Saturday, March 11, 2006

Good Slumming and Bad Slumming

Alex Ross offered this review of Sofia Gubaidulina's new "Feast During a Plague" in the new New Yorker, containing this interesting teaser: "A mammoth landscape of orchestral desolation, mixing craggy fanfares and insectoid movement up and down the chromatic scale, is periodically disrupted by blasts of prerecorded techno music."

It's such a thrill to see a composer like Gubaidulina finally offering the public her "techno music." I've always thought that she seemed out of place on DG, and ought to take her place alongside Autechre and Squarepusher on Warp Records- I mean, her orchestra music is good, but her beats are amazing.

But, no, I doubt that's the case: more likely, Ms. Gubaidulina is taking a stroll through the pop music slums. In its natural habitat, techno of the sort that is 'blasted' is a hypnotic, ribcage-shaking music, designed for dark rooms and sweaty, bacchanal dance. I get the distinct impression that Sofia is using 'blasts' of it as a shorthand for a rotten society that grinds and twists in warehouses while the world goes to hell, the modern equivalent of the medieval gluttons who tucked into capons amid the rats and skeletons.

Does she like techno music, to use it so? Has she heard a lot of it, tried to meet it on its own terms? Is her apartment stacked with cardboard boxes full of white label EPs from Brixton basements and rare Aphex Twin CD-Rs? Probably not.

Rather, as I said, she's participating in the century-old tradition of musical slumming. Now, 'proper' composers have always written music that borrowed elements from popular music, and, indeed, for most of western history it's been tricky to distinguish between high art music and low. It's hard to put your finger on whether, say, John Downland was writing popular songs. Sure he was, compared to Palestrina in Rome, but they were singing something rougher than Dowland down at the tavern. This line was still blurry in the 19th century- it's hard to categorize a Strauss waltz or Souza march on the 'classy' scale.

Somewhere at the end of that century, though, as the middle class swelled and started sanctifying the 'fine arts', composers suddenly had the chance to deal with realism in a way that painters and novelists had since the middle of the century. Just as Degas could paint the greenish, weary prostitutes of the Parisian demimonde, Mahler could now wander past a schtetl klezmer band in his first symphony.

Now, in my opinion, this sort of musical slumming - I can't think of a better term for it, and please understand that I don't mean it perjoratively - varied a lot in its success. Some composers, like Ives and Mahler, seem respectful of the popular music they reference. When Ives includes a raucous march or maudlin parlor song, there's no mistaking his fierce love for the material.

The opposite approach is the one Stravinsky adopts in 'Ragtime for 11 Instruments' - a piece that does no favors for ragtime or for Stravinsky. Ragtime was a flourishing, elegant style bursting with rhythmic energy, but Stravinsky strips it down into a wheezy, ricky-tick joke- crass and dry, crudely syncopated, all elbows-and-knees. The overall effect is, frankly, embarrassing, like a bad parody that barely understands its target.

And this, unfortunately, is the way a lot of composers today are approaching popular music. I am especially thinking of Ades' "Asyla", whose "Ecstasio" movement (Hilarious, right?) uses a gigantic orchestra to approximate a ketamine-dream night at the sort of club that 'blasts' techno. This is, of course, slumming: Ades isn't approaching techno as a genre whose gestures and vocabulary can be absorbed into classical music (minimalism already does that, right?) but as material for program music gimmickry of the crassest kind. The overall effect doesn't sound like techno, but like a bad marching bad transcription of techno that's been made 'classy' with difficult time signatures.

Now, granted, the surrounding movements have beautiful, innovative orchestrations, but the critical success of "Asyla" is, I think, because the techno gimmick (easy to embellish with phrases like "a ketamine-dream night at the sort of club that 'blasts' techno") is fun to pitch to people. "How novel!" -- the thinking seems to go -- "Using only 150 conservatory-trained musicians, he manages to make something that sounds like a mediocre techno DJ's half-hour's work with a sequencer!"

Maybe I'm way off- the Gubaidulina piece might be great, the 'blasts of techno' utterly convincing. Does anybody else feel weird when they hear classical composers picking up techno or ragtime with a pair of tongs, though?

