Monday, August 21, 2017

Eurocentric Music?

Ethan Hein seems to be an example of where the "new" musicology is going these days. No longer content with just singling out the odd composer for punishment as Susan McClary did with Beethoven, or offering blanket dismissals of all "dead, white, males" now it seems that a truly "woke" musicologist needs to get on board with the more extreme position that:
I have nothing against European classical music as music.
But it’s time to stop teaching it as if it’s in any way superior to or more fundamental than any other musical tradition.
Otherwise we’re giving intellectual and cultural validation to those assholes with the swastika flags.
This is from Slipped Disc where the item has garnered 83 comments to date. Traditionally we classical musicians have felt little need to either defend or apologize for our music as its quality speaks for itself. But I am beginning to think that those days are gone. I was at a musical gathering this past weekend where about equal numbers of classical and non-classical musicians were present and it turned, inevitably, into a blues jam session. That was preceded, however, by a shakuhachi player, who exalts in his inability to read music, offering a "two minutes hate" on those musicians who are literate. No-one offered to disagree with him. All I did was leave, but I regret not standing up and telling him he was wrong, in no uncertain terms.

Hey, if you want to turn all musical gatherings into blues jam sessions then count me out. And I am using that as a metaphor. A musicologist who states that he has nothing against European classical music as music is really in the wrong job and belongs to the wrong tribe (because the unstated subtext is that there is lots to condemn European classical music for in moral, social and cultural terms). The task of a musicologist is to understand and teach European classical music. Sure, there have grown up sub-disciplines that study blues, jazz and world music, but they are founded on the basic training and methods developed for use with European derived classical music. Honestly, you don't need to do Schenkerian analysis of Duke Ellington or Riemannian examination of West African drumming. The study of pop music can be quite interesting, but I think that anyone who approaches it with serious intent recognizes that the study of a Beatles' song and the study of, say, the Rite of Spring or a Bruckner symphony lie in rather different places on the aesthetic spectrum--and it's not just because of the length.

So yes, European classical music is IN FACT more fundamental than any other musical tradition for two reasons: first, because it is OUR musical tradition and second, because most of the highly developed techniques for writing music, including the ability to WRITE it were developed in Western Europe over the last thousand years. Basic history. These include, counterpoint, harmony, formal structure, development and a host of other things. Other cultures have used music in different ways, but with few exceptions the music has been limited to a small range of traditional elements and techniques due to the inability or disinterest in writing music down.

Now this has nothing whatsoever to do with those assholes with the swastika flags, nor those other assholes dressed in black with the anarchist flags. Frankly, it is astonishing that anyone with a scrap of education in music would even say things like this.

But we live in very strange times...

Since many of the comments reference the Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" by that notorious rapist, Beethoven, let's listen to a performance. This is the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Christian Thielemann:


 

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

You write that European classical music is more fundamental than any other because, first, it is ours.

By that logic, any culture is equally entitled to claim itself as the most fundamental. There's a name for this: cultural relativism. I assume that's not what you meant, so perhaps you will care to clarify.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the observation. What I meant was that European classical music is certainly more fundamental to us, members of Western civilization. But it is also more fundamental for the reasons I list next.

Ethan Hein said...

No, the task of a musicologist is to understand and teach music, period. European classical music is a big, rich, historically important form of music. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I treated it as the only kind of music worth studying. The methods of classical theory and analysis aren't even adequate to understanding all of Western music, much less the music of other cultures. The blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop are as much part of Western civilization as Beethoven is. Europe isn't the only source of influence on our culture, and in my lifetime it hasn't even been the most salient one. When you say "our" tradition, who is "us"? For myself, and for most creative musicians practicing in the world, the African diaspora is closer to the root of the tree. Writing music down was a tremendous technological advance, but not everything of interest can be notated, and in the age of recordings, aural tradition is no obstacle to works of arbitrary complexity.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Ethan, and welcome to the Music Salon. I actually agree with a great many of the points you make in your comment. Alas, standard theory and analysis is hardly ever adequate to the understanding of any music, I agree. Yes, blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop are as much a part of Western civilization as Beethoven is and Europe is not the only source of influence on our culture. Actually, I think Western European culture has been absorbing influence from every other culture on earth. Your mention of the African diaspora is the first place we seem to disagree. But I am not sure exactly what you mean by it? If you mean the bringing of people of Africa to the New World and their subsequent cultural influence, it has been an interesting one, but I don't know how it is "closer to the root of the tree" unless you are referring just to American popular music, which is just a portion of the music of the New World. Also, I feel quite strongly that written musical notation is far easier to study and work with than recordings.

Anonymous said...

Ethan: I think you're on to something, but your point gets lost in the inflammatory rhetoric. In particular, it leaves me confused about what you're really saying. Modern classical music is (with some rare exceptions) a waste of time: I'll take Bird, Trane, Duke, and Monk any day over Stockhausen, Cage, Dusapin, and Boulez, etc. Jazz is arguably the greatest American contribution to art and no time teaching it or learning it can be wasted. Although Jazz is built almost entirely on Western harmonies, its African roots are deeply original, profound, complex, and worthy of study. Where we might disagree is on the role of pop music (from the glorious Nas, which I revere, to the ridiculous Kanye West, who's the Donald Trump of pop music, and of course including rock): all of that music is 90 percent 19th c. Western harmony with a foundation in the blues. If John and Paul had auditioned for Schubert, he would have told them: "Nice music, fellows! But do you have anything original?" And in fact, as to prove my point, your wonderful blog is almost entirely devoted to Western music. With fewer than a dozen posts about Jazz, and it seems zero posts about non-Western music. So your blog seems to agree with your detractors, even if you don't.

