Homage to Captain Swing

Homage to Captain Swing

SwingletterA Swing letter addressed to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: “The college that thou holdest shall be fired very shortly.”

The letters began arriving in the early autumn of 1830, addressed to magistrates, landlords, clergy across rural England:

Sir, take notice that we send you word that your threshing machine shall be burnt to ashes before the month end

Sir, This is to acquaint you that if your thrashing machines are not destroyed by you directly we shall commence our labours

Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you, who are Parson Justasses, to make your wills

The threats all carried the same signature: Captain Swing, a supposed rebel leader, the name calling to mind a pair of macabrely mirrored rhythms: the sweep of the arm in the manual threshing of wheat—the loosening of the grain from the surrounding chaff—and the slow pendulation of a hanged body. Revenge for thee is on the wing from thy determined Captain Swing.

He wasn’t real. Captain Swing was a fiction, a symbol, a conveniently adopted veil of anonymity. He became a metaphor, an embodiment of the frustrations of England’s farm-laborers and rural poor. In 1830, that frustration boiled over, and protests swept across the English countryside. As part of their protests, the Swing rioters extended the Luddite tradition of machine-breaking, destroying the threshing machines that were stealing their livelihood. Their demands were simple: higher wages and an end to rural unemployment. They were reacting to the Industrial Revolution—but, the threshing machines notwithstanding, not so much the advent of mechanization as the change in identity, the way industrialization eroded a robust system of rural relationships and rhythms to a single, stark transaction: employer and employed, owner and tenant, capital and labor, haves and have-nots.

No one knows who invented Captain Swing. But the mascot was an unwitting and curious bit of prescience.

feature 58-38Bandleader and crimefighter Swing Sisson encounters a critic in Feature Comics #58 (July 1942).

On the cusp of a new academic year, Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, offered a resolution destined, perhaps, to become a standard of its kind. Defending (in The New York Times) his institution’s decision to suspend the activities of its jazz ensemble (and its general de-emphasis of jazz in the curriculum), Blocker appealed to categorization:

Our mission is real clear…. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.

This intimation of musical haves and have-nots—placing jazz outside the vale of a posited Western canon of great works, then and now—is dumb in its own way (Alex Ross and Michael Lewanski were quick to point out how and why). It is also wrong on a deeper and more historically populous level. Both Ross and Lewanski make the eminently correct assertion that a curriculum without jazz is poor training indeed for the wonderfully kleptomaniacal repertoire of classical music. But, even beyond that, to promulgate a canon that does not change and expand its parameters in response to performed reality is, I think, missing the point of music, and missing it badly.

The notion that jazz is some kind of outside force attempting to breach Fortress Classical is not new. Take Deems Taylor, for instance—composer, critic, narrator of Fantasia, well-known classical music personality of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In his book The Well-Tempered Listener, Taylor examined the practice of “swinging the classics,” making jazz band versions of classical chestnuts. This sort of thing had apparently exercised enough indignation that the president of the Bach Society of New Jersey, Taylor reported, sent a letter to the FCC proposing penalties for radio stations that broadcast such numbers. Taylor gave that suggestion a sympathetic shrug:

If you’re going to suspend the license of a broadcasting station for permitting Bach to be played in swing time, what are you going to do to a station for permitting swing music to be played at all? (You might offer the owner of the station his choice of either listening to nothing but swing for, say, twelve hours, or else spending a month in jail.) You can’t legislate against bad taste.

Taylor’s solution was musical rope-a-dope, completely certain that the unaltered classical repertoire would win out. “I believe in letting people hear these swing monstrosities because I believe that it’s the best method of getting rid of them,” he concluded. “A real work of art is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is.”

Connoisseurs may also recall last year’s anti-jazz contretemps, culminating with composer-activist John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, which, on its surface, avoided the high-low divide that Taylor repointed and Blocker tripped over. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of Halle’s article was a related view of score and performance, revealed when he took tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson to task for performing and recording an instrumental version of the old standard “Without a Song”—the original lyrics of which are redolent with, as Halle puts it, “vile Jim Crow racism” (“A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song”)—at nearly the same time Henderson was, elsewhere in his music, acknowledging and endorsing the Black Power movement of the 1960s. (“A nadir of obliviousness,” Halle concluded.)

What Blocker’s comment, Taylor’s bravado, and Halle’s litmus test all share is the assumption of a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. Halle’s implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics—to echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. Taylor’s confidence that the score can survive any amount of stylistic contamination nevertheless insinuates that performance, the real-world, real-time expression of style, is ultimately secondary. Blocker’s mission statement implicitly posits a musical regime setting the verities of the written-down, published, and academically vetted canon against the presumably more relativistic and transient pleasures of a performed vernacular.

The supposition throughout is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent.  There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, the performance can offset the composer’s intent, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.

There is also the possibility that this is, in fact, one of music’s highest virtues.

