Month: June 2008

Down on the disco floor, they make their profit

From a 1962 Time magazine profile of composer William Sydeman:

Son of a Manhattan stockbroker, Composer Sydeman studied piano halfheartedly as a child, went to Duke to study business administration but got so involved with writing a college musical that he chucked business in favor of study at Manhattan’s Mannes College of Music. There he decided to become a composer. The work, he admits, does not pay as well as business administration: $600 last year, including commissions.

Some older composers are better off—but not much. Veteran Henry Cowell, 64, the composer of 1,000 works, last week confided that “I could live on what I make from music, but not as I care to live—and so I am a professor.” Cowell’s 1961 take from his music: $5,500. He is reputedly one of the eight best-paid composers of serious music in the U.S.

Henry Cowell was one of the eight best-paid American concert composers in 1962? Really? Reputedly? What, this was common gossip fodder at the time?

BARFLY #1: Cowell? You expect me to believe that? Even Samuel Barber makes way more than that cluster-boy.

BARFLY #2: I’ve got a crisp new ten-dollar bill here says he’s in the top eight, buddy.

BARTENDER: Maybe you boys ought to take this outside.

Of course, composer salaries didn’t really take off until the Big Five abolished the reserve clause.

Fancy paints on memory’s canvas/Scenes that we hold dear


Musicians are always talking about form. You learn all the forms in music school—bar form, binary form, sonata form. You learn how to spot the signposts. You learn how to articulate the form (which is basically just being aware of the signposts in performance). It’s useful in talking shop: “Maybe get softer when we get to the trio”; “We should slow down as we come into the recapitulation.” But is it really that important?

Last weekend, I went to the local multiplex (capitalist absurdity update: my iced coffee was cheaper than either a small soda or the box of Whoppers I needed to wash down) to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I enjoyed the hell out of it. But critical reaction has been decidedly mixed. Here’s a sample from the negative side of the ledger. Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

The once-pressing question of how long a culture can go down that particular well—or bat cave, or torch-lit cavern, or fortress of solitude—has itself become a weary cliché. By now the answer is obvious: Interminably, albeit with diminishing aesthetic returns and at some risk to its creative vibrancy, but that’s a small price to pay to ensure the safety and well-being of a thriving box office. Familiarity, our culture has learned, breeds enough mass adoration to extinguish any lingering critical contempt.

So, nearly two decades after the last appearance, Indiana Jones is back, along with its diminishing returns and its aging principals and their trademark tools.

Peter Travers in Rolling Stone:

Audiences looking for emotional resonance in Indy 4 are doomed to the temple of disappointment. Spielberg and Lucas aren’t upping their creative game—they’re taking care of business.

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:

There’s plenty of frantic energy here, lots of noise and money too, but what’s absent is any sense of rediscovery, the kind that’s necessary whenever a filmmaker dusts off an old formula or a genre standard.

Most of the bad reviews that I read hinted at this point—that the formula is tired, that the movie is too formulaic, that director Steven Spielberg et al. are just going through the motions. I’m not trying to say that those critics are wrong—my own cultural consumption would strike enough people with sufficient horror that I’m willing to give that benefit of the doubt, up to a point—but maybe they’re watching the movie in a different way and with different expectations than I was.

Indiana Jones movies are formulaic, and the latest fits the pattern like a glove. Crazy opening action sequence? Check. Hallowed halls of academia? Check. Plane/map superimposition on the way to exotic locale? Check. Audience-surrogate sidekick? Check. Puzzle-like clues? Check. Over-the-top vehicular chase scene? Check. And so on. Part of the genius of the first of the bunch, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was that all this stuff already felt like a formula—neat trick. But now it really is a formula. In a broad-stroke sense, you know what’s going to happen before the thing even starts.

