Study Music History Backwards

Contortionist, posed in studio
Contortionist, posed in studio, by Thiele’s Photographic Rooms, ca. 1880
via, George Eastman House Collection

Music history is a vast topic. Even confining yourself to popular music post 1952 leaves large vistas to navigate. If you include classical music you have 1,500 years of territory to cover and folk music is as old as people or possibly even older.

Standard practice has been to start at the beginning and work forward from there. The problem with this is it seldom works in fostering engagement. Convincing young people that Buddy Holly and The Crickets were challenging and revolutionary is not an easy sell. Convincing them that Orlande de Lassus is something to care about is vanishingly difficult.

Geoffrey Himes, writing for Smithsonian​.com, looks at studying popular music backwards. He traces a path backwards from Sam Smith to Mary J. Blige, and onwards to Aretha Franklin and, ultimately, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Working this way people are gradually acclimatised to increasingly alien music like boiling the proverbial frog. He’s right, and not just regarding popular music.

I put a great deal of energy and time into studying the history of classical music, but my beginnings were ungainly stumbles largely due to clumsy presentation.

Like many people I sat through compulsory music classes where some poor teacher tried to interest us in classical music. This involved drawing timelines on the blackboard and then playing us records (this was several decades ago). When we didn’t respond positively to Haydn’s London Symphony we were made to feel stupid and ignorant. Suggestions were offered to pretend the music was a soundtrack and to try to imagine what images would go with the music. This didn’t help me. The music bored me so the only images I could conjure were boring too.

I was lucky. I already was interested in a fairly broad selection of music. In particular I had discovered jazz, which was unusual in my peer group, and I was trying to figure out how to play it. The teacher who ran the jazz ensemble at my school suggested listening to some more ambitious music. The school had a few records of more contemporary music and I set to listening.

What I discovered first was the music of Edgard Varèse. This was as exciting as the first time I heard John Coltrane. The record began with Ionisation. Even the description of the ensemble was exciting, 13 percussionists and one piano. Then as the dust crackles gave way to the music a siren started up. This was a whole different world to the beautifully crafted common practice harmonies of Haydn. I was engaged immediately. I could have imagined whole vistas of images to go with this, but I didn’t want to. I just wanted to listen to the music.

This was not music I had heard before, and even though it was written in 1933 it felt a hell of a lot more relevant to me than the records I had been played in my music class. I was living in New York at the time so perhaps I was in the perfect environment to appreciate modernism.

I listened to the whole album several times and then tried to find out more about Varèse. He had lived in New York too. In Greenwich Village no less. Only about half a mile from where I was listening to his music 50 years or so later. There was a proximal relation as well as an aesthetic one. This was exciting. This had something I could grasp on to, I wanted to listen to it and more than that I wanted more.

I talked to my teacher about Varèse and was told that Stravinsky influenced him and I might like The Rite of Spring. This was a bit more work to digest but even on first listening there were sections such as Danse de la terre and Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes that captured my interest and gave me impetus to work through the chewier sections.

Now I was hooked. I had figured out that classical music wasn’t just something to like because I was told to. The emperor had an extensive wardrobe and some of the outfits were really quite natty.

From this initial epiphany a whole world opened up to me. I could follow the veins of musical ore forward and backward in time discovering Beethoven, John Dowland, George Crumb and John Cage. I also learned I could skip over things that didn’t excite me (sorry Tchaikovsky). Classical music was a big world. I didn’t have to love all of it.

This is the key point in trying to introduce people to classical music. It is a vast culture yet so often we start with the same old warhorses. Tired old works with little connection to people living now. Varèse and Stravinsky worked for me. It might be different for a young person living near me in the UK today, but surely it would be better to start them off with something with a connection to them; Peter Maxwell Davies, Gavin Bryars or Mark-Anthony Turnage might be a good start.

Musical culture is not a fossil. What is happening today, in popular and classical traditions, changes the whole, shining light on some areas and casting shadows that bring out relief in others. If we fix the idea of what this culture is we kill it dead. It isn’t hard to help people to find a way into this world. It only takes a little flexibility and imagination.

Which Music Industry Are You Fixing?

Even with the enormous changes in the music industry over the past fifteen years or so (pick your favourite year zero) things are not perfect. There is a sense that the music industry is malleable now and this raises questions about how it should be moulded.

Young girls finish running race
Christmas party at works, 18/12/1937 / by Sam Hood, Taken at Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), Ashfield, N.S.W. via Flikr Commons

Voices are being raised about what the industry should be and how we can get there. There are increasing incidences of people positing ideas only for an opposing view to emerge rebutting them from within the community of musicians.

Albini and Steinhardt on the Status Quo

Steve Albini spoke about how the internet has created opportunities that he could only dream of when he started his career in the ‘80s,

The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience. And I do not mourn the loss of the offices of inefficiencies that died in the process.”

This was then rebutted by Joseph Steinhardt, owner of independent label Don Giovanni Records. Stienhardt is suspicious of the view of the internet as an open and democratising medium,

I would have never found Shellac in today’s musical landscape they way I did when I was 15. If something about my lifestyle indicated that I might like a band like Shellac, I would be re-routed toward the garbage corporate version of Shellac.”

