Ed. Note: In the course of our interview with Ross, he mentioned that he’d been forced to trim portions of the book in order to keep the page count down. Intrigued, we asked if he’d be willing to share some of the unreleased material and, happily, he was willing to indulge us.—MS
Genre Wars in the 1960s and Beyond
(cut from Chapter 14, on minimalism and related phenomena)
In November 1963, the Beatles released a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” The first lines of the song announced, in so many words, that classical music was being swept aside by rock ‘n’ roll:
I’m gonna write a little letter
Gonna mail it to my local DJ
It’s a rockin’ rhythm record
I want my jockey to play
Roll over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today
When the Beatles took up this song, it sounded like a novelty item—British boys playing an African-American rock ‘n’ roll number aimed at teen-agers. By the end of the sixties, when the band was wielding the sort of culture-shaping power that Beethoven attained only after his death, it was no joke. In 1963, the critic William Mann made the abrupt announcement that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were “the outstanding English composers of 1963.” Five years later, Deryck Cooke, the musicologist who made a performing version of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, hailed the same songwriting team as “genuine creators of a ‘new music’,” denigrating the classical avant-garde in the same breath. None other than Leonard Bernstein declared that the Beatles’s best songs were “more adventurous than anything else written in serious music today.”
By the end of the sixties, the Beatles and other leading pop artists stood where Mahler and Strauss had been in 1906: they were on the mountaintop, speaking to the masses. For some reason, it proved psychologically necessary to diminish the symbolic power of classical tradition in the process, even if that music no longer provided commercial competition. A profound resentment of the tradition’s long-standing supremacy came into the open, and from unexpected sources. “I made ‘Bo Diddley’ in ’55,” the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Bo Diddley said, “they started playing it, and everybody freaked out. Caucasian kids threw Beethoven into the garbage cans.” Even in the basement spaces of avant-garde experimentation the rhetoric of rise and fall came into play. Wrote the Village Voice: “John Cage move over, the Beatles are now reaching a super-receptive audience with electronic soul.”
Around this time, for not unrelated reasons, waves of panic went through the classical world. Magazines and newspapers ran articles about the decline or even the imminent death of classical music. Newsweek proclaimed, “There exists a primal apathy toward classical music in America,” and said that “the crisis has been building quietly for nearly a decade, as Mozart and Bach have lost ground steadily to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” Theodor W. Adorno, who had articulated the mission of the modern composer in his Philosophy of New Music, despaired not only of the avant-garde project but of the very survival of music as he knew it. In his last book, Aesthetic Theory, the negative dialectician threw out messages-in-a-bottle from the ghost ship of German art. “A latecomer among the arts,” he wrote, “great music may well turn out to be an art form that was possible only during a limited period of human history.” In his last years he trained his withering prose style on the Beatles themselves, attempting to deprogram those who believed, mistakenly in his opinion, that they were listening to a new form of musical art. The band offered nothing more than the “dilapidated expressive material of tradition, in no way overstepping the periphery of the establishment.” Tragically, Adorno himself fell victim to the shock tactics of the new pop culture. In April of 1969, a trio of female activists interrupted Adorno’s lecture “An Introduction to Dialectical Thought” by flashing their breasts in his face and taunting him with flowers. Coincidentally or not, he died a little over three months later. (It should be mentioned that the British writer John Coleman has alleged, in a book entitled The Committee of 300, that Adorno himself wrote the Beatles’s lyrics, as part of a mind-control experiment conducted by the Illuminati. For more on this unsubstantiated theory, see www.illuminati-news.com/rock_and_mc.htm.)
Tensions between classical tradition and a rising pop vanguard had been simmering for the entire twentieth century, despite the many creative interchanges between the two. Back in 1913, Irving Berlin wrote a song titled “That International Rag” in which he anticipated (correctly, as it turned out) the vanquishing of Europe by true-blue American music:
London’s dropped its dignity So has France and Germany All hands are dancing to a raggedy melody Full of originality … Italian opera singers Have learned to snap their fingers The world goes round to the sound
Likewise, songwriters of the twenties made a point of jazzing up the classics, mocking the tradition’s self-serious poses. There were, however, scattered protests against the notion that classical music was some sort of monolithic establishment trying to fend off invading forces. Lawrence Gilman, of the New York Tribune, pointed out that the new pop artists had formed a formidable commercial empire from which classical musicians were increasingly excluded. “They,” he said, “are the aristocrats, the Top Dogs, of contemporary music. They are the Shining Ones, the commanders of huge salaries, the friends of Royalty, the Conservers, the bulwarks of the social order—they, and not the obscure composers and performers whose habitat is Carnegie Hall or Aeolian Hall.”