I'll talk about Golijov and Scott Johnson in a later post.

* "Techno" itself is a bad term that attempts to embrace a hundred genres with as much success as a diver trying to embrace an equal number of live squids.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"The Situation in Trinidad"

Imagine going to the library and stumbling across a large, hardbound folio volume of extremely detailed, naturalistic color photos of, say, Abraham Lincoln going about his daily life. All the weird little moments: petting a dog, blowing on a cup of coffee, getting a haircut. I'm not talking about dreamy Matthew Brady tableaus, either, but vivid documentary snapshots, unposed and perhaps a little awkward. The feeling as you turned the pages, I think, would be one of astonishment and -- for some, at least -- a deep relief that these little things that you assumed were lost had been incomprehensibly, miraculously spared.

This is the feeling I have when I listen to Emory Cook's field recordings of Trinidad calypso from '50s. Cook was a person similar to Alan Lomax, but more catholic in his preservational instincts. Whereas Lomax dragged his equipment from porch to porch capturing field hollers and children's song-games, Cook turned his microphones on everything from thunderstorms and locomotives to... calypso.

Most people, I think, would hate it. This isn't studio-recorded Harry Belafonte calypso, smoothed-out by a trained chorus and reverb effects. It is, instead, a documentary of what it was like to be in a calypso tent at carnival-time in the mid-'50s. The effect is eerie: because of Cook's technical prowess and superb equipment (he was a revolutionary engineer of sound equipment) these recordings sound clearer and more detailed than comparable studio recordings of the era. In holographically crisp stereo you find yourself transported to a moment in real life: the audience around you clapping and laughing, the goofy sax solos, the scuff of feet dancing, the clanging approach and departure of a marching steel band, the distant booming of Mighty Sparrow crooning through an outdoor sound-system- you are, by proxy, in Trinidad.

This has the unusual effect of making you nostalgic for a time and place you never knew, particularly with regard to the social engagement of the music. These songs are like nothing today (certainly in America) in their appeal to the intelligence, humor, and political consciousness of the audience. In "The Situation in Trinidad" (also known as "No, Doctor, No") Mighty Sparrow does the unthinkable- he creates a highly melodic, charming criticism of- his government's approach to tax policy, milk shortage, and local industry. And this song was popular! The equally infectious "Jean and Dinah" (a. k. a. "Yankees Gone") talks about the explosion of cheap prostitution following the closing of the US naval base. These are songs that would actually make politicians nervous. Also interesting is Lord Melody's "Booboo Man", in which the ugly singer (and Lord Melody did, by all accounts, have 'a face like a crocodile') grows angry at the jokes of his children. This is unpatronizing music for adults with children, pop music that assumes you're out of high school.

It's galling to compare popular song in America today. Our art is completely disengaged from politics, instead aiming to create artificial atmosphere of 'cool' that is meant to appeal, presumably, to people under 25. The closest thing I can think to a successful socially relevant piece of pop music in the last few years is that techno track that took a snippet of Bush's 'weapons of mass destruction' speech and reassembled it to create bromides such as 'fear is a weapon of mass destruction.' Compared to "The Situation in Trinidad", the Bush song is just a sour little joke from people who are snickering at the train running off the rails. More importantly, it's a very generalized sentiment.

At the other end of American popular music, the opposite sentiment is given equally generic treatment: when the guy in sunglasses and cowboy hat solemnly croons that "freedom isn't free", it's just a bland exhortation to do- what? The crassest WWI propaganda song about kicking the Kaiser was at least clear in its goals. In today's shifting political climate, the songs are as vague as the policy of the government. "Freedom isn't free" is a blank check.

The closest thing we have to the political engagement of calypso is angry black music, which I guess I'll discuss again in a later post.

Anyway, don't let the naive political sentiment in the last few paragraphs put you off from sampling the Cook recordings.

You can click through to find some at:

Monday, March 06, 2006


How should a white person listen to hip hop?

