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.

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Not That You Should Insult Their Intelligence

“We mean by ‘congregational sense’ the capacity for composing what people who are unmusical without being tone-deaf can sing readily. This means making one’s point in language which does not itself give trouble to the singer—language he is more or less used to. The piece may be composed by a person who has a very large vocabulary at his command, but in writing what people ‘catch on to’ he is obliged to use that part of the vocabulary which is common to him and them: just as a preacher whose sermons tend to contain words like communicatio idomatum and hypostasis, no matter how excellent his arguments, is unlikely to hold the attention of a parish congregation.” (Erik Routley, Music of Christian Hymns)

An Educated Audience

“In my youth, living in the proximity of Brahms, it was customary that a musician, when he heard a composition the first time, observed its construction, was able to follow the elaboration and derivation of its themes and its modulations, and could recognize the number of voices in canons and the presences of the theme in a variation; and there were even laymen who after one hearing could take a melody home in their memory.” (Arnold Schoenberg, New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea)

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.

Timeless

High/classical culture is also self-consciously multigenerational. While a composer wishes to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation, his goal is to find what is comparatively “timeless” in music, and his desire is to please many subsequent generations of listeners. Indeed, whenever an artist achieves this multigenerational success, we tend to refer to his work as a classic, for this reason. (T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, 80)

I want to do a review (or, rather, learn how to do book reviews so I can do a review) of this book, mainly because I want to combat the foolishness in its pages with every letter of my keyboard. But T. David Gordon is trying to do something worthy—honor God and solve the church music issue—and we’re on the same side, in that we’re both Christians, so I’m doing my best to be charitable. That shouldn’t, I hope, stop me from pointing out that Gordon has done grievous injustice to his subject matter. He points out at the beginning of the book that he’s no musician and goes on to talk a whole lot (and embarrassingly inaccurately) about music. The problem is not that he’s not a musician, or he’s not “qualified” in the credential sense—neither am I, I guess—but just simply that he’s done some very poor research, and it can be a credit to no man’s scholarship if I can identify some pretty horrendous historical whoopsies on many of its pages.

Hopefully none of that sounded snide. Anyway, the particular passage I quoted stumbles upon a different problem the book has, but that one is not peculiar to T. David Gordon, but is a symptom of a widespread disease propagated by many great men, like Van Cliburn and Ken Myers. I just don’t get it. When has Classical music ever been “self-consciously multigenerational”? What biography of Bach do you have to read to get that his goal was not “to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation” but primarily “to please many subsequent generations of listeners”? It’s almost as if you get the impression that by “timeless” we mean that this music is not a product of its time but just simply art with respect to nothing but beauty. I don’t think Classical music has ever been “timeless”, as if the compositions arose with reference to no zeitgeist but purely the genius residing in the composer. As Schumann once said, if Mozart had lived today (in Schumann’s time), his music would have sounded like Chopin, not like Mozart. How is that timeless?

If Gordon and Van Cliburn mean, when they say “timeless”, that Classical music will last forever or even a really long time, how would they know? “Classical music” is relatively recent. We’re still on a high from it. The length of time between Ockeghem and Bach is about the same as between Bach and us. Ockeghem was extremely popular in his time and with subsequent generations, even with Bach. You’ve probably never heard of Ockeghem. I suggest that this sort of adoration of specific Classical composers is born more from a sentimentality arising from our emotional response to the music than it is from an objective analysis of anything in the music. As evidence, I submit Exhibit A, T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, a 187-page long adoration of Classical composers that hasn’t a shred of objective analysis of anything in the music it adores. To my knowledge. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

This rant is not trivial. It’s really vitally important that we stop idolizing the music of dead people from a different country. It isn’t healthy, because it clouds our vision into seeing Classical music as Good Boy music, as compatible, allied with a Christian view of music. That is a dangerous notion and has gotten us into all sorts of trouble.

Part 2: Brushing Your Cultural Teeth

This is about bad breath.

C. S. Lewis talks about the value of reading old books. He says in the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” This is where bad breath comes in: you know when other people have it, but you don’t know when you have it. That should make you terrified. You’re enslaved to your ignorance about whether you have the cultural blight of Bad Breath. How do you remedy that? Choose some honest friends.

On the cultural level, every culture has its peculiar flavor of bad breath. We have our cultural blindspots. How do we identify them? Lewis wants you to choose your friends wisely. Choose old books. They’ll tell you where your blindspots are and are to you as a rear-view mirror. They can do this because no age has the same outlook on the world. Liberal education frees you. When you get a liberal education, you get freed from your slavery to ignorance. That’s why “liberal” comes from the Latin for “free”. That’s why people read old books.