So to go back to our Nazis and swastikas, I need to understand your point: Is it that what's taught here is too European and it needs to be more American, or is it too Western? American pop music is fine but the Brits did the same -- only better. I don't call Jazz pop music, because it's not commercial but all the top schools in the US include hefty doses of Jazz programming in their curriculum. So again what's your point? Not enough Frank Zappa (because he was American) but enough with David Bowie (because he was European)? If the problem is, not enough Ali Akbar Khan, then you need to say so because your message is unclear. Cheers!

Marc Puckett said...

I'm reading with great interest! but must occupy myself with other things this evening.

Am going to make the one comment only-- I think Bryan gives away too much by allowing that "blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop are as much a part of Western civilization as Beethoven is", echoing Mr Hein's assertion.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Anon: are you directing your remarks entirely at Mr. Hein? Or are you referring to my blog? I have actually put up a few posts on non-Western music.

Marc, that was carefully worded. They are as much a part as Beethoven, just not as important a part. Well, maybe jazz.

Anonymous said...

My comments are for Ethan. I am struggling to understand his point. He seems to want the Western music that's taught in schools to be more American. I know he doesn't mean that but what he writes sounds a lot like Donald Trump. His blog is mostly about Western music so it's clear that's his focus. But why the American obsession? Maybe that's what he grew up with. But that sounds very parochial. He needs to clarify his views.

Bryan Townsend said...

When I saw that Ethan Hein had left a comment here I braced myself for some strong rhetoric. Instead what came across was rather mild. Recall that what first drew everyone's interest was a Tweet he posted saying: EUROCENTRIC MUSIC EDUCATION IS A KEY TRANSMISSION VECTOR FOR WHITE SUPREMACY AND WE NEED TO FIGHT, which is rather extreme. What I quoted was a milder continuation. I think that he feels himself to be firmly placed on the left side of the spectrum, wanting to assert his social justice credentials and appear as a force for the progressive reform of reactionary classical music. But if you look over at the comments on Slipped Disc, he may have got more than he bargained for as the argument went on long and furious. So I think that Mr. Hein has pulled in his horns a bit, which makes his message, which started out with a clear position, to now seem a big foggy. Do you agree?

I think that this kind of confusion originates with the attempt to see everything from a political point of view while ignoring aesthetic value.

You mention that you think that the great jazz artists from the 50s and 60s are far superior to the leaders of the avant garde in those years. That is an aesthetic claim and one that you could argue for and you might find me in agreement. I'm a bit of an apostate when it comes to the Standard Narrative about music history in the 20th century: you know, "and Schoenberg begat Berg and Webern and it was good and they in turn begat Boulez and Stockhausen was also of that tribe..." Where I might give you an argument would be by putting someone like Shostakovich up against Mr. Ellington or Messiaen against Coltrane. Now that would be an interesting aesthetic argument.

Mr. Hein, I feel, just wants to post his anti-white supremacist credentials, but since classical music people really aren't white supremacists, his volleys go rather astray.

Bryan Townsend said...

The last sentence of the first paragraph should read "a bit foggy" not "a big foggy." Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Some of those anti-classical complaints remind me of a writer who pens a long diatribe against the hegemony of the English language... in English!

People fail to appreciate how much jazz harmony is indebted to European classical music: pre-Coltrane, it's literally 100%. Who was Charlie Parker's music hero? Louis Armstrong? Nope. It was Edgar Varese. But at least a good chunk of Jazz is based on modern classical harmonies! Whereas pop music remains almost always within the pre-Schubertian framework (with blues elements added to it). Mozart might be startled by bebop but he would be completely at home with Beyonce (just probably bored by the lack of imagination).

So I'd take complaints against classical European music more seriously if the critics didn't feed off of it so shamelessly only to whine about its influence. At least some people like Steve Reich and George Harrison genuinely sought non-Western influences. But when Kanye West calls himself the greatest musician since Beethoven, I have to laugh. (Plus Muhammad Ali, a much smarter man than West, played that shtick much more effectively.)


Ethan Hein said...

If I squint my eyes at the history of music in the United States, what I see is a gradual transformation from a culture that is dominated by European tradition around 1900 to one that is dominated by the African diaspora by 2000. Jazz has strong roots in marching bands and mostly uses European harmony, modified to include the blues. Rock moves further away from European harmony, and puts greater value on rhythm, groove, and timbre. Hip-hop treats harmony as a totally optional component of the music, and rappers leave the piano keys to roam freely across the pitch continuum, while putting more emphasis on rhythm and groove than any Western music ever has. Meanwhile, the academy has slowly and grudgingly come to embrace jazz, though only after many decades of racially motivated resistance. It seems inevitable to me that "educated" musicians will inevitably embrace hip-hop too. I say this with confidence because the music is too good, to adventurous, and too powerful to ignore forever. And my confidence is bolstered by the fact that all the invective that people with "taste" direct against hip-hop is almost identical to what they used to say about jazz: "It's noise, it's unmusical, where's the melody, it's destroying our kids' moral fiber." That said, the resistance to hip-hop is going to be strong and persistent. You can fit jazz into the conservatory without too much adjustment. Jazz musicians still need to read music and know theory. They play acoustic instruments on the concert stage. The core competencies of hip-hop, on the other hand, are not being taught in conservatories, and conservatory training is not much use for emcees and producers. I assume that conservatories will make peace with hip-hop about the same time that young black audiences move on to something new.

