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.