Why I’m Encouraged by Pop Music Trends

An acquaintance of mine, a semi-well-known actress, apparently ran into Kanye West and talked with him for a bit. (I feel famous.) He told her that his latest big project is coming up with a way to release a song along with all the tracks and mixing that went into it. In other words, he wants to change the music scene so that whenever any artist releases a song, all the tracks are released as well and can be brought up in a sequencer. You, the recipient, can then perform a musical lobotomy on the song: you can take out Kanye’s voice and put your own in, or change one of his loops, or put in your own percussion. Or you can just mess around with plug-ins and make it all sound like the chipmunks going hip-hop. And that’s just an anecdote—I hear and see this idea gaining ground all over the place and have even seen a few examples. Everyone’s becoming a producer these days.

Over on the other side of the popular music world, it seems these days like everyone is wearing a vest, plaid, learning guitar, and singing with a raspy voice. Many people lament this, that somehow alternative and folk rock is turning into something anyone can do. Oh, and, if you didn’t catch it, that is a bad thing. Somehow the fact that Mumford & Sons can be reproduced by any group of four guys with some musical talent is a detriment to them.

I think not. What we’re seeing is the collapse of a system of music that will, after its demise, be considered probably the most bizarre ever. It’s a sort of game: whereas all your ancestors enjoyed music by actually doing it, you enjoy music by listening to other people doing it. Whereas popular music used to be a communal activity that everyone engaged in, popular music is now anything but popular: it’s utterly professionalized. The melodies are so unsingable even the singers need autotune and only the talented perform karaoke. So we listen to other “talented” people perform and think that we’re enjoying music ourselves through them.

All that is ending. To borrow Marxist language, we have alienated the human impulse to music from ourselves, but that is not a tenable situation in the long run. It’s like putting a cap on a pressure-filled pipe, and it must burst. Sooner or later, we’ll just decide to stop listening to other people enjoy music and we’ll start to actually enjoy it ourselves. And then I think we’ll realize just how bizarre we were for about 60 or 70 years there in the 20th century.

So, for my money, Miley Cyrus’ performance was encouraging. Kanye West is encouraging. Everyone becoming the next Mumford is encouraging. We’re seeing the old way of doing popular music die away (some say twerking, some say death throes…) and an older way resume. Increasingly, humans are becoming musicians. They’re butting in on the musical act, because the musical act is an impulse God put in us. And that doesn’t mean that there won’t always be those who are better poets or better musicians than the rest, but what a difference it will make to have an audience of musicians to listen to them.

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I Changed My Mind About Minimalists

And I mean just that—not that I was a hater and now I’m a fan, not that I was a junkie and now I’m a critic. I’ve just simply done to minimalists what one ought to do in music history: not be content with sweeping generalizations but studying particular personalities and their particular output. The results have actually startled me.

First, some background. Back when I first encountered early music, as I’ve recounted many times, I was baffled by the fact that nobody talked about Medieval music and was also passionate to see it re-invented. Shortly afterward, I ran into the music of a particular (living) composer whom I saw actually attempting to do just that. He was a composer that would have been the typical European Ligeti or Penderecki type, but in the ’60s he converted to Estonian orthodoxy and ceased to compose during the turmoil for around 10 years. After he emerged on the other side, his style was radically transformed by the Notre Dame school of Paris (13 c., mmmmm, yes). His name is, of course, Arvo Pärt. Pärt rightly or wrongly is usually considered a minimalist and has subsequently molded the American school of composition in his image, mainly through the conduit of Eric Whitacre. (Sigh.)

So much for Pärt. Then, around the same time, there was the New York Hypnotic School, emerging from Julliard in the wasteland created by America’s Schoenberg obsession. These guys emphasized aleatory, cells, phase, counterpoint, modality, and all that jazz. They were Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. I presumed pretty much all of them—well, in fact all modern composers besides Pärt and a few others—were just pretty much bunk. I did that on the basis of a little Glass, a little Reich, the little of Riley I could put myself through, and some other composers whose music I found to be as profound a musical experience as eating cotton candy is a gastronomic one.

There were also a handful of modern composers who were engaged in a whole lot of “neo” schools. Neo-impressionism, neo-expressionism, neo-primitivism, neo-serial, and a whole bunch of other stuff that it’s difficult to remember the night after it’s premiered. Most of this I found bland, and I’m afraid I still do.

