outside of the European and North American classical sphere. He gets subtle details of popular music history wrong, and in one instance he criticizes a Mexican composer for something a North American did a lot more, while giving nothing but praise to the North American. (The list deserves nothing more than a parenthesis, but here it is: Chuck Berry did not invent a style that Elvis popularized afterwards; most scholars believe flamenco evolved from cante jondo, not the other way around; it is anachronistic and inaccurate to describe Glenn Miller’s rhythms as be-bopping; it is incomprehensible to describe Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’s use of Mexican dance rhythms in his tremendous La noche de los Mayas as “kitschy” while giving Copland a pass in similar cases.) And despite his good-heartedness, I take exception to Alex’s hope for classical music as the music that potentially contains all other musics. No. No tradition can contain another. Alex doesn’t mean to sound imperialistic, but when his pen slips and he says in an aside that by the end of the century, music was no longer a strictly Western art, it gives one pause. Music was never a strictly Western art, as he well knows and as he says elsewhere. He meant to say “classical music,” except he often tries to avoid the term. The classical habit of conflating “classical” with “music” has historically been part of its PR problem.

* * *

Where Lambert begins his 20th century with Debussy, Alex ends his history with a quote from the great French composer, a sentence fragment that describes music as the “imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.” The quote struck me because it is so close to a fairly famous line from Moby-Dick: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

My sensibility rebels against Debussy’s -- and Alex’s -- “imaginary.” Music is true! Hasn’t Alex just told us for 540 pages of music’s beauty and truth? I’m a romantic too, and I’m attracted to maplessness, to new discoveries, to the feeling of being lost, some place I may not be able to find my way out of. That is to say, symbolically, I like these feelings; actually being physically lost can be an unpleasant experience. The romantic in me agrees with Melville: Those unmapped places and sensations are not imaginary. They’re true!

They’re true because they map the human heart.

Cases from the book:

1. Aaron Copland composing the soundtrack of sonic-visual Americana, with his ballet scores Appalachian Spring and Rodeo in the 1930s, then getting scrubbed from an inaugural celebration for Eisenhower in the 1950s because of his history of leftist activism, then having his open-prairie harmonies from his ‘30s ballets influence Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign commercials in 1984. Copland’s harmonic openness struck a chord with American aspirations irrespective of the political vision that Copland or Reagan sought to connect them with.

2. The touching story of the friendship and mutual influence of Shostakovich and Britten, who recognized related emotional landscapes through each other’s music. Complex people both, with deeply private emotional repressions and masks, they saw kindred spirits in each other even though their repressions were completely unrelated. Shostakovich had made a career negotiating the changing diktats of Soviet stylistic prescriptions and proscriptions, filtering patriotic utterances through unknowably ironic masks, while Britten’s repression was sexual. He was attracted to adolescent boys, and he knew that to act on or make public his attraction would ruin him. Their music brought them into connection.

3. The Chinese composer He Luting standing up to the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s campaign to eliminate Western influence in Chinese culture. A critic targeted the composer for defending the music of Debussy. Chinese television broadcast a physically abusive interrogation of He, who refused to apologize. He shouted, “Your accusations are false!” and “Shame on you for lying!”

4. The Russian Army blaring a broadcast of Shostakovich’s rousing Leningrad Symphony at the German Army during the siege of Leningrad.

The Rest Is Noise is rich with such intense connections between people, music, and their social and political contexts. Debussy’s “imaginary” sounds escapist. The music in the book
may be many things, but it’s not that.

Curious about the context of Debussy’s “imaginary,” I looked it up. Debussy made the remark in 1901 – the century’s beginning – in a letter to composer Paul Dukas. I can see why Alex excerpted it. The full context is beyond bohemian snobbish, it’s positively misanthropic.

It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.

