Once upon a time, I cranked out an awesome introductory essay for my thesis. It was cut in the first round for being too chatty. I just found it on my hard drive. Here it is in all it’s rambly glory:
Music is a cultural artifact. It exists in a specific time and place, and comes from a specific person from a specific culture and perspective. Music, as an art, has the abilty to transcend all of this and speak beyond these attributes of its creation, but on balance this is but infintesmally small portion of the music that is and has been created. The music that “makes the jump” does so because the emotions it explores and expresses (and the language which it uses to do so) are relevant and impactful to those outside its cultural heritage.
In the spring of 2008, Jon Bon Jovi was being interviewed on NPR regarding his entrance into country music. Bon Jovi responded with an observation that his music has always been for bluecollar, factory workers and the like, and that that is now country music’s fan base, so it made total sense. As I listened, I reflected on all the college graduates I know who are Bon Jovi fans, and the executives I’ve met who are country fans, and realized that where you’re from and where you work no longer demark us as they once did. We choose our own culture. I thought about the executives who see themselves as hard-workin’ country folk, and choose to identify with the music of Jon Bon Jovi. This is a recent development, and will have an impact on art and everything that represents a culture.
Now that we choose our own cultural heritage; we choose the language and identity that best fits us.
Music as all arts, is attempting to express within itself the full range of human expression, and as culture and society changes, this goal continues to shift.
So, I think that there is often, –the music that people like and that speaks to people says things that people already think, already feel, but can’t otherwise express it for themselves, its’ not so much that we are thinking for them, although in its worst sense that’s what happens, its that we’ve thought about this, we thought about it before they got there, and so now we have this piece of art, that expresses that emotion or idea, that they can listen and experience, which helps them get to that place, and they identify with that as such.
Couples talk about “our song” – it’s not so much that they wrote that song, but that song is their story, or captures their emotions about each other. The artist didn’t know them and will probably never meet them… nevertheless those are emotions that the couple feels, and the art exhibits and is why they like the piece of art.
I think… Dvorak’s new world symphony, this wonderfully triumphant theme, its still sortof American, it’s a tribute to the wonders of America, and Americana, our sort of thanks for saving the world in ww1 and again in ww2, but its sortof this thank you note but also sort of a celebration of American individualism, tenacity and the sort of brashness, you know, there’s something, when those horns sweep, there’s something triumphant there, it comes as no small surprise that that’s the piece that gets ripped off or riffed off of for action movie themes, when the calvary comes in, or when our superhero breaks through the door. Theres a great flyover scene in Narnia or Lord of the Rings where the theme is almost note for note the new world. We’re in this huge battle, we’re all gonna lose, and here comes our heros, with a helicopter shot of our heros, over the side of a mountain. That’s the scope of that melody, and we feel, that, I mean, Mahler doesn’t do.
Mahler does it, but he does it from a different perspective, he’s German, those are different horns, he uses them differently. So I think this is very true and has always been a part of music, but in my mind, it stands as one of the foremost, most important aspects of music, especially in today, as our world is shrinking, and our cultures are co-existing in a way they haven’t before.
As I mentioned in the very beginning, people are choosing their own cultures, something that has never really ever exactly happened before. So it is not so much, uh, European vs. American vs. urban, vrs Southern, vs Country, I mean we’ve got plenty of cross-pollarizations. It’s sortof the last vestiges of nationalism.
You can’t write like “I’m an American “ anymore because America isn’t really America anymore, depending on where you’re from… and Europe isn’t really European anymore, there’s a lot of tension all over the place, about new displaced peoples that are joining societies, and the tensions that arise from that. What happens if England is a majority muslim country? Are they still English? Is there something inherently English about England, that’s makes a muslim immigrant still English if they are muslim and don’t drink? What ever happened to fish and chips and a beer? And to different standards about football and its role in the society.
