Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Whatever Happened to "Classical" Music? Part II

American "Classical" Music at One Time
I'm hung up in this book of old Virgil Thomson music reviews from his days as a music critic on Ogden Reid's great old New York Herald Tribune. Here is Virgil Thomson writing about the state of American "classical" music in 1948: "...citizens of the United States write music in every known style. From the post-Romantic eclecticism of Howard Hanson and the post-Romantic expressionism of Bernard Rogers through the neoclassicized impressionism of Edward Burlingame Hill and John Alden Carpenter, the strictly Parisian neo-Classicism of Walter Piston, the romanticized neo-Classicism of Roy Harris and William Schuman, the elegant neo-Romanticism of Samuel Barber, the sentimental neo-Romanticism of David Diamond, the folksy neo-Romanticism of Douglas Moore, Randall Thompson, and Henry Cowell, the Germano-eclectic modernism of Roger Sessions, the neo-primitive polytonalism of Charles Ives, and the ecstatic chromaticism of Carl Ruggles, to the percussive and rhythmic research fellows Edgard Varese and John Cage, we have everything. We have also the world famous European atonalists Schonberg and Krenek, the neo-Classic masters Stravinsky and Hindemith. We have, moreover, a national glory in the form of Aaron Copland, who so skillfully combines, in the Bartok manner, folk feeling with neo-Classic techniques that foreigners often fail to recognize his music as American at all." Virgil Thomson, Music Reviewed, 1940-1954, Vintage Books, 1967.

[All the above dudes, by the way, are dead, including Virgil.]

Thomson goes on with this article to discuss what makes American music so special, classical or otherwise. "Two devices typical of American practice...are the nonaccelerating crescendo and a steady ground rhythm of equalized eighth notes (expressed or not). Neither of these devices is known to Europeans, though practically all Americans take them for granted."

It was the Europeans who took the blues out of jazz. Why? Because, like Thomson says, they don't know "our" devices, which to us, we take for granted, one of which is "the nonaccelerating crescendo and a steady ground rhythm of equalized eighth notes" one finds in the blues, the instinct for all modern American music, even the Classical stuff.

I audited a master class given by Aaron Copland back in the late fifties, and all he talked about was the influence of American black music on him; he called it "jazz music," an amalgamated music that is pure dee unadultrated American-born (and that "America" runs from the North Pole all the way down to the falling off of the South American continent into the Strait of Magellan in that world beyond Tierra del Fuego). Jazz was so important to Copland's Paris-trained musical ambitions, and jazz to him meant "hot jazz," the kind you heard in Paris in the 20s and 30s, the kind Louis Armstrong brought to Paris led overthere by black artists like Josephine Baker (Hemingway said he danced with her one night in a Paris bal mussette and she was wearing a mink coat and as their dancing progressed he delightfully noted that that mink coat was all she was wearing) followed by Sidney Bechet (one of the greatest American saxophonists of all time--I mean you hear Sidney so bad in Raashan Roland Kirk's playing!), Coleman Hawkins, Cab Calloway, that kind of jazz, called le jazz hot by the French because it swung so heavy it made you hot--hot for food, hot for drink, hot for dancing, hot for sex! What a wonderful music! [Listen to those Coleman Hawkins sessions recorded in Paris in the 30s with Django Rhinehart--in "Sweet Georgia Brown," I think it is, they start swinging so hard, you hear Django at one point in the swinging let out a "Yeah!" like he just had a wet dream come true. Hawkins was swinging the sweat out of these European jivers. What an awful shame, like New Orleans, we're giving jazz up to neglect, a neglect brought about by the constantly changing trends forced on us by the horribly profitable corporate world we're allowing to blow up all around us with its toxic hand in our arts, our crafts, our hobbies, our desires, our purposes, our creativeness, our thinking, our sexuality, our humor, our ambitions, even our ability to survive.

