Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pop Connections

The Guardian has a feature article up titled "What pop music owes to the classical masters" that looks rather interesting. Let's have a look. Here is a bit on the origins of the pop song:
Most pop songs are based on a dozen or so of the most familiar chord sequences that were "discovered" in the late 18th century. In the present age, someone such as Adele is an original singer because of her voice, her attitude and her style. But the chords and sequences she and most pop writers are using have been around for a very long time. Perhaps the originator of the three-minute pop song was John Dowland, way back in Shakespeare's time, but I think the modern pop song was created by Schubert.
I'm not sure that "discovered" should be in scare quotes. The latent tensions and functionality of harmony were incrementally uncovered over quite a period of time: from Dufay to Haydn, basically, but while the discovery was spread out and collective, it was still a discovery. The writer should have avoided the word "sequence" in that context because it has a specific musical meaning: a sequence is a melodic or harmonic structure that is repeated at a different pitch. What the writer should have referred to are chord "progressions".

About Schubert's legacy they write:
Some of these simple rules of songwriting just continue to be the simple rules of songwriting, and there's nothing much about Adele or Simon & Garfunkel or Leonard Cohen's songs that would have seemed alien to the Viennese composer in terms of the chords, or the shape, the way the verse leads into the chorus, or the piano accompaniment. In fact, the thing that would strike Schubert as most odd about an Adele song is the fact that a woman wrote it rather than being its object.
Of course there are no "rules" as such--there are even places where great composers like Haydn have written parallel fifths, which is probably the most strict rule of all. But what there are, are practices and tools. My sense is that the feeling of the classical progressions is enormously weakened by the pervasive use of modes instead of keys and by the rhythmic context of pop music. Notice how they sneak in a bit of feminist ideology in the last sentence?
Beethoven changed the point of what music was. He and his music became indivisible: it was a reflection of his inner turmoil. His work sits at the time of a broader cultural movement where artists and poets were doing the same, but what became a musical commonplace was begun by him.
This is just what I was saying in my post yesterday. They are viewing the incursion of biography into music as a plus, where I was characterizing it as bombast and melodrama. But in the next section they do acknowledge the problem:
But the cult of the isolated, divine or demonic genius – of which Beethoven was the first outstanding musical example – was developed to a whole new level by Berlioz. We have this French composer to thank for the image of the deranged, hair-challenged, isolated composer, one that persists to this day. He himself was a borderline psychopath at the forefront of the mid-19th century's obsession with doomed love, death and destiny, and wrote music on an epic scale, music that would embrace all of life. He was obsessed with Beethoven – as we still are today, possibly to too great an extent. We've constructed this great building of Beethoven-the-man on top of his music, but if you strip that away and ask what's going on in this music, it's not always the same thing.
The problem with being an isolated, demonic genius in the modern world is that it is hard to get government grants. So what you have to do is widely publicize your demonic genius--which is not only less isolated, but also a lot less convincing: hello reality show and Lady Gaga.

Here is the denouement:
 Today, there are people who are antagonistic to popular culture of all kinds, who rant about how there's nothing good on TV, that young people's tastes, habits and fashions are all repellent to them. But it was ever thus. For a "serious" composer such as Gershwin to put jazz into a piece of classical music was deeply threatening and played to a fear that, somehow, it would pollute "serious" music. But you can't make styles stay apart. They will come together no matter what.
Yes, I'm sure there are, but this is a classic straw man: paint the opposing view in the crudest, most simplistic terms so it is easily dismissed. Here at the Music Salon we actually try to distinguish between good and bad on television, trends in tastes, pop music and so on. That's why we have minds, after all. It is not "deeply threatening" for a composer to incorporate some jazz elements into a piece of music. But it may be successful or not so successful. Isn't it remarkable how so much of what we read in the mainstream press keeps beating the same drum over and over? In this case that classical music people are elitist and fearful of pollution and that all music is just sort of a big slough of similarities. Articles like this are about 50% actual information and 50% propagandizing. Thankfully, the Music Salon is here to point it out.  Heh!

Now let's have an envoi. Actually, let's have two: a song by Adele and a song by Schubert just to see how terribly similar they are. First the Adele. This is her big hit "Hello". The song does finally get going after well over a minute of docublather.

Now Schubert. This is "Nacht und Träume" sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. The first thing you notice is that the harmonies use suspensions and resolutions instead of just the block chords in the Adele. There are other differences as well...


David said...

Bryan, thanks for continuing my education and keeping watch over the information/propaganda stream in media content. The statements in the paragraph you quoted last started me thinking about "serious" composers and jazz elements. I found it interesting that a mere 10 years after the 1924 premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, Shostakovich's Jazz Suite #1 was premiered in a hall presumably a long way from New Orleans. Does this fact support the claims that the jazz features were "deeply threatening"? Not so much, I think.

I also note that the Wikipedia commentary on R in B comments that the publication of the piece "established Gershwin's reputation as a serious composer". Quite a different spin from that in The Guardian. And a helpful glimpse of the journalist's agenda for her article.

Delving a little deeper, I see that the article is an "as told to" piece. The ideas expressed are really those of Howard Goodall, a composer whose works include the themes for Mr. Bean and The Vicar of Dibley. Mr. Goodall was named a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2011. He published The Story of Music in 2014.

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure! Thanks for mentioning the use of jazz by Shostakovich. Stravinsky did the same in his Ebony Concerto and I'm sure there are lots of other examples. In other words, this is very old news.

You can say that Gershwin is a serious composer, but I think you would need to qualify that a lot.

Here is the Mr. Bean theme and it sounds ever so like an Anglican hymn:


Marc Puckett said...

I never much got the point of Mr Bean, ha, but this has diverted me into listening to some Shostakovich again today. Last night I 'discovered' the soundtrack to a film by Pierre de Mahéas that sandwiches the symphonic version of the Andante of the String Quartet no 10 op 118 between iterations of Henry Mancini's Vereda Tropical.

That Hello is from Adele's latest album? It sounds like how I remember songs sounding on the previous one, & I don't really see how it can be such a hit-- & I did (really!) listen many times to 21. Once I've listened to all of Schubert's lieder (there are 18 CDs!!! of lieder not even counting the major cycles-- who knew? you did point this out in a post or series of them, ahem; life is too short...) perhaps I'll spend some more time with Adele.

Bryan Townsend said...

Adele is quite a nice pop singer, no doubt, but compared to Schubert?

Yes, there are a stunning number of remarkable songs by Schubert, starting from when he was seventeen.

Jeph said...

Great post, love this topic. That article is a mess. I appreciate that Goodall is pointing out that classical music need not seem so remote to the modern listener. Schubert would be a great point-of-entry for the inexperienced listener. But Goodall's examples seem simplified to the point of absurdity, and distorted to resonate with today's headlines. Was there such a controversy around Dvorak's New World? come on...he heard some folks song in pentatonic scales, and it inspired him.
That said, I think (the best) pop music has a great deal to teach art music composers about reconnecting with their audience, and providing some entertainment. Art music could afford to have a more inviting texture; ideas could develop more quickly and we could dispense with the more abstruse techniques which result in emotionally bereft music. And vice versa, art music has much to teach pop music about depth and durability. "Hello" doesn't even have a bridge, but imagine if it did have one, with a series of searching suspensions and resolutions like the Schubert song. That would be something.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jeph, I was reading some liner notes to a Steve Reich album recently and he was making some of the same points, that art music and popular music are reconnecting with one another after quite a hiatus. He is one of the people responsible, of course.