Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In Offense of Christmas Music

At the risk of being labeled the world's biggest Scrooge, I will come right out and say that I don't like Christmas music.* Sure, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is good, and anything Frank Sinatra ever touched turned to gold, but that's about as far as I'll take it. It's not the repetition or mass appeal of Christmas music that bothers me. It annoys me, but I fancy myself enough a populist to not make a value judgement about the music in that way.

My problem with the music is the way that I typically consume it- unwillingly. Starting at Thanksgiving (and earlier every year, it seems), the airwaves and shopping centers play Christmas music constantly. I know that when I go "home for the holidays" (which was on the N*SYNC Christmas album, I believe), it will be a ubiquitous fixture of the house, almost as much as the trees or lights. My objection finally got a voice yesterday, when we were discussing the music and ideas of Canadian environmental composer R. Murray Schafer. His philosophy is that music can be any sound, but that sound/music become "noise" when they are unwanted, like the sound of someone opening a candy at a "classical" concert, or the sound of an airplane in the woods. To me, who genuinely does not want to listen to Christmas music, the genre becomes noise. While I agree with Brian that serious study can occur about the subject (and while I am equally surprised that it hasn't, perhaps because of its pervasive nature in our culture today?), it won't be undertaken by me.

* As much as I would like to make a distinction between Christmas carols, popular Christmas songs, and newly composed songs with Christmas themes, I don't often see such a distinction being made by those who play or sell or program Christmas music.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

In Defense of Christmas Music

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Of course, today also marks another significant holiday tradition: open season on Christmas music. Turn your radio to the 24-hour Christmas station and don’t touch the dial for the next month.

I must admit that I broke the Christmas seal a little early this year. Yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the Christmas bug, and my immediate response was to seek out the sonic equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket sitting by the

fireside, otherwise known as Christmas music.

If the thought of 24-hour Christmas music stations give you a feeling akin to

fingernails on a chalkboard, not to worry, there is still hope of converting you into a Christmas music lover by the end of the season, I will be trying my best. I must make clear, however, that I in no way mean this with any religious connotations, in fact, with apologies to Bill O’Reilly, I see Christmas as almost entirely a secular holiday.

At the mention of a Christmas album, it seems that the obligatory response from any “real” music lover is to give a roll of the eyes and a haughty laugh, “Of course, everyone knows that these highly commercial “sell-out” albums by otherwise distinguished artists don’t actually count as part of their oeuvre.” And yet, they exist, and in very high numbers at that. These works are apart of the soundscape of nearly every public space for an entire month each year; from Starbucks to elevators they are virtually inescapable. Despite this ubiquity and cultural prominence, a search for scholarly studies of 20th-century Christmas music in the UB library catalog and JSTOR brought up almost no relevant sources. There was one book, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music, however, this was much more concerned with traditional hymnody than Christmas music in popular genres. I am sure I have overlooked some studies because I cannot believe that this subject is as overlooked as my futile searching would imply. However, even if I have missed something, my guess is that a serious ethnographic study of popular Christmas music would receive the same condescending response that has been given to Daniel Goldmark’s studies of cartoon music; an amused chuckle, but no serious consideration.

I promise I will eventually post the rest of my thoughts on AMS, however, it will likely be after the end of the semester. For the next few weeks I will be posting some “musicological musings” on Christmas music and its role in society, as well as some reviews of great, and not so great, Christmas albums (just listened to Bob Dylan’s, will probably post something later tonight). I need some outlet to escape from the stress of the end of term scramble to finish writing papers, Christmas music musings seems as good as any.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

China and Facebook and Criticism, oh my!

Despite my growing disenchantment with NPR's music website, it's still a great way to kill time. I just read a story that was interesting, but reveals why my disenchantment has grown. The article is about the growing punk scene in China, and there are some nice quotes (including one that reveals a bit of how Chinese popular musicians consume American popular music, from Bob Dylan and Woody Gutherie (!) to the Ramones), but the article does not consider what seems to me the obvious ramification of the article: China has a growing punk scene?!? Does the author understand the political and social ramifications of this? The Chinese government clearly does not, else they would have nipped this in the bud. The article also does a terrible job of contextualizing the scene, saying China has "the fastest growing" everything else, making it seem that punk music is the predominant style and that those darn Chinese beat us to the punch yet again. However, by their own admission, the musicians realize they are 20-30 years out of date. Can you really have "the fastest growing" scene of a trend that stopped dominating 20-30 years ago?

I also wanted to talk a bit about facebook. I've joined the dreaded menace, as that's how the Music and the Written Word Conference is organizing travel and lodging arrangments, which makes a good deal of sense. I want to comment on two things. The first is what facebook is doing to the concept of friendship. I have about 25 facebook friends, which is roughly the number I would consider to be my friends in the "real world." Yet, I see these people who have 400 or 700 or 1000+ "friends," and know by their own admission they don't even KNOW some of those people, much less have a "friendship" in the traditional sense of the word with them. Maybe its symptomatic of our growing isolationism (ironically* because of a technology designed to keep us closer together), an issue others smarter than I have touched on and that I won't rehash. But, those who use facebook would do well to consider its effects on their perceptions and labels of "friends."

Labels are my second point of criticism. I spent a lot of time procrastinating reading peoples' "info" yesterday. It was telling, as with facebook, we can label ourselves, in effect construct our identities, as we WANT to be seen and percieved. Granted, that tells one almost as much as the actual "info" itself, and is a suprisingly revelatory feature. However, I think this too is symptomatic of our technological age, as we spend time carefully constructing these somewhat virtual identities for ourselves, yet sparse time realizing them in a non-virtual world. Just some things to think about.

* This is not *actually* ironic.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I know I promised more for today, but I completely forgot how much a full day of papers takes out of you. In addition, I have an analysis project looming over my head that I want to try to nip away at. So, I will be doing a serious of posts giving my thoughts about the conference in the following couple weeks.

Time's 50 best inventions of the year. Check this one out: "The Biotech Stradivarius"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

AMS Conference: Philadelphia (Day 1)

First day of the conference today, and like the diligent, but broke, musicologists we are, a group of us left Buffalo at 5:45 this morning so that we could make it to Philly in time for the first session. The conversation in the car ride down was a wonderful experience. Especially for someone who: (a) is new to a department; (B) never tires of erudite, intelligent, sophisticated, highbrow, scholarly, analytic (“pretentious, bombastic, and overly analytic) conversations; ( c) probably spends way too much time in the library (books are good for reading, not so much for conversation)* I’m sure most musicologists, or academics in general, can relate to how nice it feels to have a long conversation with people that share the same passion as you, as a release from long hours with a nose in a book.

I was able to sit through two papers**, one of which was interesting (“From the Lower East Side to Catfish Row: “Strawberries!” as a cultural mediation in Porgy and Bess and Street Scene.” - Bruce D. McClung). There is certainly a link between these two scenes, and McClung raises interesting questions about the dramatic setting of the scenes, as well as the two scenes’ intertextual references. However, I did not quite follow him all the way to the final connection he makes of the “strawberry” reference: [from the abstract] “In both operas, strawberries symbolize sexual transgression and recall Aschenbach’s purchase of the fruit from a street vendor during his pursuit of Tadzio in Death of Venice, Iago’s comparison of Desdemona’s alleged loss of virginity to her white handkerchief ‘spotted with strawberries’ in Othello, and the legend of Venus weeping over the body of Adonis with her heart-shaped tears falling to earth to create voluptuous fruit itself.” A lot of the “question” and answer session were suggestions of more songs or artworks with strawberry references. Now I may be wrong, but I find it pretty unconvincing that either Gershwin, Weill, or any of their audience would have even made any of these connections. That is all I really have the mental energy to write about right now, but I would like to emphasize that I really did enjoy this paper, and found it to be a very well done presentation.

I apologize for the fragmentation and general sloppy writing of this post, I am quite tired right now (I know, excuses, excuses..). I just wanted to get a post up on the first day, and also get some of my thoughts down.

Expect more tomorrow.

* Going back and reading this last sentence, it comes off as really sad. I swear, I love the work I am doing in the library, and at no time this semester have I questioned why I am sitting in a library all day. This is probably still considered “sad,” but more in a losery way, which I’m ok with.

** I want to blog about my experience at the conference, but I have already decided, out of respect for our colleagues, that I will not name or comment on any papers that I felt were not very good.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A few thoughts on the new "A Christmas Carol"

Over the weekend I went and saw the Robert Zemeckis adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" in IMAX 3D.* I am not sure the world necessarily needed another film adaptation of the novel (after the beloved classic, "A Diva's Christmas Carol," it was hard to imagine the subgenre of Christmas Carol movies reaching a higher plain of artistic achievement), but Zemeckis' version provides possibly the most visually stunning version to date.** The exposition of the film, with its sweeping panoramas of 19th century London, are absolutely breathtaking. Even the scenes of the film that don't work on a dramatic level, still provide beautifully rendered artistic imagery. I don't know if I would say this was a good film, but for the reason just stated above I would highly recommend seeing it in the theaters (IMAX 3D if you have the opportunity). The film has gotten mixed reviews, but film critics also generally aren't very good at approaching blockbusters geared towards children.***

