Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A seasonal Digression: “Experimental” Christmas Music

This is an expanded version of something I posted (on my previous music blog) in 2010.

First: Messiaen's “20 Aspects of the Baby Jesus”; this is indeed “different” from the standard piano playing of Christmas standards (i.e. in hotel lobbies during this season). I’d like to hear this instead, sometime! There also exists a “Little Suite for Christmas” by George Crumb, in the same vein, but darker and using a number of Crumb’s inside-piano techniques (I’ll concede that Christmas music probably shouldn’t be dark). It has a rendition of the “Coventry Carol” in the middle, mostly monophonic and plucked.

Another one is the interlude, “For the Birth of Christ”, from the African Sanctus by David Fanshawe. Predating music with digital samples, this uses Fanshawe’s own recordings of traditional African music but is mostly a large “classical” work for chorus, piano, and rock band. Some of it sounds oddly dated now (like a 1960’s rock opera that never quite got going) but this interlude is worth listening to. Both relaxing and tense, the piano adds an atonal accompaniment to a love song from Sudan. In the original vinyl release, the love song was panned too far to one direction and the piano too far to the other, and they switched sides in the middle (an unnecessary and unnerving special effect); but that was fixed on the CD reissue.

Some “pop” oddities: There’s a full-orchestral Christmas tune by Japanese folk-pop-rocker Reimy (on her self-titled album from 1990; her barely-controlled childlike voice stands out in stark, weird contrast to that grand accompaniment), and Bob Dylan did a Christmas CD.

I checked out the latter from the library, asking the question: What happens when everybody’s favorite non-singer and arguably the last of the beatnik poets decides to take on Christmas carols? Answer: not much. It just sounds like anybody’s cantankerous but loveable great-granddad wheezing Christmas songs in a karaoke bar. Charming in its way, but definitely not classic Dylan. (Maybe he meant it to be ironic; but ironically, the irony is lost.)

Another "pop" suggestion is not really all that "alternative" or experimental in any way, though it may be off of some people's radar. Nicole C. Mullen, Gospel and CCM singer with an amazing voice (in complete contrast to Reimy's and Dylan's quasi-singing) has a CD called "Christmas in Black and White". This puts the political counterpoint back in the Christmas message, and is more relevant in today's "trumped" world than it was when it came out in 2002.

Last, and probably least, there's my own piece "Angelconcert" on my CD "PianoSphere" (my name is listed as S. Eric Scribner, if you want to look it up).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Worst Music, Revisited

I thought I’d revisit an old meme (now gone) that’s been annoying me for years. Though I’m glad that it’s gone, my question is really how it got started in the first place. I started a Facebook discussion about it. Not huge numbers of people wrote back (several just “liked” the postings), but those that did had some interesting insights. The names (and initials) have been changed except for my own.

Me: Here's an open question about music. I might include the answers in a blog (but I won't post any names).

Middle school and high school kids today no longer mistake classical music for "elevator music" or muzak. But back in the 1970's, as a classical music listener (and a teenager), I ran into that misconception all the time. Here's the question, or series of questions: How did that misunderstanding get started? Did you think it was true (if you were a kid then)? When did you realize it wasn't true? How or why? Why do you think it isn't a "thing" anymore? Are there actually any similarities between those two genres? (I consider them to be complete opposites.)

I have some theories. I'll post them as this discussion gets going.

BX: Classical more often than not tends to be several minutes if not nearly an hour or so long. Most "pop" music is typically 2.5-7min and that's for the shortest to longest, again..typically. Elevator music to me has always clipped the crescendos and other climaxes...or whatever. I presumed this to allow for the only rise and fall to be left at the physical approach. As if the music were the only bearings one could grasp, in case they feared lifts. Nothing too one way or the other, yet better than Muzak. I honestly can't readily point out Muzak, it's not "music." Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Lol

Me: "Elevator music" and Muzak (same thing - "Muzak" is a brand name) do clip all the climaxes, etc. They're purposely banal, because their purpose is to be ignored. The individual "cuts" are about three minutes long, because they're based on the same music as other "pop". At least that's what I think; like everybody else, I mostly ignore them.

TQ: I blame Mantovani and stuff like this:
(Classic 1970s commercial for the mail-order album "120 Music Masterpieces" featuring actor John Williams. This one aired on WTBS on July 12, 1980 but dates back to 1970 or 71. - YouTube commentary.)

Me: Makes sense (that was one of my theories, that attempts to "popularize" orchestral music actually had a completely different effect). He pronounced title of the Borodin piece "Polyvetzian" Dances!? At least the orchestral bits still have a little dynamic range, even though they're chopped up.