I'm not ultimately making an argument against European culture in favor of American culture. I'm making an argument about the Western identity. If you look at a university music curriculum, you see a culture defined almost entirely by white men (with a few token women and black men recently sprinkled in.) If you look at the rest of the musical culture, you see a world largely defined by America's black and immigrant cultures. I want our "official" music to look more like our unofficial music, the stuff that I and most people actually care about. I don't want to decenter Europe; I want to decenter whiteness. I want school authorities to recognize that "Western" culture is as much defined by Kanye West as it is by Beethoven, if not significantly more so. To deny that Kanye's music is not a full part of Western culture is to say that people who look like Kanye are less than full members of our civilization. When we teach white kids that black people are less than fully "civilized," we shouldn't be surprised at America's horrifying racial discrepancies in incarceration rates, socioeconomic status, health, and so on. For example: as of 2007, a study by Devah Pager showed that a white man with a felony drug conviction was more likely to be offered an entry-level job than a black man with a clean criminal record. America's racism isn't solely the fault of music education, but we are not a net force for good in this area, and we could be.

The good news is that we don't have to "dumb down" the curriculum for social justice purposes. To the contrary: black and immigrant musicians have been the main drivers of innovation in Western music for a hundred years, however slowly and reluctantly the cultural gatekeepers are to recognize that fact. Bringing university curricula up to speed with Kanye would enormously enrich it. I explain why in detail here: http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2016/why-hip-hop-is-interesting/

Ethan Hein said...

By the way, the main thrust of my campaign against white supremacy in music education is directed at Heinrich Schenker, who was an outspoken and unashamed white supremacist, and whose influence over the music departments at the schools where I teach continues to be outsized.

Bryan Townsend said...

There are so many things to disagree with in your comments that I hardly know where to start. Plus, I think that a few of my other commentators will want to weigh in. I do want to say that I have a fundamental disagreement with your engagement with collective identity politics. The idea that one's identity is defined by skin color or gender or however else you want to divide people up is one that is profoundly, PROFOUNDLY immoral and about as racist and sexist as you can be. So if you start there, you are not going to get anywhere I would regard as valid. The other thing I want to mention is that, while I am happy you are a big Kanye West fan, the rest of us pretty much see him as a blowhard with mediocre talents at best. You might want to hitch your wagon to a more deserving star.

Ethan Hein said...

I agree with you that identity politics is immoral. But it's also a fact of the world, one that music educators are no more free to ignore than any other group of professionals. To choose to ignore racism and other kinds of prejudice is to take a political position, one aligned with the status quo.

I agree that Kanye West is a less-than-admirable person in many ways. But plenty of the great classical composers ranged from unpleasant to borderline sociopathic, and that hasn't stopped us from engaging with their music.

Anonymous said...

"Decentering whiteness"... Are you kidding me? So Bach and Justin Bieber live in the same whiteness sphere and we can only choose to center or decenter them together. That is an amazingly racialist concept. So for you, if you have to bin Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Bach, and Coltrane into two classes, you'll put the two white dudes in one class (because Justin Bieber and JS Bach, having white skin, quite obviously belong together) whereas Beyonce and Coltrane are part of black culture hence belong together. Of course, one could argue that Beyonce and Bieber belong together in one group and so do Bach and Coltrane in the other one. Let me briefly run the argument why.

Neither Beyonce nor Bieber writes music. Beyonce is black but some of her main songwriters are... Norwegian! Oslo, that bastion of African-American music... B&B perform but they do not write music or words themselves. That's all done by a large team of pros who are keen students of the commercial needs of today's pop. Lemonade, for example, was "composed" by a team of 70 songwriters!

Now why do Bach and Coltrane belong together? Let me argue with no reference to who is the greater and all that nonsense. They belong together because both wrote music that strives to appeal to a large, complex, enduring set of aesthetic virtues that respond to the whole messy array of emotions that make up the human conditions. We can argue about who was more successful, and that's fine, but the premise must be that both were true artists. Why? Because both wrote music that speaks to us when we mourn and seek consolation, when we are angry and seek peace, when we long and search for comfort, when we're happy and want to dance, when we're scared and seek reassurance, when we're jumpy and need to jump, etc. These are universal appeals that know of no race, no class, no gender. This is not about white music vs. black music. It's about the art of music in its all-encompassing splendor. The problem with Beyonce and Bieber is, first, that their "art" is exceedingly narrow. Beyonce might be a great entertainer (although in my book she comes nowhere near Michael Jackson) but let's not fool ourselves about the nature of her popularity. Men like to watch her because she is a stripper with clothes who give us a virtual sense of having sex with her. Women like her because they see her sexuality as empowering. Two comments: the range of emotions it touches on is extremely narrow. Nothing to do with sexuality (I love Carmen) but narrowness. Second, there is no art to speak of: I can assure you that in a few years deep nets will produce "better" Beyonce music that the queen bey can deliver today.

And did I mention that all of her musical language is borrowed from Haydn? It's strikingly unoriginal.

So to go back to my point. It's criminal not to teach Trane and Satchmo because it's great American music that young Americans should know. It's just as criminal to teach Beyonce or Bieber in a music class because it does not qualify as art, being too narrow. Now in a class in sociology, fine. They're important figures for anyone who wants to understand American society.

