Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Last Word?

I e-mailed the editors of Dissent to point out the error I discussed in my last post, and they asked me to expand my remarks into a 250-word letter, which appears in the winter issue of the magazine. Here's what I wrote:
Barry Gewen’s review of Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise (Winter 2008) contains a factual error that illustrates the flaw in his argument. He describes the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” as having a “pentatonic melody”--a melody restricted to five notes--which he says gives it a “skeletal quality.” But the song’s uncanniness comes from its use of an eccentric scale called the mixolydian.

The mixolydian scale is exactly like the major scale--the do-re-mi scale from The Sound of Music--except that the seventh note--ti--is lowered by a half-step. After its E mixolydian opening, “Norwegian Wood” modulates abruptly into the key of E minor, adding yet an eighth note to its melodic palette.

Gewen emphasizes the pentatonic scale because he equates tonality with simplicity. But as the surprising sophistication of “Norwegian Wood” demonstrates, that’s a dangerous mistake to make. And while Gewen is right that African music frequently uses the pentatonic scale, it just as frequently has a rhythmic complexity that’s daunting to even the best-trained Western musicians.

The twentieth century’s classical music was not all one atonal shriek. Its best composers and its best songwriters were largely mining the same vein. Alex Ross knows this, which is why he devotes whole chapters of his book to tonal composers like Sibelius, Copland, and Britten. Portraying Ross as a champion of atonality is as gross a distortion as portraying the Beatles as na├»ve rubes. Lennon and McCartney, like Shostakovich and Britten, were tonal composers constantly testing themselves against the limits of their inherited forms.
And here's Gewen’s reply:
Larry Hardesty is correct about “Norwegian Wood” and I apologize for the error. But I believe my general argument still holds. Hardesty’s analysis either parallels or is derived from Wilfrid Mellers’s analysis of “Norwegian Wood” in his 1973 book, The Music of the Beatles: Twilight of the Gods. Mellers too noted that the song is in the mixolydian mode (hardly an “eccentric scale”). But he also offered many examples of Beatles songs that are pentatonic either in whole or in part—“She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “I’m Happy to Dance with You,” “Things We Said Today,” “Help,” “Michelle,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “A Day in the Life,” and ... but why go on? As Mellers observes, “the nature of the tunes (both of folk soloists and of rock groups) is conditioned by their origins. ... The melodies tend to be pentatonic, or at most modally heptatonic.”

As for Hardesty’s other points, I wasn’t aware that I portrayed Ross as a “champion of atonality” but of modern music that grows out of the crisis of the European classical tradition. (If anything, I find Ross too eclectic.) And when Hardesty says I equate tonality with simplicity, I confess I don’t recognize either myself or my argument. The B-minor Mass simple? Don Giovanni? My point, rather, was that tonality, both diatonic and pentatonic, grounds us in a universal humanity in a way that music written from within the modern classical tradition does not.
It was probably a mistake to say that Gewen "equates tonality with simplicity," as it invited the rhetorically effective rejoinder "The B-minor Mass?" But my point was basically the same one my friend Kim made when I forwarded him the exchange above: "if tonality and modernity (or 20th century-ness) are not exclusive, his [Gewen's] last sentence makes no sense." Indeed. Why don't Copland and Shostakovich count for Gewen as tonal composers, while Lennon and McCartney do? The answer, it would seem, is that in some obscure way they fail to stick closely enough to the pentatonic and diatonic scales, a failure that can be fairly characterized as one of "complexity". On a piano keyboard, the span from C to the B above contains 12 notes: the pentatonic scale uses five of them, the diatonic seven. Gewen's charge against Shostakovich et al appears to be that--shades of Amadeus--they use too many notes.

But perhaps I can clarify this point by taking a closer look at the rest of Gewen's reply. For there, he makes exactly the same type of mistake he did in his previous foray into musical analysis. His list of Beatles songs leans heavily on their early work; but of course, if that's what their reputation rested on, history would remember them, if at all, as the 1963 equivalent of New Kids on the Block. In passing, however, I'll just note that, e.g., the line "How could I dance with another" spans six notes, so even as simple an early song as "I Saw Her Standing There" is not pentatonic "in whole".

But let's consider the examples drawn from the Beatles' mature work. The first four bars of "When I'm Sixty-Four"--"When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now"--do, for the most part, adhere to what in Western music is the "standard" pentatonic scale. (The problem of just what Gewen means by the pentatonic scale is something I'll get to in a moment; for now, let's just take a pentatonic scale to be any collection of five notes.) In fact, the note sung on "I" is a chromatic alteration: it's a half-step higher than it ought to be and thus adds a sixth note to the melodic palette. But let's ignore that, too, for the moment, and concede that the song is, as Gewen puts it, "pentatonic in part".