By the sixties, when jazz had entered its avant-garde period, the landscape had changed completely. To look at jazz from the perspective of twentieth-century composition is to experience a certain déjà vu: jazz seemed to be recapitulating classical history at an accelerated tempo. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington were the classicists of jazz, equivalent to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Orchestral swing, with its symphonic pretensions, mirrored the later Romantic period, the plump textures of Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Bebop was jazz’s modernist moment, its Schoenberg-Stravinsky revolution. The pop-music scholar Bernard Gendron, in his absorbing cross-disciplinary study Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, observes that the “Europeanization of jazz” generated much the same rhetoric that had accompanied the original modernist breakthroughs. Conservative critics attacked bebop’s “illusory notion of progress,” the spectacle of musicians “hectically swerving to avoid being out of date.” There was either a mockery of melody or “no melody at all.” Bebop’s defenders answered that this was a music in which “every note meant something”—an echo of Schoenberg’s dictum, “There are no non-harmonic tones.” Free jazz marked the point at which modernist impulses became consciously experimental. Finally came a period of retrenchment and recuperation, with Wynton Marsalis’s Ellington revival paralleling the neoclassicism of the twenties and the neo-Romanticism of the eighties and nineties. All the same, audiences dwindled. Rock eclipsed jazz as jazz once eclipsed classical.
Despite the various sonic adventures undertaken in the late sixties and early seventies by the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and many others, rock music failed to enter a fully experimental, audience-alienating phase. Fans never had the feeling that their music had forsaken them, even if they became frustrated with the individual waywardness of artists such as Lou Reed, who released sixty-five minutes of electronic noise under the title Metal Machine Music, or, some years later, Radiohead, whose album Kid A prompted accusations that an iconic band had lost itself in esoterica. Nonetheless, rock has not proved immune to the inevitable ageing process: neo-classical tendencies in the form of imitations of 1965- or 1975-era sound production became widespread by century’s end. By comparison, the wildly varied activities of end-of-century composers provided evidence of health, in defiance of the pessimistic predictions that were renewed with each passing year, even as the doom-laden pronouncements of the late sixties yellowed in the files. But that’s a story for a later chapter.
(This brief section was intended for an epilogue entitled “Five Last Songs,” in which I planned to discuss, in reverse chronological order, the final works of five major 20th-century composers: Messiaen, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Ives, and Richard Strauss. The book would have ended with Strauss’s words on his deathbed: “I hear so much music.” I opted for a shorter, less portentous epilogue instead.)
In 1898, the philosopher William James spent a weekend in Keene Valley, in the Adirondack mountain range of upstate New York. He spent many summers in the region and wrote of the landscape: “I doubt if there be anything like it in Europe. Your mountains may be grander, but you have nowhere this carpet of absolutely primitive forest, with its indescribably sweet exaltations, spreading in every direction unbroken.” Later, in 1898, James described his Adirondacks exaltation as nothing short of a spiritual experience, one that involved not a conversion to a particular mode of religious belief but instead an acceptance of the mere possibility of a state beyond the reach of the rational, political mind. “The sky swept itself clear of every trace of cloud or vapor, the wind entirely ceased, so that the fire-smoke rose straight up to heaven,” James recalled. “The moon rose and hung above the scene before midnight, leaving only a few of the larger stars visible, and I got into a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital description…” It was the sort of vision to which James gave special attention in his lectures on the Varieties of Religious Experience. There he spoke of “regeneration by relaxing, by letting go… [by] giving your little private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there.”
In an interesting coincidence, Keene Valley was the scene of a seminal event in the life of Charles Ives. There he had a vision of an enormous musical work that he would come to call his Universe Symphony, and that he never came within sight of finishing, perhaps because he knew from the outset that his vision was unrealizable. It was his old dream of a music rising up out of the earth: American, natural, universal. The symphony was to begin with a section titled “pulse of the Universe,” in which percussion instruments piled on layer upon layer of rhythmic pulses, all subdivisions of a slow pulse on a bell. This would be followed by a similar tower of harmony, representing “the body of the earth, from whence the rocks, trees and mountains rise.” In his most ambitious conception of the Universe Symphony, Ives envisioned from five to fourteen groups of instruments playing on separate hills or mountains. Each group would have its own home chord, assembled from a particular scale or system of tuning: “…perfectly tuned correct scales, some well tempered little scales, a scale of overtones with the divisions as near as determinable by acousticon, scales of smaller division than a semitone, scales of uneven division greater than a whole tone, scales with no octave, some of them [with] no octave for several octaves—but all with their root in a fixed tone, 32-foot, began [from] pedal A, 5th octave below.” One day, perhaps, some ambitious hamlet in New England will use unknown technologies to realize Ives’s full vision, in which voices of all races and traditions mingle over the drone of God.