Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Curmudgeon at the Guardian

Sometimes I feel like I am pursuing a lonely course, arguing for a classical aesthetic with a hip-hop drum track thumping in the background. But now and then I run into someone who is almost as much a curmudgeon as I am. Curmudgeon is one of those words that tends to be used only by curmudgeons. Definition: "a person (especially an old man) who is easily annoyed or angered and who often complains." Well, we have a lot to complain about!

David Stubbs, at the Guardian of all places, has a lovely rant about a couple of recent examples of crossover. Lindsay Stirling I have already written about a couple of times. But the other group he excoriates I have never heard of. Let's let Mr. Stubbs introduce them:
...the current, breathtakingly crass, spectacularly point-missing wave of pop-classical crossover. It makes one fantasise about re-education camps for the compulsory internment of whoever’s listening to this brazenly misguided bilge.
Exhibit A: Clean Bandit, a foursome of musicians from Jesus College, Cambridge. They’re responsible for Mozart’s House and the chart-topping Rather Be, which has racked up over 80 million views on YouTube. Rather Be is a pellet of perky, off-the-peg pop-electronica, featuring the quivery, vapid vocals of Jess Glynne, singing like she’s blowing snot bubbles and, of course, the mandatory EDM “drop” midway through. It also features one of the troupe sawing away in the upper registers on a violin, its strains suspended like chandeliers above the mix, intended merely to denote the classiness of classical music. Rather Be is part of a tag-cloud of contemporary awfulness that also includes words like “cupcakes” and “artisanal”.
Let's have a listen, shall we?

 Well, yes. Mr. Stubbs has some odd turns of phrase ("snot bubbles"?) but he is correct that this deserves a good excoriation. However, I think that he misses the really important aesthetic point. He has an essentialist view of classical music that it is inherently "classy" like a chandelier. But I think what this song demonstrates pretty well is that violins and perky rhythms do not necessarily make for good music. This song, like Pharrel Williams' "Happy" is, from an aesthetic point of view, rather similar to Rebecca Black's "Friday":

What they share is a theme utterly one-dimensional and simplistic with a musical accompaniment that, no matter how many tricky little bits it has, is just as simplistic. Aesthetically, that is. This is yet more evidence of the profound aesthetic truth that complexity and diversity are often aesthetic faults, not virtues. Simplicity of means is often the best way of expressing something that is NOT an aesthetic cliché. One example from pop music that might illustrate this is the pretty good (if not really profound) song "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye. The means are simple, but the theme is not such a cliché:

Classical music offers some wonderful examples like this remarkably sophisticated quartet movement by Joseph Haydn that uses the simplest of means, just descending fifths in half notes:

It is hard to put into words what makes a piece of music aesthetically serious, but I think it is very evident if you have the ears to hear it. Here is another example and again, the musical material is not very complex:

It is the relentless, pointless busyness of a lot of music (not just pop music, but in all styles and genres) that often reveals its emptiness...


Shantanu said...

That is an interesting differentiation - that of simplicity of means on the one hand, and of diversity and complexity on the other.

I think the former makes for a more solid aesthetic plan because there is usually a depth of ideas behind such music. Often, Debussy's music comes to mind, where he is making great leaps in composition because what he is composing is TRULY original. But listening to such music is often a neurologically heavy activity. It's brainy stuff, not everyone is ready, and even people who are fans are not always in the mood. It's like playing chess or studying quantum mechanics.

The other kind of aesthetic, which is based on diversity is obviously much easier to appreciate. Probably because it involved our bodies more and our minds less - hence the soothing effect. A lot of amateur listeners always have only one thing to say about music they like - "it's so soothing!" They are absolutely blind to the idea that music can be much more.

Bryan Townsend said...

I suspect one of the first things a commercial musician might to do "tart up" an arrangement is toss in some strings. But if you stick to just a few simple motifs, as Haydn often does, then you can't easily conceal the poverty of your imagination. Of course with Haydn, the simplicity reveals the richness of his creativity!

I was just listening to some music by Debussy that your comment reminds me of: the piano duet En Blanc et Noir. I was thinking that this music had just too many complex ideas.

Rickard Dahl said...

I think one of the biggest challenges in music is finding the sweet spot between simplicity and complexity and between repetition and variation. The composer's ability to do so seems to be one of the big things that differentiates the great composer from the good one and the good one from the bad one. In the Oxford History of the Western Music one of the "themes" seems to be describing how different composers managed to use even simple motific ideas and spin them out to amazing complete ideas (i.e. complete pieces).

Clearly pop music is often on the far simplistic side and modernist music is often on the far complex side. Neither give enough satisfaction to a listener who has a good sense of aesthetics.

Bryan Townsend said...

One book that you might have a look at that has many discussions of the subtleties of how composers put things together is The Classical Style by Charles Rosen.