Friday, March 05, 2004

Catch-up, and the Friday Music Discussion

The Blog missed its Friday entry because, in the middle of watching The Ox-Bow Incident (after which I had every intention of telling you good readers about--it's a Western that transcends its cliches in much the same way that High Noon does), I became sleepy and decided to take a little nap . . . the next thing I knew . . . well, we've all had such things happen. So: two entries for today; this one, and a later discussion of the film (I still have to finish watching it).

The music discussion will be a bit different from what I will usually do on Fridays: Today, I want to talk about some of the selections I've placed on a tape that I play for my Humanities students when we discuss shifting trends in music over the past centuries. The reason is that I'm considering dropping some selections in favor of others and adding still others, and I think that by writing about, in particular, those pieces under consideration, it'll help me clarify what I want these pieces to show to my students and thus decide whether they accomplish what I want them to. The key here is not so much that they be "greatest hits" or "most famous," but that they be that vague thing called "representative."

Here's the list. My students have thus far heard some examples of Gregorian chant and some Palestrina and an example of English Elizabethan-era folk song. Two things I want to add for certain in front of the present list are a selection from Vivaldi's first movement to "Spring" and a solo vocal piece by Monteverdi--(sigh) and, now that I think of it, a bit of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik (some of this, as you can tell, is a quickie attempt to bridge the gap between the Renaissance and the Romantics).

Beethoven, excerpt from 1st movement of 5th Symphony
Debussy, "Claire de Lune"
Stravinsky, excerpt from Rite of Spring
Joplin, "Maple Leaf Rag"
Gershwin, excerpt from Rhapsody in Blue
Copland, "Hoe-Down" (3rd movement from Rodeo)
Muddy Waters, "I Can't Be Satisfied"
Elvis Presley, "That's All Right"
Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues"
Louis Armstrong, "Black and Blue"
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, "Night in Tunisia"
Miles Davis, excerpt from "So What"
Steve Reich, excerpt from Music for Eighteen Musicians
Public Enemy, "Bring the Noise"
Issa Bagayogo, "Gnangran"

The Beethoven is, of course, familiar--perhaps too familiar. Thus, I'm considering replacing it with an excerpt from either the 9th Symphony's first movement (which has elements of the "Ode to Joy" theme in it and is thus a new wrinkle in the usual symphony structure) or that symphony's second movement (which, to my ear, has even more rhythmic power than the first movement of the 5th and is also less familiar).
The Debussy stays, even though it's very familiar too. It's gorgeous, and it perfectly illustrates that move that composers made toward the (apparently) relaxed style of composition that paralleled what the Impressionist painters were doing at the same time.
The Stravinsky stays. Duh.
I'm giving serious consideration to dropping the Joplin. Ragtime, though certainly significant in its day, seems, now, especially within a class like the one I'm teaching, more like an indulgence rather than an example of a music that profoundly influenced later composers.
The Gershwin is important for its fusion of jazz and classical elements and because Gershwin is the first truly great American composer of "serious" music.
The Copland is familiar from those American Beef Council commercials and fun for its energy and for the fact that this exuberant Western-style music is written by a Jewish kid from New York. Maybe, in its own way, it's even more American than the Gershwin, which strives to be elegant in its double senses of "high-brow" and "cool." There's something uncool in the Copland that I like--whatever pretentions it might have, they're well hidden. Anyway, it stays as well.
The Muddy Waters is his first hit for Chess in 1947. There are earlier blues, of course, but what is striking about this song are his singing style (reflected, consciously or not, in the Presley) and the fact that opening guitar lick can be heard as the notes that begin Eric Clapton's "Lay Down, Sally" (thus helping illustrate rock's indebtedness to the blues).
"That's All Right" is a tough call, especially when considered next to "Folsom Prison Blues." Both are hugely important songs, though I would argue that "That's All Right," fine as it is, is more important historically (it's Presley's first single, of course, and there's no denying his importance--his centrality--as a pop culture figure), while Cash's song's worth rests on aesthetic grounds--it's just a grander song. The Cash stays. The temptation is to drop "That's All Right" in favor of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" (rock-n-roll as working-class music) or Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" (rock-n-roll as surrender to sexual passion). Of course, rock-n-roll is ALL those things, plus a house built on the blues (Elvis' first hit is a remake of a blues song). Ugh. [Sidebar] The great dilemma of surveys is that, in incorporating breadth, the instructor both sacrifices depth AND even has to cheat a bit on the breadth. [end of sidebar]. "Great Balls of Fire" is the best of those songs--in addtion to the sexual passion and Lewis' wild, blues-influenced singing and hard-gospel piano, it also got Lewis in trouble with some radio programmers for its licentiousness--which it was and still is. So: rock-n-roll as "dangerous."
If I drop the Joplin, which I'm leaning more and more toward doing, I'll move the Armstrong up to where Joplin presently is.
The sound isn't great on the version of "Night in Tunisia that I have, but the solo and ensemble playing (it's a big-band arrangement) is just amazing.
The Miles Davis piece stays--my only regret is that there's not room for the whole piece. Kind of Blue (where "So What" comes from) is the album to give to the person who says s/he "hates jazz." It's the Casablanca of jazz albums, no?
While I like Steve Reich, I know he's not to everyone's taste, and I'll be the first to admit that the piece I currently have (taken from a movement within Eighteen . . .) doesn't show him to his best advantage. I have a recording of his "Eight Lines," which is both beautiful and accessible but too long (it's over 17 minutes) to play in its entirety. I'd have to decide what to excerpt, consider some John Adams selections I have, or else find something by Philip Glass (if I go with him, I'm leaning toward his "Evening Song" from Satyagraha or "Serra Pelada" (the opening piece in Powaatqatsi), which might serve as a nice segue to . . .)
"Bring the Noise," which strikes me as an important rap song after all these years. It certainly has all the elements of the best (to my middle-aged white-boy ear) rap: a powerful MC in Chuck D., the requisite boasting, references to Public Enemy's controversial image, black-power politics, and, in the final chorus, the inspired lunacy common to lots of early rap. In writing this, though, I'm thinking that if I had a copy of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," I would give serious thought to replacing "Bring the Noise" with that.
"Gnangran" stays. Is it Malian music filtered through a hip-hop filter? Western dance music played on (and heavily-influenced by) West African instruments and song structures? Whatever it is, it does seem to be something new: a truly global music, very much in the vein, in its own way, of what Paul Simon accomplishes in Graceland.
Okay--enough ruminating for the moment. Tonight: some commentary on The Ox-Bow Incident and a recounting of my visit (for almost purely academic reasons, amazingly) to the nearby Barnes & Noble.
Those wishing to read the comments from the original LiveJournal post can go here.

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