I don’t know what generation you are, if maybe you’re a Boomer or maybe you’re, like me, a product of the baggy-jeaned 90s, or whatever, but I remember pretty vividly the first time I watched the Bee Gees’ music video for Stayin’ Alive. It was scarring. If we’re talking bad breath, somebody had smoked about three cigars and masticated several cloves of garlic. The most disturbing thing is that everyone then thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But this will happen to us, since we all think we’re the cool people, or even just think we’re normal. Zoom out 30 years and you’ll find our skinny-at-the-ankle jeans are as revolting as the ones that appear to limit Barry Gibb’s masculinity. It’s as if our cultural moment is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and a few of us know it and are terrified of how our incipient senility will appear to our children. Every age does irrational and arbitrary things and every subsequent age snickers, one senile nursing-home patient to another.

So, the task of reading classical examples does not endow mere intellectual freedom. Reading ancient drama of Aeschylus or The Holy Grail of the Middle Ages gives you, almost magically, a clean, objective look at our cultural clichés. It’s like the touch of cool metal on a hot day. Aristotle said that the mark of an educated man was to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. (Educated, by the way, was for him the opposite of enslaved.) When most of us watch movies, we get so entertained that we don’t notice what we’re accepting or that we’re accepting it. But when you read old literature, you’re forced to entertain foreign cultural concepts―how Achilles deals with women, how Romans execute their justice system, how the Medievals viewed justification―that you would be revolted at the thought of accepting. But you entertain them anyway. Classical examples are training in the ability to entertain cultural ideas without accepting them. If you have this ability, it will end up accomplishing two things.

First, when you apply this ability to your own culture, you will find that many things of our age which you had previously accepted without noticing it are, on a second look, not worth accepting. Once you can strip that Maroon 5 song (if it has any clothes on anyway) of its catchy riffs, you may find there wasn’t as much there as you thought. A spoonful of clichés makes the shallowness go down. Or it did, before you read Aristotle.

Second, applying this ability will allow you to cherry-pick the best from classical examples. That’s why academia is still called upon (probably mistakenly) to present original solutions to current problems. That originality is supposed to come from a keen understanding of what’s being missed by those embroiled in contemporary events. That missing something can often be found by perusing antiquity, which more than likely has dealt with the same issue and done so in a way utterly different from common contemporary ways of thinking. To bring this down to earth, if you’re an indie band and you really want to market your sound as something new and different, try listening to some Mozart and some Oscar Peterson.

It turns out that this is the other side to the coin I mentioned in the previous part. We do idolize Classical composers way too much. By “we”, I mean lovers of “Classical music,” a repertoire chosen by people discontented with the music of the present, but not interested in writing music themselves and so contented with the music of the past. I still think that if you don’t like current music, you should write better music. Don’t insist that we all listen to old music on the basis that the new stuff is terrible. I still think that writing better contemporary music is far more normal thing than listening only to past efforts.

But. Writing better contemporary music is the hard part. How do we get our music better than the schlock and kitsch out there now? We’re back to our Bee Gees problem. And our solution is the exempla classica. It is the true traditionalism, the secret weapon that has rid almost every composer of schlock status and given him posterity-enjoyment value. So, going back to the two applications of Aristotle’s observation, studying older music should give you an accurate view of how silly certain current music is (or how worthy it is) and it should give you all sorts of ideas about how you could break the limitations of the field and employ unusual ideas. Does it really do this?

Yes, it does. As I said, the exempla classica is the real traditionalism. Every great composer has done it. And, I’d say, every great pop musician has introduced time-honored musical traditions into a flabbergasted commercial recording industry with blistering success. Bach, on the one hand, was immersed not just in contemporary music but the music of 50 and 100 years before him. He took an idea from Buxtehude (an older generation) of a fugue whose countersubjects stay consistent throughout the whole thing. That’s the model he used in the Well-Tempered Clavier, and he consequently redefined the genre. On the other hand, Coldplay’s distinctive sound comes from their use of phase music (innovated 20 years ago in Classical academia) and that curious British modality (championed 80 years ago by the Vaughn Williams crowd). If you want to get right down to it, this is how you get a marketing edge.

So, then. Here I am, advising you to listen to music of the past, when earlier I said it was weird to do so. I’m still right. There’s a difference: getting a Classical education in music is not for its own sake. You are no longer listening to Beethoven just for the love of Beethoven. Shocking as it is, the noblest goal of becoming acquainted with Classical music is not to enjoy it for its own sake. At least, I suspect that Classical composers would think you were really odd if you told them so. The noblest goal is to use composers as an exempla classica for new music.

