Sunday, April 24, 2016

Classic Prince

One theme that this blog has done a few variations on is that of the failure of the humanities to preserve and pass on to new generations the history and content of Western Civilization. University music departments are less a failure in this regard than many other fields because they continue to educate classical musicians to a high level of competence. But there are a few places where the influence of cultural Marxism has begun to infiltrate, specifically the "new" musicology and the study of popular music. This week brings us a good example: Richard Elliot, Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Sussex writes about "Prince: an icon of a new form of classical music."

After a long paean about Prince's performance of his song Purple Rain, Prof. Elliot sums up as follows:
This is only one of thousands of masterful performances that have already been shared amongst Prince’s fans and that will be returned to in the days and months to come, to offer solace, counter incredulity at this latest loss, and pay witness to a truly eclectic and classical artist.
For this is what Prince was: not in the narrow sense of his interest in Western classical music, but in a far more liberated and liberating understanding and extension of the varied streams of a black classical music tradition that incorporated gospel, jazz, R&B, rock and roll, soul, funk, hip hop and more.
Now I am not going to be so presumptuous as to criticize Prince--I have been a fan of his music since the 80s and the album 1999--but I am most certainly going to criticize this depiction of his music.

This kind of thing poses an acute typological problem for me, so I may as well admit it. The problem is with the definition of the word "classical". There are typically three meanings:

adjective: classical
of or relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture.
"classical mythology"
synonyms: ancient Greek, Hellenic, Attic; More
(of art or architecture) influenced by ancient Greek or Roman forms or principles.
synonyms: simple, pure, restrained, plain, austere; More
(typically of a form of art) regarded as representing an exemplary standard; traditional and long-established in form or style.
"a classical ballet"
synonyms: traditional, long-established; More
antonyms: modern
of or relating to the first significant period of an area of study.
"classical mechanics"
relating to or based upon concepts and theories that preceded the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics; Newtonian.
"classical physics"

In addition to this we could add the Wikipedia article on classical music which defines it as:
Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music. While a similar term is also used to refer to the period from 1750 to 1820 (the Classical period), this article is about the broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day, which includes the Classical period and various other periods.
So, for our purposes, there are three relevant meanings:

  1. The Wikipedia definition of "art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music" which is the one that is probably the most widely used
  2. Music of the Classical period 1750 to 1820
  3. Music achieving an exemplary standard
I have in a few places in this blog referred to the Beatles, for example, as having created some "classical" music. I say this because I am pretty sure that, unlike most popular music, theirs is likely to be still around a hundred years from now. It is of an "exemplary standard". Some commentators have pushed back on this and they likely have justification, because now I am in the uncomfortable position of wanting to critique Prof. Elliot for doing what I have done: elevate a popular artist that he really likes into the category of "classical". And, of course, I really like Prince as well, so he has my sympathy. But it doesn't quite work, does it? What is the problem?

I think the essence of the difficulty is that the music of Prince is not "rooted or produced in the traditions of Western music." While you might try and make the argument that the music of Beatles is, and the two weighty theoretical volumes by Walter Everett published by Oxford certainly go a long way towards making that argument, I think that trying to tie Prince to that same tradition is a bridge too far.

While I certainly do not know all of Prince's oeuvre, I don't recall having heard anything in it that makes much of a reference to any classical music. He pretty clearly comes out of and is an example of the gospel, jazz, R&B, rock and soul traditions. But I can't think of any places where he has engaged in any crossover to classical music. You can draw a line pretty directly from the intense expression of Robert Johnson to Prince, with a lot added along the way, and those are his roots. No Mozart, no Beethoven and certainly no Bach.

Prince might well be a "classic" artist in the sense of one who represents an exemplary standard, but there is really no trace of a classical tradition in his music. And so what? He hardly needed one!

So this helps me clarify my difficulty: the real element that makes me want to call the Beatles "classical" in some sense is the fact that you can discern elements of the Western music tradition in their music. There are, however distant, some roots underlying what they were doing. But this is less the case with Prince.

For an envoi let's listen to some Prince, though this clip will likely be taken down fairly soon. This is a live performance in 1985 of the song "1999" from the album of the same name.