I got sucked in anyway, because I started watching for craft. Over the opening credits, there’s a scene in which a hot rod full of 50s teenagers tries to egg an army convoy into a drag race through the desert. It’s not much more than a kinetic establishment of period and locale. (It’s over the opening credits, for God’s sake.) Early on in the sequence—I think it was a cut to a long shot of the convoy, Spielberg using a long lens to flatten the procession against the desert landscape like a cave painting—I started looking at it in mind of just what it took to get those shots on film: camera placement, camera movement, lighting, &c. And it’s pretty amazing. Over the opening credits, Spielberg (abetted by his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski) is tossing in shots that a lot of other directors would kill to be able to pull off. Low angle, high angle, reverse tracking, deep focus, all in high-speed motion down the highway. If you’re only focused on the formula, it’s liable to breeze by you—after all, you’re still essentially waiting for the movie to start. But pay a little bit of attention, and suddenly Spielberg is slipping you extra candy which the movie hasn’t structurally bothered to pay for.

Which, it strikes me, is what at least I listen for in a lot of the classical repertoire. Even the most adventurous Mozart symphony is still at least as structurally formulaic as an Indiana Jones movie, and often much more so. But the form—the formula—is just the scaffolding for craft. It’s not the signposts, it’s how you get there—the lead-up to each dramatic waystation determines the dramatic payoff. Some might demur that you listen to music for the emotional effect, and craft is not emotion. But the emotional content depends on the craft with which it’s implied, illustrated, imparted—and I would strenuously argue that craft carries its own emotional content, that there’s a shared exaltation of the human condition in the apprehension of exceptional craft. (Cf. Palestrina, Bach, Schubert, Berg, Gershwin, not to mention Einstein, Joyce, Gehry, etc.)

I think this is something that popular culture might actually be evolving away from. Pop songs are formulaic in the extreme: verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus. You can still dig deep into the craft, the idiosyncratic variations on the formula, the expertly shaped turn of phrase within the formula, but to my ear, there’s even more of a sense of diminishing returns than Groen finds with Indy. I saw a fair amount of American Idol this season—my wife was pulling for Archuleta—and one of the things that really struck me about Idol performances is how one-dimensional they are from the standpoint of craft as well as form—from the outset, you don’t just know what’s going to happen (melisma, octave leap, high note), you can fairly accurately predict how it’s going to happen. The song becomes a self-contained artifact, consistent from every angle. There’s a certain impressive craft in conjuring a specific sonic atmosphere that is both immediately emotionally perceptible and impeccably maintained over the length of the song. But it does go against music’s temporal aspect, its forward motion in time—a frozen lake rather than a swirling river.

This isn’t always a bad thing—I’m a big punk rock fan, and most of the classic punk repertoire is high-octane blocks of undifferentiated mood. But there, the torrent of energy was the point, and besides, a three-minute punk song would be considered epic. And I don’t think all pop music is like this, but it does seem to be more prevalent. Put it this way: every so often, a pop song will surprise me at the outset—a strong riff, a particularly heavy groove, an unexpected instrumental combination—but it’s been a long time since a pop song surprised me in the middle. I find myself more and more listening to only the first thirty seconds of a lot of pop songs, not just because I know where it’s going to go, but because there’s nothing left to hear that I haven’t already heard.

A number of years back, I caught a Phil Woods gig at the old Jazz Showcase in Chicago. I still remember it, because every song on the playlist had the identical form—I don’t recall it exactly, but it was something like this: everybody played the head, then four choruses of sax solo, then four choruses of piano solo, then the drums and the bass traded eights, then everybody played the head. Exactly the same for every song. Was it too formulaic? It did get funny after a while, and I suppose if you were really attuned to structure, it would have been maddening. But Woods and company got away with it because most of us, even those of us who traffic in musical form, are not that attuned—we’re listening for detail, for individual moments, for everything that happens along the way. The fact that we knew where each chorus was going to roll around gave the players something to work with and against. Every chorus was there, but every chorus was different; the transitions came in the same places, but in different ways.