I will also make a big pitch for classical Indian music. It's harder to "get" (it took me many years) but the rewards are great.

In the end, it's all about quality -- as best as we can assess it today.

PS: for the record, I consider Illmatic the most important artistic event of the 90s. Perhaps a sad statement about our era, but the album changed my life and that must count for something.

I need to sign off now. Thanks for the exchanges and best wishes to you!


Steven said...

Ethan, you agree with Bryan's judgement of Kanye West's character but you don't pass judgement on the worth of his music, which I would agree with Bryan is mediocre. Don't some pieces of music, and indeed some musical traditions, offer more to study than others? Aren't some in a sense 'higher' than others, and thus more worthy of attention? It would seem you are happy to pass judgement on everything but the music itself.

Ethan Hein said...

I think Kanye is worth studying because his music is spectacularly and consistently great. I explain why here: http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2016/why-hip-hop-is-interesting/

Ethan Hein said...

Beyoncé has been a more interesting cultural figure than a musical one, but with Lemonade her music is becoming more adventurous too. The long lists of cowriter credits reflect the collaborative and technically demanding nature of contemporary pop production, a process more like making a film than writing with a pencil. In the old days, you'd only have one or two co-writers, and all the session musicians and engineers just got their union scale and that was that. But now the sonic aspects of production are a more salient musical dimension than the harmony and melody, so all those musicians and engineers are getting writer credits in recognition of their more substantial input. To say that Beyoncé's music is worse because it's more collaborative misunderstands the nature of her idiom. All that said, for a really inventive contemporary R&B artist, check out Bey's sister Solange, one of the great talents of our time.

Steven said...

Thank you for the link. I found it all quite interesting until the last paragraph, when you suggest that hip hop is popular in the West because 'the musical African diaspora of which hip-hop is a part helps us resist imperialism through secular devotion'. This is a clear example of prejudice and ideology replacing open-minded study. You can't honestly attribute such a motive to people, who probably care zilch about 'racist imperialism' or 'African spiritual practice', unless you really, really want it to be true. I read the Brennan interview, which seemed even more fantastical:

'African spirituality in today’s music, in any case, is not what is generally meant by the word “spiritual.” Music is devotion in African religion. Its value system is rooted in relaxation, sexual release, collective oral expression, and satire. All of these are deliberately posed, I am arguing, against the discipline and orthodoxy of Judeo-Christian modernity, which listeners fully understand in the hearing of it.[emphasis mine]'

Come on, that's sheer unthinking projection.

I agree that hip hop is interesting to study. But your analysis, if anything, confirms to me that it's significantly less interesting than Western classical music. He uses no harmony and little melody, instead focusing on rhythm. Yet the use of rhythm is hardly as complex as its apparent source, African music, nor as inspired as in much of classical music. When you included the sound graph of the Kanye West song, I was struck not by its structure as you were, but by its lack of musicality. It could not be any noisier, any less compressed and unvaried and homogeneous, any less expressive. And the extravagant use of sampling above all proves one thing: it is not the sum of its parts.

Ethan Hein said...

You are free to disagree with Timothy Brennan. But hip-hop's popularity among white people is one of the most extraordinary developments in recent musical history, and it demands an explanation. Here we have a music created by and strongly associated with the most despised and oppressed people in America, which has nevertheless come to completely dominate the popular mainstream and a growing swath of "art" music. This is even more remarkable when you consider the scathing contempt that cultural gatekeepers like academics and "real" musicians have been directing at hip-hop for forty years now. How could this possibly have come to pass? The music itself is remarkably creative and interesting, in spite of this blog's commenters protests to the contrary, but there have to be deeper social forces at work for hip-hop to have overcome so much fierce and well-organized cultural resistance among white listeners. I find Brennan's explanation to be the most compelling one that I've read. You're free to reject it, but then I wonder what alternative you'd propose.

Bryan Townsend said...

Honestly I never know which posts are going to attract this kind of intense commentary. I feel the urge to look into the problem you state, what is the foundation of the appeal of hip-hop, but at the present I just have too many other projects on the go. The biggest stumbling block for me is that I just don't find the music creative and interesting. Not a bit. I'm not a cultural gatekeeper, though, just an individual, making individual aesthetic choices and I certainly don't level scathing contempt at hip-hop. I reserve that for grindcore. But at the end of the day, I strongly suspect that the reasons for the popularity of hip-hop might have explanations more sociological and cultural than aesthetic or musical.

Steven said...

Could it be as simple as many people like loud, very rhythmic, coarse, rebellious, basically pornographic music? (And if anything, hip-hop seems an incredibly American, capitalist art form.) I don't see why white people's fondness for hip-hop has to be particularly different from black people's (there are white hip-hoppers, or whatever they're called, right?). Perhaps it's because I'm British, not American, but it seems almost racialist to imply there is a fundamental differences between how races in the same nations and communities hear music. There are surely middle class blacks in America whose cultural connection to hip hop is further removed than poor, urban whites’?

(Thank you for taking the time to comment, by the way. I have found it interesting, at least, to read your arguments.)

Steven said...

I also recall Allan Bloom quoting Plato, who saw music as the 'barbarous expression of the soul'. Bloom thought classical music tried to tame and civilise music, forming it into art, and that much of pop did the opposite, and is popular for that reason. (Not that I agree, just that it suddenly came to mind.)

Ethan Hein said...