Marc Puckett said...

Am going to bow to the unending pressure of the pounding waves of contemporary culture (a certain number of the people on my Fb page are still Fb crying) and find something of Prince to listen to.

I just didn't 'get' Purple Rain, but it was messy YouTube video, so I'll give the maestro's work, requiescat in pace, another try later; returning to Schubert (lieder transcriptions by Anne Gastinel, cello, and Claire Désert, piano). Did, however, watch a video on YouTube titled "Prince's Shadiest/Divo Moments" in which he demonstrated remarkably sound judgment when it came to certain other contemporary musicians.

Bryan Townsend said...

Prince was certainly a creative musician and a masterful guitarist, but I doubt he did anything you might enjoy. Still, perhaps have a look at this performance of the George Harrison song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in which Prince contributes a pretty stunning guitar solo towards the end:

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks for that, Bryan! I'd been, like Marc, looking around for something of Prince I could relate to. The piece you recommended was amazing. I confess I'm bit surprised YOU like it!

Bryan Townsend said...

Which one? 1999 or While My Guitar?

I keep telling you guys that there is popular music I really like, just not all of it. Well, ok, I guess a lot of it I don't like! But I have been a Prince fan since the 80s. He was an enormous talent as a songwriter, a guitarist, a dancer and a singer.

Christine Lacroix said...

I was referring to While My Guitar... I don't especially like the other, 1999. Somehow your liking Prince doesn't seem to fit with your persona. We could make an exception for Lady Gaga.... but Prince! Really?
But I shouldn't say anything at all since I don't know either of you. I'd HEARD of Prince but that's about it. Maybe you could recommend some other clips?

Bryan Townsend said...

"While My Guitar" is a song by George Harrison so not surprising I like it.

I'm not sure I have a persona! But I like what I perceive as being genuine and passionate music-making. Lady Gaga seems to be a flash in the pan, but Prince did a lot of good things over a long time. The style he is working in is not one I am normally attracted to, you are correct. You know, your best bet might be to watch the movie Purple Rain. It gives you a pretty good sense of Prince and has a number of very dynamic live performances.

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks for the tip about Purple Rain. By the way, I appreciated your list of definitions of 'classical' and 'classical music'. I like to have a clear understanding of the terms being used in a discussion. In your post on 'serious' music, for example, it seemed each contributor was interpreting 'serious' differently.

Jeph said...

Yes! Prince, total classic, towering talent, but not 'classical' in any sense of the word. He toyed with some orchestral arrangements during the "Parade" era, but strictly from a jazz standpoint. The writer intends the term "classical" as high praise (funny that), but it is inaccurate.

I think he was at the top of his game on "Sign o' the Times" from 1987, He plays every instrument, and it's a wide-ranging, total tour-de-force with something for everyone, and worth buying, seriously. He had an amazing run from his breakout in the 70's up to and including this album. Following that, there was a precipitous drop-off in quality I think related to bad record deals, it seems to have soured his whole outlook, and he never quite recovered as a songwriter. My favorite track is the 20 minute version of "America" that he released on 12", mind blowing.

It seems to me that Prince's weak point, if we can discuss that so soon after his passing, was a distinct lack of perspective and judgement, a quality which probably fueled his greatest successes and failures. During his blue streak in the 80's, he foisted any number of cookie-cutter watered-down funk bands on us (The Time, Vanity 6, The Family, Apollonia, ugh) playing his (still pretty good) castoff tunes that he practically wrote in his sleep. I really wish he hadn't done that, but all is forgiven. He's brought me a lot of joy.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Christine: my philosophical side comes out now and then, especially when I want to clarify what we mean by what we say!

@Jeph: I didn't realize how popular Prince was until I started reading all the tributes to him. I only ever owned three albums of his--all long-since lost, alas: 1999 (in vinyl) and Purple Rain and Sign o' the Times on CD. After that, I guess I lost interest. In some ways he reminds me of Jimi Hendrix: an astonishing and original talent but without a certain level of detachment and, as you say, judgement. Both he and Hendrix it seems, could spend ridiculous amounts of time in the studio fussing over minor details.

