Friday, November 1, 2013

Wonderful Rainbow Aesthetics, off the Top of My Head: An Essay on Musical Performance, Live and Recorded

This was originally published in The Valve on January 06, 2007. Examples of performance range from Louis Armstrong, through Joey Ramone, Elvis Impersonators, not to mention my own experience performaning with a rhythm and blues band in upstate New York.
This post continues a conversation that arose in response to Joseph Kugelmass's No Desert Island: Towards A Gutsy Aesthetics Via Nabokov. At a certain point Joe mentioned What a Wonderful World, “Armstrong's most clichéd entry in the canon,” and I responded with the observation that “but that's Armstrong, not the song itself.” Then Joe responded:
That said, in an age of recorded music, it again becomes hard to separate notation from performance. First of all, it would be hard for a modern singer to perform “What A Wonderful World” without either imitating or rejecting Armstrong's very specific way of performing it, because the recording is as ubiquitous as the written score.
And I found myself on iTunes looking through different performances of “What a Wonderful World,” downloading a few, and analyzing them. And things snowballed through Elvis impersonators, The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band (an upstate New York outfit I played in), Kojo No Tsuke (a Japanese song), world music, and so forth. As Joe said, “an essay on the production and performance of music.”

I rather doubt that that's what Joe had in mind when he made the initial post, nor is that what I had in mind when I started commenting on his post. But that's what happened. You can never tell just what's gonna' come through these net-tubes.

So, I started replying to Joe's last comment and that reply simply refused to listen to reason. It just got longer and longer and longer and refused to shut-up. So I decided to let it have a post all by itself. Joe's post was looking for aesthetics and so's this one. I start with a whole pile of information and observations about music production and performance on the table - if only by implication. What does that have to do with aesthetics?

While this post still takes the form of and is a response to Joe's last comment, much of it should be at least quasi-intelligible to those who haven't been following that discussion.

Objectivity, Practitioner's Criticsim, and Aesthetics

As should be obvious from various posts I've made here, and from stuff of mine elsewhere on the web, I've spent much of my career working on ways of thinking about art that bracket aesthetic judgment in favor of close description and explanation (via models derived from the newer psychologies). I want to know objectively what's there - wherever and whatever “there” is, the text, the mind, the interpretive community, the culture, society, whatever. I make no apologies for this and hope to spend much more time doing it. However the humanities move forward, that kind of work is a necessary part of the mix.

But so is criticism, aesthetic advocacy. Where do I stand on that? I don't really know.

I don't really know. And so in the manner of E. M. Forster, I write so that I can know what I think.

I know a great deal about the critical activity needed to improve one's musical performance, whether as an individual or a group. I've been moderately active as a musician my entire adult life and such critical activity is part of the craft. You think about your own work - both individually and as a group - but you must also think aesthetically, critically, about music you listen to. The practical expression of this activity, however, is in your performance, and your record-CD-download collection, rather than written critical pieces. I've also written occasional critical pieces about this or that - from undergraduate reviews of Bergman's Shame and John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse to more recent reflections on Martin Scorsese's PBS series on the blues - but that's never been a major activity.

So, these conversations give me a chance to begin thinking about aesthetics in a slightly more systematic way. Whether I'll go anywhere with it is another matter, but that will take care of itself.

For the Good of Society

Let's look at the three categories into which, in your response, my critique disappears: liking (Kamakawiwo'ole covering Armstrong and Garland), energy (The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band), and hard work (the Elvis impersonator).

My initial reaction to the “three categories” was: where'd that come from? Why package my remarks in that way?

Let's continue on:

These categories do something I don't personally favor by being antagonistic to criticism. They suggest that as long as the performer works hard, produces energetic music, and entertains his audience, nothing more really needs saying.