And you may think I’m a terrible snob, but I have this as evidence: there’s nothing in any of this music that excites the audience the way an audience of Brahms or Dvorak was electrified. On this blog, I’ve identified that as a result of compositional deadness after the demise of classical music, the inability of composers to compose in our own language and still be High music.

On this much I have changed my mind, that we don’t have to wait for the reinvention of a contemporary, high idiom. Pärt is not alone in this reinvention.

I think the first blow to my skepticism of minimalism was a piece by Jonathan Dove performed by the Stanford Chamber Chorale. Dove is a middle-aged British composer and I think not particularly well-known at least in America. I went home from the concert impressed by the piece, because it stuck out amidst a program of Eric Whitacre and Whitacre’s various worshipers and fellow pan-diatonicists. The Dove was similar but it had edges. It had its quietness and haunting dissonances, but it was wild, rugged, and, dare I use the adjective (and please don’t misunderstand me), masculine at points. This is an unusual experience indeed when it comes to choir and organ.

I didn’t want to admit (snob that I am) that I liked the piece to anyone, but I looked up a recording on YouTube and listened to it. And then I listened again. And again. I glutted myself on the piece. I got sick of it. And a week later I’d listen to it again about ten times. And get sick of it again. And then go back again. There was something about it that I found quite compelling. Quite possibly that’s subjective, but you can point to some definite musical things he’s doing that make him stand apart from some of his contemporaries.

But it turns out that I hadn’t properly understood some of his contemporaries. I should mention in passing that I also reversed my opinion on Hans Zimmer, and that is not unrelated as I found out. I got a random email from the Stanford Arts Commission asking me and a few other music students if we could turn pages at an upcoming concert. None of the rehearsal times conflicted for me and so I consented. Lucky for me—it was a Steve Reich concert and it turned out that the man himself was co-running the rehearsal with the conductor of Alarm Will Sound. I had a while to see him up-close, in person, working with one of the best sinfonietta ensembles. I was not really prepared for the experience, but I found myself doing a 180 on Reich.

I am no junkie, I am not categorical fan, and I still don’t like him sometimes. But during rehearsal and especially during the concert, I was confronted with an experience I have scarcely had before. It was a combination of three things that I have always looked for and haven’t found: (1) it was contemporary, (2) it was high, challenging, confronting me with musical possibilities I hadn’t thought of or was new to, and (3) it was also in the language, the idiom of our peculiar musical moment. Which is simply to say that, in a nearly unprecedented experience for me, this concert was normal. Normal in a way that showed just how abnormal our compositional deadness is.

I am sure that I then experienced what I’ve talked about for a while, how music must have been for the audiences of classical music but cannot entirely be for us because it is in the past. There’s no doubt Reich is (1). I know some people will object to (2) but I have recently listened to quite a lot of pop, alternative, metal, and hip-hop and I have yet to find something that musically catches me totally off-guard, which is fine. That’s what that kind of music is supposed to do. I think if you analyze it closely, you’ll find it’s true for you as well. But (3) is perhaps the point where I can’t be totally sure. What I do know is this: the audience’s reaction was not far from mine. We were all confronted with a concert experience that was not the usual binary of bored vs. interested. The binary was arrested vs. annoyed. It was impossible to be bored. Hypnotic is ironically the ultimate misnomer: the audience was forward-leaning the whole time, wide-eyed and riveted on the players, discussing in the intermissions, and unafraid to express opinion. I found it difficult to let my mind wander even if I wanted it to (and sometimes I did want to). It was all a musical language we could handle and knew, perhaps for no more mysterious reason than that it really did come from a composer composing (like Pärt) with respect to nothing but the desire for new compositional possibilities. (Reich’s style from the ’60s has also found its way subtly into our common vocabulary through Hans Zimmer, Radiohead, and Andrew Bird, all of whom, I think, have claimed to be directly influenced.)

It was for me an unusual experience and I think it was perhaps the sort of experience that few people are likely to have experienced in two and a half generations. I can hope that it will be increasingly common. This doesn’t mean Reich is, again, a great composer. I’m simply saying that he is, in the company of few others alive, a normal composer. Normal in the sense that this blog has been insisting on recovering.