* * *

The Rest Is Noise
belies the quote with which it closes. It provides a map of 20th century music from the institutional European tradition -- and a dandy one. As its narrative power and musical passion and smarts swept me along, a continuing discussion ran in my head. I have focused here more on the contrary elements of the discussion, but that’s only because more often my side of the discussion ran towards, “right on!” or, “you don’t say!” or, mostly, “wow, I’ve never heard that, but I sure do want to now!”

Alex’s map does its job splendidly. It gets you traveling through the landscape, or, in this case, the soundscape. And -- the book rings true -- what a soundscape it is!

* * *

Update. Correction. Alex did explain Cage’s objection to Beethoven, which you can read about here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I heard Darlene Love
’s Phil-Spector-produced version of “White Christmas” tonight and caught their cop of a Clyde McPhatter vocal lick from the Drifters’ classic doo-wop version. Elvis’s cover had copped the same lick, giving McPhatter’s line to the piano where Spector later gave it to the Wall of Sound.

Before the 20th century, the arranger would have been called a co-composer. I’m not sure how the switch happened, but it sure has been to the benefit of popular songwriters. Clyde McPhatter didn’t get paid for his lovely obligato when Spector and Elvis quoted it, but Irving Berlin sure did.

* * *

Whenever I hear Bobby Helms’s record of “Jingle Bell Rock,” I think of Hank Williams. Helms doesn’t have anything like Hank’s intensity -- few singers do -- but his timbre partakes of the Hank-source, especially when he lets the pitch fall off and fade at the end of the phrase, “Jingle Bell time is a swell time to go riding on a one horse sleigh.”

“Jingle Bells,” add sleigh bells, and you got yourself a Christmas record. Put the “Jingle Bells” quote on a vaguely Chuck-Berry-esque electric guitar, call it “rock” and you’re good to go.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

postscript to the series on songs about themselves:

What about Orpheus, that quasi-divine patron of singing whose head kept singing after having been removed from his neck? What about Monteverdi and Gluck’s Orpheus operas? Or the bossa nova movie Orfeu Negro? Or the Cocteau film?

What about Sappho’s numerous poems (which are believed to have originally been songs) about music, even about her lyre? (See: lyric.) What about the people of Renaissance England singing “sing lullay”? The whole tradition where poets refer to their poems as songs? “Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song,” wrote Edmund Spenser more than 400 years ago. Did he intend the Thames to stop flowing when his song ended?

William Blake purportedly sang his poems, some of which mention singing; Rabindranath Tagore certainly wrote music to his poems, many of which mention singing. (Tagore was of the “any song is at best a partial reflection of the Song” school.)

Couldn’t this go on forever?

Well, Perry Como and Julie Andrews once sang a medley of songs about singing and songs about songs for nine minutes thirty-seven seconds on Sesame Street. Andrews was radiant. Como was suddenly surprisingly moving in his cover of “Killing Me Softly.” I stumbled across the video on the internet, looking for songs about themselves.

Orpheus, Odilon Redon, 1903


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

[Part 4 of a series on songs about themselves. Here are
Part 1, Part 2 (the 2nd item of the post), and Part 3.]

The most irritating quality about the Vododeo-vo, poo-poop-a-doop school of jazz song is its hysterical emphasis on the fact that the singer is a jazz baby going crazy about jazz rhythms. . . . Folk songs do not inform us that it is great to be singing in 6/8 time, or that you won’t get your dairymaid until you have mastered the Dorian mode. . . . It is almost impossible to find a quick foxtrot, however, that does not inform us that it is in a particular variant of common time, and that it is very gay as a consequence. Martin Tupper, who claimed to be the first since King David to set words to a dance tune, has a heavy onus to bear if he is the father of the numerous technical songs such as ‘I’m going to Charleston, back to Charleston’, ‘Crazy Feet, I’ve got those Crazy Feet,’ and ‘I tell you Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing of to-day.’ What should we think of a concert aria which kept harping on the fact that the singer’s mouth was open and that her vocal cords were in prime condition? -- Constant Lambert, Music Ho!, 1934

The other day I dismissed songs-about-their-style from the realm of songs-about-themselves, or S-A-T’s. While most of them are not as explicitly about themselves as classic examples like Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” (which describes its own words as inadequate, like “San Antonio Rose” and “Kathy’s Song”), they all include themselves in their own description.

