Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Topics in music change: Old music strangles new, new grows over old, and a bunch of pianists

Two rather general sets of remarks, one set prompted by Ted Gioia, the other by Tyler Cowen, followed by a bunch of specifics about classical music and jazz piano.

Early in the 21st Century old music seems to be pushing out new

Ted Gioia has an interesting piece, Is Old Music Killing New Music? (1.19.22). He opens:

I had a hunch that old songs were taking over music streaming platforms—but even I was shocked when I saw the most recent numbers. According to MRC Data, old songs now represent 70% of the US music market.

Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician — have to look on these figures with fear and trembling.

But the news gets worse.

The new music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.

Just consider these facts: the 200 most popular tracks now account for less than 5% of total streams. It was twice that rate just three years ago. And the mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted to older music—the current list of most downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the last century, such as Creedence Clearwater and The Police.

And so on.

After offering a fair bit of discussion he considers and rejects the idea “that this decline in music is simply the result of lousy new songs. Music used to be better, or so they say.” Rather, “I listen to 2-3 hours of new music every day, and I know that there are plenty of outstanding young musicians out there. The problem isn’t that they don’t exist, but that the music industry has lost its ability to discover and nurture their talents.” He goes on to note:

In fact, nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music. [...] Anything that genuinely breaks the mold is excluded from consideration almost as a rule. That’s actually how the current system has been designed to work.

Even the music genres famous for shaking up the world—rock or jazz or hip-hop—face this same deadening industry mindset. I love jazz, but many of the radio stations focused on that genre play songs that sound almost the same as what they featured ten or twenty years ago. In many instances, they actually are the same songs.

He goes on to say a bit more and ends with the observation:

New music always arises in the least expected place, and when the power brokers aren’t even paying attention. And it will happen again just like that. It certainly needs to. Because the decision-makers controlling our music institutions have lost the thread. We’re lucky that the music is too powerful for them to kill.

OK, so change has to happen from the bottom up.

Set that aside. 

* * * * *

Rick Beato discusses Gioia's thesis:

What happened to classical music?

A couple of weeks ago Tyler Cowen asked “Why has classical music declined?” He posed it in response to a request one of his readers, Rahul, had made to an earlier post (quoting Rahul’s remarks):

In general perception, why are there no achievements in classical music that rival a Mozart, Bach, Beethoven etc. that were created in say the last 50 years?

Is it an exhaustion of what's possible? Are all great motifs already discovered?

Or will we in another 50 or 100 years admire a 1900's composer at the same level as a Mozart or Beethoven?

Or was it something unique in that era (say 1800's) which was conducive to the discovery of great compositions? Patronage? Lack of distraction?

Cowen offers six numbered observations of his own, leading to a long discussion.

Here’s Cowen’s first comment:

The advent of musical recording favored musical forms that allow for the direct communication of personality. Mozart is mediated by sheet music, but the Rolling Stones are on record and the radio and now streaming. You actually get “Mick Jagger,” and most listeners prefer this to a bunch of quarter notes. So a lot of energy left the forms of music that are communicated through more abstract means, such as musical notation, and leapt into personality-specific musics.

From Mozart to the Rolling Stones, that’s quite a lot of musical territory to cover. Yikes!

* * * * *

I’ve been haunted by that conversation. While the quality of the responses is all over the place – no surprise there – what’s interesting is how many of them there are, 210 at the moment. The subject matters to a lot of people.

So I’ve been thinking about it making notes, and have lots of thoughts. 

Scattered thoughts. 

One of those thoughts is that this decline of classical music, if you want to call it that, has been followed by the ascendance of American music. I’d hesitate to go so far as to say that classical music was ‘killed’ by American pop, but there you have it in Chuck Berry, “Roll Over, Beethoven” (1956).

The idea is implicit in the juxtaposition of Mozart and The Rolling Stones in Cowen’s first comment. To be sure, the Stones are British, but they perform in a genre that arose in America, rock and roll. A lot of those “personality-specific” musics came out of America.

In the case of rock and roll, we can trace it back through jump bands and swing combos to early jazz and blues, which then disperse into the 19th century, where minstrelsy emerged as a major form of mass entertainment. The first quarter of the 20th century saw the migration of Blacks out of the South to the North, Midwest, and West. At the same time recording and radio allowed music to spread beyond the geographical locus of musical performers. And Europe was engulfed in the First World War, which you also mention.

That’s when “creators struck out in new directions” en mass. And so you had jazz/swing/blues vs. the long-hair and high-brow classics, a conflict that showed up, among other places, in films and cartoons (where it lingered for a while, e.g. Bugs Bunny in “Long-Haired Hare”, 1949). We had Gershwin and Broadway and Armstrong, Crosby, and Sinatra figuring out how to adapt singing style to microphones and Amplification.

What jazz pianists learned from the classical tradition

One thing that came up in the discussion of Tyler’s comments if the fact that, once movies acquired sound, the compositional strategies and techniques developed in 18th and (mostly) 19th century classical music showed up on the sound tracks of those movies (John Williams is one composer mentioned by name).

More generally, however, those techniques became the common inheritance of any musicians who would listen and learn. Consider these jazz musicians listed in a piece by Ethan Iversion, Theory and European Classical Music (NEC Missive #2):

With only a few exceptions, the interviewees in Len Lyon’s The Great Jazz Pianists (1983) all discuss studying harmony, theory, and repertoire.

Teddy Wilson: “The traditional disciplines — rhythm, harmony, and melody — go way back in the history of music. All the great composers mastered them, and they achieved freedom within those disciplines. I had a very fine classical teacher, Richard McLanahan..I got an offer to perform Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the National Symphony in Washington D.C., if I had it under my fingers. But I didn’t feel equipped.”

John Lewis: “I still play written music — Chopin, Bach, Beethoven — as much as I can.”

George Shearing: [on playing Mozart, Poulenc, Bach, and Gershwin from Braille scores] “I had classical piano and theory as well, but only from age twelve to age sixteen. That’s why it’s so important for me to learn concerti from Braille—to keep up with my theory.”

Ahmad Jamal: “I was playing Lizst études in competition when I was eleven years old.”

Horace Silver: “I got a harmony book from a music store and studied basic positions.”

Oscar Peterson: “What I went through as a student was probably what everyone else grooming himself for the classical field goes through—Czerny, Hanon, Dohnanyi.”

Red Garland: “I never played piano until I was in the army…. When I left the army, I bought an exercise book by Theodore Presser, and that was a great help for me.”

Jimmy Rowles: [Where do your dissonances come from?] “That’s Ravel. He’s my man, but I like a lot of those cats. Debussy, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Erik Satie, Villa-Lobos.”

Marian McPartland: “I did my studying at the Guild Hall Music School in London, and I worked very hard at scales, the Hanon book of scales, arpeggios, doubled thirds. I’d practice eight hours a day, doing Bach fugues and Beethoven sonatas.”

Billy Taylor: “There was pressure from my mother to stay with my Bach and study traditional piano. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, but I continued, until I met a neighbor of mine, Henry Grant, who was director of the high school band and a great music teacher. Almost all of the great jazz musicians who came out of Washington prior of ’55 worked with him. He’s one of the few people Duke Ellington actually studied with, and they were good friends….He’d hear me playing something by Ellington, say, “Prelude to a Kiss,” and show me a piece by Debussy with the same kind of harmony…The classical practicing I did was because he made me want to learn these things — all the little Debussy and Chopin preludes. He’d show me my own voice leadings in a piece and blow my mind.”

Jaki Byard: “In the army I got interested in Stravinsky’s music and in Chopin again. I studied Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu and analyzed it. I began to analyze everything by Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and all these cats to find out what was happening in these compositions.”

Ramsey Lewis: [What did you study in college?] “Heavy classics. It was the usual: Bach, Chopin, and so on.”

Bill Evans: “My heritage is classical, too. I’ve played a lot of Bach and up through the contemporary composers.”

McCoy Tyner: “At Granoff, I just studied theory and harmony, which amounted to basic eighteenth-century composition. But when I was young, I did practice scales a lot and a few compositions…. I did use Hanon, