Thursday, September 17, 2015

800 Words: Performance Part II - or The State of Music (now updated...)

I could go through many other genres of music and say what I think is wrong with them with nothing more to substantiate it than my opinion, but that wouldn't get to the heart of the matter. I chose jazz and bluegrass in Part I simply because I hang out a lot with jazz and bluegrass musicians. They have remedies to little parts of the problem, but their solutions are no better than using a bandaid to mend a broken leg.

The problem is that we live, with a few exceptions, in a profoundly anti-musical world. It's not that we hate music, it's that we use music for every conceivable wrong reason. Music is everywhere, it's absolutely inescapable, and it's used almost never for revelation, but always for escape. 

When we work, we use it as background noise. When we exercise, we use it as a stimulant. When we have sex, we use it as an aphrodisiac. When we go to shows, we use music so loudly that we can't possibly appreciate what we're hearing critically. We use it as a soundtrack for movies, TV, theater, dancing, even the visuals of our concerts usually take more effort to assemble than the music itself. Compared to what used to be, music in our time is a plastic, deadened, artificial replacement for art. Music is now used for everything but to appreciate the awesome wonder of music. 

(Beethoven's 9th in Nazi Germany. I still don't know how I feel about this performance. But Beethoven's 9th is the piece of music that defines what music is capable of doing, and perhaps over every other piece ever written. Here it's played in a situation where its audience needed more direly than ever before or afterward to truly appreciate the message it conveys.)

 Music, the most difficult to master and mysterious of all the arts, used to be the most wondrous thing any person in the world could possibly experience. In its most glorious period, the 19th century, music, with its direct person-to-person communication, could be was a form of democracy in action and a form of protest against the increasing mechanization of the world. In an age when peasants overthrew decadent monarchies and began the process of social mobility, music was perhaps the best way that they could realize that they were more than simply servants of kings and noblemen who should always know their place, but full individuals with needs and wants that they had every right to pursue. Industrialization could not help but make each person feel like a cog in a larger machine - but when these cogs heard music, they knew they were still fully human. But now, music is a form of pornography - a poor substitute for the real experience. When you hear what music truly once was in a live setting, you open yourself to the wonders of the universe. Only science and religion can make us feel a similar awe. 

There is so little music organically grown by the 20th century - and not an refrigerated holdover from the 19th - that can approach what the experience should be. You can love the music of our time, as I actually do a lot of it, and still be utterly incensed that it's not exponentially better than it is. Music can make us feel human, but at its best, it's about more than expressing our simple humanity. It is about opening yourself to what was until recently the most mysterious known power in the universe - a collection of sounds which you cannot see, smell, or taste, that appear fully connected to one another, with a direct conduit into your emotional consciousness. A great piece of music can express not only your simplest primal emotions, but your most complex, conflicted ones as well. 

But there is something about contemporary life that obliterates our need for the most complex music. The world was a very different place when music was at its historical peak. In today's world, defined by democracy, however ersatz that democracy sometimes is; at a time when the freedom to express whatever sentiment you want to express is taken for granted in so many places, 'real' music is almost unnecessary. In today's First World, we take our individuality for granted, and sometimes don't even realize that too few among us have any real individuality to express. We in the West achieved individuality so long ago that perhaps, if anything, people in our corner of the world would attain more individuality if we valued individuality a little less. 

The world seems to work in opposites. In today's world, where individual expression is everywhere, most expressions of individuality are too banal for words. Yet this contemporary world of individuals creates mass technology that will revolutionize our world for as long as the human race is in existence, and perhaps even longer. It's almost as though our freedom makes us want to become slaves again - slaves to our televisions, slaves to the internet, slaves to our phones, slaves to driving long distances, slaves to depositing our information online, slaves to whatever governments and corporations want to access every bit (bite?) of our individuality and record it forever in a mass of data in which every individual part of us is merely one among trillions of pieces.

