Sunday, August 3, 2008

THE EMBRACE: BEYOND CATEGORY (Last--Thank God--In a Series

There are two kinds of music in the world: good music and the other kind.” --attributed to Duke Ellington.

When Elizabeth replied to my profile on some dating site or other in early 2002, she mentioned that she’d been a classical pianist. According to my memory, that, more than anything else, inspired me to respond positively.

From the end of the Swing Scene to that time, I didn’t listen to much. The only music from that really lit me up was the (now semi-retired) English duo known as Everything But the Girl. I was hanging out at Frankie’s Bohemian Cafe, a Czech-style beer hall on the same-named street in San Francisco, where well-known local musicians like Jonathan Roniger, Max Bran and record producer David Hampp congregated.

But mostly, I’d stare at my beer and ask wither popular music (including rock n’ roll)? Maybe, as a non-musician and not much of an expert, I should shut up . . . but Elvis Costello is wrong. I’m the audience. Allow me to talk back for once.

And what about you? How many post-pop fans among you hands please thank you! When you hear about the new Coldplay album, do you shrug: “Oh, that’s nice. They’re making a living . . . what U-2 is still around? Hooray, The Beatles never reunited, hooray! Stones take note! There's more sacrilege where that came from!")

Maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m an Old Person (ewwwww!) Who Hates New Things Like Old People (ewwwww!) Always Do. But I insist: This is about more than shaking our canes and clacking our dentures while croaking “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

When my parents and grandparents (born in the early half of the 1900s) heard the Beatles for the first time O the shrieking, foaming and sputtering! They were appalled, frightened, threatened, offended, disgusted, repulsed and disturbed by that . . . that . . . racket.

Move ahead 40-plus years. Now I’m my parents. But when I hear the music of You Young People Today (watch me wag my bony warlock finger), I do something much much worse:

yawn . . . mmmmm . . . nap time!

These new songs aren’t bad, either. They’re well-written, superbly performed (though nobody seems to belt it like Elvis and his Spawn much anymore), have catchy melodies . . . what’s not to like? Trouble is, I spend too much time being reminded of the Old Masters who inspired you: “Oh, Elvis/Dylan/The Beatles/The Ramones/Pink Floyd/ did that lick/melody/lyric twenty/thirty/forty years ago in This Tune on That Album.”

Nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from Old Masters, but I hear nothing new spinning on the CD player, either. That jubilant explosion that started in the mid-1960s sounds absent. I may be deeply wrong, but something tells me even Sir Paul McCartney may have reached a somewhat similar conclusion: there’s only so much a bloke can do with three chords, three guitars and a drum set, even after adding keyboard, synthesizer and 100-piece orchestra. Popular music may promote a deceptive freedom, because, musically, it truly is the most rigid form there is. There may be no color left in the old paint box.

Returning to Elizabeth and Self:

Among our first dates was an Oakland East Bay Symphony concert at that incredible Art Deco palace, the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, for a program of Giuseppi Verdi, Marco Beltrami, J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt and Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Six years later, classical music is what I listen to most: we’ve collected hundreds of hours of music encompassing a thousand years, pouring from thousands of minds from so many corners of so many rooms, so many dimensions, an endless effusion of sounds bright and baffling. If the amount of work, both big and small, wasn’t so great, I could become an obsessive like Phil Schaap. Hardly a week passes where I don’t hear something entirely new to me, or something familiar that sounds so new, it takes a minute to remember. You don't hear me say "Oh, just another Bach cantata."

Like all general interest writers, I’m stumped about how to tell you what it is I’m hearing so you’ll take in a concert, buy a CD or link to some of the countless radio stations that broadcast online. (Classical makes up less than 3% of the buying market, but in live venues and online, it thrives like never before. I usually read Alex Ross of The New Yorker for help.)

Classical music is often called “elitist,” meaning it’s only accessible to wealthy snobs who kick their servants while taking their $300 seats; it’s not “real people’s” music.

(So, what am I? An android? This is the reverse snobbery of those “Ha! I Eat Feces and You Don’t!” social critics--for which the classical industry does bear some responsibility.)

But on a strictly human, emotional level the vast majority of it is remarkably tuneful and even rocking (the opening of Beethoven’s
Eroica; the final movement of Schubert’s Quintet D. 956.) Like a great nature trip, it cleans your soul of modern life’s garbage. Its fans will swear to you: it can take you the edge of God and Eternity like nothing else.

Classical music is elitist and non-democratic in one sense: I mean, do you really want to hear me play the violin? All the best music, pop, jazz, and classical is performed by elitists from Ringo Starr to Benny Goodman to Marc-Andre Hamelin, plus the snob in the last photo. They damn well better be better than the rest of us at what they do.

Elite means the best. In art, that’s how it should be. Mediocrity kills beauty like bug spray.

A concluding point: In an early draft of this series, I wrote that I bought the notion that music doesn’t build hospitals, cure disease or inspire people to sign up for Al Gore’s Climate Challenge. This recent “60 Minutes” report below hints I was right to delete that.

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The Great Silence said...
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The Great Silence said...

There was a time in my past a long time ago that all I really cared about was music. I spent some years learning how to play some rock and classical guitar. Then, one day, life and work got in the way. Although I liked music it just was not the same for me anymore. Other things came along and replaced it.

I listen to almost anything these days, but not with the same enthusiasm. Although, I get a kick out of telling some kids that if I start playing Gustav Holtz, "Mars Bringer of War," they might start rioting and having no idea why. ;)

Tom Burchfield said...

I was going to talk about my encounters with musical instruments, but figured this topic had gone on long enough. Maybe another day!