If this annoys you, I can guess why. Probably you’re thinking that using Classical music at all, instead of simply enjoying it, is crude pragmatism and that it will destroy a deep love for the music to use it as a means to an end. But maybe, like me, you’ve noticed something: at the height of your love for Classical music, when you’re listening to Fanfare for the Common Man or glorying in the climax of the “Ricercare” from the Musical Offering or the prelude to Tristan und Isoulde, there’s always a little frustration. There’s always a little sense of isolation. There’s an unfulfilled desire to have everybody enjoy this music, but, ridiculous though it is, some people find their pop music better. The music is great, but not as great as the number of people who think it isn’t. And that is frustrating.

I think lovers of Classical music will find that, when the music becomes an exempla classica for new compositions, the frustration goes away, but the love does not. Maybe even the love deepens, because instead of viewing Copland or Bach or Wagner as gods, you converse with them. You are unequal to them in wisdom, but peers in profession. I don’t think anybody would accuse you of disrespecting a venerable, wise woman by taking seriously her wisdom as a pattern for your own life. Nobody would say you were using her as a means to an end. Maybe they would, but they’d be stupid. If you’re paying attention to her, it’s her venerability, her wisdom, her beauty that will inspire you to model yourself after her. That’s the way to think about the exempla classica.

Do I make it sound like everyone should be a composer? Maybe I do. Yes. I think I do.

(Which will be explained in what follows.)

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

Part 3 is forthcoming.

Music in the Bible

This is a section I’m probably going to cut, because it’s a little theological for that particular context. I am also shamelessly putting this up without many citations or references (but they’re there in my mind). I’m analyzing here the Bible, ancient Hebrew music, etc.

If you’re wondering what it would have sounded like, I can’t help you much. There are some people who’ve tried to “reconstruct” ancient Hebrew music, but we have no real guarantee it sounds remotely close. There are just too many variables. But there are some important things here for a music history course.

Remember what we discussed last chapter. The point of a Classical education is to give you a “liberal” view, a free view, on our own era and the assumptions peculiar to it. Arguments about music in general suffer from dangerous assumptions, like “the way we moderns view music is the only conceivable way.” Arguments about Church music, though, are ten times worse, because we inflict our modern categories on the Bible. We have all sorts of modern categories that we just assume Paul the Apostle would have had. But he was working in a totally different musical universe.

This comes down to the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. (Greek. “Ex” means out of, “eis” means into.) Exegesis is getting some meaning out of Scripture; eisegeis is approaching Scripture with your opinions already made and then finding what you think is there, cramming your meaning into the text. Inevitably, exegesis will determine what the original authors meant by what they say, whereas eisegesis will usually sound like somebody saying, “Well, Paul could be saying X, Y, and Z, which, incidentally, is my opinion too.”

When Paul says that we should sing to one another with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts,” we assume that he’s talking about psalms (like Psalms, the book from the Old Testament), hymns (as in, four-part harmony, “Amazing Grace” sort of hymns) and spiritual songs (anything else with Jesus lyrics). Unfortunately, Paul wasn’t talking about anything of the kind.

“Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are three Greek terms that the Jews and early Christians understood as the three big sections of the Old Testament book of Psalms. Psalms were divided into three sections: psalmata, hymnoi, and odai pneumatikai. Think of them as the three big chapters in the book of Psalms. All three refer to what we’d call “Psalms”. Now, I don’t think that means he thinks we should sing nothing but Psalms. After all, when he says it in Colossians 3:16, he’s saying it a chapter or so after he’s composed a new psalm or hymn himself (“He is the image of the invisible God”). But Paul’s point is clear: Psalms should be the vast majority of what we do. It is, according to him, how we “teach and admonish one another.”

Lots of people try to find some common ground between people who like traditional music and people who like contemporary music. Here’s something I’ve found: neither of them really sing a lot of psalms. Which tradition is more likely to get out a book and sing through Psalm 1 the whole way? And then Psalm 45, maybe? Psalm 110? My guess is that, in America, neither is more likely.

You might not think this has much to do with music, but what Paul says next in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:19 is even more interesting. “Singing and making melody” is usually how it’s translated, but more accurately it’s “chanting and plucking a stringed instrument”. The second word (“making melody”) is just simply the Greek word for “pluck”. It’s used in Herodotus and a handful of other places to refer to plucking an instrument. “Making melody” just muddies the waters. As for “chanting” rather than “singing”, this is just a cultural thing: if you went back and actually heard Paul “singing” a psalm, you’d think it sounded a lot more like what you’d call “chanting” than “singing”. That, at least, is one of the things we know about ancient music.

