Trickle-down Musical Economics

In a music history class today, the professor was talking about subtle effects that render medieval and Renaissance music alien to our ears. He mentioned elitism and class as one of them. Medieval and Renaissance music, at least the sophisticated stuff that we have manuscripts of, was understood and sometimes even heard only by the clerical class, the educated class (which was—duh—really small). I writhed.

I’ll be interested in talking with him about this more, but I think that represents an inaccurate view of the relationship between popular music and High music in any culture. There will always be trickle-down. No matter what the class situation is like (here, I think, the analogy breaks down), whatever trend High music takes will eventually show up in popular music. I think this has always been true and continues to be.

(1) Chuck Klosterman talks about Elvis Costello’s critique of ’80s metal. “…[H]e thinks it’s a ‘facsimile’ of what legitimate artists already did in the past. What he fails to realize is that no one born after 1970 can possibly appreciate any creative element in rock ‘n’ roll: By 1980, there was no creativity left. The freshest ideas in pop music’s past twenty years have come out of rap, and that genre is totally based on recycled, bastardized riffs. Clever facsimiles are all we really expect.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta)

But isn’t that exactly what happened 50 years earlier—maybe even 25—in the world of Classical music? Innovation simply stopped with the second Viennese school. That’s a situation tracked heavily by musicologist and a constant theme of this blog. Classical music died, and innovation stopped. The only real attempt to compose High music now is in a sort of rehash of the pre-tonal (Arvo Pärt and co.).

(2) Coldplay, a ridiculously popular band these days (too popular for some total poseurs), gets that distinctive Coldplay sound from assiduously avoiding the leading tone. (Interesting to note: they don’t use a mode in “Viva la Vida”, but they do use a sus4-3 chord in place of a straight dominant, which means that “ti”, scale-degree 7, never appears.) To cut the music theory jargon, they never have Vs, dominants; they never use the crowning achievement of common practice tonal music. No, wait, I didn’t cut the music theory jargon, darnit. Anyway, take my word for it. They’re modal. (Agh. Sorry.) Why are they modal? Maybe because that’s the direction that composers in academia took a couple decades before.

Actually, let me get really crazy. Think of some of the iconic “classy” bands in rock history. Think of the British ones. What do all the British ones do? Rely heavily on modality. Think of the Beatles. Maybe this is an intangible throwback to what Ralph Vaughan Williams was onto, that the British folk spirit speaks through Dorian and Mixo-Lydian and Lydian. And when academia recovers that blessed tradition, perhaps so does the popular world, but less consciously (and maybe less artificially, too).

(3) And, more to the point, look at masses in the Middle Ages. If class is really such a big deal, why was the parody mass on L’homme arme the most popular thing in the world to do? If you take “Yesterday” and work the melody into some sacred piece, people in church who know nothing about music and composition will start to giggle. Giggling, I submit, is the first and most important sign of understanding a piece’s composition. They’re engaging with the music. So, can we realistically suppose that Dufay and Ockeghem and Josquin had other motives in mind when they wrote their pieces? Who were they trying to impress? Who were they trying to appeal to? The people who know L’homme arme. In other words, everybody. (Okay. Everybody in Europe in the 15th century, but you get my drift.)

But! You say. That isn’t trickle-down, that’s trickle-up. But I’d say this represents some give and take altogether in the Middle Ages. Think about the popular tunes that get into the Piae Cantiones, things like Angelus ad virginem. Those whistle-able tunes are from chants monks would sing. They come from the Gregorian corpus, or antiphons, or whatever. In an age when folk music is molded so willingly by High music, I think High music is much more likely to cross that bridge itself.

There it is. I submit that whatever happens in High music will have an affect, seen or unseen, on popular music. The real battles lie in what is the philosophy behind both and how that philosophy conflicts with the musical assumptions of other ages.

Well, That’s Cool

Time for me to nerd out. Bach, in his job at Arnstadt, had access to a pretty decent choral library of 16th-century motets, which Christoph Wolff says included “Heinrich Isaac, Josquin, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de la Rue, Ludwig Senfl, and others, but also more recent literature….” So it looks like Bach was in fact familiar with the Flemish school and, most importantly, Josquin. Isn’t that cool?

What If

So, I don’t actually know nearly enough to make these claims, so I’ll just pose it as suppositional.

What if chant—particularly the lacking-in-any-rhythmic-pulse variety—is really the ghost of Plato in Christian liturgy? Maybe the thing Christians have loved about those wafty chant melodies is how they obscure the beat, leave us with no sense of throb or pulse (like a human heart and its lusty desire to dance), leave us with only notes unencumbered by the rhythm of the blood coursing through our fleshly bodies.

