Thursday, July 31, 2014

Musical Taste

The New York Times has a piece in the Sunday Book Review on the cultural categories "highbrow", "middlebrow" and "lowbrow". Though focusing on literature a couple of things are said about cultural categories in general. Writer Pankaj Mishra summarizes like this:
Such distinctions as lowbrow, highbrow and middlebrow are now mostly useful in identifying their early adopters: a tiny minority of artists and intellectuals who felt a sense of siege as capitalism became global. Political defeat, isolation and irrelevance had devastated their old presuppositions about art and its relation to human beings. Modernism was their last desperate attempt to reimagine modernity, to move beyond bourgeois notions of representation and harmony. But it turned out to be a patchy and mostly elitist phenomenon.
The glaring error in this version of things is the not-so-hidden assumption that capitalism is the enemy of high culture. This must mean that socialism is the friend? Historically, socialists of various stripes are the first to politicize and propagandize the arts; while some of the greatest music ever written was commissioned and supported by members of the aristocracy. An example: virtually every note written by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Another view comes from writer Thomas Mallon who says:
Criticism is the realm in which I’d prefer to see hierarchy abide. In the end, we’re all better off with a republic of letters, not a democracy. No amount of mindless “liking” or one-star customer-comment scorn can replace the lengthier, more considered critical judgments we used to have time to write and read. With everyone clamoring for recognition in the same ether — with everyone now, in effect, his own publisher — our judgments are ever less nuanced, ever more nasty or stupidly appreciative. Speed is imperative, and rumination is out. The brow that’s really in danger of disappearing is the furrowed one.
And this is the main reason for the existence of this blog, of course. While not aiming for serious scholarship, I try to provide a more thoughtful understanding of music than is available in the mass media. "Stupidly appreciative" captures rather well most writing about pop music in the mass media, don't you think? Those kinds of writing are so ubiquitous I won't even link one for you. But even the supposedly "highbrow" discussions of popular music in the mass media are bizarrely superficial. Here is a case in point, a nearly interminable piece on Bob Dylan by Bill Wyman. Here is a sample from near the beginning:
We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.
How could anyone think of Bob Dylan, of all people, as a "rock star"? And then go on to set him beside the Stones, Springsteen and U2? If that is how Wyman sees Bob Dylan, then no wonder he thinks he is weird. Bob Dylan is a songwriter, one of the greatest of the 20th century and the people you might compare him to are Lennon and McCartney and Leonard Cohen. He doesn't like being a celebrity and avoids being treated as one. Plus, he likes to mislead interviewers. I think that understanding these few things clears up all of Bill Wyman's confusion! But Mr. Wyman is confused by nature, I suspect. Take this sentence for example:
For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him.
Is there any possible way that that sentence means anything at all? Self-contradictory meaningless drivel is how I would describe it. This sentence I found particularly entertaining:
His uncanny musicianship—producing enduring melodies and lovely harmonica solos—included an ability to effortlessly transpose keys that would impress professionals throughout his career.
Heh, heh, heh! Enduring melodies? Compared to whom? Tom Waits? Bob Dylan writes great songs, but their strong point is their lyrics. It is hard to think of many that have much of a memorable melody. They tend to wander back and forth between two or three notes. They are eminently suited to his striking lyrics, but on their own? When was the last time you were in an elevator and heard an instrumental version of a Dylan song? "Lovely harmonica solos"? Oh, good lord. Dylan's harmonica playing is almost as grating as his singing. Though there are times when both are quite nice. But no-one would ever hire Bob Dylan as a harmonica session man. The "ability to effortlessly transpose keys" I will, in the absence of concrete evidence, attribute to his ownership of a capo. By simple clamping one onto the neck of the guitar you can transpose up nearly any interval. For example, "All Along the Watchtower" is in C# minor on the album John Wesley Harding due to him putting a capo on the fourth fret and playing in A minor. Jimi Hendrix doesn't use a capo and just plays it in A minor.

Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of interesting information in the essay about Dylan's personal life, but it is so flawed, inaccurate and just ignorant about the music that you can't trust it.

I see I have gotten far from my topic, which was the idea of levels of taste. As I am sure I have said before on many occasions, musical taste is pretty simple, really. There are different levels, aesthetically, and they require a different approach. On what you might call the lowbrow level there is simple dance and pop music. This would include EDM and most pop music you hear. It is designed to be appreciated immediately and serves a number of utilitarian functions. Dances and serenades from the 18th century probably were not much different.

But there are always artists, like Bob Dylan and Lennon and McCartney, who transcend the medium and who create at least middlebrow and sometimes even highbrow music.

Middlebrow I would describe as music that takes a bit more exposure to enjoy and would include a lot of world music as well as some pop and dance music. Examples would include a lot of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads. Maybe some Lady Gaga? Classical examples would include pieces like Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and a lot of other classical "hits" like Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, arrangements of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", Handel's Hallelujah chorus, the "Moonlight" sonata and so on.

Highbrow is most of classical music and certainly all the difficult stuff like Beethoven quartets, whole symphonies and sonatas, most operas and contemporary music. Highbrow music is usually longer and in a kind of structure that is not immediately obvious. In order to appreciate it you need more exposure and perhaps even some study of the background. It is standard operating procedure for me to read up on the composer and the piece if I have no knowledge beforehand.

I think that is about all I wanted to say today on this. Let's listen to some of that weird guy, Bob Dylan. I really wanted to put up something else from John Wesley Harding, but it seems that they keep most of the original versions off YouTube. Here is "All Along the Watchtower":

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