This is not clear to me. Obviously I'm working against your criticism, Joe, and I'm doing so by saying “it's more complicated than that” and then making a number of informal observations about how popular music gets made and is consumed. What's that have to do with criticism? Well, if criticism is little more than rationalization of one's own personal taste, than my observations are irrelevant. Your taste is your taste and my taste is my taste and that, ultimately, is that. We can share our likes and dislikes if we wish, but nothing much more than that.

I assume that you're after more than simply rationalizing your personal taste. But what? I'd guess you're concerned about the art that's necessary for a healthy society. The critic's job is to identify such art and to explain why it is necessary and, conversely, to identify the lousy stuff and explain why it's not healthy. That is, it seems to me that that's more or less what critics see as their mission. In particular, they don't see themselves as rationalizing merely personal taste nor even the taste of some social class or group.

OK, so what does that mission entail? What's involved in explaining what music is good for society? That's obviously a big question and different people are going to have different answers and somehow somewhere eventually those answers are going to involve notions of the human, of society, of the universe, and all that. I don't want to get into all that.

But I'm interested in a narrower question: Do the sort of observations I'm making have some legitimate role to play in considering this larger issue? I note that, in making those observations, I'm not directly concerned about what's good and what's not. All the music I've listened to in thinking through the issues you've raised in this conversation meets some minimum level of “OK-ness.” That doesn't mean I think it's all of a piece or that I like it all.

My first concern has been simply to indicate and flesh out “ground truth”: some sense of how this stuff actually works. If that's all there is, then you're right, it dissolves criticism. In my defense I note that much criticism that has been offered and justified by universal values that are, in fact, the particular values of particular groups. You know this, and so, I would assume, do most people reading this conversation. But I've got more on my mind, and the cases of the Elvis impersonator and of Out of Control get at that issue rather directly: these are real people making live music. Outside of rather local contexts, no one's ever heard of these people. But without thousands and tens of thousands of such people, there would be considerably less live music.

And I think live music is very important. I also think that the amount of live music in our society is dangerously low. I've suggested as much at a few points in Beethoven's Anvil and I've been considerably more explicit in some unpublished notes on music and ADHD - see the final paragraphs of this essay-review of Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals. What this comes down to is that your concern over which musicians and performances deserve monument status is not the only kind of aesthetic discourse we need. In fact, from my current point of view, that's not even the central issue, though it remains important. The National Endowment for the Arts has done studies of “arts participation” and those studies indicate that relatively few adults in the USA (less than 10%) are involved in any kind of live music performance even as little as once a year. Unfortunately those surveys did not ask about singing in church on the Sabbath, so they may be under-reporting.

Now, you may think that “live music” is a pretty minimal standard, and it is. But I think that's where our society and culture is these days. We're stretched dangerously thin.

It's not at all clear to me that an aesthetics focused exclusively on major artists and major works is an adequate aesthetics. Just what one would want of an aesthetics that attends to lesser performers and works, that's not at all clear. One issue is who's going to do all this criticism, there are scads and scads of these secondary and tertiary artists and works. One part of the answer to that is that local critics will do that work. And then there is the blogosphere. This is about the social structure of artistic and critical activity.

Consider my years with Out of Control. As far as I can tell, there were maybe three or four times in those five years that we played just about as well as any band could play, and when I mean any band I mean BB King or Tower of Power or the Allman Brothers or Springsteen or James Brown. We were tight and loose and heaven was in view. The difference between them and us, of course, is they could play that way night after night, and with their own music, whereas we mostly played, well, their music, didn't reach the heights nearly so often, and every once in awhile those bands did take it to yet another level.

Just how many such levels there are, I don't know. No one does. But it would be nice to find out. Figuring that out will require a good deal of empirical work. Yadda yadda yadda . . . .

It seems to me that a healthy musical culture requires that everyone have an opportunity at least to hear a merely local band play as well as the name bands. And, in a way, that also means that everyone has a chance to play in such a band. Is that possible? Does it make sense? A utopian pipe dream? I don't know. Here're the final paragraphs of Beethoven's Anvil, my book on music:
How long can we continue to live on the cultural energy bequeathed us by traditions of active musicking that have become severely attenuated? Are the Western nations living out the consequences of an unholy alliance between Romantic veneration of artistic genius and recording technology? In proper measure, this technology makes a wide variety of music available to each of us, while an appreciation of genius encourages innovation. But the abject veneration of genius devalues the musical capacities of the rest of us and encourages us to substitute recordings for our own music. That path leads to cultural stagnation.