Maybe chant is Platonism and the entrance of metricized settings of Scripture is the triumph of the Incarnation.

Maybe. But, seriously, I could be wrong.

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

It is a warm, late-winter morning. Or a cold, early-spring morning. But I’m an optimist and I am wearing shorts. The breeze and spotty sun coverage makes that slightly uncomfortable, but it’s the principle of the thing that counts: I’m walking along a street, listening to my iPod and wearing shorts. People see me and they stare. They begin to hope for spring. At least I hope they begin to hope. Maybe they just think I’m strange.

Or maybe they’re staring because I make weird faces when I listen to Messiaen on my iPod. Messiaen is so strange. At first he’s like a horror-movie soundtrack with these random bursts of happiness that are way too rare. After you’re able to strip your ear of a silly cultural connotation, his music really becomes like club soda or some palate-cleanser. There’s a minty sting and freshness about his dissonances. The feeling your sinuses get after too much horse-radish. Perfect for washing out the icky aftertaste of too much Chopin, like bits of butterfinger caught in your molars, or the muddy cigar saliva of Brahms.

All these thoughts are strange. And the music I’m listening to is strange. I mean, how many people are walking on a sidewalk now with earphones jammed in their ear, and they’re listening to Messiaen? Let me tell you: not many. You probably don’t even know who I’m talking about. There you go, you prove my point: not many. But even stranger than that is the iPod.

See, I can rub my thumb lightly along the surface of the iPod and be listening to the Beatles (British, 1960s). Then I can rub my thumb more and listen to some Solstafir (Icelandic, 2000s) if I really had them on my iPod, which I don’t. And then I could rub my thumb deftly the other direction and hit Herreweghe’s recording of St. Matthew Passion (German, 1720s) or a little less and listen to Paul Hillier’s interpretation of how hoquetus (French, 1200s) would have sounded.

And then some theologian who should know better tells us that we’re the first generation not to have great respect for the music of the past. What absolute tommy-rot you talk, O theologian! We’re the first generation who can have great respect for the music of the past.

Obviously composers don’t know the future, but most composers haven’t known the past that well either. Everyone knows Bach didn’t know about Brahms or the Beatles, but it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that Bach didn’t know about hoquetus either. Or Leonin. He may not have even known about Obrecht or Josquin—just like you probably don’t—and he probably wouldn’t have cared if you told him. And doubtless worried Christian social critics would have come along and told him he needed a healthier respect for the music of the past, at which juncture Bach would have taken some snuff and abruptly left the room to go compose more of his impudent, contemporary, modern junk.

Right now I’m listening to Messiaen and then I’ll jump over and listen to some jazz, maybe Antonio Carlos Jobim. I’m jumping from 1960s France to 1960s Brazil. And the funny thing is that I think I’m at home in both of them. Then maybe I’ll go listen to some Middle French or a weird dialect of Hungarian in some Joel Cohen CD of Renaissance music. I don’t think any of this is weird. But I should.

Joseph Addison is famous for his social criticism. He was, incidentally, not a big fan of Handel or the other music of his day. He criticized the English opera because it was all in Italian. He thought, What’s the point of having English opera if it’s not even in English? That’s just stupid.

The funny thing is, the most likely person to say that now is a punk teenager bitter about spending his Friday night at the opera. Apparently it’s the most natural thing in the world to go to an opera in New York and hear unintelligible (but faintly reminiscent of German) syllables uttered from Wagnerian females with gratuitous vibrato. That’s considered decidedly more high-class than going and hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical travesty. And maybe it is, but Joseph Addison would have chosen Cats or Jesus Christ Superstar before some foreign tripe.

The principle here is this: we nowadays aren’t normal. None of this is normal, carrying our musical attention here or there, jumping over times, turning the accomplishments of many years into a series of mp3 files. No other age has felt at home in another age’s music, but nowadays we scarcely feel at home unless we’re listening to other people’s music. And the most refined of us, apparently, are those of us who listen to Classical music: the music of dead people from a different country. Americans like their Classical music, music which is 90% of the time geographically and chronologically foreign to them. We don’t just love our foreigners, we love our foreigners dead. (You know what I mean.)

All this is so normal, apparently, that worried Christian leaders just keep reminding us that we need to be using old music in Church because that’s the respectful thing to do. Actually, basically at no point in the Western tradition have Christians thought being musically regressive was a good idea. There was one, though, I can think of. It was called the Council of Trent. And where is the American Catholic church now? The exact same place Protestants are. We all sing clappy, happy little songs. All of which leads us to the great conclusion of our theologian-critics, the idea that I will refer to as the Retrospective Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, use older stuff.