I wonder if some of the critical skepticism at the latest adventures of Dr. Jones is, in part, because popular culture is eating away at our ability to get past the surface formulas of culture. (I mean, there is the possibility that they simply didn’t like it, but that wouldn’t be much of a basis for a blog post.) If all you sense is formula, three minutes of shiny pop is not going to feel like much of a burden, but two hours of Hollywood might seem rather bloated indeed. But if you’re used to regarding formula as merely the boundaries of the playing field, Crystal Skull is pretty generous fun. (One of the main reasons I didn’t like the last one, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, was that the screenplay regarded articulating the formula as the main point, and didn’t leave enough time for the movie to waste on gratuitous entertainment.) Musical form is the same way—it’s effectiveness is in the way it provides room for invention. I’ve learned—and taught—classical sonata form in all its technical detail: is that a transition or the closing theme? Is that a recapitulation or just a developmental feint? Is that particular cadence a modulation or a tonicization? It’s easy for such minutiae to suck the life out of a piece. But in the context of the sonata’s overall dramatic arc—the end of the development, the transformation of the exposition’s dominant into the recapitulation’s tonic—all that minutiae becomes the tricky camera shots and throwaway jokes that make the ride so much fun. Pay a little bit of attention, and that sonata starts to resemble an Indiana Jones movie.

The Hills of Tomorrow

I’ve been reading an awful lot of Milton Babbitt lately (part of a project I am, of course, way behind on—this week for sure), and, given that arch-modernist’s not-so-secret fondness for American popular song, it’s surprising just how little he’s written on it. His Collected Essays only includes one such effort, a 1985 essay on Jerome Kern written as liner notes to a Joan Morris/William Bolcom album. What’s interesting is his disdain for many of Kern’s lyricists.

One need not be concerned, perhaps, for the fate of songs that have survived “I chaffed them” (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” [lyrics by Otto Harbach]) or “sequester’d days” (“Yesterdays” [also Harbach]) by virtue of their musical strength. But such awareness does not lessen the discomfort of hearing Ira Gershwin’s “Life’s a four-leaf clover. Sessions of depressions are through,” in “Long Ago [(and Far Away)].”… [R]arely is there reflected, even in a clever Dorothy Fields lyric, the general care and craft, and the specific subtleties of variation and reference, so often displayed in the music.

Now, I’m a big Ira Gershwin fan, but I admit that it took me a while, and for the reason that I think Babbitt is hinting at here: Ira Gershwin’s lyrics deliberately and consistently call attention to themselves.

Let’s compare one of the Kern lyrics Babbitt commends, Leo Robin’s for “In Love In Vain”—

It’s only human for anyone to want to be in love,
But who wants to be in love in vain?
At night you hang around the house and eat your heart out,
And cry your eyes out
And wrack your brain.

You sit and wonder why anyone as wonderful as he
Should cause you such misery and pain.
I thought that I would be in heaven,
But I’m only up a tree,
‘Cause it’s just my luck to be
In love in vain.

—with the aforementiond “Long Ago (and Far Away)”:

Long ago and far away,
I dreamed a dream one day,
And now that dream is here beside me;
Long the skies were overcast
But now the clouds have passed;
You’re here at last!

Chills run up and down my spine;
Aladdin’s lamp is mine;
The dream I dreamed was not denied me.
Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for long ago was you.

Gershwin’s lyric is, indeed, much more self-consciously written than Robin’s, reveling in wordplay (note the extravagant conduplicatio on long and dream), various types of rhyme, and allusions far removed from everyday conversation (that whole “Aladdin’s lamp” thing).

Babbitt places partial blame for this on Kern’s habit of writing the music prior to any lyric, sending a dummy lyric off to the lyricist, one that indicated rhythm and possible rhyme, but no real dramatic sense. (The story goes that Kern’s dummy lyric for “Long Ago” started off, “Watching little Alice pee.”) But that wasn’t terribly uncommon practice in Kern’s time. I think that there was a certain expectation that lyrics would be self-evidently clever and playful. And no one could go over the top in that regard quite like Ira Gershwin. Here’s a lyric he won the Pulitzer Prize in part for, from Of Thee I Sing:

Love is sweeping the country;
Waves are hugging the shore.
All the sexes
From Maine to Texas
Have never known such love before.

