Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Music Gods

In my previous article, I discussed the list of top 885 artists ever (across all genres) being conducted by WXPN in Philadelphia (see here). I was fairly bothered by the staff picks, because I believe that people working for a radio station have a moral responsibility to be intelligent about their industry – and putting Guster or Los Lobos as a top 10 artist ever is pretty irresponsible to me.

All that being said, I’ve been engaged in a few good dialogues of the course of the last few days to actually answer the question for myself – who are the top 10 artists of all time? As we progressed, I realized that having a numbered, ranked, list is not very meaningful. When it comes down to it, does it really mean much that Beethoven was better or worse than Bach? All that really matters is to understand that they were 2 of the greats in the stadium of music. With that, I decided that it’s more practical to create a categorized list rather than an indexed list – call it “the immortals”. This should be a list of manageable size, say, 15-20 artists tops, that when all is said and done, if asked to name 15 of the greatest music artists in the time period of 1600-today, these are the names you would throw out.

In order to construct this set, it’s important to understand the factors that lead someone to garner consideration. To me, there are a variety of these factors that comprise an immortal, including (but not limited to): influence over others, innovation of music, mastery of performance, mastery of composition, cultural impact, and overcoming challenges doing so. Generally, the ability to progress music (make musical “leaps”) and your mastery of composition and performance are weighted the heaviest in the overall picture. I’m hoping that the reasoning behind that is obvious – it all comes down to how good a musician you were and what impact you left behind to the world of music.

What does “overcoming challenges” mean? In some cases, it’s as big as deprivation of senses, such as hearing (Beethoven) or sight (Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder). In other cases, it could be racism, poverty, or other factors preventing their music from being distributed to wider audiences. Do any of these really affect the music itself? Not necessarily, but when you’re thinking about a consummate artist, you realize that ability to create good music is important, but doing so against odds demonstrates an even higher level of connection with the craft. Please understand, though, that what is key is that this music that was produced “against the odds” has to have been on the highest order. If Beethoven composed “average” music, I wouldn’t give him bonus points simply for being deaf. These “challenges” factor in only after you’ve already shown worth in the other categories.

I apologize in advance, but I’m not going to go into detail about why I put each of the below into the arena. For most, it should be obvious.

The Immortals
Johann Sebastian Bach (classical)
Ludwig Van Beethoven (classical)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (classical)
Duke Ellington (jazz)
Miles Davis (jazz)
Billie Holiday (jazz)
Marvin Gaye (r&b)
Ray Charles (r&b)
Stevie Wonder (r&b)
The Beatles (rock)
Bob Dylan (rock, folk)
Jimi Hendrix (rock)
Black Sabbath (hard rock)
Led Zeppelin (hard rock)
Hank Williams (country)
Bob Marley (reggae)
Robert Johnson (blues)
Public Enemy (rap, hip-hop)
Johnny Cash (country)
BB King (blues)
Elvis Presley (rock, pop)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

WXPN (Philadelphia): Top 885 Artists

Take a look at this.

These staff and artists' lists are absolutely ridiculous (in general). I know it’s not the “official” list, but I’m still bothered. I’ve been unraveled all day. I've been trying to figure out why this type of thing bothers me so much, and, I realize, it's not because there are stupid people in this world, it's that they put stupid people in positions where they can influence others - meaning, the stupid make others stupid. "Stupid" may be a harsh word, but anyone who considers Los Lobos or Guster to be a greater artist than Beethoven or Bach is, well, stupid.

A programming director or a sales director at a radio station simply should not be this ignorant about music. They have direct influence over what people hear and buy, and people in those roles should take it upon themselves, if not already mandated by those higher up, to own up to that responsibility. It's because of these very people that Guster achieves the popularity that they do and furthermore that a band like that can sell out the new amphitheater at Chicago's Meigs Field (7500 capacity) while a remarkably talented band like The Secret Machines don't even sell out 2/3 of Park West (900 capacity). Now don't get me wrong, to a certain degree, I was happy it didn't sell out because I got a chance to go without having to pay through the roof, but this ignorance directly affects the state of music out there, and I think that's what bothers me. I believe it to be one of the key factors for the prevailing idea that "today's radio sucks."