If we wish to hear marvelous new music twenty years from now, we must prepare the way by making our own music now. That music isn't the responsibility of future geniuses. It is ours.
Wayne Booth struggled with similar questions in a book he wrote after he'd retired from Chicago: For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals (U Chicago 1999). Booth reflects on a lifetime of amateur cello-playing and, among other things, tries to figure out how hacking one's way through Beethoven string quartets is as important to one's musical life as listening to superb performances by the best players. As I vaguely recall, he doesn't come up with an answer he's satisfied with.

Authenticity and Beyond

Getting back on course:

The reason “authenticity” is valuable in works of art is that it offers the audience the possibility of a new experience, together with a new understanding of themselves and the world.

It seems to me that this notion of art as offering “new experience” is one that's specific to a certain cultural system and doesn't even reflect what's going on among many people who value “authenticity.” Those blues fans who worry about the authentic acoustic blues are not looking for new experiences. On the contrary, they're looking for particular familiar experiences repeated over and over and over. I suspect that much of “authenticity” in rock (much less rawk) is of the same kind. And those congregants of charismatic churches, authenticity is everything, in the music, in the preaching, in the conversion, but new experience? That's not what it's about.

It actually does not matter whether artists are representing a true self.

What matters is that the reaction they get is unrehearsed.

I know that live audiences for TV shows are sometimes rehearsed, but such rehearsal is not otherwise common. I don't think you meant actual rehearsal, but I can't tell what you did mean.

There's an important difference between the mixed spirits Elvis had to channel in his performances, where he was inventing inflection, gesture, and musical approach, and the simulation of gesture expected of an impersonator.

Yes, but Elvis didn't concoct a new recipe for each performance. He kept on repeating the old recipe and sometimes it produced magic and sometimes it didn't.

Past histories of mongrelization cannot be easily imported into discussions of modern pop culture. The traditions to which you refer took place largely before mass media, and before important expansions and refinements of the art market. As a result, there was far less standardization, and fewer demographic niches, two things that have had a stultifying effect on art.

I'm inclined to think that the more demographic niches, the better. Because that means more overall variety.

As for the art market, I think we've wasted too much time kvetching about markets and commodification without really understanding how art markets work. We simply know that “markets” are bad, hence their influence on art must be bad.

In the case of music (and film and literature and games and whatever else, but not painting and sculpture, those markets are organized differently - because, I'd guess, they are about the one-and-only original object rather than copies), yes, we've got big corporations trying their hardest to control the market. Maybe they succeed from one year to another, but on the scale of decades and larger they fail. Hence the volatility of the music business. Companies die, are bought out, merged, and are born, in no predictable order or fashion.

Whatever these markets are, they are more powerful than the corporations that attempt to control them. That doesn't mean I think these corporations are benign and can be ignored. I'd just like to see more empirical research on how the markets actually work. Arthur De Vany's work on Hollywood Economics is exemplary.

The reasons why that would be a risky venture (as Tom Zé's music is risky) have a lot to do with the sorts of performers and audiences that are constructed by marketing tactics.

1. This valuing of aesthetic “risk” is not eternal or universal.

2. I don't deny the existence of “marketing tactics.” But I'm skeptical of their long-term efficacy.

There is a difference between the intuitive state sometimes necessary to create art, and the analysis necessary to understand art.


A Certain Audience...

The reason to get into the question of why Kamakawiwo'ole covers Garland and Armstrong in particular has to do with the limits of liking. We don't all get pleasure out of the same performances or recordings, but we can at least try to understand, in specific terms, what a given connection with a certain audience is about. To do less than that does enable a tepid tolerance, but also produces an insuperable distance between audiences.