You don't have to be racist to recognize that people with different life experiences are going to have different relationships to music. I'm an upper middle class white Jewish guy. It would be silly to imagine that I enjoy hip-hop in exactly the same way as a poor black person. (And of course, there are overlaps in our musical experiences too, just like there are overlaps in our non-musical experience.)

I can't speak to the motivations of every white hip-hop lover, but I can speak to my own. I listen to the music in spite of its violent content rather than because of it. I find the music so compelling that I'm willing to work around the confrontational lyrics. The n-word in particular makes me extremely uncomfortable and I would really prefer it not to be there. (I would similarly imagine that lovers of Wagner are listening to the Ring Cycle in spite of all the incest in the plot, rather than because of it.)

As to the sexual content of hip-hop, though, it's a peculiar sickness of white Judeo-Christian culture that we automatically hear that as pornographic. Not every world culture finds sexuality to be intrinsically sinful or objectionable. Black music attracts me in part because of its frank and unhysterical treatment of sexuality, compared to the simultaneous revulsion and fetishistic fascination that white artists tend to fall into. The cheerful and good-natured body positivity of Missy Elliott has helped me overcome some of the crushing self-loathing I learned in my white upbringing. Of course, not every rapper is as wonderful as Missy. Plenty of the sexual content in other rappers' work is there for shock value. But it's too simple to say, "oh, there's sex in there, it must be dirty, and stupid people are seeking that out."

Jives said...

Back in the 80s and 90s, rap used to be much more closely related to funk. James Brown loops formed the basis of many a song. Good stuff, tonally grounded, nice beats. Every now and again, I dip a toe into one of the latest rap releases, Future, Drake, Jay Z, and I'm disappointed again and again to find them just god-awful. A dreary cacophony, plodding, harmonically inept, lyrically unedifying. I don't care how much the kids like it, that does not make it good.

"Hip-hop treats harmony as a totally optional component of the music"

To its detriment, I happen to think that a measure of harmonic/melodic sophistication would IMPROVE the output of hip hop artists, don't you, Ethan? I mean, I hear tracks that are so clumsily assembled, so harmonically incoherent, they're a chore to listen to. The only thing that saves much of this music is the relentless beat (always in 4/4, why no other meters?)

" I want school authorities to recognize that "Western" culture is as much defined by Kanye West as it is by Beethoven, if not significantly more so"

wow-ee, you've lost the thread. Kanye does not, by virtue of his commercial popularity, supplant Beethoven as a contributor to our culture. What exactly has Kanye contributed to the culture, MUSICALLY, not in terms of social awareness etc, but musically? 808s and heartbreak? A meandering collection of chintzy electro drums and auto-tuned vocals, that's high culture now?

"The core competencies of hip-hop, on the other hand, are not being taught in conservatories, and conservatory training is not much use for emcees and producers

So, in sum, I call BS on all this. THe interest in elevating hip hop in the academy seems to be totally motivated by collective white guilt.

Steven said...

That's fair. I'm glad you aren't attracted to its violent content -- though I suspect a lot of people sadly are (if not a majority, a significant majority, or else it wouldn't be so successful). I don't find sexuality objectionable, but I do find the implicitly violent sexuality in the (admittedly little) hip-hop I've heard objectionable. Having witnessed the behaviour of people listening and dancing to this kind of music in nightclubs, I find it hard to see it as in any way liberating and benign. (FWIW, I certainly experienced no such 'crushing self-loathing' in my rather ordinary 'white upbringing'.)

When I listen to music, I'm often able to do so almost abstractly. It would seem very strange to listen to music to affirm my morbid skinniness, for example. When there is a reason, it's altogether larger and more purposeful: what is transcendent and what is inspired, something outside of my experience and not really about me in any way. There are other more mundane forms of music (and I mean that not in the disparaging sense), and they're certainly interesting, but not equal.

Bryan Townsend said...

Aaaaaaaannnnndddd the winner of the thread is: Jives!

In fact, I am getting an idea for a very relevant post on musical historiography: Can the Culture Ever Be In Decline: a Whig History of Music?

Christopher Culver said...

Bryan, you wrote: "European classical music is IN FACT more fundamental ... because it is OUR musical tradition"

That tradition was ruptured in the mid-20th century. While it is known that European classical music had its great following and impact for centuries, that all generally passed away before many of the people working today were even born. The tradition handed down to them is that of popular music.

I find it extremely problematic to claim that a scholar has to appreciate or focus on a cultural artifact just because his/her ancestors did, even if it is of little interest to him/her personally. That seems the same sort of identity politics that you repeatedly criticize here on this blog.

As for Steven's deploration of hip-hop as violent, so are many other art forms. Consider the Kyrgyz Manas, which over the last century has gradually won praise as a masterpiece of intangible cultural expression. So much of its narrative consists of brutal predations on neighbouring peoples, which are of course positively depicted because the perpetrators represent the same people as the bard himself.

Most orally transmitted epic poetry is of a similar cast; the modern rapper’s amassing of "bling and bitches" is nothing new. Whenever people disparage the lyrical tropes of hip-hop – or narcocorridos – I am usually led to suspect they do so out of a wider distaste for the ethnicity or class writing those lyrics, because they are pretty par for the course in human culture. If anything, the belief that violent lyrics are bad is a very modern one alien to so many of the cultural traditions of prior ages that are now held to classics.

Ethan Hein said...

I'm 42 years old, so my own tastes in hip-hop also lie in the late 80s and early 90s. That doesn't mean I've lost interest in what's happening currently. Most of what's on the radio is fairly terrible, but most of what's on the radio in any genre of music during any era is fairly terrible. Back in Austria in the eighteenth century, there were a lot more Salieris than Mozarts. So it is now.