Stephen Foster was the first professional songwriter in America, and his “Camptown Races” may be the earliest pop song-about-itself -- “Camptown ladies sing this song, Doo-dah! doo-dah!” The twin-birth of professional pop and pop S-A-T’s suggests that to celebrate the act of singing the very song you’re singing or its style, while you are singing it, is to advertise your song or your style. In advertising lingo, these songs are testimonials to themselves. The listener learns that people already love this song or style. “Elmer’s Tune” works this way. The candy maker, the baker, the man on the street, the cop on the beat – all sing Elmer’s Tune!

Songs-about-their-style depict the consumer-as-consumer, as listener, not as music-maker. “Sing Me a Swing Song (And Let Me Dance),” wrote Stanley Adams in 1936, to music by Hoagy Carmichael. As Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra complied with the song in their swingissimus recording of that year, they
advertised themselves. The song places Ella in the position of her own fans, addressing herself, and invites us to imagine ourselves addressing her so swingingly, elegantly, beautifully.

“Just give me some of that rock-and-roll music,” wrote and sang Chuck Berry in 1957. The style has changed from 21 years before, the message remains: This is what the young and fashionable are dancing to now. “And Let Me Dance” is the older tune’s subtitle. Chuck Berry counters, “It’s gotta be rock-and-roll music / If you wanna dance with me.”

Duke Ellington’s swing manifesto-song goes furthest, equating intelligibility itself with the preferred style, dogmatically insisting that “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing.” Any other style is meaningless. The rarely-sung introduction asks, “What good is melody, what good is music, if it ain’t possessing something sweet?” The answer that
makes this tune complete is Swing. When Louis Armstrong sings it, there is no doubt.

Johnny Mercer’s “Conversation While Dancing” does the most clever job of depicting the consumer’s situation while advertising the product. An early singer-songwriter, he wrote the lyrics and made the first recording with composer and bandleader Paul Weston and with Jo Stafford, who sang the woman’s side of the conversation. Mercer and Stafford praise Weston in his own song while they flirt with each other: “You're a solid sender / And the band is some ear bender.”

Because Foster wrote before Edison invented the phonograph, his consumer wasn’t a listener but a music-maker in her or his own right. His song’s narrator doesn’t demand to hear the song, but tells of how others sing it. For 50 years after the advent of pop recording stars in the early 1890s, S-A-T’s depicting both consumer-listeners and consumer-singers held the field. Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” urged us all to “come on and hear” in 1911. In 1899, the protagonist of Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson’s “Hello Ma Baby” tries to pitch woo to his “Ragtime gal” over that fairly new-fangled convenience, the telephone. Music doesn’t enter into the song’s lyric except as a signifier of personal style, as later commentators spoke of -- or pitched woo to -- swing kids, punk rock chicks, rocker dudes, or dance club habitués. (Is there a generic term for them?)

S-A-T’s from the rock milieu tend toward a more passive consumption. Rarely are rock S-A-T’s about singing. Early ones are about dancing, but by the ‘70s, dancing in rock S-A-T’s had been replaced by chemical consumption, whether alcohol, marijuana, or something further out; in a word, partying.

KISS sang it most memorably:

I, I wanna rock and roll all night
And party ev-er-y day

Grand Funk boasted a quintessential self-promotional song:

We’re an American band
We’re an American band
We’re coming to your town
We’ll help you party down

And while Bob Seger won’t commit to dancing to that old time rock and roll, he is clear about what music he won’t dance to:

Don't try and take me to a disco,
You'll never even get me out on the floor,
In ten minutes I'll be late for the door,
I like that old time rock and roll.

