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".

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