There's a difference between harmonic complexity and harmonic sophistication. I do not believe that increasing the harmonic complexity of hip-hop would necessarily make it more sophisticated. I think its extreme harmonic minimalism is one of its strengths. The timbres and rhythms are really complex. If the harmony was that complex, it would be too much information. Consider: back in the 70s, prog rock and jazz fusion tried to play extremely harmonically complex music on synths using elaborate multitrack recording techniques, and the result was mostly awful. Another point to consider: I've been listening a lot to the Bach chaconne from his D minor violin partita. You know how there was a period when people were writing elaborate orchestrations of that piece, with all kinds of added harmonies? Did any of those improve on someone just playing it on solo violin? Last thing: listen to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly to hear a rap album with a lot of densely chromatic jazz harmony. He pulls it off, but there's a reason that few other people are taking that direction.

The nice thing about the relentless 4/4 is that it creates an anchor for a lot of elaboration. As the base tempo slows, the pulse is moving from sixteenth notes to thirty-second notes, and even the most middle of the road top 40 hip-hop tracks are subdividing beats in ever-more-surprising ways. And now everyone is doing the Migos flow, moving in and out of eighth note triplets, along with the usual dragging way behind the beat. If the meter got more complicated and you tried to do all of that elaboration and cross-rhythm, it might sound amazing, but would probably end up being a mess. Venetian Snares is doing a lot of electronic dance music in odd meters, and while it's more "interesting" than commercial EDM, it doesn't really grab me.

I don't think Kanye is important because of his commercial popularity. I think he's important because his music is consistently breathtakingly great. No one in the mainstream world is as creative with the timbre of the human voice as he is, and few "art" musicians are either. I love his use of processed and sampled vocals especially. In his song "Famous," he combines Rihanna singing a Jimmy Webb song through tons of compression and Auto-Tune with Nina Simone singing the same song in her usual unvarnished way, along with a Sister Nancy sample that he re-pitches into a new melody, thus taking her already otherworldly dub vocal and making it sound even stranger through phase vocoding. On top of all of that you have his combination of speech-like rap and singsong rap. No one else is doing all of that in a single track.

Ethan Hein said...



My favorite thing Kanye has ever done is this: https://soundcloud.com/kanyewest/say-you-will

It's a remix of a song from 808s and Heartbreak that he did with Caroline Shaw. No one was demanding that he remix this track; he just felt like it didn't live up to its potential, so he did this new version paid for out of his pocket and is currently giving it away on SoundCloud. Here you have his otherworldly Auto-Tune on top of her stacks and layers. You don't have to like the effect, but it's a pretty remarkable one.

But so let's talk about 808s and Heartbreak. Even there, simple though the tunes sound, the level of sonic detailing is amazing. In "Love Lockdown" there's a very subtle tempo-synced delay that puts a three-against-four polyrhythm on the entire vocal. He turns on the distortion just for that one line in the first verse and then you don't hear it again. Towards the end there's what sounds like an electric guitar solo, which is him standing across the room from the mic and screaming, filtered through Auto-Tune and a different distortion. The innovation of tuning kick drums to play the bassline means that there's no need for bass, which leaves an incredible amount of empty space at the bottom end of those tracks. The midrange is pretty empty too aside from the vocals, so you can really hear the whole overtone series of those kicks. On a club system you can play those tracks loud enough that people can feel them in their chest cavity without hurting their ears.

Do I think Kanye is "high culture"? Who cares? I teach in two music schools. I hear plenty of "art" music. I hear very little that I would want to hear twice. If any "serious" composer was making music that excited me as much as Kanye's does, I would care more about "serious" composers. I went and listened to some of Caroline Shaw's music after hearing her collaboration, and it's interesting, but none of it is as impactful as it is when combined with Kanye's beats.

I'm not expecting to convince anyone reading this to enjoy Kanye's music, or anything else. But I'm a well-educated musician. I listen to everything. Either I'm deluding myself into hearing more depth in Kanye's music than is really there, or maybe you just haven't given it enough attention.

Jives said...

Fair enough, Ethan. I applaud your willingness to engage. I listen to everything too, but I don't pretend that Kanye's tweaking of delay presets is equivalent to actually playing a four against three polyrhythm in say... a string quartet. I think your analysis of Love Lockdown gives way too much credit, and I think your traditional musical training enables you to see more complexity there than Kanye ever did. I make electronic music too, it's mostly computer work, knob twiddling, point/click, sound collage, recording studio as instrument. Lots of good stuff happens that you don't even plan. But I realize that I'm just detuning a sample, or applying a chorus or a phase shifter. These skills are taught in a recording arts program, no?

What it isn't, is the "Performance of Music in Real Time on Real Instruments", the cultivation and preservation of which skill seems to me the point of the conservatory. Pressing a button on your laptop does not need to be taught at conservatory. Also, I ask myself, what happens to Kanye's music when the electricity goes off?

The technological sophistication and variety of pop music is very heady and seductive, I get it. And I think there are many things classical composers could learn from the immediacy and accessibility of pop music. I'm currently obsessed with Charli XCX and PC music collective. But those techniques are a shaky foundation on which to build a musical education. Maybe you were overstating it, but your proposal to shift the culture of music ed in response to essentially the commercial success of hip hop, with a big shove from white guilt, seems very misguided.




