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)

~ ~ ~

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.

~ ~ ~

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.