Thursday, February 28, 2013

Musicological Sparring?

I really am not singling out the New York Times, even though it might look like it. Yesterday I critiqued a little video they put up and now I'm going to gripe about another piece. This one is called "Musicological Sparring, Courtesy of David Byrne and Questlove". I guess what set me off was the word "musicological" in the title. Though the NYT has certainly published real musicology, especially in articles by Richard Taruskin, this doesn't quite qualify. This one is just a conversation and one I am going to join in on.

The writer, Allan Kozinn, is a highly-respected writer on music and author of a good book on The Beatles published by Phaidon. I also have absolutely nothing against either David Byrne or Questlove. I used to be a big fan of Talking Heads. But I do want to go through this article and make some comments. First off, the opening strikes an odd note:
Because making music is, at heart, a formidable acting job — in which the performer projects a stage persona that may not be much like what he or she is like offstage — public interviews with musicians can be a gamble.
Really? This might be true of the celebrity musicians of today like Lady Gaga and a host of others who spend so much of their energy in constructing that persona. But it is scarcely true of the musicians I like to talk about and listen to. For the greatest performers, the goal is to transmit the music, not one's own personality, let alone a fabricated one. I recognize that this opinion may be a vanishing minority these days, but I wanted to put it out there.

Ahmir Thompson, known as Questlove, comes across as someone I am likely to be in agreement with. I like his principles! The article links to a comment he left on an NPR blog where he chastises the writer for not doing the job. He says, "it is your duty to discover the beauty of acclaimed art and why it was so." Yep. He is talking about Bruce Springsteen as an example, but I would say exactly the same thing about a half-baked article on Bach. But I'm not so in agreement with David Byrne:
Mr. Byrne’s book and Questlove’s course yielded the first potential fault line. Hadn’t Mr. Byrne suggested in his book that the creation and adoration of revered musical canon was a bad thing? Well, not exactly, Mr. Byrne said. He was “going after classical music,” not the pop canon that Questlove is teaching. And even at that, he said, “there’s some classical music that I really love, and some that I don’t get and I don’t think I will ever get.” What he really objects to, in fact, is “the subliminal thing going on, that listening to that music instead of the pop music I listened to, would make you a better person. It became this class thing.”
It sounds as if Mr. Byrne is one of those non-classical musicians who can never quite conceal their resentment of classical music. To justify this he creates what I consider a straw man, the idea that classical music makes you a better person. A "class thing". No music makes you a better or worse person. Music, like any other art form, may present moral situations from which you can, if you make the effort, derive moral "truths", but only music with a text can do that. You see, the problem with Byrne's argument is that it is not about the music at all. You can have a terrible piece of music with a great text or vice versa. The article goes on to say that it was Questlove that defended the notion of a canon. He believes there is a canon of classic pop albums and teaches a course to that effect. Then there is a long comparison of Public Enemy and Stravinsky that manages to avoid mention of any specifics of Stravinsky's music while going into considerable detail about Public Enemy's. Perhaps this is just part of the NYT's policy of making classical music nearly invisible.

The article ends with a discussion of Questlove's views on music education:
Probably the most striking moments of the discussion, though, were Questlove’s theories about musical education. One should, he argued, start young: he recently loaded up a couple of iPods for a friend with a new baby and attached it to speakers around the child’s crib. He would not say what was on the playlist, apart from Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, but he asked his friend to play the music around the clock. As for advice for older students, sought by a teacher in the audience, he took a strikingly traditional stand.
“I’m never that ‘follow your dreams’ guy,” Questlove said. “Because some people’s dreams will get realized and some dreams won’t get realized, so I kind of feel it’s dismissive – ‘Oh! Follow your dreams, kid, see you later!’ My radical advice is simple: you have to practice and you have to be organized. Which I know also sounds rather like bland, dismissive advice, but I think it’s true. If you look at all of history’s great figures, it’s discipline, practice, organization.”
Oh wow. Isn't subjecting a newly-born to non-stop Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa child abuse? But yes, he is perfectly correct in saying that "follow your dreams" is often bad advice and that discipline, practice and organization is how you develop the skills needed to be a musician of any kind.

I think what bugs me about this and most articles in the popular press is the sheer vapidity of it. There is almost no real information here. No detailed specifics, few statements of general principles. It's really just chat. Musicology is not just chat: it is discussion of something substantial related to music based on real knowledge.

And now, I really have to play you some Captain Beefheart:

Now, does that sound like just the thing for a newly-born?

1 comment:

Augustine said...

You should listen to Questlove's band 'The Roots' sometime. They are a breath of fresh air in the hiphop world.