Furthermore, I take classical music very seriously. I have studied it my entire life, as a performer and as an appreciator. It's one thing to say I'm bothered that classical composers don't get respect in today's times - there's little that can be done about that, short of education. What does bother me, however, is the general patronization of the genre and its participants - that people today think because they can sing the first 4 notes of Beethoven's 5th, they are suddenly fans. If you're going to put a list together of the top N music artists of all time, you better get people who know what they're talking about together, and actually have classical music afficianados in the same room as rock critics. Don't just have someone who says "I've seen Amadeus, and it was a good movie, so Mozart must've been a genius! Best ever!" Maybe this particular list doesn't do that (most people just left classical composers out altogether), but I see it and hear it so often these days - educated people who don't realize how pretentious that type of behavior is. It's okay to admit you don't know a lot about the genre, but you do enjoy a few of the more popular works. Just don't pretend that you're some sort of expert because you saw a movie, or took Classical Music Appreciation 101 for a semester back at college. You waste others' time and only make yourself look like more of an ass.

However, why do I think that this list, or the idea of it, isn't as ridiculous as it sounds? Well, I do agree that it's difficult, if not impossible, to compare artists across genres. Is Tool's "Aenima" even comparable to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"? It might sound futile, but I my whole thesis in music is that I do believe that they are comparable. I believe that music over the last 300 years has followed from a common, describable, music language, and that you can put Beethoven, Gershwin, Dylan, and the Sex Pistols in the same sentence and have a meaningful discussion. Remember that music fundamentally comes down to the same building blocks: melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, lyrics, form, improvisation, etc. Such that the same technique that allows us to translate English to French allows us to understand music across generations. Not only do I think you can compare artists and works across genre, I think it's important you do so, in order to better understand music and discover new forms of music for the future. As an example, Bach perfected the use of the I-IV-V chord cadence almost 300 years ago, and still today it's one of the most common chord progressions in rock music. I once read an article with a jazz bassist (Charlie Haden) who said "...Bach was my main influence, because the bass lines he wrote were so deep and moving. Bach was the best bass player ever." I agree. The strongest musicians of today are the ones who are in touch with those of yesterday, who understand the theory and styles invented by their fathers, and extend from that base set. The best way to explain why Beethoven was so great was to look at how he took the music before him and changed it forever for those who follow. To say that comparing Beethoven to Bach is futile is to forget that fact. Likewise, to say that you can't compare rock to jazz or classical is to say that rock doesn't have a relationship to classical, which is not true at its deepest levels.

As a result, I don't mind the idea of putting together this list. I think about these things all the time to help me understand music deeper. Furthermore, the reason I am so adamant about Bach or Beethoven at the top of the list is that they invented or mastered so much of what we know of in even today's music - melodies, harmonies, rhythms, etc. They were the fathers. Almost everything we know and hear today derives from their work; today's music owes everything to them. Therefore, it is insane to ignore them from the top 2.

And if you're in any sort of influential position in the music industry, you know better than that. Go ahead and put together the list. But get the right people in the room and put together an intelligent list. You owe your audience more. You owe yourself more.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Author and The Performer

One of the most fundamental differences between classical and rock music is also one that seems to never be discussed. I’ve been fascinated with it for some time, as I believe it to be a very important point to be discussed in order to understand the nature of the genres. This topic has to do with the relationship between the composer and the performer(s).

Let’s define some terms to help us discuss the topic. First, I define a role called an “author”, which is a person who actually writes the music – on paper (or equivalent). In classical terms, this was the composer. In rock, we might call this the songwriter. Secondly, I define a role called a “performer”, which is a person, or group of persons, who perform the music as written by the author. Finally, you have the “listener”, which is the audience of the performers.

Author: writes music --> Performer: renders music --> Listener: hears music

Now, if we apply those terms to the different genres of music, we can see the variances which are so key to understanding the fundamental point. In classical music, the traditional composer was little more than the “author”. Yes, in those days more often than not the composer would also act as a “performer”, traveling from city to city and conducting the orchestra or being featured as the lead instrumentalist (in the case of a concerto or solo works), but equally often was the composer’s work distributed around the world and performed by countless other orchestras and soloists. The author (composer) left it incumbent upon the performer to interpret the text and musical direction in order to breathe life into the work – to create the music. In today’s times, it’s akin to a script (or screenplay) for a director and actor – the script gives the words and basic points such as scene direction, but it’s up to the director and actor to perform the work to their interpretations, such that different actors would end up with different performances (consider how many actors have performed “Hamlet” in how many ways). The author produced the script for the performer, but the two need not be the same person. Likewise, the composer produced the music for the performer, but the two need not be the same.

