Monday, October 31, 2011

Being Narrow-Minded

I didn't set out to be narrow-minded--it just turned out that way. I've had a pretty wide range of listening and playing experiences in music. When I was 19 I played lead guitar in a band with a black drummer and black bass-player. Think the Jimi Hendrix Experience in negative. Wish I had some photos from then. We would get up around 2 or 3 pm, hang out, then around 11 or 12 pm we would head out to the rehearsal hall and play until three or four in the morning. It was an interesting experience... I have also busked in Europe with a flute player, performed live on television, played concertos with several different orchestras and done innumerable solo and chamber recitals. One of my earliest experiences in chamber music--believe it or not, it was just a couple of years after my time in the band with those black guys--was playing lute in a trio doing Guillaume Machaut (1300 - 1377). Another very interesting ensemble experience was performing Hans Werner Henze's 1970 chamber opera El Cimmaron. So I've done a lot of different things.

But after all that, I'm pretty clear on what music matters. What music is truly significant and important. This is a personal view, of course and I can sketch out why I think so, so you can come to your own conclusions.

Most music is pretty bad: predictable, cliched and shallow. Some music is exotic and possibly interesting, but too remote to be meaningful (this depends on your perspective, of course). A small amount of music is profound, interesting, moving and brilliantly creative. Here are examples of each:

You might say, it's all relative. If you listen to a lot of the first type of music, all the recent pop stuff, then you will probably find the other two pieces I put up, by Machaut and Bach, to be unutterably dreary and depressing. Or if you tend to listen to lots of Bach, you will probably be irritated and annoyed by the pop stuff. But I think the real difference is not just what you are used to. The more closely you look at generic pop music, the more you can see how it is an industrial product, like processed cheese. It is full of snappy, poppy rhythms (Latin, in this case), has a video with pretty pictures and good-looking singers, but really, this is just, like a thousand others, Ricky Martin's "La Vida Loca" regurgitated. The Machaut is an acquired taste, but pretty remote from us. But if you dig into Bach, you discover the opposite to the pop example. The more you look at it, the more interesting it is. The whole piece is based on a single theme: six long notes. That's it. No fancy rhythms. The style is virtually archaic by this point in time. No concessions to fashion. And the result is a piece of astonishing depth. Go ahead, go back and listen to them all again...

So what it comes down to is, for me, there really are only about four and a half composers that stand out in all of music: Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich. The half? Well, that would be Mozart. Amazing, lovely music, but sandwiched in between Haydn, who invented this style and Beethoven who expanded it to the heavens.

Narrow-minded, that's me!


Anonymous said...

I don't think your views are narrow-minded at all. Plus I like it when people express strong preferences. I've always done so... and repeatedly changed my mind, of course.

Maybe a quick comment about pop music. Of course, it cannot compare to the giants you mention. Great music can be *literally* a life-changing experience. In my case, Bach has enriched my life in ways no other artist or writer or philosopher ever has. When I wonder if life has any meaning, I might think of the people I love first and then of the music of Bach. It's intensely personal. Great music has that kind of life-affirming power.

That said, I want to make a pitch for Pitbull. First, let's be clear about one thing: from the little I know, it's a step up from Ricky Martin but it's still mostly trash. But let's forget about art for a moment. In the case of Pitbull's music the word sex is more relevant. And perhaps that's why one can easily imagine a situation where the music of Pitbull is just what one wants to hear at that precise moment. Just like sometimes you just want a Mars bar (this being Halloween) and not a fancy dish in a 3-star restaurant. Now we can talk about the deleterious effects of entire generations of youths being exposed to that kind of music and nothing else. But that's a different discussion. My point is that Pitbull's music (or any pop tune) is not noise. In the right context, it can be immensely pleasurable in the physical sense of making you want to laugh and dance.

Conversely, some of the most sublime moments in classical music can bring tears to your eyes and sometimes be almost painful. So I think Bach and Pitbull serve different functions entirely and Pitbull is not a lesser Bach, just as the guy whom you call to put a new coat of paint on your kitchen wall is not a lesser Rembrandt -- but just a house painter.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I must have the best commentors on the web!

Your point is well-taken: sometimes you want the musical equivalent of a Mars bar. Bach is not the ideal sex music, but Barry White might be--or Pitbull. I chose that video at random, but now I have been looking into Pitbull a bit more and watched another music video of his. Bilingual rap over top of rhumba! If I were 20 years old I might love it.

On this blog, I like to cultivate a diverse musical environment because I love comparing things. Sure, I was comparing the incomparable. Your comment about young people growing up knowing nothing else makes me think. Are young people growing up in a musical monoculture? Awful, if the case. How can we change that?

One further point: as I grow older I become more sensitized to what I call musical bullying. Some music just makes too much of an assault with relentless percussion underneath a whirlwind of images. This is why I can't stand too much of the current pop music. But classical composers can also be bullies: I'm thinking of Carl Ruggles' Suntreader for example. But there are many, many others.

Thanks for the sage comment!

Wizard said...

"Bach is not the ideal sex music"

Interesting comment. I guess this begs the question - if you had to choose one piece of Bach to have sex with, which would it be? Wagner is easy - Tristan or the Valkyries, I guess. Wonder if someone could write a piece which starts off as Valkyries and slowly morphs to the Liebestod... might sell well :)

But Bach? Hmmm... Air on a G-string for the smoke afterwards? (Hamlet). Maybe the issue is that he rarely has pieces with long sustained, simple beat buildups. Maybe run the Crucifixus in reverse? I'll have to think about that. Until then... its an - Enigma.

Bryan Townsend said...

The obvious choice is the Ravel Bolero which was used in the movie 10. But personally, I hate using music as a soundtrack for my life. When I listen to music, that is what I am doing. When I am doing something else, I am not listening to music because I find it too distracting. I would be making love to Bo Derek and get distracted if the clarinet is out of tune or there is an ensemble problem...