Marc Puckett said...

It's interesting to me that While my guitar... is Prince covering George Harrison since in the 'Prince's Divo moments' video one of his peeves appears to be 'covers, covers, covers, tsk'. But there are covers and then there are good covers, I guess.

Like Christine, I found the distinguishing between the specific senses of 'classical' helpful and want to re-read the 'serious music' post(s?) again.

When I began catching up to what the world was listening to after '90 my sense was that Prince occupied a rather peculiar niche and that his music tended to appeal to a select audience-- I just never got around to investigating his music. But it seems that I had that wrong. So much of what people say immediately after someone dies is as much about themselves really as about the person who's died (in my limited experience of course), i.e. I expect the passage of time will help in estimating his achievements more accurately.

Marc Puckett said...

James Taranto today in the WSJ wrote that, "Yesterday’s New York Times featured a classic column by Nicholas Kristof", by which use of the word classic he appears to intend a special meaning of your number three supra, and a lesser writer might easily have written 'classical Krugman'. While certainly Taranto is writing with heavy irony, classic meaning 'that which appertains to the most authentic/representative/perhaps best' of an artist's oeuvre is certainly a use that is common enough. 'Classic Prince' in that sense would be Prince to '87, according to Jeph, perhaps.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, I think you are right in saying that Prince occupied a peculiar (or particular) niche in the world of music. The fact that a remarkably large amount of public eulogies are now coming out doesn't necessarily invalidate that. It is probably just the case that Prince was a particular favorite of a lot of the sort of people who write eulogies. In other words, he appealed to a cultural elite while current pop stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna appeal to a host of younger listeners.

The use of the word "classic" to describe anything of a particular quality has been moved so far downmarket that it is now used in phrases like "Coke Classic".

Marc Puckett said...

Prince had decent cursive handwriting, too. From (had to go look) 1987; at least that was the year of Vega's song. []

It occurs to me that if we can identify the 'classical tradition' persisting in the Beatles' work, then we can also (if we're so inclined) go through the entirety of the popular music catalogues and perhaps identify a similar persistence in other artists' work? there may be some who simply aren't as prominent/influential as the Beatles.

This just struck me as a possibility in the abstract, a hypothetical; nothing to do with Suzanne Vega, although that is a very pleasant song, Luka.

Christine Lacroix said...

Marc, you call that 'decent cursive handwriting'? I had a look and it's gorgeous! I've sometimes worried about what my horrid cursive handwriting says about me. The nuns tried to beat it into shape but it didn't work.

Marc Puckett said...

Christine, My own has devolved into a kabbalistic script that even I have trouble reading; I used 'decent' only because Prince's Ts seem to be not quite up to the standard we learned in early 1960s Ohio, which probably I misremember, after all; I reckon one ought not expect anything standard in his case.

Bryan Townsend said...

That is quite a tidy handwriting. I think what really started mine devolving was a music festival I was adjudicating many years ago. Just a couple of minutes before it was due to start the organizers dumped a pile of fifty or sixty certificates in front of me and said "just sign these when you get a chance!" As I was about to listen to a like number of guitarists, and offer verbal commentary, I had no time to sign certificates. When I did get to them, my signature quickly devolved into a scrawl, where it has remained ever since.

I lost entirely the ability to write cursive a few decades ago and now my printing is getting hard to read! My music handwriting stayed nicely legible for the longest, I think. But now that I compose on the computer, it is probably disappearing as well.

On the plus side, I type pretty well with all ten fingers thanks to a typing course in junior high--the only really useful course I took in high school.

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan, I had typing in high school too. The principal had had to type his Doctoral thesis with just two fingers and decided typing was an indispensable skill. Like you I often think that it is the best thing I got from high school. That along with a course in political science where we spent the year dissecting the news through the lens of propaganda.

Marc I was amazed at Prince's lovely writing. Thanks for finding that!

Marc Puckett said...

It's amazing for how many of us the only memorably useful high school course was typing; I can't build a house or plow a field or fix the plumbing but I can type!

