Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Thenness and Nowness

I could have just said "Then and Now," but that would have missed the slight frisson of philosophical abstraction that I like to add to my posts--kinda like MacDonald's special sauce on the Big Mac. Speaking of hamburgers, this post was partly inspired by this Carl Hardee's Jr. commercial. Have a look:

Now I like that--not because I am a fan of their food, I don't think I have ever set foot in one of their establishments--no, I like it because the theme is "back to the roots."

I was mulling over the idea of thenness and nowness and some examples came to mind. We have to go back a few years. When I was in first year university I was enrolled in a German course and the text was pretty good. For the readings it had a pretty fair selection of German literature that included folks like Goethe and a bunch more that I don't recall. I kept the book on my shelves for decades after and only lost it in the Great Evil Mover Event of several years ago. I had to take another German course when I was a grad student in musicology, much more recently, and the contrast was striking: the new text had no actual German literature, just mundane readings from advertisements and other ordinary fodder.

Let's take another example: I just bought a book on yoga for people over fifty (yes, I know, depressing, isn't it!) and I can't help but compare it to a book I had when I was twelve on yoga. This one:

Here is the one I just bought:

After doing a little bit of browsing, I cannot but think that the old one is much better than the new one. It got right down to business while the new one spends a remarkable amount of time babbling about how the author got into teaching, more babbling about how wonderful yoga is and how it can reverse ageing and so on. The first fifty, sixty pages are like an extended infomercial for the book. Please! The only thing the new book has over the old one is better design and better photos. Well, clearer photos--as far as illustrating poses they are no better than the old ones. The whole book just exudes an aura of phoniness and BS. But oh so flattering to the reader and the author, wow, is it ever. The old book just spent all of its time teaching you about yoga and as a result, taught you a lot more.

We keep hearing about how our culture is being dumbed down, but we kind of nod our heads disapprovingly without actually taking it in. The truth is that two things are happening with the transmission of knowledge. First, yes, except for very specialized contexts, all knowledge is being dumbed down to a remarkable extent. At the same time it is being pumped up with glitz and design and flashy colors and marketing and flattering the recipients. The other thing that is happening is that there is very often some sort of ideological subtext where they smuggle in whatever fashionable memes they can: climate change! equity! inequality! You know that script.

I read somewhere that there are only two fundamental themes in politics: "Bright New Day!" and "Back to Basics!" I guess it is time for the latter as we have had about as much of the former as we can stand, for a while anyway.

The arts are often a harbinger of social change, though reading them successfully is not very easy. But I think we can trace a movement in music that is about as "back to basics" as you can get. Yes, I have talked about this before, but that does not make it any less striking. In the late 60s and early 70s several composers in the US, among them Philip Glass and Steve Reich, went back to the musical basics with a vengeance. Here are a couple of examples. First, Philip Glass, Music With Changing Parts:

Next, Steve Reich with Music for Large Ensemble:


Will Wilkin said...

Let's start with our agreements. I agree our culture (and especially in this age of globalization, Canada and the US and to some extent much of the world increasingly have a common corporate-sponsored culture in the form of a pop ahistorical veneer over our geographic particularities) is growing increasingly trivial, post-literate, superficial and spiritually hollow --yes, "dumber." Its obvious to anyone old enough and/or educated enough to recognize the vacuity of today's commercialized culture.

This observation often leads to discussion of the monastic solution as described by Morris Berman or, more recently, Rob Dreher. Not a cloistered monasticism but rather a small sub-culture that turns away from popular culture in ethics, thought and/or taste. Preserve our intellectual and artistic and religious heritage with small-scale personal or organizational endeavors even as the larger tide of mediocrity and vulgarity wash most of it out of the dominant culture.

But where I disagree is in your assertion that Philip Glass or Steve Reich represent "going back to the basics." I find their repetition of brief motifs with very little melodic development to be sterile, mechanical and annoying. The only concert I ever walked out of was on my (first) honeymoon in San Francisco when the San Francisco Ballet did a Steve Reich piece the cycled around monotonously while the dancers acted like robots without human poses or movement. I have the same aversion to the music of Philip Glass.

What is so "back to basics" about music that uses machine-like repetitions (yes, slowly drifting through variations but essentially monotonous) instead of melodies expressing human emotion and freedom? The only "minimalist" composer I have heard and liked is John Adams, who I like very much. He's different because, to my sensibilities, he does not let the devices overshadow/replace genuine musicality, His pieces actually go somewhere over time, they have a sense of true melody and sound very human.

I realize you are the schooled musician with far superior technical understandings, but I've listened and reflected enough over the years to trust my judgement even if I don't have the technical language to explain it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, as long as your judgements are based on honest perceptions, then they are probably as good as mine!

I have posted quite a lot on Steve Reich, a bit less on Philip Glass and, if you are curious, you might have a look at some of those posts sometime. But my reasons for thinking that calling what Glass and Reich were doing (less so now) "back to basics" is that they both sheared away most of the complexity that post-WWII music had developed into in favor of simple and yes, repetitive, ideas. The basic thing they returned to was a simple pulse which, to my mind, is about the most basic thing there is in music.

But hey, there is nothing there that says you have to like it!!

Will Wilkin said...

Hilarious trivial coincidence: yesterday you published this article and we had a discussion of the repetitiveness of Philip Glass....and now today I find a discussion at violinists.com that also occurred yesterday:

Post: April 4, 2017 at 12:54 AM · sorry for the duplicated posts, I don't know what's going on...

Reply: April 4, 2017 at 05:05 AM · Have you been practicing Philip Glass?

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh.

Here is a post I wrote a few years ago about Philip Glass that you might enjoy. Unfortunately, all the embedded clips have disappeared.


Will Wilkin said...

I've heard more Steve Reigh music than Philip Glass --I had 2 Glass Cds and got rid of one (DancePieces) and kept the other (Violin Concerto --paired with the Schnittke concerto, another composer I never liked) but still don't like it.

Regarding Steve Reich, I've a heard a few of his percussion pieces because the Yale percussion ensembles seem to revere him. I'll give his music some further consideration as time goes on, with some curiosity already about the WTC 9/11 piece, which I see you posted a youtube version just 2 months ago.

I know Steve Reich has had collaborations with one of my favorite string quartets, the Kronos Quartet, but I don't think I've heard any of it. The only Kronos disc I have (of 8) that I don't like is their Terry Riley disc. In fact, this jars my memory to think possibly the San Francisco Ballet concert I walked out of (with my bride) was actually Terry Riley, not Reich after all. It was 29 years ago, and I've always lumped together Glass, Riley and Reich as horrible and John Adams as the exceptional "minimalist" who despite such categorization I always liked a lot.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think Steve Reich might be worth a listen or two. The pieces I recommend are Eight Lines, Music for 18 Musicians, Tehillim, The Desert Music and Different Trains. The latter was written for Kronos. These pieces are quite different from one another, though they do share some stylistic characteristics. Tehillim is a setting of some Psalms and The Desert Music sets William Carlos Williams.