TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
There’s a meme I’ve seen a few times about how awful it feels to hear the music you enjoyed in high school on an oldies station. It seems to me that since stations in that kind of format have a somewhat limited playlist to choose from, that they would be eager to add new pieces to the collection by encroaching closer and closer to our collective present with what is considered an “oldie.” But, that said, I didn’t really find myself thinking too much about what is “old” until a recent discussion board assignment in my Jazz, Rock, and Pop Music class.
We had just finished a unit on American music of the late 1800s to about 1920. We looked at folk music stemming from Appalachian traditions, early country music, Negro works songs, minstrel songs, the blues, and Tin Pan Alley. Then the class had to select a modern song and draw comparisons between it and one or more of these older styles we had just studied.
One problem of a discussion board assignment is that all of the class can see what others have done before they turn in their own work, and nearly everyone waits until the last minute. That means that if someone misunderstands the assignment, people who complete their work later often will carry the same misunderstanding into an entire thread of posts. That happened here. One of the first students who replied to the prompt must have decided that I meant that they were to compare the song they chose to any other song that had come out earlier than their selection. So, when I said compare your song to one of the older songs, thinking 1800s-1920, they were using songs as early as 2001 as their “old selection.” My initial thought was, “Wait a minute, in what universe is something from 2001 old?”
But then, contextually speaking, I realized that there would seem to be a certain reasonableness to this. A typical college freshman was only 4 years old in 2001. Since reaching an age where I could think about music as a part of a series of given moments in time, I have always seen the music of my childhood as “old.” Some music of my youth I see fondly, some with mild embarrassment, but nonetheless, these works certainly don’t resonate with my adult notions of modernity. As I’ve grown, music has grown up (or at least changed) with me. The same can be said for my college freshmen.
That said, it certainly didn’t stop me from feeling a bit past my expiration date to see my students calling something that didn’t happen until I was almost twice their age “old.” So, with that in mind, how do we define “oldness” in music? On one hand, I think that notion is clearly in the eye of the beholder. The older we become, the wider a berth we give between our own age and that which we consider old. But, I suspect once we put aside any negative connotations of what it means to have something that represents a moment on one’s own life to be perceived as old, certain objective notions of oldness can come into view.
Thinking strictly in terms of musical style, clearly, as we look over spans of time, we see certain fads come and go, and in recent years, the rate at which trends appear and outlive their welcome seems to move at an increasing weight. With that in mind, we might consider anything that doesn’t sound like the music of the present to be old. And that’s where our traditional notions of age come into question.
The other day, I was driving home from work, and I switched from my usual Sirius XM radio station (Alt Nation) to a station that plays music from the 1980s (First Wave). A song came on that I hadn’t heard in years, and I found myself thinking how remarkably fresh it sounded, given that it is over thirty years old. I suspect the main reason for this is the lack of overly blatant 80s synthesizer combines with the loud, booming drums, but hearing this song reminded me of a number of the groups I hear on Alt Nation every day, like Arcade Fire, Fun, The Struts, Imagine Dragons, etc. This song made me wonder, can a 30-year-old song be new?
Then I began wondering about all of the songs that I’ve heard in the last few years that have a distinctively retro sound. The last few years have brought groups riffing on James Brown, Duran Duran, Motown, Bowie, and countless others. In fact, while doing some research to write this post, I found a fascinating blog on the topic called Today’s Retro (www.todaysretro.wordpress.com). The writer identifies a song with a retro vibe once every week. He describes the new song and some older tracks that you can compare it to. There’s some great stuff there. With such a huge variety of styles to borrow from, is it any wonder that modern artists don’t choose to play in an older sandbox from time to time? That does tend to become problematic when they get stuck there (seriously, Muse. If I wanted to listen to Queen, I’d just listen to Queen…), but for the most part, you can’t fault a band for appreciating a sound from the past and wanting to recreate it in their own likeness. So, if something old can be new, maybe something new can just as easily be young?
Here’s my thought. Listen to the following songs, and based purely on how they sound, place them in chronological order.
