Noël des jouets

But has no one realized that I might be artificial by nature?
—Maurice Ravel

One notable bit of pop-music news last week was the release of a new box set of recordings by the late David Bowie, called Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976), laying out, in exhaustive detail, one of Bowie’s more remarkable shifts of identity, from the glitteringly Orwellian Bowie of Diamond Dogs to the blue-eyed soul Bowie of Young Americans to the brittle, elegantly debauched Bowie of Station to Station. The biggest novelty of the set is the inclusion of the official release of a “lost” Bowie album, The Gouster, a precursor to Young Americans that includes earlier, grittier versions of four of that album’s songs as well as four other tracks. The prospect of this new-not-new album made a splash when it was announced back in July, but only a small one—if you’re a mildly obsessive Bowie fan, you probably already knew about these recordings; if you’re a mildly obsessive Bowie fan with an internet connection, you probably already had all or most of them in varying states of fidelity and legality. (I mentioned “Who Can I Be Now?,” one of those extra songs, a few years back.)

What we didn’t have, however, was the cover.

That’s Bowie, in front of an American flag, keeping warm under the Arts section of the February 16, 1975 New York Times. On the section’s front page, below the fold (hence, not shown in the photo) was an article by Henry Edwards, titled “Pop Notes: What Is Bowie Up to Now?” An excerpt:

“Black and British” may sound like a contradictory term, but it accurately describes this week’s new David Bowie single release. The song is an original Bowie composition entitled “Young Americans” backed by the English rock-superstar’s reworking of the old Eddie Floyd soul-hit “Knock on Wood.” Abandoning glitter, outer space, bisexuality and showy theatrics, the orange haired Bowie now seems determined to prove that he’s got as much soul as any successful black recording artist. For more proof, he is now completing a new LP highlighted by a series of driving rhythm-and-blues arrangements

—which, of course, is the very LP that you would have been holding in your hand had The Gouster been released in 1975.

But take a look at what the photo actually does show: an article titled “Gerard Souzay and the Sport of Singing French Songs,” an interview with the great French baritone by Richard Dyer (later and for many years the chief classical-music critic of The Boston Globe). The occasion of the interview was a recital of songs by Maurice Ravel Souzay was about to give at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in honor of Ravel’s centenary. And, honestly, I wonder (though I’m pretty sure this is just idle speculation) I wonder if Bowie held on to the paper because he realized that, through the coincidental mechanism of a newspaper layout, he could claim Ravel as a colleague. From the interview:

“You know,” [says Souzay,] “Ravel did not write very many songs, but everything that he wrote was good—you cannot say that about very many composers. He was a man who traveled very little, but he wrote music that evokes, even represents, many countries—Asia, the Middle East, Spain, Africa, Hungary, even, in the piano concerto, America; it’s amazing. In his home he lived with objects from around the world, and when he studied them, his imagination ran wild.”

Game recognize game: Bowie might have been more diligent about actually making the pilgrimage (sessions for The Gouster-slash-Young Americans, for instance, were at Sigma Sound studios, the nerve center of Philadelphia soul) but that description—living with the objects and letting the imagination fly—describes what makes Bowie’s engagement with so many different styles of music both compelling and compellingly alienating, in a Brechtian way. It’s the plasticity in Bowie’s “plastic soul.” It leaves a gap, a vacuum, that your own needs and expectations as a listener rush in and fill, with satisfaction or disdain, depending on whether you’re a fan or a detractor.

Or, maybe, both. Because what we’re talking about here, after all, is appropriation, which is both an inescapable part of musical creation and (for good reason) a loaded term in the course of cultural history. Bowie and Ravel, who both appropriated early and often, seemingly managed to, more often than not, sidestep the critical pitfalls of appropriation. Part of that, I’m sure, is simply the cushion of time: the pantheon is a forgiving place. Part of it is their usual habit of total immersion in whatever caught their fascination—a habit sometimes amplified in its atypical absence. (One could, I realize, make an interesting comparison between Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, in which the composer absorbed elements of Malagasy music so completely that many critics have wondered if they’re even there, and Bowie’s Lodger album, where the world-music clichés come so fast and furious that many critics have wondered if it’s supposed to be some sort of satire.) But it strikes me that Bowie and Ravel also circumvented many of the hazards of appropriation in the same way: by leveraging their finely-honed and persistent weirdness.

