Ah, civilisation

A great essay by Alex Ross provides a counterpoint to Scruton, who is the kind of guy Ross is talking about when he says: “I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the “Eroica” by saying, ‘Ah, civilisation.’”

As it happens, I’ve been reading Ross’s book The Rest is Noise: listening to the twentieth century, very slowly, because it’s unfamiliar territory so I’m tracking down the recommended listening as I go along (and then listening to it). From this essay it turns out I’m exactly the kind of reader Ross was writing for, having got into Terry Riley and Steve Reich backwards, not as the culmination of avant garde classical, but as forerunners of electronica, and having first heard Stockhausen and John Cage via Sonic Youth.

Anyway, check out the essay. Ross is my kind of music critic – sociologist and historian, he tries to explain what happened to music in the culture over the century, classical vs. jazz vs. rock:

The twenties saw a huge change in music’s social function. Classical music had given the middle class aristocratic airs; now popular music helped the middle class to feel down and dirty. There is American musical history in one brutally simplistic sentence. I recently watched a silly 1934 movie entitled “Murder at the Vanities,” which seemed to sum up the genre wars of the era. It is set behind the scenes of a Ziegfeld-style variety show, one of whose numbers features a performer, dressed vaguely as Franz Liszt, who plays the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Duke Ellington and his band keep popping up behind the scenes, throwing in insolent riffs. Eventually, they drive away the effete classical musicians and play a takeoff called “Ebony Rhapsody”: “It’s got those licks, it’s got those tricks / That Mr. Liszt would never recognize.” Liszt comes back with a submachine gun and mows down the band. The metaphor wasn’t so far off the mark. Although many in the classical world were fulsome in their praise of jazz—Ernest Ansermet lobbed the word “genius” at Sidney Bechet—others fired verbal machine guns in an effort to slay the upstart. Daniel Gregory Mason, the man who wanted more throwing of mats, was one of the worst offenders, calling jazz a “sick moment in the progress of the human soul.”

The contempt flowed both ways. The culture of jazz, at least in its white precincts, was much affected by that inverse snobbery which endlessly congratulates itself on escaping the élite. (The singer in “Murder at the Vanities” brags of finding a rhythm that Liszt, of all people, could never comprehend: what a snob.) Classical music became a foil against which popular musicians could assert their earthy cool. Composers, in turn, were irritated by the suggestion that they constituted some sort of moneyed behemoth. They were the ones who were feeling bulldozed by the power of cash. Such was the complaint made by Lawrence Gilman, of the Tribune, after Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra played “Rhapsody in Blue” at Aeolian Hall. Gilman didn’t like the “Rhapsody,” but what really incensed him was Whiteman’s suggestion that jazz was an underdog fighting against symphony snobs. “It is the Palais Royalists who represent the conservative, reactionary, respectable elements in the music of today,” Gilman wrote. “They are the aristocrats, the Top Dogs, of contemporary music. They are the Shining Ones, the commanders of huge salaries, the friends of Royalty.” The facts back Gilman up. By the late twenties, Gershwin was making at least a hundred thousand dollars a year. In 1938, Copland, the best-regarded composer of American concert music, had $6.93 in his checking account.

All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a warm sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois grandeur: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of “The Rite of Spring” into “Salt Peanuts”). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the mass and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis’s attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream. Jazz recordings sell about the same as classical recordings, three per cent of the market.

The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? Right now, there seems to be a lot of Stage 5 classicism going on in what remains of rock and roll. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, and so on hark back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Their names are all variations on the Kinks. Many of them use old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was recently quoted as saying, “I intentionally won’t use something I haven’t heard before.”Macht Neues, kids! So far, hip-hop has proved resistant to this kind of classicizing cycle, but you never know. It is just a short step from old school to the Second Viennese School.

Published in: on 1 May, 2009 at 10:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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