Bryan Townsend said...

The most useful other thing I can recall from high school was having to memorize a soliloquy from Shakespeare which I mostly still remember! Unfortunately it is from Lady Macbeth so not something I can easily slip into conversation:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised...

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan, have you seen this article?

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine! That is about the best article on Prince I have read.

Christine Lacroix said...

In case you haven't seen 'guitar vs cello'

Bryan Townsend said...

Those guys just love re-enacting musician's fantasies! This is a good one: obscure musician wanders into a music store, starts playing in the back and is discovered, adulated and gets to play with a Famous Musician. It is a nightmare for the Famous Musician, because there is the constant danger of being superseded by the New Guys.

I always think of Steve Vai as the Devil's guitarist from the duel at the end of the film Crossroads where he loses to Ralph Macchio.

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan,

You said the fantasy is "obscure musician wanders into a music store, starts playing in the back and is discovered, adulated and gets to play with a Famous Musician." In 2011 when 2CELLOS were just finishing their music studies and totally unknown outside of the classical music world, they posted one video on YouTube hoping to get a break. It went viral immediately and within days they were being offered contracts with record labels; Ellen Degeneres and Glee both invited them on their shows, Elton John asked them to join his band etc. So they really did live that dream you spoke about. I suppose that that one video showcased their talent and skill enough to get them the career they were dreaming of:

and here they are performing the same piece on Glee:

By the way, they composed the cover in just 4 hours over Skype, met up in Croatia to record it, and then went back to school!

You said that you look for ideas for posts. I’d be really interesting in learning more about the YouTube phenomenon. Does anybody really know what it is that makes one video go viral and not another?
And something else I wonder about is the child prodigy. Leia Zu playing Tchaikovsky was amazing. But do these young musicians peak early and then not evolve or do they usually continue to mature? And why do orchestras choose children to perform solos? Is it because they are so much better than any of the adults available or is it for marketing. I confess there is something about seeing small children on the stage that makes me uncomfortable.

Bryan Townsend said...

The clip you put up, the first one, that was their first video? The thing is, I rather doubt that that was thrown together. It is an entirely professional video with expect camerawork and editing. And, of course, the cover itself is the fruit of a lot of rehearsing and collaboration. But, after you have put in all the work necessary to create something like that then, yes, you can be an "overnight success"!

I'm pretty sure that exactly why one clip goes viral and another does not is something that thousands of people are trying to figure out. But at the same time, I am pretty sure they will not. Psy's gagnam style is a perfect example of something very unlikely going hugely viral. And I bet he can't do it again.

There is a very, very long tradition of child prodigies in the classical music world from Mozart on. It is not so unusual as musical talent, like mathematical talent, can strike at an early age.

Christine Lacroix said...

The clip I put up, Smooth Criminal, was the first non classical piece they ever posted. There were a few clips of both of them performing classical music to be found on the internet before that one. They did the arrangement for Smooth Criminal in four hours over Skype, recorded the music, and then had the mixing and filming done professionally in Croatia for 1000 dollars. 2Cellos didn't exist yet. They were just two friends testing the waters. They still work with that same studio, Morris Studio, in Zagreb.

I know there's a long tradition of prodigies in music. I still wonder about it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, they sure knew what they were doing.

There can certainly be abuse of child prodigies by their parents, managers, impresarios and other musicians, but this doesn't mean that we should prevent young musicians from starting their careers early. One of my dearest friends made his debut in Vienna, on national radio, as a soloist when he was just nine. This was violinist Paul Kling. He was musically gifted enough to begin his career, so why not?

Marc Puckett said...

There is a site/organisation that I follow on Facebook (although I can't now recall the name) run by a former child actor for the benefit & support of other former child actors whose lives have in many cases been blighted by their acting experiences (although it's not the acting itself that is usually the issue, I gather, as Bryan suggests): I wonder if there is such an organisation for the benefit of musicians who began as 'child prodigies'?

Bryan Townsend said...

I wasn't aware of the site for actors. Perhaps the backstage parent phenomenon isn't nearly so prevalent in classical music as it is in Hollywood.