The Good Stuff

Sometimes a memory drifts up out of the remote past, and you’re struck by how directly it speaks to today’s concerns.

In 1972, to begin this essay with what will turn out not to be a digression, I was working for a tiny outfit called GPI Publications, whose only product was a slim, low-budget magazine called Guitar Player. There were six employees. Jim Crockett was the editor and publisher, I was the assistant editor, and a fellow named Michael Brooks was the art director and also the ad director. The offices were in Los Gatos, behind a jewelry shop, and my desk was upstairs in a large room that was also the warehouse, as it was dominated by a large metal shelf unit stocked with unsold back issues. To reach this room you had to go up an outside stairway.

Sometimes, at lunch, Mike Brooks and I would sit outside on the roof and smoke a joint. Hey, it was the Seventies! And I remember a conversation we had. Somehow we got onto the subject of whether certain kinds of music were objectively better than others. I had studied classical music, and Mike was a blues/folk guitar player, so perhaps the difference of opinion was inevitable. I took the position that some kinds of music were indeed better than others, but Mike insisted that it was entirely a subjective matter of what any individual happened to like, that there were no objective standards for musical quality.

Being a liberal with strong egalitarian principles, I had to concede that his view had some merit. It didn’t sit well with me, but I didn’t quite know how to dispute it.

Today I think I know. I know what I should have said to Mike.

Music does complex things when we listen to it. It can engage, in some combination, our memories, our emotions, our kinesthetic sense (especially if it’s dance music), and/or our intellect. Different people can react to the same piece in quite different ways, depending on whether they’re familiar with it, whether they’re familiar with the style, whether they have perhaps actually played the piece, how they conceive of excellence, and what combination of mental and emotional faculties the music stimulates.

Let’s suppose, for instance, that a given listener is deeply familiar with the classical music tradition up through the time of Brahms, but knows very little else about music. Possibly this person plays an instrument very well, has taken lessons, perhaps majored in music in college. We play three recordings for this person — a Delta blues track featuring slide guitar and harmonica, a burning bebop jazz side, and a movement from a Beethoven string quartet. It’s quite likely that this listener would reject the Delta blues as ugly and primitive, and would also reject the bebop as a chaotic mess.

Conversely, someone who had been raised on bebop would hear high levels of harmonic and rhythmic complexity in that “chaotic mess.” But both listeners would reject the Delta blues as ugly and primitive.

And they would be right.

Play them a piece by Yanni or some other new age luminary, and they would both reject it as extremely boring. Again, they would be right.

The appeal of roots blues, like the appeal of new age cheese music, is primarily emotional. In both cases, the music lacks the intellectual rigor found, as a matter of course, in both Beethoven and good bebop. To Mike Brooks, I would say this: The best music is music that engages us both emotionally and intellectually. Music that addresses one faculty while neglecting the other is inferior.

Schoenberg is as bad as Yanni. The failure of so much classical music in the 20th century was that it became an intellectual game that was devoid of any sort of emotional content. The ultimate expression (if that’s the right word) of this tendency is perhaps John Cage’s Etudes Australes, which were composed (if that’s the right word) by copying charts of the stars visible in the southern hemisphere onto music paper.

Here’s the catch: Almost anyone can bask in the emotions conveyed by a piece of music, if there are any emotions being conveyed — definitely not the case with Cage. But to engage intellectually as a listener with a piece requires training. An untrained listener will not be equipped to understand either Beethoven or bebop. Even musical training won’t help you understand Cage, since in his mature period he wrote very little that had any perceptible intellectual content. It’s entirely barren, and by design.

The best music requires active intellectual and emotional participation of the listener. And unfortunately, active intellects are in short supply. In a consumer-dominated culture, emotions are cultivated at the expense of the intellect. Listeners insist on music that doesn’t demand anything of them. They want it to be easy. They want it to feel good. Hence the attraction of minimalism.

Minimalism was, at one time, a useful antidote to the formal intricacies of Schoenberg and the emotional abdication of Cage. But it quickly became a dead end. Today’s electronic dance music, with its endless train of four-bar phrases in 4/4, is the spiritual inheritor of the minimalist tradition. You don’t have to think to dig it; in fact, thinking would get in the way. You just let it wash over you.

To create good music, the composer has to work with the material, whatever it is. The material has to undergo development and transformation during the course of the piece. The music has to go somewhere. It has to have a knowable and pleasing structure. A series of unrelated sonic episodes will give the knowledgeable and attentive listener nothing to grasp. Conversely, too much repetition (as in dance music) is inherently stultifying. It’s stupid.

Last weekend I played in a couple of concerts with a local community orchestra. We played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The thematic intricacy and structural unity of the Fifth Symphony are an amazing experience — and Beethoven did that kind of thing routinely. While broadsiding the listener with intense emotion, he never for a moment neglected the intellect.