“Money Grabber” – Fitz and the Tantrums
“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”- The Killers
“Birds Cry (Whisper to a Scream)” – Icicle Works
“Woman” – Wolfmother
“Wolves” – Dreamers
“Sedona” – Houndmouth
“Magnolia Simms” – The Monkees
Then, actually look up the dates of the songs, and I think you’ll find a very different chronology.
So, what do you think? Can we think of stylistic time as being something different from actual time or even musical time? It feels a bit like something Dr. Who would say, but from the perspective of musical style, maybe time isn’t just “a strict progression of cause and effect,” but actually is more of a “big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”
This week brought an amazing surprise that led to a phenomenal listening opportunity. Here’s what happened…
As you may remember, my hubby and I moved from just outside Raleigh, NC to Newnan, GA about a month ago, so I could start my new teaching job at the University of West Georgia. We’ve been gradually getting settled in, meeting new people, and forming a little community of friends. (On a side note, why is it so much harder for adults to make friends than it is for children?)
So, anyway, on Wednesday night, we were chatting with a couple we recently met, and as often happens, the topic turned to what we do for a living. On learning that I am a musicologist, my new friends informed me of their deep love of music. The husband directs a choir, and the wife is a singer. Due to their background, these folks knew a bit more than the typical people with whom I have this kind of conversation. Still, I was a bit surprised to be asked about my primary research field. But when I responded, “I wrote my dissertation on Mahler’s Wunderhorn Lieder,” instead of the look of confusion that I usually get upon the revelation, this gentleman said, “I love Mahler! I used to listen to his music all the time in middle school (!). Are you going to see the ‘Resurrection’ tomorrow?”
Say what now?!?! Someone is performing my favorite symphony by my favorite composer tomorrow, and I didn’t know anything about it? I can only blame my newness to the area for that grievous oversight. So, as it turns out, this weekend is the opening of the new season for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and they kicked 2015-16 off with a bang by performing Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 (“The Resurrection”).
Then the question at hand, were we going? Well, I don’t know. 24 hours isn’t much notice. We also had the budget to consider. Moving 3 states away is a costly endeavor, and it seems like every time we turn around, there’s something new we need for the house. As bourgeois as it may sound, maybe sitting this one out wouldn’t be the worst thing ever to happen. Sigh… Reality can be such a bummer…
So, we get home from our outing as my husband’s phone begins to ring. It is our new friends. They want to know whether we would be free on either Thursday or Saturday night. Thinking they were going to invite us to dinner or something, and since we plan to finish some household projects on Saturday, Thursday is better for us. Ok. Vague and mysterious call, but it looks like we have some kind of plan on Thursday.
The following morning, we have an email. Our friends have decided that missing Mahler was unacceptable, so they purchased tickets for us! Once the shock of something so incredibly generous wore off, we began to make plans: what to wear, when to leave, where to go, etc…
Which brings us at last to the important part – the concert. Mahler was a man of extremes, and he loved wild, swinging contrasts from one end of the spectrum to the other. That being said, when his music is loud, it is LOUD. The performing forces last night were crammed onto the stage. There was a full string sections, 4 oboes, 3 clarinets, 5 flutes, at least 4 bassoon and a contrabassoon, an enormous brass section (6-7 horns, 5 trombones, 6 trumpets, tuba), a litany of percussionists, including 2 full sets of timpani, 2 harps, an organ, a 200-member choir, and 2 female soloists. This being the first time I’ve seen the ASO, I have no idea how that compares to a typical performance, but the simple fact that there was so little wiggle room on the stage leads me to think that they had needed to bring in some extra help to pull off this performance.
In spite of the huge forces, they were still able to create moments of gossamer delicacy, only to then turn around and blast the listener’s face off! The conductor led the performers up and down, like a musical roller coaster, through the intricacies of the piece. Though, if I’m honest, I don’t know if I would be able to follow his movements. He almost danced on the stage, and, perhaps it was watching from the other side of the baton, but try as I might, there were moments when I could not find the beat from his conducting. Luckily, the performers either weren’t watching him (not that any self-respecting ensemble performer has even ignored their conductor ;)), or they knew his motions well enough to follow them.
I have to say, it was the woodwinds that impressed me the most. There are some delightfully complex figures for clarinet, oboe, and flute in Mahler 2, and these performers knocked them out of the park.