See them billing and cooing
Like the birdies above—
Each girl and boy alike,
Feeling joy alike,
Feels that passion’ll
Soon be national.
Love is weeping the country;
There never was so much love.

The song is not much more than an excuse for some fairly outrageous rhymes. It works because Ira is in on the joke, and brings you with—at a certain point, the cleverness becomes so extroverted that the listener begins to share in the delight of anticipation, not just presentation. The Gershwins occasionally would even self-referentially mock that penchant. “Beginner’s Luck,” a song from the 1937 Astaire-Rogers musical Shall We Dance, starts off:

I’ve got beginner’s luck:
The first time that I’m in love, I’m in love with you.
Gosh, I’m lucky!

The last line is set to a jazzy little punctuating riff. The next stanza:

I’ve got beginner’s luck;
They told me beginners win, now I know it’s true.
Gosh, I’m fortunate!

That last line is awkwardly shoehorned into the same riff as before, a slapstick rhythmic speed bump.

Nobody writes lyrics like this anymore, except as a throwback. (There’s some nice examples in The Producers, for example, but they don’t really approach Ira Gershwin’s exuberance/shamelessness.) Even a songwriter like Tom Lehrer gets laughs primarily because of the outrageousness of his content, not his language. I suspect this is a common stylistic evolution—early hip-hop, for example, was pixilated on language in a way that current hip-hop is not. From a classic, Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”:

The invincible microphone fiend Rakim—
Spread the word, ’cause I’m in
E-F-F-E-C-T
A smooth operator operating correctly.
But back to the problem, I gotta habit,
You can’t solve it, silly rabbit;
The prescription is a hypertone that’s thorough when
I fiend for a microphone like heroin

“Thorough when” rhymed with “heroin”? Even Ira might have smiled at that one—or maybe the self-referentiality of Run DMC:

This beat is my recital;
I think it’s very vital.
To rock a rhyme that’s right on time?
It’s tricky—it’s the title

Inevitably, I guess, such virtuosity begins to seem raw and unsophisticated to people. One-time Babbitt student Stephen Sondheim, a fair candidate for the greatest lyricist alive, has spent his career precisely navigating the fine line between naturalism and stylization, specializing in lyrics that are just polished enough to parse as poetry, but flow like conversational prose. That’s an ideal that really only came to the fore in the 1950s, as the variety-show-like musicals of the pre-WWII era gave way to more dramatically-conceived shows, led by the work of RIchard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein—not coincidentally, another Sondheim mentor. The sort of cleverness that the Gershwins’ audience took as a given is now a seasoning to be judiciously doled out.

One of Sondheim’s most seemingly effortless songs comes from his first big hit as a composer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Hero is in love with Philia, but Philia has been promised in marriage to a soldier who is coming to take her away. Philia reassures Hero that their love will triumph by force of imagination, in a way that Hero finds not very reassuring at all:

When I kiss him, I’ll be kissing you,
So I’ll kiss him morning and night;
That’ll show him!

When I hold him, I’ll be holding you,
So I’ll hold him ten times as tight;
That’ll show him, too!

I will coo and tenderly stroke his hair;
Wish that you were there—
You’d enjoy it!

When it’s evening, and we’re in his tent for two,
I’ll sit on his knee,
Get to know him intimately;
That’ll show him how much I really love you!

“That’ll Show Him” is still musically and structurally in an older style, but the rhymes, for all their intricacy, are not calling attention to themselves; the effect of the song is instead to tell us something about Philia’s earnest, bubbly, but slightly dim character.

In one of Sondheim’s later shows, the often underrated Merrily We Roll Along, he pushes that intricacy just over the line. Here’s the bridge to the song “Good Thing Going”:

And if I wanted too much,
Was that such
A mistake at the time?

You never wanted enough;
All right, tough—
I won’t make that a crime.

