Friday, January 25, 2013

800 Words: Evan and Hauptmann Rinderherz Go Through the Early History of Popular Music (a digression)

Evan: Herr Hauptmann, I’m afraid you suffer from Manny Ax Syndrome.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What syndrome is that? And what does Emanuel Ax have to do with any of this?

Evan: Well, as I hope you know, Emanuel Ax is one of the greatest pianists of this, or any, time.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: He’s a bit too intellectually curious for my taste.

Evan: Well, that’s not his problem.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: It’s the world’s problem.

Evan: Regardless, Manny Ax is an amazing musician, but I remember reading an interview in Amazon. Manny recommended his favorite recordings. It was a great list: Cortot’s Chopin, Fleisher’s Beethoven, Adams’s Harmonielehre, Eugene Onegin, Oscar Peterson, and some other great discs. But there was only one thing to besmirch this otherwise terrific selection... Remember Two Things by Dave Matthews Band, which he said he was introduced to by his daughter.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Was ist Dave Matthews Band?

Evan: Dave Matthews Band was a fad rock group in the late 90’s which still sells out everywhere they perform. But music lovers have not taken them seriously in more than ten years. Every note Dave Matthews ever played is a love-letter to blandness and boredom.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: (finds Remember Two Things on youtube) Sounds like just another blundering American musician to me.

Evan: A much worse American musician than Manny Ax. But apparently, like you, Manny Ax can be the height of discernment on classical taste, yet a blithering idiot on any matter outside his purview. Apparently, his taste in non-classical contemporary music is precisely the same as millions of people who do not have enough interest in music to ever be interested in classical music.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: This is what happens when you try to appease the vox populi.

Evan: I don’t think that’s quite true. I think he genuinely liked what he heard. But unlike the rest of the world, he wasn’t subjected to Dave Matthews every day for four years, and he never had a chance to grow to hate them the way the rest of us did. And this is your problem too Herr Hauptmann. If you listened to David Hasslehoff for more than five minutes every five years, you’d want to kill yourself. But you like David Hasslehoff in the same way that Manny Ax likes Dave Matthews. It’s so bland that it doesn’t even offend the sensibilities of any out of touch classical music lover, and therefore by listening to it you won’t have to challenge any of your preconceived notions of what true art is.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Ah! Now I remember who Dave Matthews is! Isn’t he der new judge on American Idol?

Evan: No, that’s Keith Urban. You’re confusing your douchebag musicians who're popular in the South. And you never told me you watch American Idol!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I watch to observe the badness of American music.

Evan: At what point does this continual need to experience the badness of American music become a love of something you claim to hate? It’s almost like a form of pornography for you.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I’ve never looked at pornography in my life!

Evan: You should probably try it, it’ll make you happier.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Infamy! How dare you suggest such a dirty thing!

Evan: Albeit don’t do that dirty thing in my house.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: How can you suggest that any popular music will laed me to anything but suicide?

Evan: Because some of it is great!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I’ve heard enough of it to know that is not true.

Evan: No you haven’t. If I’d listened to as little popular music as you did, I’d have probably concluded that everything was crap too.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: So you admit that it’s dreck!

Evan: No. Not at all. I admit that 70% of what people generally listen to is dreck. 20% of their music is mediocre. 5% of it is decent. 3% of it is good. 1.5% is great. And roughly .5% of it is as great as the greatest classical music.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: That is still .5% too much!

Evan: Herr Hauptmann, I’m willing to meet your snobbery most of the way. But you’ll have to settle for at least a small compromise. I’ve heard too much that’s good to ever regard my culture’s music as a total waste.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What need there is for compromise when you are right?

Evan: The need is because you’re not right.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: History will vindicate me!

Evan: I guess that’s possible in some strange way, but you won’t be around to hear its verdict. In any event, there are already Americans who feel the same way as you, only they feel that way about American Jazz Music. To some Americans, music begins in New Orleans around 1920 and ends in New York around 1965.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Ach, Jazz. The barbaric horror of the jungle.

Evan: That barbaric horror is constructed from the same folk roots from which your beloved Deutsch Musik hails.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Prove it!

Evan: Alright. What’s most jazz improvisation except just the same way of developing counterpoint and ornamentation around a ground bass or cantus firmus?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But it is such an inferior way of so doing!

Evan: Why is it inferior?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because it is not written down! There is nothing planned, and therefore we cannot control the music!

Evan: Why can’t it be planned? Duke Ellington used to write out most of his instrumentalists’ solos. And even if they’re not written down, what do you think recording is? It’s just a new way of establishing permanence.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But they still do not control the music.

Evan: Sure it is. It’s just a different way of controlling music.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But it sounds so disorganized.

Evan: And yet when your beloved Furtwanglers and Edwin Fischers bend the tempo or rhythm, that doesn’t sound chaotic to you?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Nein. Because they do so to underline the harmonic rhythm and invention of der grossten meister!

Evan: Well, it’s just a different sort of rhythm in 20th century music. Most 20th century music takes the emphasis away from harmony and puts it on rhythm, often extremely complex rhythm. You might almost say that if the 19th century was about harmonic rhythm, then the 20th century was about rhythmic harmony.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Welche art von Bullshit ist das?!

Evan: Alright, you asked for it. I’m going to give you the quickest journey through 20th century music’s mainstream that you’ll ever get.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: It had better be quick...

Evan: Let’s start with Scott Joplin. Let’s just say he’s the American Bach. (Puts on a recording of Maple Leaf Rag)

Hauptmann Rinderherz: How could you dare even to mention this in the same sentence as Bach?