It was a process that began nearly three-hundred years ago. The Industrial Revolution mechanized our world, and as we awoke to the fact that technology was about to become more powerful than humanity, humanity had more emotions to express than ever before. The flowering began with Bach and Handel and Vivaldi and Scarlatti and Rameau and Purcell and Telemann and Pachebel and Froberger and Corelli and Charpentier and Buxtehude and Hasse, and went through Pergolesi, Gluck, Haydn, Boccherini, Clementi, Viotti, Mozart, Cherubini, Beethoven, Paganini, Rossini, Donizetti, Schubert, Bellini, Berlioz, Glinka, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Offenbach,  Franck, Johann Strauss, Bruckner, Brahms, Borodin, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Chabrier, Sullivan, Massenet, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, D'Indy, Janacek, Sousa, Chausson, Elgar, Leoncavallo, Puccini, Mahler, Wolf, Albeniz, Debussy, Delius, Mascagni, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Nielsen, Glazunov, Dukas, Roussel, Scriabin, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Ives, Schoenberg, Holst, Ravel, Bloch, Bartok, Enescu, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Kodaly, Bliss, Webern, Berg, and ending with Shostakovich and Britten and Copland and Hindemith and Prokofiev and Honegger and Poulenc and Milhaud and Walton and Martinu and Villa Lobos and Barber and Hovahness and Khatchaturian and Kabelevsky and Rota and Chavez and Revueltas and Ginastera and Tippett... and so many others....................

But maybe our freedom is slavery by another name. It's easy to be free when your individuality is so marginal that we have no real individuality to be free to express. In the same way that technology rendered the danger inherent in expressing dissident sentiments obsolete, technology rendered the old musical instruments and forms obsolete, and the revelation is now a process nearly impossible to recapture. In a world where popular music is ascendent, with its insistent focus on the greatness of the here and now, it becomes more and more difficult to reach out towards eternity. Some innovative musicians, like Edgar Varese and Harry Partch and particularly Olivier Messiaen (about whom I still have to write...), began searching for new ways to appreciate the eternal. But with the possible exception of Messiaen, their attempts, by and large, turned into exercises more technical than emotional. Beginning with this first generation of innovators - the aforementioned three, plus Carter, Babbit, Cage, Boulez, Nancarrow, Xenakis, Henze, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Dallapiccola, Nono, Berio, Zimmermann, Scelsi - composers declared their independence from audience taste. A number of them have made interesting music, but mostly interesting in the manner that ingenious machines are interesting. Lots of life, no soul. Much good it did them, because the audience responded to their independence by declaring independence from them.

There are a few composers whom I think have reached out towards the infinite in our time, but they are so few and far between that hardly any of them are named in any list of the world's greatest musicians or composers. I can think of a number of good Eastern European composers over the age of 80 who sometimes get within striking distance, perhaps because they hail from a place where classical music's culture was artificially preserved by political repression (Rautavaara, Penderecki,  Gubaidulina, KancheliGorecki - recently deceasedSchnittke - not so recently deceased but very much still with us as no other composer of the last 50 years is, and even - gasp - Arvo Part) but there is no way in which such elder statesmen are 'of our time' rather than a former era. I suppose that there is an argument to be made that the minimalists aim that high - perhaps Glass in Koyaansqatsi, or Steve Reich in Tehillim - but you still have to squint past the pretensions of accessing ancient Buddhist and Jewish cultures which they clearly know very little about. In our era, certainly Osvaldo Golijov reached to the infinite with La Pasion Segun San Marcos, and very nearly got there with The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Perhaps Tan Dun did in The Map, and he certainly tried in The Water Passion, but like Bernstein's Mass, the result was sometimes as ridiculous as it was magnificent. Many people find both Dun and Golijov kitschy and banal, but I find them the most keyed in composers of our time, who are among the few understand that music is suffering from anorexia. Music in our time needs the energy of popular music, but it needs to grab the popular traditions and toss them in the air as hard as possible so that it can get past the gravitational pull of triviality and start orbiting around the cosmos. When I think about it seriously, perhaps James MacMillan gets to the cosmic infinitude with more frequency than any other musician of our time that I can think of.