Copland studied, the same as Virgil Thomson, with Nadia Boulanger, the foreign-born "mother" of American Classical style, in Paris. The French so madly loved American jazz it got to a point where they attempted to claim they were more expert on jazz than were Americans. Two Frenchmen, one named Hughes Panassie, he founded the Hot Club of Paris, the other named Charles Delaunay wrote books in which they defined who they considered the most authentic among the American performers and along with that defining what they said was "pure" jazz in opposition to what they called "bastardized" jazz, which included jazz they couldn't understand, like be-bop. They didn't see the importance of the blues in American music forms, even in Western swing a la Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Hank Thompson...blues was even on the Grand Ole Opry one of its stars a black harmonica player named De Ford Baily who literally put the blues in that true Elizabethan English hillbilly music, in blue grass, hell, even in Garth Brooks. That film they have of Louie blowing in the Netherlands, Ken "Slow Drag" Burns used a clip from it in his pie-eyed rendition, in his now monotonous style, of his version of jazz history, with those Dutch cats on "China Boy" and "Dinah," that's what Copland and those American-in-Paris-trained composers heard as jazz. [I just resaw that PBS George Gershwin documentary and relearned that he had applied for a place at the foot of Nadia Boulanger and she, that bitch, turned him down.]

Virgil calls the jazz he likes swing music and he's right in terms of the music here in the US, but over in France hot jazz was based on Louis Armstrong's Hot Five type of jazz, what unfortunately in this country became whitewashed as "Dixieland," a name nobody but white bands used, like Nick LaRocca and the Original Dixieland Jass Band, yeah, out of New Orleans, and yeah, made the first jazz recording ever, but that's where Dixieland came from. White musicians. You didn't call Louis Armstrong's music "Dixieland." Hell no. Besides, all this music even Dixieland was New Orleans's own music really, a march music, a crazy-mixed-up form that came growling out of old Buddy Bolden's beautiful horn and song from such a crazy voice-hearing mind; that came from the vaudeaux drumming and dancing on Congo Square of the slaves enjoying one free day'a week, Sunday, losing their cares amidst the primitive blues of that percussive dance music. Duke Ellington said Madame Zzaj was a Drum. Jazz was a marriage of French-Creole-Africaine-Congolese music made American by people like Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Papa Joe Oliver, with calling echoes from the black music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Basile Bares, and even from the watermelon men and women that chanted their wares through those Channel District narrow, winding streets now left so desolate and gone after Katrina. All the great calming spirits that perished in that god-damn storm.

Jazz should swing, like Duke said, from side to side--"My father was a jockey," goes the old blues song, "and he taught me how to ride (screw), he said, 'Once down the middle, and then from side to side.'" That's the way to swing naturally. I actually saw a young black woman the other day digging her iPod music and her head was going up and down. I swear, I had never seen a black person looking so white-swinging before. Is Hip-Hop an "up and down" music? It doesn't seem like it to me. The Hip Hoppers seem to swing side-to-side in their kinda slouchy movements as they jerk their verse all over the stage--workin' the stage, as Diddy taught them--everything, even writing books is about working the stage (or the page). I dig Hip-Hop though not in the maniacal way black people do and have since the seventies. Yeah, I know, most white musicians don't dig Hip-Hop; even some black musicians don't dig it; some musicians of various shades don't even see it as music. Yet, the first music must have been made by a sheepherder who really dreamed of being a poet (or a prophet) and started singing the blues in rhyming verse out on those heathen hills on those long lonely nights and days with nothing but god-damn sheep munching away around you as you sit watching your flock and playing your lyre or sackbutt and puffing out diddy after diddy. Though there must have been other relaxations besides their music and verse. As the older cowboys from my part of the world used to sing, "You don't know what lonesome is 'til you've been punchin' cows."