The choir was also incredibly impressive! The voices blended so perfectly, and their dynamics were fantastic. When they first entered, it was almost like a whisper, which gradually grew to a scream of undeniable force. If Atlanta wasn’t almost an hour away and a traffic nightmare, I might consider looking into auditioning, thought, honestly, I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to cut it.
The fourth movement of the symphony is entitled “Urlicht,” which means “Primeval Light.” The movement is an orchestrated song for mezzo-soprano. The text comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and it is a simple prayer of a person seeking eternal salvation. The mezzo soloist had a lovely voice and she sang with lovely intonation. That said, her face read very little. She could have just as easily been singing a grocery list to look at her. Perhaps that was because most of the audience was focused on the translated text being projected on screens on either side of the hall. Maybe she’s just not a very visually expressive singer. I don’t know, but it struck me as a bit odd.
The final movement functions in a way very similar to the last movement of Beethoven 9, featuring a chorus and vocal soloists with lengthy instrumental passages woven around them. The text sung by the choir and soloists comes form the writings of Friedrich Neitzsche, conceptually a world away from those of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, though both texts are examining the afterlife and other metaphysical notions. It was in this movement where we heard the soprano soloist for the first time. Interestingly, one might say that her shortcomings were the exact opposite of the mezzo. She was lovely to watch, her face and body overflowed with emotion, but her voice was almost too large for her to control. It felt unwieldy, almost like it had a mind of its own. As a result, her vibrato was big enough to drive a truck through, and it was nearly impossible to fixate on any single pitch in her melodies. It’s unfortunate that the most blatant problem with the performance was not revealed until it was almost over. The timing made it nearly impossible to focus on the amazing music that had come before, and left a bit of a stain on the otherwise breathtaking performance.
Nonetheless, overall, it was a spectacular concert. Seeing music performed in person is always so different from listening to recordings, and when the piece being performed is something that you love, it makes everything just that much more special. I don’t know what we did to deserve such an incredible gift, but this evening is one I will cherish for a long time
Not surprisingly, I would suggest this week that you find a recording of Mahler: Symphony no. 2 (“The Resurrection”), so you can enjoy this masterpiece yourself. I’m not one of those people who spends hours on end comparing performances from different orchestras and conductors (I leave that for people with far more time on their hands), but a few stand out:
Leonard Bernstein is the interpreter that I know best, simply because his complete Mahler cycle on CD was a Christmas gift about 7 years ago. He tends to be a bit liberal with his interpretations of tempi and voicing, but, honestly, I think Mahler would have liked that – after all, he did the same thing with Beethoven.
If you want something more “authentic” (a word fraught with danger, but a discussion I will save for another time), Bruno Walter is your conductor. Walter was Mahler’s protégée and worked under him at the Vienna Opera. Given the scarcity of recording technology during Mahler’s life, Walter is about the closest thing we have to “how Mahler himself would have done it.”
A more interesting and contemporary take comes from Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco symphony. They recently completed recordings of all of Mahler’s works, and MTT has taken to Youtube in a series of videos discussing the works, his interpretations of them, and their historical significance, not unlike the music appreciation lectures Bernstein did back in the 1960s.
If you happen to be a person with time on your hands, and you decide to compare a few different performances, I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on them. How are they similar? How are they different? Do you have a preference? Talk to me!
So I read this quote from Vince Gill, and it got me thinking. What is the monetary value of a song?
Opinions on this topic seem to vary widely. Looking for a bit of background research, I was surprised to see this essay. Arguing from a strictly business-based perspective, Chris Randall, guitarist from Sister Machine Gun, owner of a record label, and founder of a recording plug-in device, claims that music has no inherent monetary value. What a fan pays for is not so much the sounds themselves, but the memories that we connect with those sounds and the feelings that come with them.
Ok. Sure. But, no monetary value? If we are going to look at music purely as a business, how much does it cost to create a song? Well, that depends on many factors. I know many people who create their own songs using computers and software in their own home. These songs can then be shared on Youtube or distributed on some kind of material device like a flash drive or CD. This is a cheap way to create music, giving it a positive point on the Vince Gill side of the equation, but with a few notable exceptions, it lacks the ability to reach the masses in any meaningful way, thus decreasing the value from Randall’s perspective.