I decided to write a post about the film because Alan Silversti made a choice when composing its score that I felt largely diminished the quality of the film, and to be honest, was really just plain annoying. I am referring to the pervasive use of Christmas carols throughout the score. The arrangement of "Joy to the World" that opens the preview, is a very typical example of his treatment of these carols, especially during the ending of the film. Now on paper, basing a lot of the score to a Christmas movie with the title "A Christmas Carol," on Christmas carols sounds like a good idea, but in practice, it is just ends up sounding incredibly hackneyed and corny. Now I will admit that even the ending of the novel is sappy; Scrooge sees the error in his ways, becomes a completely new person, and all is well in the world. But what Zemeckis and Silversti do with the score is pour more sap on top of the already sappy ending of the story. The audience is presented with the film version of a double bacon cheese burger on two Krispy Kreme donuts. It's just too much for any sane person to handle.

I will give Silversti some credit. Though he may not be known as a very original film composer, he has a very good dramatic sense and generally does a good job scoring films. If you look through his film credits, it is amazing the sheer number of scores he has composed for blockbuster films (recently, G.I. Joe, the Night at the Museum series, as well as the Mummy trilogy). His most well known scores, "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future," are not likely to be the topic of any scholarly papers anytime soon (not that this should be the criteria for aesthetic worth), but they are still very enjoyable, and serve their particular films quite well. This is an important point. Musicians and musicologist often do not like to admit it, but the ultimate aesthetic criteria of a film score has nothing to do with how we judge Western art music, but is simply how well the music serves the film (It is interesting that Copland in his book What to Listen for in Music, suggests the same aesthetic despite the relative youth of the industry, and his background approach to concert music). Film is the ultimate collaborative art, and unless it is done for a particular purpose, the score is supposed to work more on a subconscious level and should not really draw attention away from the narrative. Most of the score to "A Christmas Carol" fills this role quite well, but the carols draw the soundtrack out of the subconscious and into our full attention because of their familiar nature. It may have been the intention of Silversti and Zemeckis, but the score at the end of the film gives off more the feeling of a sing-along than anything else. For some versions of this story this could have been appropriate, but the ending of the Zemeckis Christmas Carol, and the movie in general, does not really call for such a score, in fact, it necessitates something much more subtle.

This post is getting a little long, and I need to get back to my school work so I will try and bring it to a close. The important point is that this was not a light-hearted Disney adaptation of the Dickens' novel, but really a serious and faithful (the dialogue is almost entirely verbatim from the novel), though still highly original attempt at translating the classic novel onto the screen through a 21-st century artistic medium. It is unfortunate that the score of the film did not mirror this attempt.

I will leave you with one last thought. With the exception of Bruce Springsteen's song for "The Wrestler," composing an original song for the end credits of a film (especially if Andrea Bocelli will be the performer) is a really bad idea. I usually like to sit through the credits, but I couldn't get out of the theater fast enough when I started to hear a song with lyrics that related to the film I just saw. I felt like I immediately needed to take a shower to cleanse myself of such filth.

* Just a little note about myself, I love going to movies in IMAX. It has the wonderful ability to make even not very good movies an enjoyable experience. "Monsters vs. Aliens" is a perfect example of this phenomenon. However, for this reason it can sometimes be difficult to apply any sort of critical criteria to a viewing, because the IMAX film experience differs in many ways from a more traditional theater experience.

** IMDB shows 25 exact matches for title and 13 partial matches when you search A Christmas Carol, though, I checked and didn't even see "A Muppet Christmas Carol" among the results, so those numbers are lower than the actual amount of adaptations that have been made of Charles Dickens' novel. There are even more if you count films like "The Grinch who Stole Christmas," that are more loosely based on the novel.

*** I wanted to link to an article I read recently, but couldn't find it. It was on the dark nature of a lot of children's stories. This is a trend that goes back through the Grimm brothers, but it very much applies to this film. If I were 5, I wouldn't be able to sleep for at least two weeks after seeing this movie.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Introductory Post (At Last)

I suppose in John’s Introductory post when he said, “some of whom will be introducing themselves and their interests over the coming days and weeks,” the “some of whom” would be me. As you can plainly see, it did not take days and weeks, but rather months for me to get around to writing my first post. I am sure many of the potential readers of this blog can relate to the initial shock, and subsequent adjustment period, one faces when first entering graduate studies. As I am now fairly well adjusted (or at least until final papers are due), I should be able to post with some regularity.