This is, perhaps, the most familiar of all critical tropes regarding Bowie. I’m a stranger here myself, he always seemed to be saying; he was alien to whatever style he put on, and used that disconnect, acknowledging it and mining it for expression. (Go back to his early, Anthony-Newley-wannabe days; even in the whitest possible white-people music, Bowie still felt like he was appropriating it from outside.) But the tracks from The Gouster put it in stark relief. Listen to the two versions of “Right”—one of the songs recorded for The Gouster and then remixed for Young Americans.

In the earlier version, his vocals are forward, drier, in the aural spotlight; when he goes into a call-and-response with the (black) backup vocalists—Ava Cherry, Robin Clark, and Luther Vandross—Bowie seems to be the odd person out: his rhythm skitters over the top of the groove rather than settling into it, his growls and interjections more studied than organic. The later version pushes Bowie a little bit back into the mix, brings up the solid and steady clavinet in the left channel, and gives the whole just the slightest cushion of additional reverb. Bowie’s singular strangeness swirls amidst the song, rather than bumping into its vernacular.

That modulated, subsumed foreignness is a hallmark of Ravel’s musical tourism as well. On those occasions when Ravel straight-up borrowed material, rather than just imitating a style, you can almost feel him carefully and deliberately portioning out his distinctive, idiosyncratic musical personality. Take one of the songs that Souzay performed at that 1975 recital: the “Chanson hébraïque” from the 1910 Chants populaires. Ravel wrote the set for a contest, sponsored by the Moscow-based Maison du Lied, an organization founded to promote folksong research and performance. Contestants fashioned arrangements of seven folksongs, from seven different cultures, chosen by the Maison; Ravel’s efforts won four of the seven prizes. (He only published the prize-winners, though a fifth song turned up posthumously.)

The “Hebrew song” was actually Yiddish: “Meyerke, mayn Zun,” dating from the 18th century. (Some sources attribute it to the famous Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.) Ravel’s version starts out reasonably straight, with a little dance rhythm and a modal sway in the right hand:

But at the end of the first chorus (and every chorus after), the piano slides into a cadence by way of a series of chromatically-advancing harmonies:

This progression is the most Ravel-like thing in the song; is that why it’s purposefully at odds with everything around it? Every chord produces a whole-step or half-step clash (or, sometimes, both) with some other note. And yet the melody and accompaniment eventually arrive at a solid E-minor triad. Ravel slips into the song as an acknowledged outsider, but ends up meeting it halfway.

After World War I, Ravel’s music fell somewhat out of favor in France, at least among the avant-garde, who came to regard him as a slightly fussy and old-fashioned figure. Interestingly, those who took up Ravel’s rehabilitation did so by celebrating his artifice. One such advocate, Roland-Manuel, made this the centerpiece of a 1925 defense called “Maurice Ravel ou l’esthétique de l’imposture,” in terms that Souzay would echo fifty years later. “It is in [Ravel’s] attachment to the most clearly defined objects that he perceives new connections between things,” Roland-Manuel wrote. “The more familiar they are, the more significant will the discovery be.” And, anticipating the chameleonic Bowie, Roland-Manuel argued that art is not, for Ravel, “the supreme truth, but the most brilliant lie; an amazing imposture.” (Translations from Barbara L. Kelly, “Re-presenting Ravel: Artificiality and the Aesthetic of Imposture,” in Peter Kaminsky, ed., Unmasking Ravel: New Perspectives on the Music.)

This is what makes The Gouster, long-suppressed, finally-released, such an interesting artifact to me. I wonder if, at the time, Bowie (on some intuitive level, at least ) realized that, with The Gouster, he hadn’t yet perceived enough new connections, that it was still a David-Bowie-sings-soul-music album rather than a David Bowie album. (Maybe Henry Edwards, writing in the Times, categorized Bowie’s initial efforts a little more neatly and perfunctorily than Bowie would have liked.) Young Americans came in for a certain amount of appropriation-based criticism at the time; it’s only in retrospect, in the wake of all the blue-eyed soul that followed it, that the album, for all its obvious and apparent soul trappings, revealed itself as something beyond—or, at least, in addition to—imitation.

Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, the violinist who was one of Ravel’s closest friends, once wrote that Ravel’s was a restless muse; he always wanted to work “against the successes he has achieved, abandoning the hope of being immediately understood by the public, and even musicians”. That seems an odd characterization of a composer whose music is now and inescapably enshrined as popular. Then again, even The Gouster seems more like a curiosity than a provocation at four decades’ remove. Styles change; artifice (and weirdness) prevail.


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