Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Of Course My Tastes are Eclectic

I was thinking of saying they were not eclectic, but then I checked the definition (as one should) and yep, they are. Here is Webster definition 1: "selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles". Definition 2 is "composed of elements drawn from various sources". The key word is "best". As Duke Ellington famously said, "there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music".

I like good music. Well, who wouldn't? But it puzzles me when I ask someone what kind of music they like and they answer "all kinds of music". Maybe they mean all kinds of good music. Well, sure, me too. It seems a simple and typical situation: most pieces of music are probably not good. What's the ratio? Oh, probably 10% good, the rest bad. I've got a post saved up on bad music that I'll put up sometime.

In the meantime, let's just admit that a lot of music is dull, unimaginative, lifeless, or even actively unpleasant. We probably can cite individual examples. Music libraries are filled with big volumes of Baroque music, for example, that feature endless pieces by forgotten composers who never wrote a haunting melody, an imaginative sequence or a lively rhythm. Long may they rest in peace! Sometimes a composer emerges from the herd to achieve fame in a later era, someone like Domenico Scarlatti, who wrote 555 keyboard sonatas and achieved his highest fame in the 20th century. But he had famous admirers in the 18th and 19th centuries--Chopin among them. Usually the bad composers are just not played. By 'bad' here, I don't necessarily mean incompetent, but rather professional composers who just were not very creative--something of a drawback in a creative field.

So, individual composers can be good or bad. What about whole genres? Are there schools or idioms of music that seem to rule out completely the possibility of there ever being a good piece? My candidate is grindcore. As the Wikipedia article avers, "Grindcore is characterized by heavily distorted, down-tuned guitars, high speed tempo, blast beats, and vocals which consist of incomprehensible growls, or high-pitched shrieks." This genre of music may certainly have a function--something related to adolescent hormones I suspect--but it would seem incapable of achieving any kind of beauty. I have found the occasional rap or hip-hop song to be interesting in its own way, but I don't hold out much hope for grindcore.

I do find real beauty and interest in some popular music and some world music. I once spent a whole summer listening to nothing but gamelan music. I had a brief David Bowie phase and became captivated by The Police and the Talking Heads. Interesting stuff. Lately I've been trying to see what people see in Radiohead, but so far not succeeding. But in pop music, the Beatles rule, of course.

There is some great flamenco by Sabicas in particular, great blues from Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton, great tango from Astor Piazzolla. Lots of good stuff out there.

But just remember, most music is not that good so when you are being eclectic, pick the best stuff.


Shantanu said...

With appreciation of good music, sometimes comes an uninvited irritation at the popularity of bad music. I mean, I hate how Radiohead is among the most popular acts of today.

But in the end, I guess not everybody can listen to Beethoven all the time (except me of course).

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm not a fan of Radiohead either! I put up a couple of posts on them that you might want to look at.

You can't listen to Beethoven all the time? Gosh, why not? Heh! You can alternate with Haydn, Mozart, Bach and Shostakovich...