The particular pieces that I really found great (and there were some in the program I thought were stupid; don’t worry, I’m still a snob) were Piano Counterpoint Arranged for Six Pianos, aspects of New York Counterpoint, Radio Rewrite, and The Cave (various movements; I can’t quite figure out either his theology or politics, but I suspect we wouldn’t agree; great settings of Genesis though).

All that to say, I think perhaps minimalism as a compositional school may be in fact a viable option for reinventing musical composition. It is in some ways quite aware of its modal, polyphonic tendencies and so in that sense I’m a huge fan. I still think Glass is watery and Riley is way too experimental to be enjoyable. Then there is the deeper issue that I still don’t know how to resolve: re-inventing Medieval music also involves the downfall of professionalism and this artificial distance between performer and audience (and composer and audience) given to us by the 18th century. Pärt and Reich and all of them still are implicitly working in a framework of music only performable by highly trained people. If we’re looking to recover specifically a Christian (a Protestant?) understanding of how music functions in society, certain aspects of the composition will have to change such that it is possible to compose both high and easily-peformable music. But that can happen and I think it will. When I look at how Medieval music emerges, it is actually far less organized than I might imagine given some of its later products. The rules in many cases come afterwards and the wild experiments that don’t always work come first. That’s something I’m interested to watch happen and, well, hopefully contribute to.

Kraut und Ruben in Biber’s Battalia

Update: well, well. The melody does not become swiftly unrecognizable, but is actually pretty clear the whole way. I guess the entire idea of the passage is to introduce lots of folk melodies in different keys, which would have been obvious to people who actually sang them. Silly me! How obvious.

Original post: A friend of mine showed me the delightful passage of Biber’s Battalia that imitates the sounds of the drunk singing in “Die liederliche gselschafft von allerley Humor”. I don’t know if this is obvious, but I may have found “Kraut und Ruben” hidden fairly early on there, becoming subsequently (and swiftly) unrecognizable in the mess. Maybe there are all sorts of German folk melodies in there, but I recognized this one because of its appearance in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Highlighted in red is pretty distinctly (without the final passing tone between the E and C natural) the following German folk tune (“Cabbage and turnips are driving me away”):

You can find a fantastic visual aid to understanding Bach’s 30th Variation here at Bach-cantatas.com.

Introduction to Pammelia

Pammelia compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1609, a book of canons, rounds, and catches.

To the Reader.

[unintelligible], being such indeed, as all such whose love of Musicke exceedes their skill, cannot but commend, such also, as all such, whose skill in Musicke, exceedes their love of such sleight and light fancies, cannot either contemne or condemn. Good Art in all, for the more musicall, good mirth and melodie for the more Ioviall, sweet harmonie, mixed with much varietie, and both with great facilitie. Harmony to please, varietie to delight, facilitie to invite thee. Some toyes yet musicall, without absurdity, Some very musicall, yet pleasing without difficulty, light, but not without musickes delight, Musickes pleasantnes, but not without easines, what seemes old, is at least renewed, Art having reformed what pleasing tunes iniurious time and ignorance had deformed. The onely intent is to give generall content, composed by Art to make thee disposed to mirth. Accept therfore kindly, what is done willingly, and published onely, to please good Company

Re-examining “High” music

The introduction to Claude Goudimel’s harmonizations of the Psalter makes it clear that the harmonies weren’t meant for church necessarily but for use in the home. Again, another great testament to the level of musical literacy in the post-Reformation world. The interesting thing is how Claude Goudimel ties into the High/Low music debate.

When we say “High music” do we mean it requires great skill? Yes, I think so. But skill in terms of what? There’s no denying that certain music Ken Myers would call “Low” and “pop” takes some serious skillz to perform. He might retort that it doesn’t take as much skill to perform as a Beethoven sonata for a Classical pianist, but I have my doubts.

I think we often miss the point entirely. There are two levels to this: performing and composing. I think we can’t deny Ken Myers’ “pop” music sometimes takes serious skills in performance, but comparing the compositional skill of a Classical composer to the compositional skill of the most creative indy artist reveals the real disparity. There is no competition. And I mean that in its dual meaning: if they were to compete, it wouldn’t be much of a competition, but there is also no need for a competition. The two are just simply for different purposes.