I don't know what you mean by “an insuperable distance between audiences,” but I'm not particularly bothered by the existence of audiences for music that I find unintelligible or even offensive. I think “human nature” is sufficiently flexible and culture sufficiently creative so that insuperable distances can have authentic existence. I just don't want us to go to war over these differences.

As for understanding “in specific terms, what a given connection with a certain audience is about,” that's what I've been up to. For example, let me recall a remark you made earlier in this conversation: “Still, adding “Over The Rainbow” to the mix makes it clear that I don't think you meant actual rehearsal, but I can't tell what you did mean. is paying his respects to his audience via their knowledge of Armstrong and Garland.” This seems too “hothouse” to me, like we're dealing with a four-way conversation between Kamakawiwo'ole, Armstrong, Garland, and his audience, who must know both Armstrong and Garland. It seems to me that you get too quickly from that fact that Kamakawiwo'ole covered tunes written for Garland and Armstrong, to the conclusion that he must therefore be in dialogue with them and with his audience's presumed knowledge of them.

The world of pop culture is not that intimate. It's not clear to me that, in making that statement, you have taken the performance history of those songs into consideration nor the way so-called standards function in a certain very large pop repertoire. If you have, then we disagree on matters of fact and someone's going to have to do some more digging - though it's not clear to me that the specific examples are so important as the general way of thinking through these puzzles. In any event, let me bring in some more information about that history.

As is well-known, “Rainbow” was written for Garland and she recorded it in The Wizard of Oz in 1938. By mid-century it had become a so-called standard, long before Armstrong recorded “World.” By then it had been recorded by many, including Glen Miller (don't know who the singer would have been), and Sinatra. By the time Kamakawiwo'ole got to it in 1993 there were probably hundreds of recordings of the song, including those by Aretha Franklin, Art Tatum, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Sarah Vaughan.

I personally identify the song with two performances, an obscure performance by Rafael Mendez (a Mexican-American trumpet player) from the early 60s and a more recent one by Sarah Vaughan. I'm sure I've heard more than one version by Garland (I've seen The Wizard of Oz and I've surely heard at least one of her other recordings at some time). I've certainly heard many other versions and I've known about Garland's priority for a long time. That primacy is certainly a historical fact, but it is no more than that for me. I have no direct knowledge of Kamakawiwo'ole's musical experience much less that of his audience. But I think it very likely that he and they knew of other versions of the song and that at least some in his audience probably associated the song more strongly with some other version or versions. Some may have heard Garland's version, but not heard of her; some may never have heard any version by her.

“What a Wonderful World” was written specifically for Armstrong (in 1967) and he's the first to record it. It sank in the US but became a big hit in the UK. Twenty years later it was included in the sound track for Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987, a decade and a half after Armstrong's death. That's what got it mass exposure in the US and, eventually, the rest of world. Kamakawiwo'ole's 1993 version was one of the earliest covers, though not the first. At that time Armstrong's was the major recording of “Wonderful World.” Chances are anyone in Kamakawiwo'ole's audience who recognized the song would associate it with Armstrong's version. This is not the case for “Rainbow” and Garland; the tune is older, has been in the repertoire much longer, and there are were many other recordings of it.

All of that is why I suggested that Kamakawiwo'ole may simply have recorded those two songs because he liked them. More likely than not, he knew of both Armstrong's version of “World” and Garland's of “Rainbow.” Armstrong's because it was just about the only one available, and Garland's because musicians tend to know something of the history of the songs they sing. But I'd be very surprised if he didn't know many versions other than Garland's. I have no way of knowing which versions he liked best. His own version - of both songs - seems pretty much his own.