Studying music history teaches you how a culture thought about music differently from how you think about it. Not doing that with Paul has gotten us into some messes: we end up doing eisegesis because we don’t know any better. But then, instead of the Bible forming us, we go to the Bible already formed by our modern era and then just find what we already thought was true.

What are some things about ancient Hebrew music that we can glean from the Bible’s descriptions? There are three basic principles.

1. They Used Lots and Lots of Instrument

Lots and lots. Psalm 150:3-5 describes, in short order, trumpets, harps, lyres, tambourine, strings, flutes, “crashing cymbals” and “resounding cymbals”. The impression you should get is that it was loud and there were lots of them. I Chronicles 16:5-6 describes how it was the full-time jobs of ten guys and their families to play instruments in front of the arc of the covenant in David’s time. These instruments are pretty diverse: lyres, harps, cymbals, and trumpets.

It’s worth remembering that when Jericho fell, there were seven trumpeters playing. These were rams’ horn trumpets, which have no pitch control. In other words, seven guys playing whatever notes they just happened to hit. Rams’ horns are loud and kind of freaky. Seven of them playing at once would have created what we’d call “cacophony”. Apparently God liked it.

This may seem like a silly point, but of the few clues the Bible gives us on music, this is the most important one: God should be worshiped with all sorts of instruments. Ironically, this discussion is largely ignored nowadays. And, there’s some more common ground between the two sides of the Church music debate. Neither side uses that many instruments. A guy on a piano or pipe organ doesn’t come close to what the Bible describes. Neither does a worship team of five guys. Biblical theologians refer to the Davidic instrumental ensembles as “orchestras”. (And it was a full time job, not something you rehearse on Wednesday nights for a half an hour.)

It’s also worth noting that many people go to Psalm 150 with its description of all the instruments and try to justify their worship band by some sort of correspondence with the ancient Hebrew instruments. I once heard a church musician seriously try to justify his band by insisting that each of his instruments had the same number of strings as the ones described in Psalm 150. This is a great example of eisegesis, and the need for some classical education in music. Don’t initially take your categories with you. Our instruments are miles and miles different from theirs.

2. Innovation

David really liked new songs and musical innovation. Psalm 98 says “O sing a new song to the Lord.” That’s echoed earlier in Psalm 96. (Notice: imperative. New songs aren’t just okay, they aren’t just good, they’re required.) David actually says that God put a new song in his mouth in Psalm 40, “a hymn of praise to our God.”

There’s also a bigger point. David brought the tabernacle worship from virtual silence in the Mosaic system to constant and loud noise-making in the Zionic tabernacle. That’s not a move backwards, it’s a move forwards. David was trying new things liturgically. That was good. Of course, later the Northern Kingdom will innovate liturgically in a bad way by putting altars in high places. That wasn’t good. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good, but just because being innovative can sometimes be sinful doesn’t mean we’re allowed to be sticks in the mud. There’s a good way to be new and a bad way.

3. For Different Contexts

Some people think all music should be party music. Some people think all music should be background music. Some people think all music should be the sort of thing you’d sing God in his throne room. The Bible is, actually, a lot more relaxed about it. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus describes party music. Song of Solomon is itself music for love making. There’s music for all sorts of different occasions and different contexts. Party music, background music, throne room music are all appropriate in their venues. Party music in God’s throne room is probably not a bright idea, but neither is throne room music at a party. Probably if you have throne room music at a party, you don’t really know how to party. It’s also worth noting, though, that if you have party music in the throne room, you don’t know how to behave in a throne room.

Take-away Points

  • Eisegesis is common when interpreting the music passages in the Bible, because people like to bring their pet genres of music and justify them using the text, rather than exegesis, getting principles from the text and letting them form our tastes.
  • Ancient Hebrew music used lots of instruments. Much more than most anybody now.
  • David was a great musical innovator, and this was a good thing.
  • There are different contexts for music. The Bible mentions some of these favorably, in their proper context.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it that the modern Church music argument seems to ignore the Scriptural precedent of a sheer mass of instrumentalists? Are our musical forms and genres limiting us in this respect?
  • I Chr. 16 and 25 clearly describe music as the job of these men. Is it feasible for a modern church to fund lots and lots of instrumentalists full time?
  • What kind of liturgical and musical innovation is bad? What kind is good? What’s the standard?
  • Take a handful of your favorite hymns or worship songs. Compare them to Psalm 69:19-28 and Psalm 74. Can you picture those sorts of lyrics fitting a smattering of your favorite worship music? Do you ever sing worship music with lyrics like that? Are dark themes like Psalms 69 and 74 typical in Psalms? Are they typical in your favorite genre of worship music?

Suggested Further Reading

  • Te Deum, Paul Westermeyer
  • From Silence to Song, Peter J. Leithart