All of that being said, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Brian Holland and I am a first semester masters student at the University at Buffalo. As the title of this blog would suggest, I am pursuing a degree in the field of historical musicology. My research interests are wide ranged, but generally interdisciplinary in nature (basically anything music and ___). It is probably for this reason that music in film is the area of our field that has held my attention the longest.

I have to admit, this blog was entirely John’s brainchild, I was just fortunate enough to be invited to take part. He made all the initial decisions about the topic and scope of the blog by himself, but I was very pleased when I saw that he decided on an open-ended and inclusive approach. Obviously, given that our lives are consumed by our studies, the vast majority of our thoughts and ideas will concern the field of music history, but it is nice to have the freedom to post on any topic that may come to mind (fair warning, when I am not thinking about music, food usually dominates my thoughts).

I would like to end this first post by sharing some of my observations about the phenomena of blogging, as they will most likely shape my approach. I think what differentiates a blog from an online diary, news feed, or message board is the perspective of the individual looking out at a narrow part of the world. A diary is from the perspective of the individual, but it typically looks inward and is really just written for that person (others may read the diary, but I see it more as voyeurism than anything else). News feeds and online forums may look outward at topics, both large and small, but they are not defined through the lens of a single person. Essentially, reading a blog is a practice in empathy (assuming it is approached with an open mind). The blogger provides readers with their perspective on a topic. This perspective is shaped by the knowledge, personal experiences, interests, and biases of the blogger, and thus provides a view of a topic that is unique to that individual.

Though this is a blog and not a message board, there is a reason why all good blogs have comment sections. It is my hope that through our posts and the comments of the readers (underscore in your mind with appropriately sappy music), it may be possible to create a dynamic environment in which new ideas and thoughts are proposed, and all parties involved take part in a conversation that challenges our assumptions and fosters new ways to look at issues in the field, and possibly the world at large.

Now that I have provided enough sap to make maple syrup, I will bring this first post to an end. I am looking forward to posting with some regularity, and possibly some live-blogging from AMS this week in Philly.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Continuing with a string of nonsensical, borderline pointless blog posts, here is something to keep in mind if you haven't found me a Christmas present yet.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Pre-Concert Conversation

Bored? Lonely? Miss me? Don't have plans for Halloween? Genuinely interested in Shostakovich's visit to Louisville 50 years ago? Then do I have a link for you! WUOL, our friendly neighborhood NPR station (well, one of them) has provided for download the pre-concert conversation I took part in a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

NPR and Criticism

Not long ago, I read an article criticizing NPR's "Top Songs of the Year (So Far) list for being too "white." The author contends that "it's not that NPR doesn't like black music. It merely maintains a strict preference for black music that few actual living African-Americans listen to." Maybe so, maybe not. In my opinion, anyone who genuinely wants to keep a pulse on "black" music (more or less defined by the article in terms of what it's not: white, indie, guitar-driven, college educated, alive, young, local, and hip/fresh/non-retro) doesn't use NPR. Listening to NPR for current trends in rap/ hip-hop makes less sense than buying The New Yorker strictly for the cartoons. And I can see some merits in the author's point that "In matters of musical taste, everyone has a God-given right to provincialism and conservatism, even those NPR listeners who consider themselves cosmopolitan and liberal," although I think forcing yourself to consume music you do not like simply to be "cosmopolitan and liberal" is asinine. 

And I was doing well even through the comparison of the NPR "Best Music..." list with the fact that " 2009, the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts has been by a black or female artist—or by groups featuring both blacks and whites or men and women—a total of 41 out of 42 weeks." What got my dander up was the article's snippy "Who are the progressives again—the public radio crowd or the Top 40 great unwashed?" So, "progressive" equals "listening to music that prominently features black or female artists?" And the "great unwashed," because of their support of this music (isn't that what the chart statistics are proving, support?), are more progressive? Breaking "progressive" into such simplistic (and borderline racist) terms does no one any good. More over, it trivializes the complexities of production and consumption of race in music into antagonistic binaries. I'm not going to defend NPR and what they chose to conceive of "black" music, but in their exposure of non- mainstream "black" artists, they inform their listeners about the entire spectrum of "black" music, a spectrum that takes far more into account that Top 40 hits.