Anonymous said...

Early hip hop was exhilarating: Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan, Nas, 2Pac, and the usual suspects caused a true revolution in pop music. Rock and (thankfully) disco had died, so the world was ready for something new. And the New York rappers delivered! They put hip hop on its track for greatness and bound to become the world's most popular music genre. Then when all the gangsta/playa stuff threatened to kill the idiom, people like Jay-Z and yes Kanye West rescued it. But then in my view the music died by running out of creative juice. What Ethan has shown is that Kanye is a monster producer with a rich enough palette to break new grounds constantly. But is it good? I'd argue that it's mediocre and not anything as innovative as Ethan suggests. Unlike the rap pioneers, Kanye traffics in the standard collage-like production of performative sonic experiences. And bear in mind liking it is not the point. I don't "like" Joyce's Ulysses. But I can see that it's great art. And this leads me to my main point, which is that the converse is true.

One can like bad art. For example, I really like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and apparently I have top art critics (like Danto) on my side. But do I think it's good art? No, I think it's quite mediocre, dead-end art. I love Lou Reed but I don't think it's good music either.

I could elaborate but I suspect everyone is tired of this debate so I'll just leave it at that. By the way,
I always find plenty to disagree with on Bryan's blog but I always find it a stimulating place for discussion and I seem to learn something new every time I visit this site. I thank Ethan for his participation. Solid, civil differences of opinion can be a wonderful thing.

Steven said...

@Christopher you say: 'I find it extremely problematic to claim that a scholar has to appreciate or focus on a cultural artifact just because his/her ancestors did, even if it is of little interest to him/her personally. That seems the same sort of identity politics that you repeatedly criticize here on this blog.'

All the best cultural artefacts are inherited. Hip-hop is a cultural inheritance too, and not simply the whim of a generation or person. For the most part I've inherited the music I like from the European continent; Mr. Hein has inherited the music he likes from the Africa. As things stand, most of us can go either way with our cultural inheritance: I have ancestors who listened to jazz and swing and others who liked Western classical music. As Mr Hein wrote earlier, 'For myself, and for most creative musicians practicing in the world, the African diaspora is closer to the root of the tree.'

I should perhaps be careful in describing hip-hop as violent, as I don't have the authority to say. It seems disproportionately violent compared to other art forms. Is that fair? Certainly there is a conspicuous absence of the good and the beautiful.

@Ethan oh goodness yes, prog rock was disastrous. And I think I agree with you about harmonic complexity/sophistication 100%, or near enough. Everything you say about Kanye West's music puts me off unfortunately, especially the description of 'him standing across the room from the mic and screaming, filtered through Auto-Tune and a different distortion.'

Bryan Townsend said...

This has been one of the best comment threads we have had in a long time. Thanks to Ethan Hein for getting us fired up and for coming into the arena and joining the debate. And a big thanks to my lovely commentators, many of whom know more about the details of popular music than I do. One other person that I think helped me create a space where vigorous, yet civil, debate is possible was my first year philosophy professor, Eike-Henner Kluge, who taught me the ins and outs of genuine philosophical discussion.

I was in a discussion once with a colleague about some issue in international economics (god help us!) and at a certain point I felt the need to point out to him that I didn't actually care who of us had the right of it. I wasn't even hugely worried about what the correct answer was. But what I was really interested was in how we got to the truth, whatever it is.

I think that we can appreciate Ethan's enthusiasm for Kanye West without actually sharing it. Hey, I used to be a huge fan of the supergroup Cream and their extended improvisations! But I can also see their limitations and why everyone does not share my enthusiasm.

Sr. Anonymous, can I quote something you said in the quote section in my right hand column? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Of course, you may.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks!

Ethan Hein said...

I think that Kanye's tweaking of delay presets is more interesting at this point than playing four against three polyrhythm in a string quartet. Digital delay doesn't sound like playing the same notes over and over because it's an uncannily perfect repetition of precisely the same information. Whether or not it's "easier" to use plugins to achieve the effect doesn't make any difference to the listener experience. If string quartets were using more digital delay, I might be listening to more string quartets. I like Todd Reynolds' work because he's exploring the expressive possibilities of delay--I'd love to hear him produce some hip-hop.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKUSsQZFzsE

I don't know Kanye, but I know a lot of other hip-hop musicians, and to presume that they're musically unsophisticated because they use computers for production is uninformed at best. It reminds me of the way that people used to talk about jazz improvisation, as this completely intuitive thing where you just played whatever you felt. There might be some happy accidents involved in hip-hop production, but in my observation everyone usually knows exactly what they're doing and why.

I've done playing with instruments, and "playing the studio." The barrier to entry to playing the studio is lower, but attaining mastery is not any easier. Untimately, making good music on a computer requires a lot of deep listening and creativity. I know way too many traditional musicians who are underskilled in both areas. If traditional music training was all it took for people to effortlessly master knob twiddling, then all my music technology students would be great at it. But they aren't. Knob twiddling is indeed taught in recording arts programs, but that's considered to be a completely separate area of study from actual musicianship. In 2017, we need to consider it to be as much a part of the foundation as theory and aural skills. The kids should know why Kanye's tracks sound so much better than everyone else's, not just why Beethoven's voice leading works better than everyone else's.