It’s a song that reflects the dramatic tension of the plot, but it’s also serving to portray two of the main characters as songwriters, hence the slightly more deliberate construction. It’s still dazzlingly polished—the density of internal rhyme is uncanny—but in a way you’re supposed to notice more than Forum. (And polish itself is not the difference between Sondheim and Gershwin—the Library of Congress holds 17 pages of drafts for the lyrics to “Long Ago.”) Sondheim has the skill to calibrate precisely along that scale, but it’s the dramatic need that determines how far he goes. Gone are the days of stylization for the sake of stylization.

It says something about Babbitt’s own aesthetic and historical outlook that he would see that as an ideal. Calling attention to surface ingenuity is a feature of young styles, of the brand-new; the subjugation of that ingenuity to the overall artistic intent is a feature of mature styles—the possibilities have been explored, now it’s time to think about why more than how. Babbitt, writing in 1985, is also looking back on the journey of his own style of music, from scattershot experimentation to more systematic collation of technical knowledge to application of that technical experience to artistic vision. It might seem contradictory for Milton Babbitt, the poster- and/or whipping-boy for a style of music often perceived as nothing more than mathematical permutation, to be chastising Jerome Kern’s lyricists for being too stylized. But Babbitt isn’t writing as the brash polemicist we think of, but as a representative of tradition that had moved past the sort of try-anything facility he saw reflected in Ira Gershwin’s freewheeling slang and sleight-of-hand rhymes.

Babbitt was also writing from the perspective of a music-theater aficionado (and occasional practitioner) who had lived through the revolution wrought by shows like Oklahoma and South Pacific, singular dramatic conceptions that were a far cry from the sorts of grab-bag plots that dominated in the 1920s and 30s. (One of the few exceptions being, of course, Show Boat, with a score by Jerome Kern.) It’s not that there was any great clamoring for such musicals from the audience; musicals simply evolved in that direction, and audiences came along. Babbitt regards that evolution as natural, necessary, and salutary. It’s an evolution you could find in almost any musical style or period in Western history. (Compare Buxtehude with J.S. Bach; C.P.E. Bach with Mozart; early Liszt with late Liszt, &c.) And, all his wry bemoaning of his minority status notwithstanding, it’s an evolution Babbitt expected to apply to the path of atonal modernism. No wonder he likes Leo Robin better than Ira Gershwin.

It’s fashionable to think that such an expectation has been proven to be fruitless. But before you go gumming up the comments with triumphalist obituaries to serialism (that this confirmed eclecticist only leaves undeleted out of a combination of courtesy and laziness), it’s worth considering Sondheim’s career, one that never strayed from the ambitious path that Babbitt hints at. Sondheim’s elder-statesman, frequently-revived status today is a far cry from even a quarter-century ago, when he was still regarded by many in the community as a pretentious avant-gardist who refused to write crowd-pleasers. (I still remember a gleeful Jerry Herman implicitly insulting Sunday in the Park With George when La Cage aux Folles beat it for the Tony.) Times change.

“I keep in my bathroom a book by Nicolas Slonimsky called Lexicon of Musical Invective,” says Sondheim. “It’s a compendium of all these terrible reviews throughout musical history, from Beethoven to Shostakovich. The reviews are all about one thing: How dare they? How dare they? How dare they? Anything that’s new is dismissed. Guess what, though? Progress is made anyway. Look at my career. Suddenly when I was 40 years old, some people began to say, hey, this is pretty good. And now I’m considered an icon. And old-fashioned!”

(Via.) Progress isn’t one style superseding another style—it’s a given style finding its audience. That’s one reason defining musical styles in terms of what they’re not, either from inside or outside, is never as inspiring as defining them as what they are. Music is not technology—it may become old-fashioned, or even temporarily out-of-fashion, but it never becomes obsolete. That’s why the combative Babbitt, on behalf of the style he champions, and to the eternal frustration of his detractors, always gets to quote Sondheim: I’m still here.