I saw the new Dave Chapelle "Block Party" movie the other night. It's a loose, good-natured documentary about Chappelle putting on a hip hop concert in Brooklyn for an audience that commingles native New Yorkers with people from his adopted hometown in Ohio. The performances are extremely exciting, full of a raw energy and gutsy showmanship that has to appeal, on some level, to anyone who likes live music.

I seem to give listening to hip hop another try every few years. Fresh from reading some critic's gasping, eye-watering approval of such-and-such's contribution to hip hop, I spring for a 'classic' album and pop it into the CD player with nervous anticipation- will this be the one where I'll 'get it'? Hip hop, after all, is clearly here for an extended stay -- its era has already outlasted the heydeys of ragtime and swing and bebop and ska and disco -- so I figure I ought to try to understand what's going on. Nobody wants to be the equivalent of the snob who turned up his nose at Jelly Roll Morton in 1920 and suggested it wasn't 'real' music. Also, it's not like I'm some kind of classical music or rock purist- I love calypso and gamelan and jazz and Serbian brass band and enough other stuff to think I'm open-minded and have enough musical horse sense to know what I like.

So far, though, my experiments with hip hop have never worked out. I can appreciate hip hop classics like the works of Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and Rakim, but it's always from a musicological distance and my heart isn't quite in it- it always felt like 'homework'.

This time, though, freshly enthused by "Block Party", I asked friends to file-transfer me some albums by the musicians in the movie and dropped $5 on a used Wyclef Jean record at Rasputin's. So, how is it working out?

Better, I guess. I find myself listening to the music fairly regularly, but it's still 'homework' in the sense that I'm consciously immersing myself in it, trying to figure out how it relates to me as a musician and listener. Also, I find that when I'm driving around listening to it I feel like I'm participating in a socially loaded activity. I'm very conscious that most white people seem to listen to hip hop as a piece of cultural ornamentation, and I honestly wonder how they can do it. So much of the music is implicity or explicitly about the 'black' experience. Dead Prez rail against the government - I can get behind that - but that anger is bound up in a general anger at 'crackers'- and that's me. I'm not a rich white man in a blue suit sitting behind a desk in Washington, but I'm a white guy - no getting around that - and excruciatingly aware that Dead Prez hate me.

With Wyclef Jean, there's a similar weird gray area. I love calypso and ska, and he draws heavily from Caribbean music, but the album I got - "The Carnival" - is incomprehensible to me. So much time is spent on introductions and weird little in-song skits and postludes that it sometimes feels like there hasn't really been a 'song'. It's like a weird large-scale collage built around the concept of Wyclef being on trial for something, a conceit that fades in and out and seems to have little bearing on the songs. Am I supposed to listen to it all at one sitting? Am I supposed to hit >> until I get to the songs I like, even though those are usually filled with pockets of dialogue also? What are most hip hop fans' expectations? Is this considered a necessary feature of the genre?

I ask because this approach to content seems extremely common in hip hop albums. Kanye West's 'Late Registration' is often interrupted by skits that, while kinda funny the first time, soon lose their novelty and grow increasingly annoying. Mos Def has a similar weakness for introductory speeches that start to feel stale. Are hip hop records meant to be disposable? Is this in the very nature of a music medium which relies %90 on words rather than melody? I mean, nobody expects a book to be infinitely rereadable.

Another thing is that rap has a density that I find exhausting over time. There's so, so much speech that the sheer volume of words becomes oppressive. Do rap fans listen to all the words for content? I figure they must since the musical content tends to be based on a looped bassline and snatches of sung chorus- listening to the 'flow' is interesting but is different from the arc and shape of a pitched melody.

Does anybody else have an opinion on this? Hip hop fans? People who hate hip hop?

Friday, March 03, 2006


Hi, I'm setting this up as a corollary to my usual blog, Harmonic Analysis Diary, a. k. a. Artificial Harmonics. Harmonic Analysis Diary can be a little dry since it's just an analysis project- I often find that I'd like to talk about something without having to relate it back to a Haydn sonata. This new page, then, will be little essays and entries of the usual sort, i. e. talk about recordings, books, or movies. And pictures of dogs wearing funny hats.