And also like I once wrote, I knew an overaged high school participant with me who owned his own sheep ranch. He openly promoted the more passionate compatibility of a female sheep over the normal urges for companionship with a female woman. "I got one, I call her 'Honey Lamb,' who I'd marry if it were legal." I once saw a girl-donkey act in Juarez, Mexico, yes, at the infamous Irma's Club, where the girl came out and introduced us to her real husband, Herman. Then out trotted Herman the Donkey...and quite a big hard-loving husband he was, too. See how easy it is to digress from "Classical" music?

A Little Soviet Music History
In 1949, Virgil Thomson wrote a piece on the Soviet Composer's Union, of which Joe Stalin was the honorary president, coming down hard on three Soviet composers, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Marion Koval, editor of the Composer's Union publication, Sovietskaya Muzyka, "analyzed" Shostakovich's "chronic illness" [what the Soviet hardline Bolsheviks called it when an artist strayed from the "straight and narrowness" of Joe Stalin's understanding of Communism] and made a list of what perverted "Shostakovich's great natural gift":

"1. Discordant German counterpoint [Thomson says he's referring to Hindemith's style here].
"2. Introducing into the 'sacred soil of the pure classic Russian tradition' JAZZ neurosis and Stravinskyan rhythmical paroxysms.
"3. Inability to write 'singable' melodic lines.
"4. Naturalistic approach to subject matter [Thomson says this refers to the love scene in Shosty's Lady Macbeth].
"5. Limitless adulation of a chorus of sycophants [Thomson says this refers to Shosky's success]."

Now follows Marion Koval's regimen for a "cure" of Shosty's "chronic illness":

"1. Avoiding 'dissonance.'
"2. Avoiding any harmonic syntax more advanced than that of the late Sergei Rachmaninov.
"3. Learning to write 'easy' tunes.
"4. Avoiding dependence on 'abstract' instrumental and symphonic forms.
"5. Writing more songs.
"6. Strictly abstaining from jazz srhythms, paroxystic syncopation, 'fake' [meaning dissonant] polyphony, and atonality.
"7. Writing operas about Soviet life.
"8. Turning his attention in general to the song of the great Soviet people and forget about the West."

I have a feeling those kinds of analyses of chronic illnesses are already rearing their hydra-headed heads into our American freedom of arts, crafts, musics, writings, BLOGS. Wake up, We the People.

for The Daily Growler

The Daily Growler Sports Update With Marv Backbiter

OK, shoot me, I fell asleep during the Poland-Germany World Cup match tonight. Damn. It was a good one, too. Poland was holding its own against their natural-born enemy the Germans. Both teams looked pretty peppy and aggressive. And Spain cleaned ass bad on the Ukraine (I'm watching a rerun of it now--3-0 beginning second period (I think Spain scores a record number of goals--I'll find out later)). They're supposed to be good; I'll check 'em out in the rerun here. Argentina is playing Serbia-Montenegro tomorrow, I think. I'll miss that one; I'm giving singing lessons to a beautiful woman so I'll not have any futbol on my mind until tomorrow night; that is unless it's the morning game.

Wow, even without Bin Laden, the Saudis and the boys from Tunis played a hell of a match; Wow; both of them having spurts of brilliance, though I kept wondering, all this great playing but are either of these teams any kind of threat to any of the favored teams, like Italy and Brasil?
I give it to the Royal Saudi Family team, they were better than I thought; Tunisia, too, and I did once spend a night in Tunisia. When the Saudis scored their first goal, they went into a toward-Mecca prayer session, praising Allah for allowing them to score a goal. The Tunisians scored a goal and acted like a bunch of heretical dogs in their celebration; they certainly did not act like good Wahabis. I wonder, if the Saudis lose, do they blame Allah or the heretical dogs who beat them? Religion is so screwy and unbelievably dumb.

The Yankees are back; beat Cleveland in a baseball thriller last night, 1-0. Brilliant game. Tonight they are beating Cleveland 6-1. Mets are rained out in Philly.

for The Daily Growler Sports Desk

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