But this reveals two levels to apply the “High” and “Low” labels. I’m certainly not uncomfortable with the non-PC approach of calling something “Low” (although, unlike Myers, I don’t distinguish between folk and pop, unless you just mean that folk is pop music weeded out by time). But I think we need to recognize that certain music is “High” in performance, but perhaps not “High” in composition. This would be Eddie Van Halen or something. But not even Andrew Bird needs to know a ton about music theory in order to compose his stuff. And if that offends you or raises your dander, it needn’t. It’s still really cool music. (Sometimes.) Your kids will probably just think it’s dated and stupid. (If you want to challenge me on this, please do.)

So, if your mind works like mine, you will have noticed that I covered the performance-high/composition-high category with Classical, the performance-high/composition-low and performance-low/composition-low with contemporary pop (and, in my humble opinion, there’s some canonical “Classical” could fit that too). But do you ever have performance-low/composition-high music?

Yes. Try singing a canon. Then try composing one. This is the great strength of the Reformation: it found that people grew the most in composition-high/performance-low style music. That’s Claude Goudimel right there: he’s really got some compositional talent (far more than we think), but yet his music is fantastically easy to learn. In fact, it’s designed for just that purpose. It didn’t require professionalism to perform, but it was still glorying in the complex, beautiful way God created sound. I think it deserves a closer look.

That’s a Big Psalm Sing

“In 1560, Bishop Jewel wrote to Peter Martyr,

A change appears more visible among the people; which nothing promotes more than the inviting them to sing Psalms. . . . Sometimes at Paul’s Cross, there will be 6000 people singing together.

Years later, long after the age with which we are now concerned was past, great throngs gathered in York Minster when that city was being besieged during the Civil War in 1644 and, according to Thomas Mace (Musicks Monument, 1676),

Always before the sermon the whole congregation sang a psalm, together with the choir and the organ. . . . When that vast concording unity of the whole congregational chorus came, as I may say, thundering in . . . I was so transported, and rapt up into high contemplations, that there was no room left in my whole man, viz. Body, soul, and spirit, for anything below divine and heavenly raptures.

This glance at a century of communal enthusiasm for expression of devotion in song is presented only to emphasize the brilliance which Elizabeth’s own age achieved, when all England was musically awake and literate.” Music in Elizabethan England, Dorothy E. Mason.

How Shakespearians Said They Sang

MASTER JACOB. And now, should we not sing us a little song? Willeken, would you go get my books?

WILLEKEN. What books d’you want, Sir?

JAC. The books in four and three parts.

WILL. Where d’you keep ’em, Sir?

JAC. You will find them on the sideboard.

WILL. I’ll go get ’em, Sir.

(The company drink their wine)

JAC. Now where’s that Willeken got to?

WILL. I can’t find ’em, Sir!

JAC. You go look for them, Antoni, and pick us out something pretty.

ANTONI. Right, Sir. Would you like to hear a song in four parts?

JAC. It’s all the same to me. Sing what you like.

ANT. Dierick, here’s the soprano. It’s not too high for you? The children can help you out.

ROMBOUT. Give me the bass part.

ANT. I’ll do the tenor.

DIERICK. Who’ll sing alto?

YSIAS. I, I’ll sing it!

DIE. Who begins? Is it you, Ysaias?

YSI. No, not I. I’ve a four-beat rest.

ANT. And I one of six.

YSI. Well then, you come in after me?

ANT. So it seems. It’s up to you then, Rombout!

ROM. Yes, I’ve only a quarter-note rest. But we’d better get the pitch.

DIE. What note do you begin on, Ysaias?

YSI. I start on E.

DIE. And I on C.

ANT. That makes a sixth. And you, Rombout?

ROM. I begin on F.

JAC. Thomas and Felix, you children sing along with Dierick!

FELIX. Yes, father.

JAC. Have you studied this song?

FEL. Yes, father.

JAC. And you, have you learned it?

THOMAS. No, father, but we’ll be able to do all right.

ROM. Steven’s not singing with us?

DAME CATELYNE. No, he’s too young yet, but he’ll begin soon to learn, and his sister also. Now, Steven and Cecily, you go eat.

(The copmany sing the song)

JAC. Now, that’s what I call a pretty song. Who made it up?

ROM. I think it’s Gombert.

Roger Wangermée, Flemish Music, trans. Robert Erich Wolf (New York: F. Praeger, 1968), 134. Cited from Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. 1984, Thomas Learning Academic Resource Center, Belmont CA. 151-153