Evan: Because he’s at a similar waystation in music history. Bach took the accomplishments of the great polyphonists and created a music comprised of harmonic rhythm. Scott Joplin took the harmonies of the German tradition and created a music generated entirely by rhythm itself. Listen to those harmonies, they’re pure Schumann but with more rhythmic emphasis.  

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Do not you dare compare this mull to the Tondichter.

Evan: Alright, well, I give up. Did you hear about the lost impromptu by Schubert that was just premiered? It’s really beautiful.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Gruss Gott! Can I look it up on youtube?

Evan: Sure. Here, I’ll put it on for you. (puts on Solace by Scott Joplin)

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Prachtvoll! Simply magnificent! Listen to those chromatic innovations, as daring as anything until Schoenberg! Yet still mit die inner glut!

Evan: So...I have a confession to make.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Oh nein....

Evan: That was Solace by Scott Joplin.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Then I don’t like it.

Evan: What do you mean you don’t like it!? You just exclaimed it was Prachtvoll!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because Schubert would have written it in the correct spirit. When Scott Joplin writes something like this, it is unconnected to the proper wellspirit of music history and culture!

Evan: That’s entirely in your mind. You can will yourself to like and dislike anything you want with that mentality.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What’s wrong with that?

Evan: Everything! Rather than focus on what strikes your ear as beautiful, you’ll just have a checklist of requirements from music which limit your reactions.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Some reactions are undesirable and base.

Evan: Why does it have to be that way?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because it is the base of the kultur which redeems us all from the terrors of our world!

Evan: What if it doesn’t?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But it does!

Evan: There’s no arguing with you. But for reasons passing my understanding, I’ll continue to preach to you. Try George Gershwin.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: At least he tried to write classical music.

Evan: He didn’t try. He succeeded. He was one of the great geniuses of the century, and had he lived past 38, he might have become the greatest composer of the 20th century and rescued classical music from the ghetto in which you’re so keen to keep us.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: That is unfair. It is not a ghetto. It is liberation!

Evan: Says the man who never leaves my couch.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Your couch is the most liberated part of you!

Evan: Anyway, if Joplin is the American Bach, then perhaps Gershwin is the American Handel. He’s ostentatious and theatrical where Joplin is inward, and yet he has far more expressive range and diversity than Joplin just as Handel did than Bach. He wrote at least one of the greatest operas ever written. He can write amazingly dramatic music for seemingly every scope and every mood, including dark ones, and also wrote some of the most artlessly beautiful music ever composed.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Er ist ein Nachahmung eines Komponisten.

Evan: Alright. Well then you’ll loooorve the next two.... Whereas Joplin and Gershwin both established their fame in the North, the other two ‘founders’ of American music established their eminence down South. They might be considered the “Vivaldi and Scarlatti” of American music because they took forms which other people used, produced literally hundreds of compositions in exactly the same form, and in so doing made these new forms palatable for a new era.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I don’t care much for Scarlatti, and Vivaldi is terrible - the same boring sonatas and concerto 500 times!

Evan: If you listened to the new period practice recordings of Vivaldi you’d probably feel differently. But the new Vivaldi was a man named W. C. Handy, who grew up in rural Alabama and came up with the idea of notating the local form, the 12-bar blues pattern. He realized that you could become an endlessly inventive songwriter in that form, in music that could be endlessly adapted and still retain its universality. If you hear him in a great performance, Vivaldi makes minor keys fun. But W. C. Handy makes major key music into something sad.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: There is no way to make a major key sad! It is a violation of music’s fundamental laws!

Evan: Not only is there is no such fundamental law, but music is usually better when expectations like that are subverted. W. C. Handy wrote songs that smile through their tears, much as Mozart composed or Chekhov wrote.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: That is absolutely unfair to Mozart and even to Chekhov!

Evan: Is it? It’s just a different aesthetic, but no less profound.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Great workmanship is part of profundity! And there’s no need for workmanship in a 12-bar blues pattern!

Evan: Sometimes, you’re right. But that’s when the music is bad. When the music is good, there is an entirely different kind of workmanship that goes into it. And even when workmanship is great, instinct and emotional resonance are just as important. A great craftsman who expresses nothing but his craft (ahem, Hindemith) is infinitely less worthwhile than a mediocre craftsman who communicates with infinite expressive force (ahem, Janacek).

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I do not disagree, but I believe Janacek is an inferior composer.

Evan: Of course you do. Anyway, let’s look at our final composer before I go to bed. If W. C. Handy is the Vivaldi of the American “Mass” Tradition, then Jelly Roll Morton is our ‘Scarlatti.’ Scarlatti created the ‘sonata’ as we know it today. He may not have rendered it to the scale we see in Beethoven or even Haydn, but he created the binary sonata form in embryo, at the smallest possible scale. In almost exactly the same way, Jelly Roll Morton did the same with Jazz. The kernel of every innovation which Jazz later pioneered can be found in his pieces - the rhythm, the instrumentation, even the modal and chromatic harmonic daring of bebop.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Has it occurred to you that you’re generalizing and that these descriptions of American musicians are as worthless as your ‘Great Conductors’ Lists.

Evan: Of course, but who cares? In any event, we’ve digressed, and you certainly have a point. I’m already getting bored with these analogies, and we haven’t even made it to the Louis Armstrong/Haydn connection. In any event, let’s think about what comes next before we continue this dialogue.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Long as I don’t have to listen to more of this Dschungelmusik I’m fine with that.

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