When you’re ready to put your Delta blues duet for harmonica and slide guitar up against Beethoven’s Fifth, give me a call. And if you think it’s as good as Beethoven right now, all I can say is, somebody siphoned off your intelligence, probably at an early age. They crushed your intellect. They denied you your birthright as a thinking, aware human being.

You may want to look into that. You may even want do something about it.

Footnote: Miller Puckette has posted an essay that relates to this topic in a tangential way. His main topic is the question of how academic music becomes overly intellect-based.

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5 Responses to The Good Stuff

  1. Jon Sievert says:

    Sheer musical snobbery, Jim. Just because you can’t hear the complexity and musicianship of Delta Blues and other roots music doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I defy you, no matter how great a musician you are, to get the sound and feel of John Lee Hooker on a guitar. He says more in five notes than most of the musicians you adore do in 50. For me the most important thing in music is how it effects me emotionally. I don’t listen as an intellectual exercise. Listening to bebop with endless strings of 64th notes and “how weird can you get” harmonies often sounds like little more than intellectual masturbation to me. Hell, that’s what they were doing when Diz and Bird invented it. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate those guys but they don’t reach me in the same way that black gospel, Delta Blues, and old-timey acoustic music does. I forget who said that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. I guess everyone gets to decide which is good and which is bad though I do have standards I apply to making that decision which have little to do with how fast or how complex someone plays.

    • midiguru says:

      I think the point I’m driving at is this: No, everyone doesn’t get to decide what’s good and bad. Good and bad have an objective meaning. The fact that the main thing you personally listen for or care about in music is how it affects your emotions does not mean that that’s the only thing that’s important. You’re missing a whole level of musical awareness. Your experience of music is impoverished.

      The flip side of the coin would be someone who claimed that only the intellectual content of the music was important. That was the direction that the serialists took in the 20th century, and they were wrong too.

      Sound and feel are important, but they’re not the whole show, not by a long shot. If that’s all you care about, that’s fine — go ahead and enjoy yourself. But if that’s your criterion, you’re not in a position to make a complete judgment about good and bad that can be applied across the board. A personal, subjective experience does not have universal validity in the absence of intellectual rigor. That’s the mistake the Tea Party idiots make! They think that because they feel a certain way, they must be right.

      With respect to your opening statement … Jon, I’d love it if you’d enlighten me. Describe the complexity and musicianship of Delta blues and other roots music. Write me an essay in which these factors are set forth in detail, or tell me where I can find one. Such essays have been written many, many times about classical music. Show me the equivalent with respect to Delta blues. Talk about key relationships or motivic development, or whatever equivalents you perceive. And also, please tell me how you perceive those key relationships and motivic development, or whatever intellectual content it may have, when you listen to the blues.

      Or are you just listening with your emotions? If you aren’t perceiving any intellectual content, then how can you form a judgment about whether or not it’s important?

    • midiguru says:

      Here’s a slightly different take on it: Most people have no trouble understanding that Harlequin romance novels are objectively inferior to the novels of Jane Austen. A given reader might disagree fervently, arguing that her feelings for the Harlequin romances are the only thing that matters, that if she likes them, that means they’re just as good. But she would be wrong.

      She reaches a wrong conclusion because she lacks an understanding of literature. In exactly the same way, it’s not possible to reach a valid conclusion about the musical value of John Lee Hooker or Yanni without understanding Brahms.

      Personally, I happen to like the music of the Beatles a great deal. But I understand that my feelings arise from a variety of factors, not all of them musical! In a strictly musical sense, the work of the Beatles is clearly inferior to the work of Brahms and Beethoven.

  2. georgek says:

    As someone who deeply enjoys many kinds of music but has little formal education in any of it, my knee-jerk response here is your argument is an overly dualistic perspective on the value of one piece over another.

    The crux is here — “The best music is music that engages us both emotionally and intellectually. Music that addresses one faculty while neglecting the other is inferior.”.

    I know from your other posts that you don’t have an exclusively Western philosophical grounding — what do you say to the idea that emotion and intellect aren’t so easily contained in their respective boxes?

    • midiguru says:

      There’s a constant interplay in the brain between the intellectual and emotional facets of music, but it’s clear that separate brain systems are involved. And it’s also clear that some composers emphasize one facet at the expense of the other. I’ve never met Yanni, so I can’t say what his predilections may be, but I interviewed Suzanne Ciani. Her approach to music is entirely feeling-based, which is why I find most of her work uninteresting. It doesn’t do anything for me emotionally precisely because it fails to engage my intellect. Beethoven, on the other hand, succeeds with both aspects at once. That’s why we still listen to Beethoven!

      Bach is certainly a more cerebral composer than Beethoven, but there are emotions in his music; it’s not about emotion the way Beethoven’s music is, but the emotions are there if you know his idiom well enough to spot them.

      There are people who enjoy Cage’s aleatoric music a great deal, or claim to. What faculties they’re engaging, I’m sure I couldn’t say. There is a kind of delight in purely intellectual activities or perceptions that can, I suppose, substitute for emotional content.

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