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.

1 Comments:

Blogger sfmike said...

Wow, Trevor, you're really getting going.

Stravinsky and Pergolesi/Friends for "Pulcinella" works brilliantly. But most late Stravinsky is really uninteresting, and I'm wondering if that's when this Rag for 11 Instruments is from.

I don't mind it when composers act like magpies. If they have their own voice, it comes through no matter what.

As for high art "slumming" with techno, it's a totally interesting subject. Listen to the Gubaidulina and write a sequel, please. And though he's the latest flavor, I still don't get Ades' music at all, so it was nice to hear that it might not be all my fault.

9:23 PM  

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