How much does a professional recording cost? Again, many factors come into play, but once we’ve taken into account renting a studio, renting instruments ad recording gear, paying session musicians, engineers, producers, creating packaging, mixing, mastering, duplication, distribution, marketing…. It ain’t cheap, so perhaps Gill is right and Randall not so much. How many copies at $0.99 a pop does it take to recoup the costs? A lot. The financial gamble of creating a song and hoping it will catch on and become so successful as to overcome the cost if its own creation is treacherous. Which brings with it certain problems…
Let’s say I work for a record label, and I hear a new band (let’s call them Band A) with a really creative, experimental new sound. I like it, but how do I know how others will respond? Now, if I hear another band (oh, I don’t know… how about Band B?) whose sound is remarkably similar to, say, Taylor Swift. They have the look, the approach, the sound, everything needed to be a huge hit with the legion of Taylor Swift fans out there. Who will I sign?
With millions of dollars at stake, the safer route is to sign Band B, but the more artistic route is to sign Band A. Band B will no doubt bring money and prestige, with little hope for furthering the cause of musical growth. Meanwhile, Band A offers artistic satisfaction, but with a risk should they fail to turn a profit.
If we look at certain styles of music that seem to get caught in stylistic ruts (country, R&B, and rap come to mind), you can begin to see how the business of music gets in the way of the art of music.
Wherein lies the solution? Well, independent record labels offered an interesting alternative in the late 1980s through the beginning of the new millennium. Independent labels took a few steps out of the process: they signed, recorded, and produced the work of lesser-known artists, but then left the expense of distribution and marketing up to the big labels. If a song hit with audiences, cool, everybody wins. If not, there was less money at stake, so the gamble was not as risky. Indie labels also tended to be located in areas outside of the mainstream music industry (think Sub-Pop in the late 1980s and early 90s in Seattle, Merge in Chapel Hill, NC, or DB Records in Atlanta), allowing them access to underground, localized trends that have yet to gain the attention of those in bigger cities. Without these labels, there would have been no Nirvana, Arcade Fire, or B-52s, and how sad would that be?
But, in recent years, the internet has changed things a lot – bringing us back to Vince Gill’s initial complaint. The web has made the creation and sharing of music something open to just about anyone with the equipment and the patience to compose, write, perform, edit, and upload their music. Chuck Klosterman identifies this trend as “the democratization of music,” which he claims brings with it “the limitless palette upon which artists can now operate.” (https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20111116/10283516791/world-where-recorded-music-no-longer-has-monetary-value-artist-is-king.shtml) If finances are no longer an issue, the floodgates to endless creative experimentation should be flung open!
But is that what happened? What are some of the most familiar songs released via the internet?
Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain”?
Rebecca Black’s “Friday”? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfVsfOSbJY0)
PSY’s “Gangam Style”? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH1XGdu-hzQ)
If this is what the freedom of the internet has brought us, I almost prefer the cages of the past.
So, again, we must ask ourselves, what is the solution? If even indie labels are no longer financially viable and the internet only allows crap to float to the top, where is there room for musical experimentation and creativity that will be heard among the roar of big-business darlings, American Idol contestants, and internet flashes-in-the-pan?
Perhaps it is best for truly innovative artists to continue to dwell in obscurity, surrounded by a small but loyal collection of underground fans. If financial success requires that a musician sacrifice his or her creative vision in order to fit some kind of preconceived notion of “what works,” then it may be better not to chase that avenue, but instead to strive for artistic integrity. It’s a harder road, but I suspect many would believe it to be worth it. What do you think? Which is more important: financial success or creativity? Is one possible without the other?
One of my favorite artists from back when we lived in Nashville was Kim Richey. Kim has worked in the industry for at least twenty years. She’s an amazing songwriter, singer, guitarist, and performer. She’s released seven studio albums, and her songs have been recorded by the likes of Radney Foster, the Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks & Dunn, and many others. Nonetheless, few people have heard her music.
Described at various times as country, pop, and Americana, her style is difficult to pin down. What inevitably comes across from her music, however, is a wry sense of humor, a passion for great songs, and a deeply emotional center.
