Roman Cavalry Choirs, Because That Was A Thing

A friend of mine aptly pointed out the “meaningful meaninglessness of song lyrics” in a lot of alternative music (wrote about it here), whether it’s “Roman cavalry choirs singing” or “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon, everything in its right place.” This sort of nonsense masquerades as something quite Eliotic or poetic—the conjunction of disparate images or ideas. But, unlike Eliot, the conjunction of these disparate ideas is totally random. As my friend asked, what, exactly, is a Roman cavalry choir? It Means Nothing. It just reminds you of Eliot because it’s difficult to parse meaning. Fortunately, no meaning was actively put into the lyrics, but that doesn’t stop thousands of listeners posting their interpretations on internet forums (always prefacing with a cautionary this-is-just-how-I-interpret-it-and-there-are-many-equally-valid-interpretations).

Chris Martin would probably say that this more or less meaningless mess of sentence fragments allows for a wealth of possible interpretations, more so than if he had carefully crafted his words with actual intent. Chris Martin would say something like that. My friend just called it lazy. If It’s Obscure It’s Profound is the sort of trick you should grow out of in 8th grade English, but, well, gosh, clarity and intentionality require hard work. And they’re much less marketable to the alternative audience, I guess.

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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.

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.

Bon Jovi Knew It

“A widely held opinion in the aesthetic community insists an artist is more credible if he doesn’t consider his audience during the creative process; the philosophy suggests that a true artist has to make his art for personal reasons, regardless of whether or not people like it (or even want it). That’s plainly stupid, and Bon Jovi knew it. Art is not intrinsic to the universe; art is a human construction. If you killed off all the world’s people, you would kill off all the art. The only thing important about art is how it affects people. It only needs to affect one person to be interesting, but it has to affect many people to be important.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City. All the emphases are his.)

Looks like metal strikes at the modern lie of art as self-expression. Way to go, metal!

More on Instruments

A description of a Buxtehude service that Bach attended in his famous 4-month AWOL from Arnstadt.

The musical presentations included both large organs and featured several instrumental and vocal choirs positioned in different galleries; and the end, at least of Castrum doloris, had the entire congregation join in as well. …The instrumental requirements as outlined in the librettos are particularly striking and were apparently without precedent or parallel. The intradas require two bands of trumpets and timpani, a ritornello “two choirs of horns and oboes,” a sinfonia “twenty-five violins in unison,” and a passacaglia “various instruments.” (Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician)

Unfortunately, the Buxtehude scores themselves are lost. Still, a stirring description.

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.

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.