However, I will criticize NPR for its endorsement of Bernstein's recording of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. And, for its sales pitch: "In the remarkable finale, Shostakovich achieves one of the greatest coups of his symphonic career: a "victorious" closer that drives home the expected message and at the same time makes an entirely different point — the real one." This whole trope of Shostakovich study was begun with the fraudulent memoir "Testimony," and was continued through a slew of noxious, pseudo-musicological "interpretations" that I won't even mention by name on my blog. This trope persists, in program and liner notes and pre-concert lectures (last weekend I saw a legitimate conductor spew some of this same nonsense before Shostakovich's 10th Symphony), and most frustratingly, in legitimate scholarly publications by scholars who did not critically analyze their sources. It's a serious historiographic problem, and one that I will return to soon.

"..An entirely different point- the real one." Please. Aside of being elitist and overly dramatic, and ignoring for sake of time the hermeneutic implications of such statements, sticking to such an interpretation with Bernstein's recording, BERNSTEIN'S!, the fastest one I have ever heard **, is mindless. The tempo at the end is so fast, so stereotypically reliant on traditional symphonic gestures of closure that the possibility for other interpretations doesn't even exist... and that does a huge disservice to Shostakovich and intelligent consumers of art music.

** Compare Bernstein's (8:53) with Rostropovich's (12:04)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

R.I.P. Nikolai

Today, my beloved fish Nikolai passed on into the Great Fishbowl in the Sky. He had some kind of parasite, and had been ill for some time, but the medicine did not help. In his memory, here is a link to my favorite story from his namesake, Nikolai Gogol.

I will return from mourning tomorrow with a series of posts criticizing NPR music, and criticizing those who criticize NPR.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Random Thoughts

I've been busy preparing for my pre-concert talk (Saturday at 7 pm before the Louisville Orchestra concert, if you're in town!), so this will be a bit fragmentary: -I got spam the other day in Russian. This is no doubt because of the web searching I've been doing for my thesis, but it was still nice. Of course, now I'm getting junk mail in two languages, but that's beside the point.

-Mozart's Piano Concerto #21 in A major has not only a hilarious cadenza (I was laughing during the concert), but the closing theme (I believe) of the final movement definitely sounds like the beginning of "Dixie." I asked everyone around me if they heard it too (whether I knew them or not), and it was unanimous. Obviously the song wasn't written yet when Mozart wrote the concerto, but it's still funny.

-University of California Press is having an online book sale, and they're including works that are on my "list of things you need to read." If anyone is interested and does not have a coupon, there are directions on their website on how to procure one.

-It's definitely fall when I start wanting to watch James Bond movies, so happy fall!

-My Adorno has not arrived yet. Neither has my new translation of the Benjamin, which is now titled "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility." This title does not roll right off the tongue.

-This has so many issues I can't go into it now, but it is definitely food for thought!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

(More or Less) Live Blogging of Dudamel Concert

This evening, NPR had a broadcast Gustavo Dudamel's concert with the LA Phil, in a program of Mahler Symphony No. 1 and a new John Adams piece. While I do not know how worthwhile it will be, I am going to present my thoughts in more or less real-time, as part of my ongoing investigation into how people listen.

All the pre-concert talking heads are dancing around one central issue: is Dudamel this generation's Lenny Bernstein? Every account I have ever heard of both conductors sounds the same: charismatic, enthusiastic, engages non-traditional demographics. I suppose time will tell... A good friend saw him live last year in Italy, so I have it in dependable authority how genuinely stunning it is to see him live.

New Adams- 3 movements, first 2 attacca. Why do I love every Adams piece I hear (like Cleveland doing "Guide to Strange Places," which is for some reason not available on commercial recording)? I love how Adams integrates the piano into his orchestral textures. And something new for saxophonists! This is not as good as the other famous homag├ę to the City of Lights, "LA Woman" by the Doors, but still good (I kid). Some of his orchestral textures sound so much like band music, and I don't know why... the use of the winds? Or maybe its the scoring of the winds, massed in triadic clumps... hard to tell. This is VERY different from the last piece Adams wrote for Disney Hall and the LA Phil, "The Dharma at Big Sur," which is one of my favorite pieces of music (a concerto for 5-string electric violin? Sign me up!). What does it say about Dudamel and the Orchestra's decision to have Adams as their composer-in-residence. I clearly enjoy Adams' music, but it's a very Disney decision, safe and not too threatening. Of course, the NY Phil is commissioning new works this season too, so maybe this is a trend? Till people realize, like they did back in the '50s with the Louisville Orchestra commissioning project, that you get a lot of shit that way too...