How, exactly, do four bars of melodic material that adhere to a pentatonic scale distinguish "When I'm Sixty-Four" from "music written from within the modern classical tradition"? The first six bars of the famous "invasion theme" from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony (bum, bum-ba plink plink; bum, bum-ba plink plink, etc.), to cite the first example that springs to mind, adhere to the same pentatonic scale. The first seven bars of the "Danse Russe" from Stravinsky's Petrouchka simply run up and down a string of five notes three times--spanning an interval of only a fifth, as opposed to the ninth that McCartney's tune covers. (If the same note occurs in different registers--i.e., an octave or several octaves apart--it counts, for music-theoretical purposes, as one note.) I browsed around in my score of Bartok's string quartets--pieces I don't know as well as I do Stravinsky's ballets and Shostakovich's symphonies--and quickly found that the first five bars of the second movement of the Second Quartet repeat the same five-note figure twice, then invert it, with a sixth note introduced only on the last half-beat of the sixth measure. Starting at bar eight however, the next fourteen bars use only five notes--in the melody and in the accompaniment. If I spent a couple more minutes listening to some of Copland's "prairie style" ballets, or some of the sing-song boy-treble chants in some of Britten's operas, I'm sure I could find further examples of 20th-century concert music that uses a restricted melodic palette. But, as Gewen would say, "why go on?"

The point is that, in the same way that "Norwegian Wood" turned out to be more complicated than Gewen allowed, "music written from within the modern classical tradition" can, for bars at a time, be as simple as the simplest folk song. The salient question is, what happens next?

Well, what happens next in "When I'm Sixty-Four"? Bars five through eight set the lyrics "Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greeting, bottle of wine?" The first note to sound--on "Will"--lies outside the standard pentatonic scale, so that's the end of the song's petatonic-ness--which, of course, was actually compromised by its second note, anyway. But "will" is still a note of the diatonic scale that "grounds us in a universal humanity": it's ti in the do-re-mi system. The "len" of "valentine", however, adds a seventh note to our melodic palette--and it's a note that lies outside the diatonic scale. But then, so is the "gree" of "greetings": it's yet an eighth note, which falls into the crack between do and re. Finally, the "tle" of "bottle" is also outside the diatonic scale, a ninth note, falling between re and mi. (Actually, it's the same note as the "I" of "when I get older", an octave higher.)

So not only is the melody of "When I'm Sixty-Four" not pentatonic "in whole", but neither is it "heptatonic" (i.e., constructed of seven notes; the diatonic scale, the do-re-mi scale, would be a special case of the heptatonic). It in fact uses nine distinct pitches, three of which do not fit into the diatonic scale determined by the other six. What has become of our universal humanity??

But of course, "When I'm Sixty-Four" doesn't sound weird to us. It doesn't sound like Schoenberg. That's because its slinky little chromaticisms are perfectly familiar from the musical tradition in which McCartney is working: not the folk tradition that this Mellers person identifies (and no, I do not need the aid of an obscure 35-year-old book to recognize the mixolydian mode when I hear it), but rather the tradition of the English music hall, which McCartney plumbed far more fruitfully in the songs "Your Mother Should Know" and "Martha My Dear".

Here, I was intending to move on to a similar analysis of "Michelle", but I've probably already taxed the patience of the few people who've bothered to read this far. I'm sure the points I've been trying to make are pretty clear: use of the pentatonic and diatonic scales for bars at a time is perfectly common among composers working "within the modern classical tradition"; deviation from those scales is perfectly common among the better pop songwriters; and I grossly overstated the case in my last post when I said that "Gewen actually seems to know more about music theory than most pop-music critics do".

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing

I recently came across this article in Dissent, a magazine I've lately been reading online chiefly because its editors just republished this article to commemorate Richard Rorty's death. The Gewen article is a response to Alex Ross's new book The Rest Is Noise, and while I'm sympathetic to much of what it says, it also illustrates one of the reasons I bother with this blog (and why I went through the trouble of all those music primer posts last summer).

Gewen's thesis is, basically, that rock music is where the tonal tradition that stretches from Bach through Mahler went to hide in the second half of the 20th century, and I think he's largely right. I also think he's entirely wrong to portray himself as somehow rebutting Alex's thesis in The Rest Is Noise. Gewen claims that
Ross demands the Gershwin of the concert hall. He stresses the man’s sophisticated musical training and twice tells us the story of an encounter with Alban Berg. Gershwin, Ross reports, was “awestruck” by Berg’s compositions, which may have given him “a glimpse of something new, a deeper synthesis than what he had achieved to date”—which is to say, only “Rhapsody in Blue,” the “Concerto in F,” and a slew of songs like “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” (Poor, poor pitiful George.)
But Gershwin could not have written his best songs without his sophisticated musical training, any more than Burt Bacharach could have written his, and when Alex mentions Gershwin's glimpse of "a deeper synthesis", he's talking about Porgy and Bess. You don't have to be a musical snob to believe that Porgy is more ambitious than "Someone to Watch over Me". Indeed, Alex's verdict on Porgy is that it's precisely because it was a new synthesis that it didn't get the reception it deserved: neither the classical snobs nor the jazz musicians could cotton to it. Anyone who's read Alex on the topic of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday", or on Bjork, Radiohead, or Dylan in the New Yorker, knows that he's not trying to shoehorn pop music into the classical tradition.

