View From the East: Dog Days Patter



Greg Sandow

It’s August, the dog days, and I’m going on vacation the day after I write this. Very tempting just to comment more on things my friends and colleagues (not to mention total strangers) have been saying in the forum on my pages here. I confess I go two ways about that. On one hand, I love discussion. On the other, one of the delights of having this column is that I can go down any road I like—ask any writer how often they get paid to do that—and I might not want the roads the people on the forum choose.

But the comments still interest me, especially since large statements about the condition of music and the music business—of the kind we’ve all been making lately—seem to strike a nerve. Everybody’s interested. In new music, of course, we’re in a smallish niche, so of course we have issues. Then there’s our relationship to the mainstream classical music machine, and finally the faltering of that machine, which has everybody buzzing. (Everyone, that is, who feeds the machine, or tends it, or is fed by it, or falls into it and gets ground into a pulp by it.) I have, God help me, a blog on this very subject, on the ArtsJournal site. It started in July. Take a look…and e-mail comments, if you like. I often post them. (ArtsJournal, for those who haven’t seen it, is the best single source for news about the arts. And it’s lively, too.)

So here goes. Lindsay Eck wrote something that I think is strongly true:

…in my experience supposedly “classically trained” musicians have a real hard time reading rock rhythms (yes, those Africanized rhythms that are showing up everywhere in pop culture) even when written out in score. I finally converted to programming keyboards…when I discovered that, even when well paid, “classically” trained musicians were, one after the other, unable to read rock rhythms that any decent garage band could play by ear.

I had an experience like that when some musicians I know were kind enough to read a string quartet I’m writing. Though in this case the musicians could read the rhythms without any trouble; they just didn’t feel them. The quartet is a set of variations on the theme of the last movement of the Mahler Third, and one variation says hello to Elvis, with a simple enough texture. The first violin plays a melody, built on the harmony of the Mahler theme, but composed so that each bar, taken by itself, might have come from an Elvis song. The accompaniment, meanwhile, is nothing but chords in a ’50s rock rhythm, with all the notes on the offbeats marked not with accents (that would be too obvious), but with a tenuto line. Over the accompaniment I wrote what I thought was a pretty clear instruction, given the style of the music: the dotted rhythm should be very relaxed; the stresses are a rock & roll backbeat. The musicians didn’t play with any backbeat, and I asked them if they knew the word; they said they didn’t.

But there’s more. Classical musicians, even very good ones, don’t feel rhythm as sharply as pop and jazz and other non-classical musicians do. I know someone who works with both classical and non-classical people, and who told me once that one of the classical people, a world-famous concert artist (and rightly world-famous), couldn’t feel a groove. This classical player, faced with a melody that arched toward a climax, would unconsciously speed it up, and then slow back down after the climax was over. The non-classical musicians, meanwhile, would be playing in a very tight groove, and while it’s fine to depart from that—playing with the beat is one of the joys of jazz and rock rhythm—the classical player couldn’t find the groove again when he came back into tempo. We’re talking here about very subtle adjustments, but then they’re precisely what makes rhythm work in lots of non-classical music. (They’re also the reason why it’s silly to attack rock for having simple-minded rhythms; the rhythms might look simplistic if you notate them, but what counts is how they’re played—and they’re played with wonderful inflections, the musical equivalent of body language, which can lift the music to another plane.)

Next, about orchestra musicians hating to play Burt Bacharach arrangements. Maybe the charts were bad. I’ve heard pop arrangements for orchestra that were an insult to everyone’s intelligence, including any good pop musician’s.

And now, God help us, let’s talk about fascism, which supposedly warns us what can happen when the body gets out from under the mind’s control. (To anyone who didn’t read this page in June and July—you had to be there. Go back and look, if your curiosity gets the better of you.) I can’t say this more strongly, especially to anyone who urges us to look at Leni Riefenstahl (presumably her film Triumph of the Will) to see what happens when bodily impulses take full control. What you see in that film, and in any film of Nazis on parade, is hardly liberated bodies. The Nazis marched in lockstep, with muscles rigid. Nor were Nazis’ minds inactive. Nazi intellectuals worked overtime, dreaming up crackpot theories. In the Holocaust Museum, there’s an eye-popping exhibit about Nazi racial theories, which held, among other things, that someone’s race could be scientifically determined by using calipers to measure (in a wretched travesty of German precision) the exact size of various facial features. That’s not the body coming up with schemes like that; it’s a deranged mind.

The truth, I’d think, is really simple. To have a grounded view of things, you need a healthy emotional life, self-knowledge, a sense of humor, and, maybe most important, a lot of sympathy for people different from yourself. Without all that, your mind and your body will both betray you. Your emotions (and sometimes your physical impulses) will take control, and your busy mind will work to justify your prejudices. And if you’re really smart, that might only make things worse—an active, intelligent mind can do more damage than a lazy one.

And then there’s this:

In the mass market, the plastic object molded on the assembly line at the lowest cost yields the greatest return. That’s obvious. And, therefore, ipso facto, the object of all corporate endeavor is to make certain that the tastes of the public never rise above that lowest common denominator. For it is indisputable that in a mass-market society, taste is by no means free. It is determined to the ultimate degree by public relations, advertising, the suppression of education, constant indoctrination, and inundation by schlock. [Daniel D'Quincy, 07/03/2003]

Work in the pop music business for a year or so, and you’ll discover that the corporate manipulators have much less power than you think. And a lot less power than they’d like to have! They’re always playing catch-up. Here’s an elementary fact about rock history. Almost every new trend in pop music since the rise of rock rose up from below—doo-wop, hip-hop, punk, folk-rock (and in fact the whole folk influence on rock), the revival of roots styles in the ’60s, singer-songwriters, disco, grunge, house, techno, you name it. Most started on independent labels, far from corporate control. The corporations eventually bought into all these styles, and then stood there looking foolish when the next one came along.