Beyond this, I'm much less certain about his audience. He certainly knew what kind of music his audience he liked in terms of general style and repertoire. But your “paying his respects” formulation seems odd to me. To me it vaguely implies something beyond simply wanting to play music that people like. Nor does it make much sense to assume his performance somehow played on whatever knowledge his audience had of other performances of the tune, much less of Garland's performances of “Rainbow.” As far as I can tell he doesn't play off of any other performances at all. He performs both songs in the same style - his - rather than attempting to mimic or allude to the rather different styles of Garland and Armstrong. If he's deliberately playing off them, there's nothing in the music that suggests as much. You can certainly appreciate his versions without reference to those other versions.

Now let's revisit Joey Ramone's version of “What a Wonderful World.” That requires further consideration of the tune's history. Not only was the tune written specifically for Armstrong, but it played to his benign avuncular persona. Here's what the Wikipedia says:
Intended as an antidote for the increasingly racially and politically charged climate in the U.S. (and written specifically for Armstrong, who had broad crossover appeal), the song details the singer's delight in the simple enjoyment of everyday life. The song also has a hopeful, optimistic tone with regard to the future, with reference to babies being born into the world and having much to which to look forward.
Thus it's use in Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987 was authentic period music, but it was also ironic, as it appeared beneath scenes of bombing and destruction. Ramone's version appeared in 2002.

The thing about Ramone's version is that it is ironic all by itself. It doesn't need to work against some extra-musical context. The musical treatment is at odds with the lyrics. Of course, we need to do more than simply assert that; an argument needs to be made. And that argument would cite experimental evidence - much of it recent and including brain imaging, but also some older work - that purely instrumental music has an emotional valence that listeners agree upon.

Without that experimental evidence we're at the mercy of the view that musical response is entirely conditioned by culture. If that were the case, then detecting the irony in Ramone's performance would require that you know something about the history of punk and the history of the song itself. As it is, all you need to do is pay close attention to both the lyrics and the sound.


Finally, and returning to generalities, it seems to me inevitable that specific understanding is going to lead you beyond your own personal tastes. Does it make criticism in the sense of concern for the health of society impossible? I don't think so. I've already asserted the value of live performance, and that does have critical consequences, though they may be rather minimal from your point of view. But that's OK.

Minimal though they may be, I don't think they're negligible, nor do I have a clear sense of what they are. On the one hand I've watched enough of these “reality” talent shows to have heard many performers who seem oblivious to how bad they are. But I've also watched a good many YouTube videos of undistinguished performers who nonetheless gave me pleasure. Part of what's going on is that performers who show up on YouTube aren't thereby asserting a claim on a large audience whereas performers who audition for one of these reality shows may well be doing that - or they may just be having fun.

* * * * *

Let's consider, once again, the phenomenon of Elvis impersonators. On one level there is the critical activity that is internal to the world of Elvis impersonators and their audience. The performers criticize themselves in order to perfect their craft. At the same time audiences chatter among themselves and spread the word, good or ill, about performers; some performances will get reviewed here or there. This world of expressive practice can't exist without such criticism, most of if informal, some of it very exacting. Every aesthetic world is going to have such critical practices as a part of its activity. We need to understand those practices as part of the larger project of understanding how the art works, in both performers and their audience.

At another level we can consider the world of Elvis impersonators as a whole. We can ask why this world exists in the first place, and is that a good or a bad thing? This is a different kind of question from those internal to that world. One can, for example, think that this or that impersonator is superb, while, at this higher level of consideration, arguing that Elvis impersonators are a bad thing for society. Conversely, if one thinks that having Elvis impersonators is a good thing, then the existence of many lousy one's may not be of much concern. While I don't think we can make a clean separation between these two levels of function and consideration, I do think we need to be aware of these two levels of process and of analysis.

Just where this leaves us is not at all obvious to me. I think there is an enormous amount of work to be done to establish live musical performance as something a large segment of the population needs to do for the health of society. Some of that work is critical, but not necessarily worrying about who the monuments are and just why they're monuments. Beyond that, there's the enormous task of deepening our understand of just how art works. Much of that work is empirical. How aesthetics plays in that game is something yet to be worked out.

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