Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hacking Music Part 1

(Picture from here.)

My Dad had a theory. He thought that if you raised a child listening to classical music the child would grow up to be musical. So he played a lot of music when I was growing up. When I was old enough he gave this tiny record player and a stack of 78 rpm records of classical music. I don't remember any of this but when I was in high school I found the stack of records. They were worn completely smooth.

When I was four he started me on piano lessons and I've been playing some sort of music ever since. Guitar. Banjo. Piano. Mandolin. Lute. However, like Fry in Futurama, I'm cursed with Stupid Fingers. I'm lucky to master a belt buckle. Think of me as a determined, gifted amateur-- minus the gifted part.

I got deeply into Baroque music.

What's exciting about Baroque music is that they were creating modern forms. Concerto? First created as the concertato and honed to perfection before Mozart ever came on the scene. Symphony? Derived from the sinfonia that originated in the late Renaissance (almost the Baroque) which transformed into the sonata from which the near-symphony later concertos sprang. (Think the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Bach.)

My point is these guys were creating the very structure of modern compositions. They were creating form. They were hacking music. Bach even wrote Canon 1 and 2 in his Musical Offering that could be played forward, backwards or played forwards and backwards at the same time. (Listen here.) Tell me these guys couldn't have worked for Anonymous.

I found this tremendously exciting.

There's a deep divide between "serious" music and "popular" music. It's a curious thing. It wasn't there at the end or the Renaissance-- common people listened to the same music as the aristocracy. Now it's likely true that the aristocracy had more influence on the music than the common people. Musicians and composers are like bank robbers. They go where the money is. Much of Bach's work is expressed in churches-- a mixed venue. Mozart managed both extremes. The Magic Flute was in a popular theater but Don Giovanni was in a more serious local. There is a lovely story about Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The Ninth begins very softly but has an abrupt loud point later. (Listen here.) Apparently a woman was sitting in the audience with her groceries on her lap and was so startled she spilled her groceries over the aisle. The story may be apocryphal but the idea that a woman is in the audience with her groceries suggests that the divide between elite and common was still narrow even then.

Modern classical music took a sharp turn at the beginning of the twentieth century. It veered into a sort of abstract cacophony in an attempt to delve into the heart of what made music music. This was going on elsewhere as well with such examples as Mondrian's abstract work and poets such as T. S. Eliot. While these works were fascinating in the environment of artist commenting on art they required a level of understanding that was difficult for non-artists. One can appreciate an aria in both Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute without a problem. But a poem requiring the audience to have a working knowledge of Greek has a more narrow appeal.

Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and Jazz were right there to step into the niche and modern popular music was born.

But a curious thing happened after World War II. Popular music got simpler. Less varied. Musically unsophisticated. Ragtime was never simple. Jazz was complex-- Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is worthy of Claude Debussy. Someone to Watch Over Me plays some very interesting dissonant games. One arrangement I have plays a chord for which I have no name. (See left.) Nothing trivial about that.

Yet a lot of music the fifties and sixties was incredibly simple. Repetitive. And it sold very well. Now, it did seem to have a lot of emotion in it. Trivial emotion but strong and lots of it. (Think Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog.) Jazz fell from grace. Ragtime was forgotten. The most complex popular music around was in show tunes. (Think Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.) Rock and Roll was powerful but simple.

When the sixties came along. I was steeped in Baroque music, Beethoven symphonies and show tunes. Popular music didn't interest me even though there were some interesting ground swells. Then, again, I never heard them. I was living in the south and the edgiest music available was Tom Jones and Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. I did manage to listen to the wispy sounds of WLS Chicago on those rare ionospheric nights it could reach us. Little hints of something going on out there.

When I did get into popular music it was the attraction to those bands that were themselves hacking music: The Who's Tommy. Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The continuing Yes attempt to rebuild rock idioms using classical forms: Close to the Edge as concerto. Tales of Topographic Oceans as symphony. Many of these attempts were failures-- but then I suspect there were a number of Baroque failures. We don't know them because only the good get recorded. But they were still hacking music.

At some point in the seventies that seemed to degrade into disco on the one hand and punk on the other. So I lost interest.

At this point in the conversation my son Ben would say, "Dad: you're talking about music. When are you going to bring up Hatsune Miku?"

That would be Part 2.

Interesting Bits to Listen To:
Tales of Topographic Oceans
The Magic Flute
Mahler's Ninth Symphony
Rhapsody in Blue
Don Giovanni
The Who: Tommy
Deep Purple: Concerto for Group and Orchestra

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