TQ: There was this pretty entrenched middlebrow/suburban aesthetic that managed to smooth all the edges off of classical music - 101 Strings, Kostelanetz, etc. Mantovani: "Perhaps 25% of the people like the classics and about 25% like the Beatles. I aim to please the 50% in the middle." Bingo.

SN: I was not exposed to much classical music growing up, except for what was used occasionally in pop culture and TV commercials. And I didn't pay much attention to elevator music, unless it was a tune I happened to recognized (which wasn't often).

OJ: As far as I can hear, most ambient music these days consists of playlists of pop songs. In really mellow environments you hear New Agey or instrumental folky stuff. And in other places you'll actually hear bona fide classical playlists. I very very rarely hear the old school string orchestra Muzak, and when I do it really jumps out at me--feels like time travel. So I think that's your answer: ambient music used to be orchestral, hence easily mistaken for orchestral classical music, but now you rarely hear that kind of muzak.

Me: One of my theories was that the older muzak used string sections, but then, so did a lot of top 40 (Heart "Dreamboat Annie"), jazz, and even the dance craze of the time: disco. And to me, “ambient” doesn’t mean “background music” but refers to a specific genre of semi-experimental electronica: Brian Eno, et al. Maybe I’m being too rigid there, because the word “ambient” of course means part of the background.

TQ: Ballard Goodwill has the best Muzak - last time I was there I heard the Jam, Buzzcocks, XTC, Lene Lovich, Dave Edmunds, Costello; in past I've heard the Slits, Banshees, Kate Bush, etc.

OJ: Even Fred Meyer in Lake City makes me do a double take with some frequency: Ramones, Replacements, Costello et al.

BJ: Music is a type of thought. Some thoughts are subtle and complicated, and are meant to be paid attention to. Some thoughts are not, or do not reward close attention.

BD: I lived in Florida as a child, in a small town, so elevators did not exist for me. I always associated classical with orchestras back then. In today's world, kids SEE classical musicians daily in YouTube along with the genre title. The internet has clarified much past musical genre confusion in general through sight.....not sound. A label in today’s world carries more distinction.

Me: About "seeing" classical musicians: I have a DVD of videos of Xenakis chamber music. I've occasionally shown it in a class where I'm teaching. The pieces for string quartet "look like" classical, so kids have actually asked me if they're by Beethoven or Mozart. But there's a piece for piano and trombones, and here they (the kids) don't know what to make of it, despite the fact that much of this piece "sounds" more "classical" that the string quartets.

QB: Myself I am grateful that I was forbidden access to mainstream culture, and so among my childhood favorites was Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and remains so to this day (how we managed to have records, not to mention the means to listen to them, amazes me even now). I remember how my father explained to me that this work concerned itself with death, he having barely survived tuberculosis and blacklisted along with my mother as a communist, though they were to find that their beliefs and aspirations were the sort of thing that were sure to deliver you post-haste to the Gulags or even a bullet in the back of the neck in the "worker's fatherland". My response to the closing pages of the sixth movement (Der Abschied) was that if this is death (I must have been somewhere in the neighborhood of five or six years old) I was more than ready for the quiet ecstasy of that moment in the music when all desire and torment is resolved into bliss. And thus I was immunized from the start against all forms of mass culture, from "The 60's" to post-modernism, never mind Muzak and am eternally grateful (I have always thought that it would be interesting to sabotage elevator music systems and let fly with the opening of the Mahler 8th, good for the souls of those aboard).

Me: I often sabotage background music in a class by playing something that actually "works" as (pseudo)Muzak - baroque and jazz work well - and then slipping in some Messiaen or George Crumb.

WM: I had parents who actively listened to classical music and disdained "easy listening" muzak. So I was taught never to confuse the genres.

Me: Me too, and it never even crossed my mind that someone might consider them similar, which is why I was so surprised and insulted when other kids at my school insisted that "bay-TOE-vin" (that's how they said it) was "that annoying and depressing music on KSEA" (an easy-listening station). I thought that one or two kids were kidding, until a whole 7th-grade class threatened to "pound that 'elevator-Mozart' out of me". (A similar phrase had been used against me in 5th grade for telling another student to stop insulting a film about avant-garde music that a guest music teacher had shown.) I actually did almost get beat up once for playing a piece in the style of Stravinsky at a school talent show, though in that case it was because the bullies said that I had embarrassed them by “just pounding on the piano” and that I “needed to be punched once for every note in the song”.

WM: Good grief!