Besides, where exactly is taste free? In a university music department? On the pages of Perspectives of New Music? Somewhere in Minima Moralia, Adorno makes a sharp and rueful observation: People who oppose the system can be as distorted by it as people who buy into it completely. Understanding that, I think, is part of the beginning of political wisdom. The people who most strongly say that they oppose our totalizing corporate culture aren’t necessarily the most free. Instead, freedom grows in chinks, everywhere, and most especially right in the heart of popular culture. This is not to say that opposition groups, organized and not, can’t be lights in the darkness, but I’m not about to shock anyone when I say they have their own kinds of sometimes rigid orthodoxy. The last thing we need is anybody condemning the established powers in obvious, exaggerated terms, giving them even more strength than they really have.

Moving right along, there’s the discussion of Beethoven, Rossini, and who was more popular than who. Here it’s useful to know that the very term “classical music” came into being only in the wake of Beethoven, and was used to distinguish high-class music from opera (Rossini at the time was the most successful opera composer), and from performances by virtuosos like Thalberg and Paganini. Opera and performances by virtuosi were called, believe it or not, “popular music,” for the obvious reason that they were more popular (with the growing middle class, who now were numerous enough to make concepts like popularity important) than anything “classical.” You can read about all this in a book by William Weber, Music in the Middle Class; ever since I read it, I’ve wondered why the history it sets forth isn’t better known. Here’s one notable passage (pp. 19-20):

From the first decade of the [19th] century…both musicians and concert-goers increasingly came to understand that the music of the German classical school was, like it or not, high art and the other two schools [Italian opera and performances by virtuosi] distinctively popular in their orientation. Indeed, discussion of the differences between them took on a characteristically modern case; reading an article comparing Thalberg and Beethoven one might think that it had been written a hundred years later but setting Elvis Presley against the German master.

[Though wouldn't that be 150 years later?]

Programs. Somebody wrote:

OK, here it is, the perfect evening concert: Brahms, say Symphony No. 1 and Pli Selon Pli. What more can you want? Why hasn’t this program ever been played, let alone probably conceived? [cropcircle 07/04/2003]

There’s a recording, with Michael Gielen conducting the Southwest German Radio Symphony, that couples the Bruckner Eighth with Morton Feldman‘s Coptic Light. I’m going to guess that Gielen, a strong, inventive conductor, with impeccable new-music credentials (does anyone remember when he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony?) conducted this program live, and that this is how it ended up on CD. (I saw this at Tower Records in New York, and I’ve just ordered it online. I’m listening to sound samples on the Tower site, and the performance is so convincing that I’m almost reconciled to Bruckner, a composer I normally can’t get into. After Bruckner, the Feldman—the last track on the CD—sounds wonderfully fresh.

Finally, about words (“what is new music”)…

Kyle Gann makes a lot of sense when he says that words are slippery, but still he knows new music when he hears it. I also sympathize, though, with CB when he says he finds expressions like “new music” limiting. I guess these labels make most sense when they describe how music functions in the world—who listens to it, where it’s performed, who performs, defines, and supervises it.

But they’re trickier when we apply them to music itself, especially because of what I’ll call the Borges effect, after a Borges essay, “Kafka’s Precursors.” Says Borges,

At first I had considered [Kafka] to be as singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods.

He goes on to give examples (go here to find out what they are), and then says that nobody would have linked the passages he cites together, if Kafka hadn’t showed how they’re alike. Kafka, in other words—and this, if I remember correctly, is Borges’ main point—created his predecessors, and it’s in that sense (as I only realized when I read Kyle and CB pondering what terms like “new music” mean) that I said, last month, that Bob Dylan is new music. Our new music ears create something in him that wasn’t there before.

But it’s August. The dog days. Time for rest, vacation. In our bedroom, my wife and I have a fan. It’s more humane than air conditioning, and I relax just hearing it. When I walk into the room, it seems to make a single sound, a grayish, blocky whoosh. When I’m lying nearer it in bed, I hear two sounds, the whoosh (it’s higher now, more airy) and a hum below it.

Is the hum “below” because its pitch is lower, or because I hear the whoosh first, and only afterwards notice that a hum is mixed inside it? The hum becomes arresting, shading toward a rumble, which I picture as a cable, in which strands of pitch are twisted; they’re grayish brown, and faintly throbbing. I hear three separate oscillations, throbs of volume, the hum rising, then falling slightly softer. The quickest oscillation is very quick. Then I hear a slower one, pulsing maybe twice a second. Then longer waves, irregular, unmeasured. Maybe I imagine them.

The whoosh is pulsing, but only with the longer throbs, which maybe I imagine. And against all this, my keyslaps as I write, a triple patter, my fingers slapping on the keys, and then the clicks the keys make, and then the mooshy sound that happens when they touch the bottom of their keybed. The clicks, as I suddenly realize, happen on the upswing, as the keys bounce up. Though they’re what I notice first; I’m typing quickly, so it’s hard to know which sound goes with any given keypress; it’s really just a patter, though some keys click more than others, the backspace key the most. It’s a separate instrument.

This is August music, what I listen to when I need to be at ease.

(The second installment in what for now is a yearly tribute to my friend Tom Johnson. He once wrote something wonderful about the sound of snow, and in the summer would go away and write—in his seminal new music column in The Village Voice—about the sound of a brook or a bird.)