This piece sounds like "typical" Adams that I've heard over the last 3 years... driving rhythms and changing meters, primarily sonorous textures, extended consonant harmonies, expanded instrumentation, etc. It (so far) lacks the darker bite of "...Strange Places." Oh, great sonority going into what I imagine is mvt. 2. This is interesting. Even with the trombone solo. There are a lot of solos in this piece. Adams' slow movements are, in my opinion, the best parts of the piece. His rhythmic excitement is some of the best non-film/ non-dramatic out there, but I get the sense that he really lets himself go in his slow movements. Maybe its how he handles time... The orchestra sounds great, really well rehearsed. Adams gave them a piece that is fairly easy to shape, but its interesting that Dudamel is conducting new music. I know its part of the legacy of the LA Phil, but I think it's very significant for the hottest new conductor to be actively working with new works, even if they're by established composers. Sometimes the percussion is a bit much, and sometimes the piece sounds very band-y/ big band-y. And that's the second Adams piece I've heard that's had an odd ending...

~ ~ ~

I'm probably going to stop as I have an abstract due tomorrow. And if they take one more encore, it'll be 11:30 before intermission ends. I will probably post other blogs/ reviews of the concert in addition to my thoughts, which (as I re-read), are more about issues than the music. A quick note on the intermission interviews: any conductor that can make a trumpet player sit up and pay attention during rehearsal must have some divine grace (right, Nick?)

UPDATE: I got sucked into the beginning of the Mahler. Quite possibly the best version I have ever heard. Very organic, such a natural way of developing and letting the music work itself out. Incredible. This will be broadcast 10/21 on PBS's "Great Performances," so catch it!

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Recently, I was part of a discussion about what "genre" was. My interlocutor claimed that genre was (basically, I'm paraphrasing) a way of consuming. If you were listening to something in the chamber music genre, you knew that it was written to be played and heard in a relatively small, intimate venue. An orchestral work would be written to be heard in a large hall with a large audience. My argument with this was that, given the economic demands on "classical" music, nearly every concert takes place in a medium-to-large sized hall, with a fairly substantial audience. In other words, commercial necessity has supplanted their definition of "genre," and this is to say nothing of cds, which reduce this idea of genre into a private listening experience that can occur almost anywhere. Subsequently, this definition of genre simply cannot be correct, as pieces across genres are consumed with such similarity as to seem indistinguishable to an outsider. The response I got was that these ways of consumption are still valid, and are implicit within the creation of a work of music in the chamber music genre.

I still disagree, however. I think that genre is a set of shared or common listener expectations.
Audiences of country music have certain expectations as to instrumentation (and, by extension, the sound world of the music in general) and lyrical themes (and, by extension, the inherent values system of the music). Audiences of symphonic music have expectations as to the overall structure of the work (multi- and various movements, typically with large climaxes at the ends of the first and last movements) and the general way they will consume this music (for a fee, in a large hall, with a large orchestra, and with an accompanying set of social expectations). [The fact that I've been reading Christopher Small's Musicking is readily apparent from that last description, I know.] The genres are not inherent in the production of the music (though the composer or artist learns these generic traits and choses either to abide by them or subvert them), but reside in the audience's reception of the music. When I listen to a Hadyn symphony or a Garth Brooks song, even before I hear the work I will have a set of expectations about the artist's style in particular and the genre as a whole. These expectations are what is manipulated by the artist to create the piece. Ergo, without certain stylistic expectations, there is nothing really for the artist to work with, and no musical style as such can exist.

I suppose I should be even more specific, and say that this was really a discussion about how genre functions, as genre is at its most basic level an advertising method, a way of grouping like products so they can be marketed to like consumers (one of the assumptions of which is that everyone who likes 'rock' likes the same thing... making no distinction between John Mayer and Alice in Chains). However, I turn this over to you: what do you think genre is? And, how does it function? I do this not out of laziness, or the fact that I'm asking a question that's almost impossible to answer definitively. I've been thinking about what I hope to get out of this blog, and am starting a trend towards more interactive discussion, as the miracle that is the Internet shouldn't' exist solely for me impart my views. And, I already know what I think. Now, I want to know what you do.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Babi Yar Remembrance Day- Sept. 29

Lying to the young is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them
            that God’s in his heaven
and all’s well with the world
                             is wrong.
They know what you mean.
                        They are people too.
Tell them the difficulties
                          can’t be counted,
and let them see
                not only
                        what will be
but see
       with clarity
                   these present times.
Say obstacles exist they must encounter,
sorrow comes,
             hardship happens.
The hell with it.
                 Who never knew
the price of happiness
                      will not be happy.
Forgive no error
                you recognize,
it will repeat itself,
                      a hundredfold
and afterward
             our pupils
will not forgive in us
                      what we forgave. 