The dance imperative had left rock and gone to disco. Abba, with their exemplary, inclusive English-as-a-Second-Language pop, invites everybody to claim their own royalty:

You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in [?] the dancing queen

And A Taste of Honey lays down the rules as to how their song must be consumed, while they bring back the spirit, though not the exact syllables, of “Vododeo-vo”:

If you're thinkin' you're too cool to boogie
Boy, oh boy, have I got news for you
Everybody here tonight must boogie
Let me tell you are no exception to the rule

So get on up on the floor
'Cause were gonna boogie-oogie-oogie
Till you just can't boogie no more
Ah, boogie, boogie no more
You can't boogie no more
Ah, boogie, boogie no more
Listen to the music

Hip hop S-A-T’s typically feature an MC advertising himself and denigrating the competition. Run-DMC’s “Sucker MC’s” from 1984 exemplifies the approach:

And you sucker MC's is who I please
So take that and move back catch a heart attack
Because there's nothin in the world, that Runll ever lack
I cold chill at a party in a b-boy stance
And rock on the mic and make the girls wanna dance
Fly like a Dove, that come from up above
Im rockin on the mic and you can call me Run-Love

Earlier boast songs tended toward fan-appreciation of instrumentalists, such as “Conversation While Dancing.” “Man with a Horn” by Delange, Jenney, and Lake celebrates fan-dom as it teaches fans what to do:

Just listen while he takes his solo apart
Watch him close his eyes from the start
Hear that music pour from his heart so fine

Guitar Man” by David Gates of Bread doesn’t teach fans what to do, but how to feel:

Who draws the crowd and plays so loud
Baby its the guitar man
Whos gonna steal the show, you know
Baby its the guitar man

He can make you love, he can make you cry
He will bring you down, then he’ll get you high

Hip hop MC’s sell their own skills as they demonstrate them.

* * *

The oldest S-A-T’s still widely sung today sell something different. While these songs do not try to inspire commercial transactions, they do hope to instill brand loyalty in something their promoters regard as of greater importance than consuming commercialism: Whom to worship and how. Coincidentally, ‘tis the season.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plain
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strain
Gloria in excelsis deo
Gloria in excelsis deo


Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”


All creation, join in praising
God, the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising
To the eternal Three in One.
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ, the newborn King. (“Angels from the Realm of Glory.”)

According to tradition, Pope Telesphorus ordered monks to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo” on Christmas day roughly one thousand eight hundred seventy-seven years ago, around the year 130. Since the text comes from the Gospel account of what the angels sang at Jesus’ birth, we can imagine that the actual tune was passed on for 130 years from the shepherds who first heard it, to the pope who ordered it sung. After all, we know lots of music from 130 years ago today. If the angels really sang, and shepherds heard, we can hope that they remembered and passed on the tune. “Angels We Have Heard On High” has a catchy, explosive chorus.

This is very nice to imagine, but according to every translation I’ve checked, neither the angel (singular) nor the heavenly host actually sang. They said. They emphatically said. Saying is not singing. The second chapter of Luke reads,

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace, goodwill among people!”

Could it be that the entire tradition of Christmas singing is founded on a mis-remembering of scripture?

If so, I am glad of it.

I’m glad of it -- with a song in my heart. Because -- there ain’t no love at all without a song. So -- sing a song, it
’ll make your day. Don’t worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear -- the song remains the same. There’ll be swinging and swaying and records playing and dancing in the streets. A celebration to last throughout the years. All we need is music, sweet music. Music is in my soul. There’ll be music everywhere.

* * *

It’s no wonder that we love songs about singing, about music, about themselves. We crave music, we crave song, they make us feel good, they can make us feel good feeling bad, we don’t understand it, its inexplicability associates it with the divine, it’s a vehicle to celebration, ecstasy, joy, which are themselves divine, or divinely touched.