Every generation has its sticks-in-the-mud who declares that music or art or poetry got worse right around the time the prematurely old fogey was born. But for me, I sometimes wonder if Shostakovich and Britten, who both died roughly five years before my birth, were the last composers of consistently eternal music, and if no large batch of similarly eternal music will be written in my lifetime. Eternal music seems to be a party unable to be attended by any musician born after World War I, because they cannot remember a time when what we now call Classical Music was the lingua franca of the world. The true form of classical music as we generally think of it today expresses a longing, a yearning, an unquenchable desire, a desire so intense that it cannot be articulated in words. 

Sehnsucht, by Brahms

The Germans have a word for this emotion - Sehnsucht - that truly has no equivalent in English. Sehnsucht, as best as we can describe, is an emptiness that yearns to be filled. The yearning is for an ideal state, an ideal perhaps only possible in a transcendence of this world, or perhaps no more (or less) than the desire to perfect this world. But regardless, it is an ideal which thus far in our consciousness, is only expressible through music. Ian McEwan put it better than I ever could:

“There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever – mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.”

It's worth noting that McEwan was talking about a group of blues musicians when he spoke of this (more on that hopefully in another post...), but this is the state to which the ideal of music aspires to. Anything less than this is an insult to what music is capable of expressing.

And yet, in today's world, this Sehnsucht is so omnipresent in all of our lives that we've almost forgotten about its existence. Music, which until the 20th century, had to be produced by live musicians who worked fiendishly hard to master their material, is now available at the click of a button. How can we ever experience the yearning to fill this longing when we unconsciously try to fill it with every minute of every day?

Music is everywhere, and it doesn't exist so that we can remember this longing, but so we can forget it ever existed. We have literally achieved mastery over music, and rendered it so domesticated that we can't even remember what it used to do for us. If people were not able to master music or know people who had, they must live their lives in silence, with nothing but their Sehnsucht for company. If you doubt that, read this truly amazing story from Willa Cather, A Wagner Matinee. 

Today, music is everywhere, and it is the most banal force in our lives. Would that we had a bit more silence. Until recently, we all saw the same TV shows, most of us still see the same movies, but our musical tastes, above all else, are an advertisement to the world as to our social class, our financial situation, our political leanings, our religious belief or disbelief, and our overall worldview. Music, the force which meant universal brotherhood in Beethoven and universal forgiveness in Mozart, has now become the most divisive force in the affluent world.

No artist is above compromise, and in order to be successful, every artist requires an audience to whom, at least to a certain extent, he gives what they want to hear. Oftentimes, the limitations placed on artists spur them to far greater achievements than they would possess if left to their own devices. But in an ultra-privileged society, the limitations are dictated by the social circles in which an artist runs. If you're a musician and the people you associate with want to hear rock music, you damn well better provide them with rock music. If they want to hear electronic, you damn well better learn a way to produce electronic music. If they want hip-hop, you gotta learn how to make hip-hop. If they want atonal music, you better start composing atonal music. But if you want to make a fusion of all of those, your chances for an audience automatically become smaller, as does the chances for even the small amount of eternal musical quality these genres generally possess. Experiments are important because they run the risk of failure, and successful experiment that is truly great music walks over the corpses of failed experiments.

More kinds of music, perhaps exponentially more, are available to us than at any other point in history. As with music in any period, most of it is mediocre. And there is so much mediocre music that it almost makes you want to give up on new musical discoveries. Even among the good stuff, there is so much music that there is no way of appreciating all but a small sliver of it. This musical dark age could well have produced more great music than ever before in history, but it is a hopeless task to find even a fraction of it. One day, hopefully, a great musical mind, a second Bach or Mozart or Schubert, will sift through all the musical bullshit to find the quality, synthesize it into a new musical language, and deliver us from this horrific musical chaos. But until that day, we're adrift in a sea of mediocrity. There are lots of good musicians in nearly every genre, and I can name quite a few. But if you ask me where true musical greatness is in today's world, I very nearly draw a blank.

