Saturday, March 19, 2011

progression of music

All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a funny sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois pomp: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of The Rite of Spring into "Salt Peanuts"). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the masses and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis's attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream.

The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? In the first years of the new century there was a lot of Stage 5 neoclassicism going on in what remained of rock. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, the White Stripes, and various other bands harked back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Many used old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was quoted as saying, "I intentionally won't use something I haven't heard before." A White Stripes record carried this Luddite notice: "No computers were used during the recording, mixing, or mastering of this record."

The original classical music is left in an interesting limbo. It has a chance to be liberated from the social clichés that currently pin it down. It is no longer the one form carrying the burden of the past. Moreover, it has the advantage of being able to sustain constant reinterpretation, to renew itself with each repetition. The best kind of classical performance is not a retreat into the past but an intensification of the present. The mistake that apostles of the classical have always made is to have joined their love of the past to a dislike of the present. The music has other ideas: it hates the past and wants to escape.

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