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.

Advertisements

4 Reasons Traditionalism Is Modernism

1. Recording Technology

Rewind 100 years. Say you wanted to hear a decent performance of Bach. You would probably have to go on the right weekend to a big city. If you found that weekend, and had enough money to secure the tickets, and did so before they were sold out, you would then be in the extraordinary and rare position to hear a performance of Bach that would in no way resemble what Bach actually would have sounded like. Why not, you ask?

2. Performance Practice

Performances of Bach 100 years ago were rare, but they were also steeped in egregious error of performance. The tempos, orchestration, the very quality of the instruments, and, above all, the style of singing would be enough to have made Bach alienated and estranged in his own ears from what is his own composition. That is because music is not simply about what is on the page. Musicologists, realizing this, have spent the last century developing serious advancements in how to perform the works of a period distant from our own with accuracy, and this has allowed us, for the first time, to actually hear it in ways that would be recognizable to the composers themselves.

3. The Printing Press

But if you rewind 200 years, the sheet music of Bach would be nowhere found. It might be in a box in some palace or church or house or, later, museum, but it would likely be hand-written, never published. This is because at this time music was not rarely intended to be performed more than once after its composition. This changed for all sorts of reasons, but one of the main ones was the proliferation of sheet music. Music was some of the earliest printed stuff after Gutenberg’s revolution, but, still, it was unlikely that a publisher would spend that much money publishing works that were not modern and popular, until such a time as it became popular to like the non-modern stuff. Think about times before the printing press—how on earth was a church supposed to use old music if it had to have a trained reader travel hundreds of miles to a library to pay serious money to get a manuscript copied, at great length and labor, by a monk who might not let him see the manuscript beforehand anyway?

4. Economic Prosperity

Traditionalism requires a certain amount of economic risk, risk which would be unlikely to pay off in less opulent times. Today, to release an album of Bach, you need to rely on a market that likes Bach because you have to pay a handful of the most highly trained musicians in the world lots of money to record it. On top of this, the conductor is smart to have a team of musicologists researching the music and verifying the performance practice decisions. But imagine the risk of releasing a CD of Josquin or Regis. Sure, the world needs to hear them, but if you’re a recording label, you have to face the fact that the world has never heard them. Investing money in old dead composers people have never heard of is just less of a financial priority than investing in living ones. I complain as much as anyone that the Tallis Scholars pander to their client-base of people lustful for angelic choir-boy music at the expense of accuracy, but that is an eminently first-world problem. Not only should other centuries have not worried about traditional music, but they could not on any meaningful scale.

Just Once

Ask a music historian, and he will tell you that Josquin’s 20-odd masses, Palestrina’s 104, Bach’s 500 cantatas (of which we have around 200 still), Haydn’s 104 symphonies, any of Mozart’s beautiful piano sonatas—none of them were intended to be performed again after the premiere. The composers might well have found it strange that a corpus of their works would be familiar to people after their death.

There is no idea quite so new as traditionalism.

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.

We Love Boredom

Those who don’t like classical music think it’s boring because they expect it to be boring.

Why do they expect it to be boring? Because those who do like classical music want it to be boring and try everything in their power to make it that way.

Being bored attending a concert is essentially a cathartic experience. A member of an older generation wants the concert to be boring because he wants to be able to disconnect from our culture. He wants a confrontation with something disconnected from the sordid now, something older and something difficult to understand. But he also does not want to understand it.

Undergoing an hour or two of entertainment where are you not entertained, where you are bored stiff, is a choice and a sacrifice, but it is a potent way to register complaint with alternative forms of entertainment that you don’t approve of. In some ways, after an hour or two of something you did not understand, you feel you’ve paid penance for allowing yourself to be inundated and even sometimes amused by modern entertainment. For every binge of pop culture, you purge with some classical.