"Lies" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1952; Translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi (revised)

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September 29 marks the first day of the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar. While these original killings lasted three days, and were followed by two years of essentially non-stop murders, 11/29 is set aside as a day of remembrance. While doing research for my thesis (on Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13), I've learned a bit about the historical event. I'll refrain from imparting details or commentary of my own, save that it was horrific, on par with the Nazi camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, the Allied firebombing of Dresden, or the atomic weapons blasts in Japan. [I suppose I'll add one bit of commentary, and that's for everyone to read that list and remember that history is always written by the winner.] I'll also spare you from emotional education or political criticism (sans an entreaty to take a moment and think), as these have already been made by people far beyond my poor power to add or detract:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Evaluating Popular Music

Recently, I was privy to an interesting discussion. All the participants were well-educated "classical" musicians, who were talking about some of the more accessible contemporary pieces (such as Lieberson's Neruda Songs). For whatever reason, the conversation strayed to pop music. One participant began his comments with "I don't listen to pop music, but I think..."

Wow. To be honest, I tuned out then and there. Perhaps our modern new media has made "analysis" like this acceptable, but if someone said "I'm a Presbyterian, but here are my thoughts on the Catholic Church" or "I'm an avowed Marxist, and this is what's wrong with the free market economy", would we really listen to them? Of course, they might be better educated in the subject than we, and we might be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, but wouldn't we naturally recognize the inherent bias in their position? What if someone said "I've studied and published on contemporary novels, and I don't read anything on the 'New York Times' best seller list, but this is what I think"? They work in the field, sure. But popular fiction isn't their specialty. I suppose what I'm getting at is: what makes someone, trained in a particular sub-specialty of a particular discipline, feel that they have the right to *intelligently* comment on something that falls beyond their scope? We wouldn't take kindly to a jazz wunderkind commenting blithely on Don Giovanni, and we wouldn't listen to a Renaissance student's pontifications on Stockhausen. Why not? Surely they're trained in their field, they can listen to and perform and analyze music within that field, right?

Yes. But, they simply don't know enough about trends, styles, historical and contemporary context, and dozens of other pieces of information that separate true scholars and intelligent consumers from people who make an at best tangential engagement with the material. They simply wouldn't know enough to make insightful, intelligent comments. It seems obvious, no? But my beleaguered interlocutor made his comments in all seriousness, and many people in the room listened to them with a similar earnestness.

I asked myself why for days. Applying Occam's razor, I wondered if it was simply an inability to think critically. However, these listeners were graduate students, so they were old hands at critically evaluating information... yet, they still seriously absorbed his comments. This means they were all totally ok with his admitted lack of knowledge about the subject, and that they still felt he had something to offer. No one in this same crowd would have read a review that started "Well, I didn't even go to the concert, but this is what I thought," or a book that began "I have never listened to Schubert, but here is my analysis and interpretation." Why, then, did they even begin to entertain this gentleman's comments?

The answer I arrived at was far more sinister: This guy's only talking about pop music after all. Who cares if he doesn't listen to it? We're all intelligent musicians, who are far above that genre, and it's so simple! Of course, it's perfectly natural for him to express his opinion about it, since he probably knows more about pop music than anyone who plays it or writes it or listens to it. It is more or less this set of assumptions that underlies an academy that would never DREAM of harboring a conversation like this about other topics, but can allow it with regards to popular art forms.* These assumptions are about the music's worth and value, but they are also assumptions about who is equipped to deal with the music. Apparently, any yahoo who's ever taken a theory or history class or who plays a "serious" instrument or who listens to "classical" music is well-versed enough to make judgements about an art form they don't even listen to.

Friends, let me tell you a story. It's a story of a young man, struggling to become part of this same academy, and who wouldn't hesitate a second to pass judgement on pop music, even things that he'd never listened to. Then, a wise man pointed out to me that, yes, pop music was simple. So what? Get over yourself! You can't evaluate it like you would "classical" music, because it's not created for the same reasons. Oh, so "Crank that" by Soulja Boy Tell 'em is simple, repetitive, and has a beat?** It's dance music. And it's GREAT dance music. It's terrible art music, sure. But it's not supposed to be. That person was me, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I was quite an arrogant, ignorant young punk. But, I've since reformed. I love Fall Out Boy, and completely ignore friends who make fun of me for it, knowing that they've never listened to a whole album. I try not to judge any band (much less style) without listening to a lot of it more than once. And I always try to take into account the reasons the music was created while I'm making a value judgement, realizing that I can not like the piece, but that it can still be a good one, and one that amply fulfills the criteria for which it was created.***

That said, I can't abide someone who just starts making value judgements about something they know nothing about. Or an academy that (tacitly or explicitly) ok's that kind of behavior.