Popular pieces perfectly capture a certain emotion a certain way, I look at pieces like Barbes Adagio for Strings, its just a sweeping gorgeous melody, it’s poignant and its tender, and its chystalline in its beauty, then we also have something on he other end, like James Brown’s I Got You I feel Good.
That opening expression, is such that it just perfectly captures that. That’s the reason. Right there, that yell is why we listen to that song, is why its used as wedding recessionals.
Recessional, because that’s one of the most joyous occasions, theres’ a little bit of a sense of overcoming, I’m sure, as all the planning has paid off. We’re finally married, ya know, it’s been forever that we’ve been planning this. You’re finally mine, I’m finally yours, we’re finally married (theres a RELEASE of tension).
There’s a lot in that yell, really. Most of us are not going to yell like that on our way out of our wedding. We might feel that way, but we’re not going to yell, so we have James Brown yell for us.
I look at things like Moonlight Sonata, or …. Popular tunes have a more clear indication of what their mood is, but even… there isn’a need for another moonlight sonata, it captures that so well. I mean , I could write another version of moonlight sonata, but its just gonna make everyone wish we had played moonlight sonata. I’ve been in those rehearsals where its like “this is nice, but theres that other piece that this reminds everybody of, and this piece doesn’t really do anything that that piece doesn’t do”…
So we write with the Specificity of our time and place as well. There are some universal themes that just resonate for ages. I look at James’ Brown’s “I Got You I Feel Good,” I mean really, its on the same list as Moonlight Sonata, There’s no need– until human society changes enough so that’s no longer an emotion we feel– that joyous, triumphant, celebration, (and I wouldn’t would to live in a society where there wasn’t a regular occurrence of those emotions)– I’m not sure we need another one.
And that’s something that only the human voice is capable of. That yelp- it’s not really a word, really, is not anything an orchestra can do, it’s not even something electronical stuff can do. SO the specificity of our time and place is important; that plus culture is nationalism on the lowest possible level. Nationalistic to me. Rather than, “I’m going to write American music,” its’ “I’m going to write Kyle Baker music”
I’m going to write the music of a person who’s father is a musician, and whose mother is a theatre person, who grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis while Nelly was the #1 Hip-Hop artist, St Louis, a very racially integrated community (compared to the rest of the US), where the popular radio stations were the Alt. Rock station that set the genre, KSHE95, which was ‘classic rock’, we also had a real oldies station (which I’ve missed as I’ve moved about), the St. Louis Symphony, and the St. Louis Rep and school dances where Nelly was played. It was very much a musical city, it was also sortof the melting pot that you would expect. I came up through public school music; wind ensemble, the marching band, jazz band, I went to a large evangelical church and played electric bass in the high school rock n roll worship band.. I came up with some interesting experiences that really, I’m not sure that John Adams has ever played electric bass to a Matt Redman song before, and I don’t know that he needs to to be John Adams, but certainly it’s a part of who I am, and it just adds one more thing to what’s going on.
So that’s what melds the music I’m writing. There’s also som things that havent’ been said. I’m trying to say the things that haven’t been said. I don’t understand why, I don’t understand the qualitive division between pop and classical music. We used to play a pops concert every spring, after contest, because it was going to be fun and “easier” than the contest music we played earlier in the spring. In many ways that was always the more difficult music, we’d play grade 4 or 5 music for contest, and the pops music was only a 3, because we couldn’t get ready in time. Every year, there was a least one piece where the syncopations were too difficult and the challenges were too great, and we weren’t able to play it in time for the concert.
There are some techniques in Vernacular music, especially American vernacular music, I think its just embarrassing that our classical music tradition in this country doesn’t teach them. It’s certainly standard, and its certainly teachable- it’s being taught in plenty of vernacular music schools throughout the world, the fact we don’t teach our students our own freakin– it just doesn’t make any sense. Part of it is that there really isn’t any music out there that does that, and that’s part of the gap I’m hoping to fill. I don’t intend to write popular music for the concert hall, I intend to write concert music (or art music) from the vernacular tradition.