But it is all a delusion. We think listening to Katy Perry is being mindlessly disengaged and listening to some long 19th century piece is being mentally stimulated. But the exact opposite is true: the very fact that you can recognize that Katy Perry is mindless entertainment means you have, on some level, engaged with the music enough to recognize something is wrong. Exactly how are you engaging with the Brahms 1st piano concerto? At any given moment during the concert, you could not tell me where you were in the form or structure of the piece; you could not tell me what the cultural connotations at the time would have been; you could have given me only the vaguest description of what Brahms was trying to accomplish in this or that measure, assuming you were awake and paying attention. But let’s face it: how much of the concert are you actually paying attention to the music?

Do you even know what it means to pay attention to the music? What are you supposed to be paying attention to? What are you even supposed to listen for? How do you find out what to listen for?

Listening to classical music is, for many people, the most selfish aesthetic activity of their aesthetic lives. It isn’t done out of a love of the music, but out of a love of the feelings the music produces in you. These feelings may be feelings of orgasmic pleasure, which self-proclaimedly was true of the early French audiences of Wagner’s operas, or it may be the cathartic act of boring yourself, or feelings of the numinous and the spiritual for people who don’t understand either, or the sort of music that awakens sexual discontent in love-starved, middle-aged women. Sometimes, ironically, classical music even inspires the most exhilarating feeling of all, the knowledge that you are superior because you imagine yourself to be listening to music for its own sake, and not for the feelings it produces in you.

Once I happened to be at a dinner in the better part of Scottsdale, and the wife of a famous recently-retired newspaper editor asked me to play Clair de Lune on the piano. During a particularly emotional part, she leaned over to my mom, groaned, and said, “Oh, this piece is better than sex.” (My mother, apparently, didn’t know quite where to go with the conversation at this point.) The observation, however, was on some level a trenchant one: this woman was engaging with the music enough to at least be aware of its purpose. Debussy would probably be happy to know that this lady most likely represents the largest demographic of listeners to Clair de Lune.

There are three sorts of musicians—players, composers, and critics. A musician is all of them.

There is only one solution to all our problems: we must change the audience into musicians. They must become themselves players, composers, and critics.

Everyone is trained to read. Everyone is trained to write. Not everyone becomes a writer. Not everyone reads for a living.

So too it used to be with music. Was it coincidence that it used to be that way in the cultures that produced Praetorius, Schütz and Bach?

Why You Don’t Like Classical Music

I’ve talked a little already about how it’s odd to think Classical music is unpopular. Or rather, how odd it is to think that’s a bad thing. Classical music was never the music of the populace. The populace couldn’t afford to go to concerts or be at the sort of soirees where the real musical conversations were taking place. For more on this, check out Julian Johnson’s book Who’s Afraid of Classical Music (despite the fact that his point may be different from mine).

But one aspect of this discussion that’s often ignored is how much Classical music relies on live performance. Personality is a huge part of CM, which is why the real CM nerds will talk about conductors, first-chair French horn players, recording labels, and who the composer was married to when he wrote the piece. The significance of those things mystifies everybody else, but they’re vital to a connoisseur. He fundamentally understands that live performance lets you into a conversation of personalities. That’s a huge part of how CM holds your interest. Nobody has the attention span to just abstractly enjoy a Mahler symphony start to finish. We’re all human beings and we need some context in order to not get antsy.

But much of that is lost when you go over to a CD recording. You don’t see the performers and their facial expressions. You can’t see how they interact with the baton. You don’t get the bass drum rattling your rib cage like the drag races. You don’t get the visceral sound of horse hair rubbing against a taut string.

The funny thing is, CM lovers expect to evangelize to the outside world of neanderthals (only kidding) by giving them a recording and expecting them to like it. But anyone’s first infatuation (in my experience) with Classical music comes in seeing it performed or, even better, performing it yourself with others. Connoisseurs love recordings best when they glimpse that human personality behind the recording, but they’ve forgotten that that’s what attracted them in the first place.

We’ve forgotten that, on any recording, real CM doesn’t happen, but only a faint shadow of it. Pop music, really, is the only kind of music that’s been molded toward the goal of recording. CM was shaped by the goal of performing live, and so consequently it will often appear more boring than pop on a recording. The competition (and there shouldn’t be one anyway) is unfair because the venue is biased.