Both these people are passionate, clever and articulate. They both care about the health of musical culture yet they hold very different views of the status quo. It is difficult to make sense of this debate. Both points of view make a lot of sense while reading each article while they oppose each other. How can we make sense of this?

Dangers of Totalising Individual Experience

Casey Rae, writing for the Future of Music Coalition, makes the point that both Albini and Stienhardt are, naturally, speaking from subjective viewpoints,

[I]n both pieces there is a tendency towards totalizing one’s individual experience — however valid — and applying that to the music community writ large. This leaves a lot out, including other genres, genders, cultures, races, ages, business approaches and creative ambitions.”

This is perhaps inevitable in an environment where major label control has loosened and participation in the industry is broadening with independent labels and individual artists springing up like mushrooms after the rain.

In this diffuse environment there are many different groups coalescing, each facing different challenges. The worst thing that we, as members of this emerging culture, can do is allow this multiplicity to frame the issues of recreating our culture as dualities with single answers.

This is not as easy as it might seem. For almost every idea of the industry that is articulated there is someone who will see that as wrong, or not relevant to them. Albini is excited by the reach and egalitarianism of the internet age while Stienhardt is wary of the inequities of exposure controlled by dominant outlets like, YouTube, Spotify et al. This divergence comes from their different experiences of the industry, largely predicated on the eras they entered into it.

How to Tour: Jack Conte and Santos Montaño

I feel we need to understand the subjectivity of participants writing about the music industry and at the same time recognise that these discrete viewpoints are part of the culture we also participate in. One often stated response to issues of people not paying for recordings is to use those recordings as loss leaders for live performances.

While this may work for some it is not a broad solution. There are many musicians who simply cannot play live extensively. Some are physically not able to recreate their music live due to the nature of what they produce or disability. For some, like classical or soundtrack composers it is just not economical to raise large ensembles.

Even for more usual pop/rock/r&b/etc. acts touring is not a simple proposition logistically or financially. Jack Conte, of Pomplamoose, published a very transparent article about their 2014 tour. He revealed that the tour made a loss of $11,819.

This article lead to responses criticising Pomplamoose for overspending or being overambitious in their tour. Santos Montaño, of “weird metal band” Old Man Gloom, wrote a well-considered response to Conte’s article. He is critical of some of the artistic and financial decisions they made, particularly the money paid to hired musicians and equipment,

Pomplamoose is claiming all of this is an investment into the future, so that the next tour will be even bigger. Well, again, time to get your ego in check, because the next one could be smaller. There could even not be a next one. This may have been the one. The one where you all came back with $8,000 in your pocket.”

Conte and Montaño’s views are not a direct comparison. Montaño is proposing touring for profit and although Conte is discussing the finances of his tour, he is revealing that Pomplamoose don’t make their living from touring.

In fact Pomplamoose have a very specific business model. The bulk of their income comes from crowdfunding for their videos, which they produce regularly. These videos function as advertisements for download sales. This works well enough for the two members of the band to draw a modest regular salary.

Not everyone is capable of making clever engaging videos for their music and even fewer people are capable of promoting those videos. The specificity of this business model doesn’t invalidate it. It does mean that it is hard to generalise from the experience though.

The Bigger Picture Needs to Serve a Broad Musical Community

This is the nub of the issue for me. I think that many people involved in this emerging culture want validation for the difficult paths they are forging. When someone expresses an opinion or posits a method that clashes with their ideas or practice they feel an implicit criticism.

In this time of reformation of the music industry there are many different needs that require addressing. There should be room for all of these. Many things need to be addressed. Not all of them will benefit everyone. We have an opportunity to forge a multiplicity of new paths to making a career in music for the benefit of a wider culture. The diversity of that culture should be seen as a strength not an attack on the specific needs of individuals.

THE SERPENT: The voice in the garden is your own voice.

ADAM: It is; and it is not. It is something greater than me: I am only a part of it.

EVE: The Voice does not tell me not to kill you. Yet I do not want you to die before me. No voice is needed to make me feel that.

ADAM [throwing his arm round her shoulder with an expression of anguish]: Oh no: that is plain without any voice. There is something that holds us together, something that has no word —

THE SERPENT: Love. Love. Love.

ADAM: That is too short a word for so long a thing.

Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw

The Panopticon of Sales Culture is a Millstone on Innovation

The attempt by Ms Kardashian and Paper Magazine to “break the internet” didn’t quite live up to billing, but it did seem to break the common sense and discernment of millions of people. In a sense Ms Kardashian is little but a brand. Her existence is so mediated that it cannot exist outside of the frame of a photograph, video or article.

We're all here to see Khloe Kardashian smash a wall filled with vagina euphemisms by Yusuf C licensed under CC BY 2.0
We’re all here to see Khloe Kardashian smash a wall filled with vagina euphemisms by Yusuf C licensed under CC BY 2.0

The phenomenon of Ms Kardashian, and celebrities in general, is largely irrelevant to me, but the existence of this culture as an epiphenomenon to the globalised market economy is an indicator of a deeply worrying trend. Continue reading The Panopticon of Sales Culture is a Millstone on Innovation