We see that distinction evident today in any meaningful discussion of classical music. Academics will scour over the written scores, trying to understand what the composer meant by the music, the complexities of the orchestrations, the specific stylings unique to that composer, etc. For that, there is only one definitive source – the written score itself, as authored by the original composer. There is little to no room for interpretation here as the notes are there, written on the paper.

Classical music listeners, however, will debate the great recordings – why Rostropovich’s version of a piece may be better than Ma’s, why Karajan’s interpretation excels over Mehta’s, etc. The fact is we have no definitive recording of a particular classical piece, and to speak of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in this manner is implicitly to speak about certain recordings of it. Variances in tempos, volumes, sound quality, and other such factories create such distinct experiences in understanding and appreciating the music. The performer becomes a very central figure in the existence of the music, and, as a result, the performance of classical music has demonstrated a continued livelihood throughout the centuries – new performers emerge every generation and breathe new life into the works.

In a few rare cases, we have recordings of the original composer performing his work, such as in the case of the recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos. Even in that case, most will listen to those recordings from a curiosity standpoint, but few will acknowledge them as being “definitive”, which is why a recording of Rachmaninoff featuring Martha Argerich, Leif Ove Andsnes, or others, gain such popularity – they all have nuances which are unique and their interpretations are considered just as valid as Rachmaninoff’s himself.

Let’s jet off to the other side of it, with rock. In rock music, the roles have collapsed, such that the author and performer become one. In most cases, there is no “score” (save for tablature and sheet music created after the fact), and the author writes the music as well as performs it, both in a static recording, and in the live setting. As listeners, we always have the one definitive recording – the original record, tape, or CD which the author produced. Almost never will there be a debate of one version of, as an example, Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” being better than another – there truly is only one version (in this case, that on “Led Zeppelin IV”).

However, there is an edge-case concept for which the performer can be different than the author, which we call “covers” or a “cover band”, but in most cases, these are not nearly as popular as the original, and, even if so, they are almost always recognized as a “cover” of the original (whereas a performance of Beethoven today is never referred to as such). The songs “All Along The Watchtower” and “I Shot The Sheriff” are two examples in which the “covered” version has as much popularity as the original, but, these are very rare, and, even in these cases, audiences are aware that the versions are covers, and are therefore compared back to the original, definitive, recording, which, as has been demonstrated, does not exist in classical music.

We also have a few instances of rock musicians acting solely as authors, such as the case of one writing a song for another. The artist Babyface is an example of a songwriter who is widely known as a composer (author), and only later in his career became known as a performer as well. However, even in this case, Babyface would be commissioned to write a piece for a very specific performer, and only for that performer.

Now, turning back to classical music, it can be contended that oftentimes a classical composer would write a piece with a very particular performer in mind, as in the case of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, originally written for Brahms’ violinist friend, Joseph Joachim. In such cases, though the author and performer were not the exact person, it could be claimed that there was indeed a definitive recording, that as having been performed by the intended performer. However, I argue that though a specific performer was in mind during the composition, classical authors were very well aware that many others would perform the piece, and thus they knew that the performance by the intended performer would not be the definitive version. Also, keep in mind that for most of the classical era there were no recording devices, so that even if someone were to be the definitive performer, none of his performances would have been definitive, since each would have been different night to night, and we have no recorded versions of these performances to consider definitive.

Why is this all so important? Well, it’s all about music understanding and appreciation. In classical music, it becomes vital to understand that there are many participants in the music’s lifecycle, and thus it is important to understand each one and their associated roles. Who is the composer, when did he write, and what role does he play in its creation? Which recordings exist, which are your favorites, and what are the nuances between them? As a result of this argument, it should be realized that simply owning a single recording of a classical piece is not enough, with so many interpretations out there. Start with a few of your favorite works and test them across multiple performers – undoubtedly you should find new and exciting dimensions to these works, as several interpretations are taken into account. The composers’ works are timeless because of the countless performers across generations.

In rock, a different sort of respect must be given to the artists and recordings. Realizing that there is only one recording of the work, what we hear is what we get. There are no other versions or interpretations that significantly factor in to its appreciation. It also means more to us to see an artist or band live – we’re actually seeing the author and performer (since they are the same) simultaneously. We’ll never see Beethoven live, only interpreters of his music, so while we have the chance, let’s go enjoy the rock artists who are playing all around us all the time. And even if we do not see them, their definitive recordings will live on forever, such that we will always have some audio reference to their greatness. I only wish we had the same for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.