Cement Mixer

Being thoroughly enthusiastic about Propellerhead Reason (I just reviewed version 5.0 for an upcoming issue of Keyboard), I fell to wondering … if I were to record a bunch of music with Reason, what would I do with it? Are there people around who are uploading Reason tracks? Is there, like, a community of Reason users where I could hang out?

So I hopped over to the Propellerhead user forum and checked out some tunes in the Music section. Two hours later, I’m ready to throw up. Honestly. What a bunch of garbage!

The problem, I think, is that nobody is teaching these guys how to write music. They’re blundering around in the dark. It’s not their fault; the educational system has failed them. It’s as if somebody handed you a beautiful high-end digital camera but forgot to tell you to hold the camera still while shooting. So you shoot these blurry, badly lighted photos where the nominal subject is half out of the frame, and then you congratulate yourself on your keen eye and avant-garde sensibility, when really you should be hiding your work lest anyone get a glimpse of it.

I’m nobody’s idea of a great composer, don’t get me wrong. Once in a while I put together a piece that seems to have points of genuine interest. But also, I play in symphony orchestras. I’ve played Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Britten, Copland. I sit at the piano for hours every week learning pieces by Bach and Haydn and Clementi and Grieg. I’m not just a classical guy, either; I’m a fan of Kraftwerk, the Residents, Jon Hassell, Robert Rich, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and so on. I used to play bass in a rock band, too. A tune by the Rolling Stones comes on the sound system at the gym and — hey, I used to play that one!

Oh, and also — during my years on the staff at Keyboard I wrote close to 2,000 record reviews. The number of records (LPs in the early years, and then CDs) that I at least put on the turntable or into the player and had a listen to would be somewhere up around 10,000. You may safely conclude that I’m capable of articulating an educated opinion. In the early years I was occasionally dead wrong; it took me years to learn to appreciate mainstream jazz. But whatever I’m blundering around in these days, it’s not the dark. (Maybe I’m blundering around in the light, there’s a thought.)

What’s to be done? Should I post lucid, thoughtful comments on the Reason forum explaining to these gentlemen, in detail, the nature of their deficiencies? The most likely result is that I’ll get flamed for being an elitist asshole. I did tell one fellow, “Your piece has two chords and no melody.” This was a reasoned analysis, but he’ll probably think it’s an insult. They’re unlikely to respond positively to suggestions, either … like, “Listen to a bunch of Haydn string quartets.” I posted that one tonight. My suspicion is that these would-be composers not only are ignorant of tradition, they think tradition is irrelevant.

I don’t honestly know what they think is relevant, other than maybe having the right kick drum sample.

Where would they learn to compose? Not in an American high school, that’s for sure. Nor in most colleges. In college they teach music majors how to write four-part vocal harmony based on Bach chorales without violating any of the rules of voice-leading — and yes, the rules of voice-leading are still relevant, though they can be treated far more freely than they were 150 years ago — but are they going to teach you how to write a memorable melody or chord progression? How to shape a six-minute piece so that it has a satisfying formal structure?

Maybe the question is, “Satisfying for whom?” The sort of composition taught in colleges tends, from what I’ve heard and read, to be rather forbiddingly intellectual, often at the expense of listening pleasure.

Last year at the memorial concert for Larry Granger at Cal State East Bay, an ensemble played a piece by Frank La Rocca, who teaches composition there. Maybe he chose that piece because of its extremely somber character — the memorial concert was almost pathologically depressing from one end to the other, and I say that as one of the performers. (Afterward, as people were filing out, I went over to the piano and banged out a rousing chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I’m pretty sure Larry would have approved.)

What I remember about the La Rocca piece is that it used a single natural minor scale from end to end. It was deadly monotonous, and very long. Afterward I turned to my friend and said, “I would have loved to hear even one secondary dominant in that!”

Is Frank La Rocca going to be teaching students at Cal State how to spice up their drum ‘n’ bass grooves with twisted passing chords and happily surprising dramatic contrasts? Maybe not. Or maybe I’m selling him short … I don’t know the man. But I’m darn sure that that dirge or lament or whatever it was that they played at the memorial concert wouldn’t light a fire or even strike a spark for any composers who use Reason. (And yes, those are both references to hit pop tunes. You think I don’t do that kind of thing deliberately?)

Right now I’m listening to a piece of La Rocca’s for two pianos (it’s on his website, if you’re curious) called “Divertimento.” It sounds rather like drum ‘n’ bass, actually, if you can imagine a classical composer writing drum ‘n’ bass for two pianos. Lots of motoric rhythms, longish passages that are harmonically static, and not much in the way of melody. It’s not a bad piece at all. You could put it in a program next to some Schubert and it would make a nice, refreshing contrast. On the other hand, I could listen to an hour of Schubert without getting more than mildly bored. I don’t think I could take an hour of “Divertimento.”

And now I’m listening to a string trio of La Rocca’s. Again, a nice piece, but … it may or may not be 12-tone, but it has the utter absence of harmonic directionality and melodic flow that’s typical of 12-tone, the same sense that too much coherence in the phrase structure wouldn’t be intellectually defensible.

Music is about singing. It’s about melody. It’s about butterflies and storm clouds, granite boulders and forbidden pleasures and sadness and uncertainty and bad puns and a plate of fresh cookies. It’s not about grinding around and around in the cement mixer.

Except that, all too often, it is.

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2 Responses to Cement Mixer

  1. gregory says:

    Perhaps the problem you encountered is the side effect of an overemphasis of the “unique” “creative” “skills” of the younger would-be composer/user in combination with a basic failure to explain “why history matters” in the age after the whole Modernist concensus has passed. I’ve seen again and again this interesting kind of exchange where KidA produces something completely derivative [mimesis being what it is in the process of education :-)] and is told by a friend/mentor about said derivations (even *how* its derivative) by someone who’s trying to be encouraging. The mentor’s intention is – apparently – to suggest that KidA is joining a huge sprawling centuries-long family argument about how to structure audio over time, and that there are all kinds of interesting answers and approaches already out there. KidA, on the other hand, appears to hear this as a dismissal of her/his unique creative vision. The challenge is to politely suggest that the whole thing about empowered individuality is overrated – creativity is always embedded in the discourse of some community or culture. The other challenge, in turn, is to avoid the easy resort to that ongoing cultural family argument as a means of excluding or marginalizing others.

    Personally, I’m kind of happy that I don’t have to do this kind of thing – perhaps because I have a particularly strong memory of just how convinced of my own uniqueness and individuality *I* was 20 years ago, and that I despair of having the love and attention and patience of the men and women who let me rant and rave and preen and make horrible stuff and *then* quietly showed me another way. May their memory be a blessing, and may I someday live up to all my self-affirming narratives.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Gregory. I doubt most of these aspiring artists even has a mentor. Also, producing something derivative would be a big step up for most of them.

      One factor that I neglected to mention (the essay already being quite long enough) is that most of them have probably never performed music in front of an audience. Other than the Grateful Dead, who made a career of it, no live band can get away with endless aimless doodling.

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