When technology took over our world, music was the first of the arts to revert to the most basic simplicity. One electric guitar can make more noise than 150 orchestral musicians, and a generation after Strauss and Mahler built their cathedrals of sound, the world was dominated by jazz combos and dance bands, producing the most elementary harmonies and basic rhythms. Some of it was very good, but even the best jazz and blues and danceband music from its best period - W. C. Handy, King Oliver, Ledbelly, Blind Willy Johnson, Charlie Patton, Coleman Hawkins, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Django Reinhardt, Stefane Grappelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, and arguably later musicians (a Silver Age?) like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderly, Art Blakey, Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Stan Getz, Max Roach, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, - all of them are legendary names today to many, but with only a few exceptions, and never a career-long exception, their aims were so much lower than the greatest of their classical predecessors that it was almost as though there should be a different word than music for what they were trying to do. There are certainly transcendent moments in Jazz when you feel them coming into contact with those eternal mysteries: Ellington's Come Sunday, Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Pops singing St. James Infirmary. But how many more?... To be sure, there were many, many great classical composers during the period when classical music was the world's lingua franca who tried to play to the gallery. But how many jazz musicians from the period when Jazz was the world's lingua franca tried to reach for the metaphysical stars and truly succeeded? Lots of later Jazz musicians reached for the stars, but they got bogged down as so many classical composers have, in dry questions of form, and their music became indistinguishable from an intellectual, technical exercise. You can still love jazz, I do, and say that jazz is still not as great as the great music which came before, because in 99% of it settles for distracting us from our emptiness rather than filling it. The same goes for all the great rock musicians - occasionally, you get something truly transcendent: perhaps Imagine gets there, or A Change is Gonna Come, or Sympathy for the Devil, or Dancing in the Street (if that even counts as Rock), or a bunch of Dylan songs. But the truth remains, if Dylan is the closest our country's gotten to asking eternal questions in sound, there's an enormous problem.

The problem is that we don't think about eternity anymore, and music is too wondrous to require anything less than eternity. To feel that Sehnsucht, you need to express something truly awe-inspiring. But in an age when child mortality is so low, and life expectancy so high, eternal questions no longer mean as much. We have, to an extent unforeseen even seventy years ago, or perhaps even twenty-five, conquered death. Death is the most awe-inspiring force in the world, and now billionaires like Peter Thiel seem on the cusp of donating their fortunes to death's very conquest. When eternity seems attainable on Earth, even to an infinitesimal extent, then we can spend eternity procrastinating its contemplation.

For the entirety of 'popular music's reign, the great subject was not death, or the natures of good and evil, or the state of the soul, it has been romantic love. When life is so prosperous that we no longer need to spend our lives contemplating their end, we contemplate what will most increase the quality of our lives, and nothing is more important to an adult's quality of life than sex. It is the one force in modern Western life that everybody agrees is sacred.

But to reduce life's experience to sex, and to make it the overarching subject of music, is to trivialize both music and humanity. What about the lonely who dwell among us that go through life with no sex or bad sex or sex at an abusive price? Where is the music that speaks for them when the most torrid emotion in most music is a lover's quarrel?

The past century, and perhaps it's exactly a century now, has not been a century for music. , World War I started in August 1914, and Birth of a Nation was released in March of 1915.  It was the century of the electronic screen. Whether the screen involves movies or TV or video games - the experience of reality itself can now be completely reproduced at a future date. This is a wonder beyond even music. For the first time in the history of the world, we can imagine ourselves in another consciousness - not just in our minds, but physically enter another consciousness. It is the great aesthetic miracle of living memory, and has provided the lion's share of the last century's greatest art. Compared to Welles and Ford, compared to Hitchcock and Lubitsch, compared to The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, compared to Coppola and Scorsese, compared to Renoir and Truffaut, compared to Bergman and Bunuel, compared to Ozu and Mizoguchi, compared to Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, compared to The Simpsons and Seinfeld, compared to The Sopranos and Mad Men, what can our music offer to counter it?

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