(…presumably older stuff that’s better, that is. There was plenty of crappy older stuff but, hey, in a fire people save the good stuff, and time is like a refining fire. We get mostly the good stuff from past ages and not the crappy stuff.)

Now, take a look at our Retrospective Principle. Seems like the fairly standard rallying cry of a traditionalist, right? Once we can inspire in you a similar discontent that we have with the music of today, then you’ll be forced to see the reasonableness of using Bach in worship! Yes?

Uh, no. See, not that I’m against Bach in worship all the time, but that’s not actually an intuitive leap there. Let’s make this clearer: you’re a general and you’re losing a war because of malfunctioning firearms. So, the key is clearly to find some really good longbows made by the English. After all, those won at Agincourt, and you’re losing, so you should use the winning weapon. That’s not really intuitive, if you think about it. If you’re discontent with today’s weapons, you don’t use the weapons of the past.

Oh, was that a bad analogy? I’m sorry! I can see icicles beginning to form on your eye-lashes: did I just compare Bach to out-of-date weapons technology? Well, yes, but I didn’t mean that he’s inferior. The longbow is definitely not inferior to the machine gun. It’s actually way cooler, in my humble opinion. Anyway, the point is that Bach was a winning strategy in his time, but that doesn’t mean he’s a winning strategy in ours. We’re fighting a different battle than he did.

And, honestly, let’s face it, past ages didn’t have the luxury to “use older stuff”. Bach didn’t have unlimited access to manuscripts from Dover or IMSLP.org. He had a total paucity in comparison to what we have. Bach did the much manlier thing to do. It’s an idea I’ll call the Pragmatic Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music.

And if you still have any doubt that this is the more intuitive principle, take a look at what all past ages have in common: they all have the music that we’re so jealous of. Why? Well, hm, maybe because they wrote music rather than moping around using older music. Maybe we should stop complaining about today’s Church music and try writing something better. If you think contemporary music is crappy, write better contemporary music. No, I’m serious. If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music. If you really want to be traditional, do what the traditionalists did and write and use new music. Be traditional: don’t be a traditionalist. Care enough about these traditional composers for them to inspire in you discontent—that’s good—and then once you’ve learned their secrets, run away and do it yourself! Don’t look back! Make weapons for your own battle, not theirs.

So, once I’m done walking along the sidewalk and I arrive at the coffeeshop, it’s time to put away the iPod, that wonderful invention that fuels marvelous discontent. Now is the time to pull out manuscript paper and call my bluff. Time for an egg to hang on its side from one of those five lines. So, how do I do this?

(Which will be explained in what follows.)

Josquin and the Relentless Climax

This is a selection from Josquin’s Ave Maria. On the text Coelestia, terrestria, Nova replet laetitia (click the link to listen), look at what he does harmonically with the baseline. The soprano and bass move in measure 45 in parallel motion, and because the soprano moves toward a leading tone on the upbeat to m. 46, we expect a I chord on the downbeat. But he tricks us. He’s keeping moving up the scale—the bass goes to an A, creating vi. And, the same sequence repeats a step up, but that means—yes, shocking, shocking—he’s going to a vii chord. Raw diminished vii tonality in a 15th c. work.* It creates total instability and drive toward the protracted I that comes from the third time the sequence is repeated. But once we finally arrive there, a surprise creeps in the alto line. It actually goes below the bass and subverts the tonic with an A, creating another vi. Josquin is simply refusing to let us rest in a tonic. In fact, he doesn’t until way later, in measure 53. And even then, the tenor doesn’t really end so much as launch us into the next phrase.

from Ave Maria, taken from sheet music in the public domain

So. Ask yourself—who is the composer in the 19th century famous for the relentless climax, the climax that refused to ever give you a tonic without a fight? It was Wagner. It’s a concept that requires a mature understanding of harmony. Yet again, I’m frustrated at music history analysis. Why do we have a positivist outlook that views Medieval music as groping for a V-I cadence? I’ve argued before that this is simply viewing the past through our age’s peculiarly post-Wagnerian sunglasses (aviators, they are, and darn ugly). This seems like another proof of that very point. Josquin knows exactly what he’s doing harmonically. It’s just that he doesn’t have the same set of compositional priorities we do.

There’s a similar occurrence in Josquin’s Absalon fili mi that I’d also like to post here soon. There, Josquin’s clearly using a leading tone to make us expect a cadential point that never occurs. Just like…Wagner.

*The recording I linked to, ironically, interprets a fixtus on the B in the bass that creates the vii, making it a VII (creating a juicy dissonance with the alto line). The Hilliard Ensemble and Sex Chordae both reject this and (I presume) take the manuscript at face value. Either way, I think, creates the drive, but the vii is, in a “technological” sense, more edgy.