The first album of Kim’s that I heard was Bitter Sweet, recorded in 1997. My husband was working on his internship in recording technology in the studio where the album was being completed, and he came home raving about this woman and her music. At first I was skeptical, but as soon as it began, I found myself swept up in his enthusiasm.
Bitter Sweet is available on CD and cassette (!) from Amazon, and it can be heard streaming on Spotify and Tidal. It really is a marvelous album, and I hope you’ll give it a listen and tell me what you think!
So, I’ve recently learned that I’ll be teaching 3 sections of Music Appreciation in the spring. 2 of them will meet 3 times per week, and the other will meet twice a week. Normally, a schedule like that tends to leave me confused, as I struggle to remember what I’ve covered in which class and where I am with my course outline. But, this time I have a plan that will not only help minimize my confusion (I hope), but also help me answer a question that I’ve been struggling with for about a year- methodologies for teaching students to listen.
I’ve written about this before, but a typical Music Appreciation textbook features a short chapter that introduces the elements that we use to describe a piece of music (pitch, timbre, dynamics, melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, form, and style) and then launches into an overly-simplified history of Western music, showing how these element evolved and changed over time. It’s a tried and true approach, dating back to the first university-level Music Appreciation book, Thomas Whitney Surette and Daniel Mason’s The Appreciation of Music (Columbia University Press, 1907). As the textbook industry continued to grow and technologies advanced to allow students to read about and listen to great works, the approach remained almost untouched (except new editions which simply added a slightly newer piece to the end).
It would seem that many believed this to be a useful method for teaching students to “appreciate music.” But did it work? Were classrooms full of unwashed masses emerging as the next generation of patrons of the arts, brimming with adoration for Mozart and Bach? No. They weren’t. Were they remembering anything significant about the music they learned? Mostly that it was boring and had no connection their real lives.
So, if the higher education system felt it was important that students learn about music, what exactly was it that students were supposed to know? That remains unclear, but among those of us who teach the class, there has been a shift in our priorities. Rather than insisting that general education students learn about the history of music and study an endless succession of composers whose music they will never purposefully encounter again, why not focus the class on something they do every day? Listening.
And that’s what brings me to my schedule for next semester. I’ve decided to run a little experiment to see how these textbook approaches impact students’ ability to learn to listen. I plan to use a traditional, history-based text in two of my classes, and a book that focuses on listening and musical elements using only a small handful of works drawn from throughout history for the other.
I’m still working out the experimental part of the process, but I think my plan is to teach the introduction to the musical elements in essentially the same way for all three groups, and then give a quiz using questions related to specific listening examples to measure their base knowledge. From there the class will vary, following the books as they unfold and using the materials they offer. The questions on the initial quiz will then recur as part of the final exam (whether as part of the grade or not I haven’t decided), and then I can compare who retained more knowledge of the musical elements in connection with the process of listening.
My hope is that I will discover the right balance between the conceptual and the contextual, so my students can learn to articulate how a piece of music sounds and further understand why it sounds the way it does. Further, I’d like them to learn to use that same approach to all of the music in their lives, so they can describe what they hear, place it in context, and draw connections between those works and the things we learn about in class. We’ll see how it works…
If anyone has any suggestions for scientific approaches or approaches to assessment, I’d be happy to hear them. What do you think is more important to the process of listening, an understanding of how music works or knowledge of a piece’s history? Perhaps a blend of the two? Is such knowledge necessary for “appreciation” at all?
First watch this:
Take a look at this excerpt from one of Leonard Bernstein’s lectures on music, presented at Harvard in 1973. This is only a fragment of one of six lecture he gave in all, but he quite deftly breezes though the history of music from pre-history to modern times in about six minutes. How does then historical knowledge he provides impact your listening on a daily basis? Does it make you hear anything differently?
Then watch this:
In this video, conductor Daniel Barenboim discusses why we listen to music and how we can do it better. It’s a bit fanciful, I’ll admit, but the ideal is a good one. How often do we give ourselves the freedom to listen as Barenboim suggests? For most of us, I’d guess, not nearly often enough. Permit yourselves to make music a true part of your life, and the result will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.