Saturday, July 13, 2013

Electrify Me!

Deceptive Cadence at NPR often has interesting articles on music. They just did one on the use of electric guitars in contemporary music. It is interesting in the sense that the article provides a forum for music you may not have heard previously. It is disappointing in that, as in nearly all music journalism these days, it absolutely refuses to make any aesthetic distinctions. All the music is equally worthy, equally good.

But, of course that isn't true. There are some truly awful pieces for electric guitar, some not bad ones and some very good ones. It is the commentors that step in to point this out!

As one commentor said, the "guitar symphonies" of Glenn Branca are rather awful. Here is a section of his Symphony No. 8:

That's exactly what you would expect to hear with 100 electric guitarists. To keep them together you have to have a heavy beat. It's tremolando electronic sludge all the way through. No themes, no rhythmic contrasts. As a composition this is appallingly crude!

Another piece they excerpt in the article is Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail. Here is the very end, which sounds like an idiot headbanger's version of the Dona nobis pacem from Bach's B minor Mass:

If it took longer than five minutes to write that I would be surprised. Again, appallingly crude. The next piece, an aria with electric guitar obbligato, is surprisingly pleasant:

Their next example is Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint which is just as good as you might expect from one of the most well-known current American composers:

A particularly wonderful use of the electric guitar. The last piece they put up is this one by Steven Mackey which is not bad, but a bit aimless:

I really can't make sense out of this universal policy in music journalism that Thou Shalt Make No Aesthetic Judgments! There is always good music, bad music and just ok music. Why deny it? Is it to avoid people complaining in the comments? As in the case of this article, the commentors are the first to leap in and point out what is good and bad! Here is the first comment to the article:
I'm a guitarist, luthier, owned a music store and was a recording engineer. I have been around music all my life. I love everything guitar except what i heard above. It was chaos. If you want to hear a guitar symphony listen to the Allman Brothers do "in memory of Elizabeth Reed" or some songs by Queen. Too many to mention. I admit i only sampled the first two songs and i couldn't even get all the way through them. Not saying it's a bad idea, just that the the compositions were horrific to me. Twenty people grinding on electric guitars like that is a migraine looking for a head to invade.
He is talking about the first two pieces and nails it pretty well.

So why this "all music is equally worthy" crap? Must be just one of those unexamined assumptions of The Narrative.

UPDATE: I just can't resist the temptation of putting up my own piece for multiple guitars. I have put it up before, but if you missed it, this is Long Lines of Winter Light for an indeterminate number of guitars. In this performance there are ten guitars. It is in "moment" form, meaning that there are a bunch of small boxes of musical ideas that can be played in various orders. The conductor guides the players by indicating which boxes they are to play. Here it is:


Rickard said...

I agree with you. The pieces where there are many electric guitars are just annoying. Electric guitars are after all amplified and in reality there is probably only one needed to play a musical line unlike the non-electric instruments like violin, viola, cello etc. that most often are amplified by having more players playing the same line. Ofc, several electric guitars are needed to play several different lines, if it's duets, trios, quartets etc. But on the other hand if several electric guitars are placed in quite different places in a concert hall, but playing the same thing, it can create a nice acoustic effect.
I also agree that it's strange that all the pieces are considered equally good or bad. What's even stranger is that it's about classical music and not pop music (where it's more likely that bad music would be praised or considered good when in reality it's bad).

Bryan Townsend said...

I suspect the mere idea of a piece for 100 or 200 electric guitars is so compelling for some folks that that is almost enough. But yes, one Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster through 12 Marshall cabinets is really all you need! Good point about distributing them in the hall. I don't think this was done in either of the first two pieces, though.

Are the first two pieces actually "classical" music? Well, they certainly aren't "popular".

What did you think of the piece for multiple guitars by Steve Reich?

Anonymous said...

I would say that Steve Reich's piece makes the best use of the electric guitar - then again, from the way he writes his music, I think that you could arrange it for different instruments and it could still sound well. Just wondering, Bryan, what is your opinion of Steve Reich?

Rickard said...

To be honest I didn't listen through the first two pieces (or at least videos you've linked). Simply put they sounded pretty bad. I've decided to listen through them both now and also Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint (which I think I've heard before but forgot how it went). As for referring to them as classical music: I relied on the article. But you're right, the first two don't sound like classical music except possibly maybe a little minimalistic. You're right, at least in the first one there is really nothing interesting going on, especially considering this is supposed to be a symphony. It's pretty much the same dense almost unlistenable texture all the time with very few constasts, no themes etc. Steve Reich's piece is far more interesting and enjoyable to listen to.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I might argue that Steve Reich makes very little concession to the electric guitar. This piece is also performed quite successfully on classical guitar. Like Bach's, the music is rather independent of the instrument.

I have a very high opinion of Steve Reich and have had since I heard his piece Drumming in the late 70s.

I have to confess that I also did some skipping in the Glenn Branca piece. In the movement I posted, there is virtually nothing going on until the 11 minute mark. It is astonishing how feebly written this is. There is less of musical interest going on here than in one phrase of a piece by Haydn!

Bryan Townsend said...

Do I dare ask if there are any comments on my piece for guitar orchestra?

Rickard said...

First time I hear about moment form. Well, it's pretty interesting at times but it does sound pretty random sometimes. The ensemble probably did a good or great job but the structure of the piece could be improved (but I suppose you want to keep the moment form). But on the other hand it might sound much better live or in a more specific context like in a movie or video game.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Rickard,

Moment form was invented by Stockhausen in the 1950s. Essentially, you compose a bunch of fragments which are then performed in a random order. I modified this by structuring them in a particular order with a flow-chart and then having the conductor create a structure. The piece is different every time it is performed. I think that the best way to think of a piece like this is as an experiment--one that I chose not to repeat!