Gewen also heaps scorn on Alex's claim that in 20th-century music, "the rain of beauty never ended." "Who knew?" Gewen replies.
Young audiences, he writes, now “crowd into small halls,” presumably to be drenched by beauty’s downpour. Well, hope springs eternal. But it has been almost a hundred years since Arnold Schoenberg devised his twelve-tone system to free the West from the chains of tonality, and the West continues to embrace its chains. During the 1970s, Pierre Boulez, as head of the New York Philharmonic, made it his mission to instruct New York audiences in the beauties of modern music. Instead, he found that instruction was difficult when the pupils refused to attend class.
But the beauty Alex champions in his book is not only, or even chiefly, the beauty that some people find in the work of the most austere serialists. Alex devotes whole chapters to Sibelius, Copland, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and Britten, composers singled out precisely because they composed in a tonal idiom in the midst of the serialist frenzy. If young people prefer Radiohead or Metallica to Shostakovich and Copland, it has nothing to do with tonality or atonality; the same young people also prefer Radiohead or Metallica to Brahms and Mahler. Indeed, the average Metallica fan might find a lot more to appreciate in the savage portrait of Stalin in Shostakovich's Tenth than in the closely argued development of solid Germanic themes in Brahms's symphonies.

Anyway ... I didn't actually begin this post intending to defend Alex from Gewen. I really just wanted to discuss a remark Gewen makes toward the end of his essay:
Songs written in the [pentatonic] scale above may be in the key of C or the key of G; without an F or an F#, there’s no way of knowing. Pentatonic melodies have a more skeletal quality, as with Dylan’s “Percy’s Song” or the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
This is totally wrong. The main melody of "Norwegian Wood" is, like a lot of music by the Beatles and other English rock bands of the sixties, in the mixolydian mode. Unlike the pentatonic scale, which, as its name would imply, uses only five notes, the mixolydian mode uses the same seven notes that the major scale does; it just starts on a different scale degree. The bridge of "Norwegian Wood" modulates into the parallel minor of the main melody's mode, adding yet an eighth note to the seven of the preceding section. (For an example of what pentatonic melody really sounds like, listen to the chorus of Michael Penn's "No Myth". The verse melody also starts out using the pentatonic scale, but it can't help throwing in the leading tone--the "ti" of the do-re-mi scale--at the end. In music in the Western tonal tradition--and I agree with Gewen that both the Beatles and Michael Penn fit into that tradition--it is hard to avoid the leading tone and the harmonic implications it carries.)

Gewen emphasizes the pentatonic scale because he thinks of it as a kind of pancultural lingua franca, and in a way, I suppose, it is. But all great musical artists--Brahms, Schoenberg, or John Lennon--try to find some way to expand the musical traditions they inherit. The pentatonic scale may, as Gewen suggests, create a bridge between Western and African musical cultures. But much African music also makes use of complex polyrhythms that only the best-trained Western musicians can keep up with. Slipping effortlessly between counting three and four beats per measure, often in the course of single measure, as West African drummers do, is not something you can learn to do in an afternoon--or even in a college semester, as I learned as an undergraduate. Rhythmically, West African music is every bit as complex as Bartok's music is harmonically.

The mixolydian scale is common in old English folk music; Ralph Vaughan Williams--another aggressively tonal 20th-century composer--uses it all the time in pieces that borrow from folk traditions. The flatted seventh degree, which is the signature modification of the mixolydian scale, is also common in blues music. I'm not sure which route John Lennon took to the mixolydian mode, but once he found it, he certainly made dramatic use of it. Beginning a piece in an unconventional mode and then modulating directly into a parallel mode is not some naive, intuitive gesture. It's exactly the kind of manipulation that 20th-century composers--like Gershwin and Stravinsky as well as Lennon--used to breathe new life into the tonal tradition.

Part of the motive behind my last few posts has been to try to show that the tools of musical analysis can tell us as much about the pop music we love as they can about classical music. Gewen actually seems to know more about music theory than most pop-music critics do. Which makes it all the more disappointing that he couldn't be bothered to actually look at the notes before opining about their cultural and historical significance.