Update, 10pm: Thanks to the folks at NPR's music site, I discovered the best possible example to illustrate my point:

She also does this to "Help" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." No one can possibly deny that she's one of the most talented voices of the 20th century. But, that doesn't mean that she can "do" pop music. Yes, I know these are interpretations, and are created for a different purpose etc., but the ethos is still the one I was railing against. Enjoy!

* I don't mean to imply that this is THE way the academy is, and that things haven't changed markedly over the last 20-30 years. However, we still live in a day and age where a full professor can scathingly say "you should have the skills" to study Dark Side of the Moon.

** I'm not trying to be ironic or hip, and I'm certainly not picking on the song. I picked it because the video has a scene where a representative of "the Man" sees his kids do the dance, and then searches out the video himself. It's somewhat symbolic.

*** From Tasha Robinson, via Phil from Dial M... :

Thursday, September 10, 2009

First Posting: Welcomes and Introductions

Hello, musicological blogosphere! I would like to take this opportunity to extend a welcome to you on behalf of MusicologicalMusings. We hope to leave this blog intentionally open-ended and inclusive, to reflect both our diverse interests and our view of the discipline as a whole (and of course, to give us license to post on pretty much anything). If a topic is in any way thought provoking, unique, or otherwise stimulating, it will be fair game. We hope to be fairly active, between our regular posters and special guest bloggers, some of whom will be introducing themselves and their interests over the coming days and weeks.

To begin with, my name is John Hausmann, and I am in the second year of my masters at the University of Louisville. My research interests include Russian/Soviet music (my thesis is on Dmitri Shostakovich's 13th Symphony), humor in music, popular music, and ways musical meanings are created by different audiences. Some of my future blog postings will hopefully include ruminations on pop music, a discussion of Christopher Small's Musicking, and a consideration of how people listen to and perceive music that will dovetail nicely with my graduate seminar in music after 1960. If I had to make listening recommendations, I would recommend (in chronological order) Bach's Cantata BWV 78, Schumann's Fantasiest├╝cke, op. 12, Pierre Boulez's Sur Incises, Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, and Fanfarlo's Reservoir.

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I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about the recent Beatles remasters. For those of you who (*gasp*) aren't Beatles fans, a quick catchup: the entire catalogue was remastered and re-released (in both mono and stereo) on 9/9/09 to coincide with the release of the Beatles edition of RockBand. I managed to find a record store to sell them to me early, and purchased Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, The While Album, and Abbey Road. I instantly noticed the difference, as did some of the other Beatles fans I played the albums for the next day. However, I figured the best acid test would be someone who hasn't heard the albums dozens of times experiencing a side-by-side comparison between the original and the remaster. I experimented with the non-major History of Rock class, and most of them were able to both hear and articulate differences. Most obviously, everything is simply louder. This is noticeable especially the drums and bass (which seems to be much warmer than before). The overall difference in recording quality is enough to make it seem, as the helpful gent in the record store put it, "that they recorded these yesterday." I'd go so far as to say that, with a good stereo setup (I recommend appropriating a recital hall with good speakers for this purpose), it almost seems that the band is in the room with you.

Some of my only complaints involve the quality of the mixes, which at time simply aren't as good as the originals (and, I've only heard the stereo remasters, so I can't comment on the mono). For example, in "Yellow Submarine," the waves in the second verse are boosted up to the point they almost become a distraction (and in my headphones, the waves almost completely drown out Ringos voice). That said, I definitely recommend them if you are a Beatles fan. I don't know if the remasters will replace the original in my listening rotation, but they're pure ear candy. For me personally, it was also great to get excited about the music all over again, and this is the closest I'll ever come in my life to experiencing what it must have been like to get excited about the release of these albums. Briefly touching on commercial aspects (and leaving commercial exploitation aside, which exists in no small measure (how many times do I need to shell out for these same cds?)), there's also the fact that this move (both the re-releases and the RockBand edition) will probably introduce a whole new generation of people to this music, which has meant so much to so many. And, in my opinion, that can't entirely be a bad thing.