Songs about themselves pay homage to the source.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Another variant on the genre of songs-about-themselves is the song in which the singer gives audible instructions to the band. The classic instance is when the singer calls for an instrumental solo, such as Ringo calling for the guitar solo in the Beatles’ cover of Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t” -- “Aw rock on George, one time for me.” Bob Wills would often identify the soloist on Texas Playboy records, frequently teasing his sidemen like a vaudeville comedian. Louis Armstrong instructing his sidemen to “swing it, boys” is another sonic icon of the type.

James Brown asking his band mate whether he should instruct the band to “take it to the bridge” on “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” inspired the most imitators. Led Zeppelin parodied it on “The Crunge,” with singer Robert Plant asking, “Where’s that confounded bridge?”

The funniest and most moving parody is on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s version of his song “Volunteered Slavery” on the posthumously released live album Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom. He implores his bandmate to “help me across that bridge,” repeating the phrase in dialog a la Brown and Plant. Kirk needed help, presumably, because he was blind; his solicitations have an air of urgency. And then he comes out with, “You know, the bridge? The big bridge. The big bridge. The bridge . . . of happiness. Yeah, the bridge.”

When I hear the bridge of happiness, it melts me. Rahsaan embodied surprise. It seems like a parody, when suddenly emerge intimations of happiness, love, utopia.

Brown’s instruction to change key in “Doing it to Death” is more drastic than his request about the bridge:

I feel so down, I need to get down
In order for me to get down
I got to get in D
In order for me to get down, I got to get in D
Need to get in D, dog for D
Down D, funky D, shakin' D, down D
Oh! Huh! Ha ha!
Get on down!

And then the band changes key.

It is amusing to consider an orchestral conductor verbalizing the score as the music unfolds, “Alright, give me some trumpets, I want some trumpets, yeah trumpets, take it trumpets!” Or, “OK, fellas, let’s modulate!”

* * *

Self-referential music-without-words proceeds contextually: by quoting other music, or defying expectations (Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony), or setting up a style clash. Unlike words and images, music is rarely referential: Birdsong in Messiaen, Buddy Holly’s pizzicato raindrops on “Raining in My Heart,” train sounds in numerous jazz and pop tunes as well as Steve Reich’s Different Trains are among rare exceptions. Music can refer to other music, but it cannot refer to itself as music, it cannot sonically represent its own coming-into-being. Painting and drawing can do this in any sort of mood or mode. Words can do this. Music can’t.

Any musical style has its own emotional rhetoric. In its shape, in this way, it parallels language. But rhetoric in language is connotative, not denotative: It communicates emotion, stance, tone. It does not communicate “meaning,” it does not refer or signify. It embodies its burden in culturally agreed upon norms that are impossible to quantify or fix and that are not stable over time. Music, in this sense, is connotation, pure and complicated. It seems to speak to us knowingly, and yet its own unknowability is endless. It’s happened to everybody: You hear something you’ve never heard before and you feel like you’ve heard it all your life, and you want to hear it again.

Of course, the rhetorical burden of any instance of language is equally unknowable. The luggage-set of associations that any verbal example carries for any one person won’t match that of anybody else. Language is labyrinthine.

Bring music and words together in song, and you got something going on, you got potentially blended boundlessnesses that can each speak with bottomless force. Songs about themselves can amplify and underline the mystery. The composers live, even as they roll over in their graves. They lie buried, dead but cognizant, adjacent each other in the sea of music, where Beethoven keeps Tchaikovsky and James Brown up-to-date with the news.

The Artist's Studio, a Real Allegory of a Seven-Year-Long Phase of My Artistic Life
by Gustave Courbet, 1855 (Baudelaire is on the far right).

Photo of James Brown singing stolen from someone who posted it uncredited.
Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher, 1948 (he’s a rockin’ MC).
Triple Self-Portrait by Norman Rockwell, 1960.
Photo of James Brown lying in state by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images, 2006.

[Part 3 of a series. Here are Part 1, Part 2 (the 2nd item of the post), and Part 4.]


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?