I guess what I'm arguing here is that the European conservatory model is not the best one for every music student. It's fine to run trade schools for orchestra musicians, but it's irresponsible to take every would-be musician and run them through a trade school for a trade that barely exists. If you're determined to be an oboist in a symphony orchestra, great. But I teach a lot of kids who want to be musicians, who don't have a one hundred percent clear idea of what that is, and who end up mastering a bunch of skills that they can't use anywhere outside of music school. I want to prepare them to go out in the culture and make music that connects with people. I absolutely want classical music in the curriculum, but I want the curriculum to have a broader base. I'd want those kids who aren't one hundred percent committed to classical music (which is almost all of them) to come out of music school having at least some idea of what's involved in writing a song, making a recording, and improvising, all of which would serve them well in the strong likelihood that they don't end up in a symphony orchestra.

I'm sorry, but the question of happens to Kanye's music when the electricity goes off is just silly. Is it supposed to be a mark of aesthetic quality that you can do your art in a blackout? Are we going to disqualify film, TV, anything involving computers, and any kind of music that's amplified or recorded from serious consideration? By that logic we should make classical musicians perform by candlelight. Feel free to not like rap music, but let's keep things rational. Although I will also point out that rap works very well with just voice beatboxing, and I'm sure Kanye would function just fine in a streetcorner cypher.

Ethan Hein said...


The reason to study hip-hop isn't that it's heady and seductive. The reason to study it is that it's where all the genuine creative risks are being taken, where new ideas are constantly being tried and rejected, where artists are talking about what's happening around them and to them. I think the "legit" composers should be studying Kanye more closely because, while their music is usually more complex and certainly more difficult to understand, it's also generally not very, you know, good. Success in the marketplace doesn't automatically make Kanye a good artist, but it also doesn't automatically make him a bad one, anymore than it did for Duke Ellington or the Beatles.

Dismissing rap in 2017 is like dismissing jazz in 1947 or rock in 1967, it's turning away from the locus of the culture in all its splendor and ugliness. The ugliness is certainly present in hip-hop; it would be insane if it wasn't. A black man in St Louis is more likely to be killed by a cop than an average American is to be killed by anyone. Rappers wouldn't be doing their jobs as artists if they weren't engaging in that reality, and we're not doing our jobs as listeners if we aren't. Black issues are white issues too. It's not a matter of "guilt," it's a matter of being a good and socially engaged person.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just two things, Ethan, and then I think we should let this thread lie in peace. First of all, thanks for the Todd Reynolds clip. It is a very interesting piece and I'm glad to have heard it. It reminds me a bit of Steve Reich and one of the most interesting things about Steve Reich is that he started out playing with tape loops and discovered some interesting rhythmic effects. But then his first thought was to try and realize these with actual musicians because just having a tape recorder do it was not as interesting--or as musical--as having musicians do it.

Second, don't feel you have to answer every comment. You don't. Pick a particular train of argument and follow it. You are trying to chase too many rabbits and it weakens your case. This is especially true when you bring in social messages. If you want to argue music, argue music. If you want to argue politics, argue politics (but not here!). It is very awkward when you combine them because it opens up the discussion so wide that it loses all coherence.

Jives said...

"I think that Kanye's tweaking of delay presets is more interesting at this point than playing four against three polyrhythm in a string quartet"

I have to say, that makes me a bit sad.
So, Ethan. I disagree with probably 95% of your assertions. I listened to the Reynolds, there's a bit of interest there, but it might have been more engaging without the omnipresent rhythmic bed, and maybe some motivic development.

Not sure where you're teaching, but conservatories across the nation have had jazz and third stream departments and recording arts programs for decades. If you're at a rather serious classically oriented conservatory, then maybe that's not the best place, they're in the business of teaching the basics and conserving our very precious cultural heritage, and you are "done with playing instruments." Everybody else is not "done" with that, they're passionate about it. It requires an athleticism best developed in youth. Perhaps you struggle in an environment which is just too conservative for you. Though, I do think some of the changes you espouse might occur naturally over time as new generations come up.

I stand by my statement that a dollop of harmonic sophistication (not complexity for its own sake) could only improve the efforts of Kanye et al. I don't think that pop musicians are musically unsophisticated, you sure do need some skills to do that well. But I'm not willing to put Brahms and the Beatles in the same league either. I think that rap/pop is reaching its decadent, too-much-information phase, a sort of arms race for the latest shiny digital chirps, burps and samples. Now, Kendrick Lamar is a rapper who's gotten my attention, because he's incorporating jazz in a very authentic way, right into the bones of his music, with erudition, and it shows in the music.

What I think everyone objects to most heartily is the idea that all of this must be done RIGHT NOW, in a top-down fashion, in service of some amorphous "good". Beware when using that word. Worst of all is the implication which began all this, that differing opinions must be motivated by racial animus. I love pop music, but I do not put it in the same experiential category as a Brahms symphony or a Bach mass, and it's role in music ed should not be central. Cue tear-down of Bach and Brahms...

Ethan Hein said...

My central point with all of this is that there are no musical opinions that are not also political opinions.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, yes, and I think we have engaged with that point in various ways. But it is quite likely that you think that all musical opinions (and music itself, presumably) are also political opinions because you have been captured by an ideology. "The personal is the political" is another expression of this ideology. There are many ideologies out there, but they have one thing in common: they offer to the believer a simple template to understand the world; this is their main appeal. The problem is that this simple template, which answers all questions, is a low-resolution one and the answers it gives are not very good. You should have a look at your ideologies. Where did they come from? What do they imply? Are they good ones? Be critical of your own ideologies.

Jives said...

Respectfully, I do not accept the validity of that formulation.