* * *

Here’s an interesting thing. Take two weights, connect them with a string, then run the string over a pulley, like this—


You can intuitively guess what will happen: if both weights have the same mass, they’ll just hang there, but if one has more mass, it’ll pull the other through the pulley. This seems trivial, but it’s not, not entirely—which is why the Rev. George Atwood, a tutor at Cambridge’s Trinity College, invented this apparatus in the late 1700s, the better to teach principles of classical mechanics. Playing around with Atwood’s machine, students could measure and learn about rates of acceleration, string tension, inertial forces, and the like. One thing that you can determine with Atwood’s machine is that, in the case of unequal masses (and assuming the pulleys are frictionless), the acceleration on both weights is constant and uniform. In other words, if the masses are equal, the system is at equilibrium, but if the masses are unequal, it’s a runaway system, the weights flying through the pulley, ever faster, until they run out of string or vertical space.

But if you take the two weights, run the string over two pulleys, and start the smaller weight swinging back and forth, like this—


—some unexpected things start to happen. The swinging weight, via centrifugal force—more pedantically, via the apparent force that results from interpreting a rotating reference frame as an inertial frame—counteracts some of the gravitational pull on the larger mass. Which means that the Swinging Atwood’s Machine (as it was dubbed by Nicholas Tufillaro, the physicist who first started playing around with such systems back in the 1980s) can end up doing some very counterintuitive things. Even if the masses are unequal, the system can still reach an equilibrium, the smaller mass locking into periodic and sometimes seriously funky orbits:

TufillaroFig4(From Nicholas B. Tufillaro, Tyler A. Abbott, and David J. Griffiths, “Swinging Atwood’s Machine,” Am. J. Phys. 52 (10), October 1984)

To summarize: if you have two unequal masses that are inextricably bound to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the larger mass always dominates the system. The smaller can still counterbalance the larger. It just needs to swing.

* * *

LennysMahler6Leonard Bernstein’s score of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives.

It’s only a metaphor, of course. Then again, most writing and talking about music ends up, before too long, at metaphors. “Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality. In its most poetic sense, the metaphor is ecumenical. Those old “Mahler Grooves” bumper stickers could be at once a cheeky incongruity and a recognition that, in its own way, and in a good performance, Mahler could indeed groove, that the symphonies could swing in the grandest sense. But even in the term’s more technical sense—that calibration of the ratio between stressed and unstressed notes—“swing” hearkens all the way back to the old Baroque inégale: a variance, a perturbation, an inequality, turned into a dance of emphasis and de-emphasis that pulls the music forward.

All performance is a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis; it is, on one level, about choice. And, thanks to music’s singular strangeness—grammar and eloquence forever in search of content and meaning—that choice can extend far beyond technical choices on the part of the musicians. Take the case of classical music’s great Beleth, Richard Wagner, who embodied the human possibilities of greatness and ugliness to an exceptionally intense degree. Because his medium was music, performing and listening to Wagner’s work is an opportunity to choose the greatness over the ugliness.

This is, incidentally, what Blocker gets so wrong about the canon. To use it as a dividing line is a diminishing choice, segregating musics that might otherwise yield energetic synergy. The better choice is to view the idea of a canon as an opportunity for expansion and addition—to decide that the classics not only can survive being swung, but, in the larger sense, can positively thrive on it.

From an optimistic vantage, this ongoing process of choice might be thought of as practice, training players and audience to imagine a better world, the better to achieve it. A pessimist could point out (quite rightly) that such training is taking an awfully long time to translate into concrete change.

Captain Swing, in the long run, could not prevent industrialization and capitalism from diminishing and dehumanizing the English rural poor. But the imaginary Captain Swing and his very real foot-soldiers still offer warning and inspiration. The canon, after all, is a threshing floor, separating musical wheat from chaff. The question is whether the canon is to be winnowed by hand, as it were—by individual performers, individual choices collectively shaping repertoire and style—or by machine: by institutions, by factories of learning and production. A top-down segregation of the canon recapitulates what the Swing rioters foresaw: it makes the relationship between the performer and the repertoire excessively transactional, limited in dimension and devoid of ownership.

The steady advance of technology and prosperity in certain places, among certain classes, can make us forget that all of us, rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate, live in a machine. Its gears are money and power. Inequality, greed, racism, misogyny, discrimination all remain institutionalized and persistent. The music this article has been talking about—jazz and classical—is, culturally speaking, on the margins, however luxurious; maybe to expect these musics, old or new, to alter the fabric of society, however incrementally, is excessively idealistic. (Confession: in that regard, I am an idealist.) But just in their performance, in jazz’s constant reinvention and classical’s constant re-creation, they mount a defense. In swinging, they swing the machine. They mitigate their lesser mass. They, perhaps, prevent the whole system from running away to a catastrophic end. Or, at least, they keep us from being pulled helplessly through the machine.

*Homepage featured image courtesy Petras Gagilas via Flickr

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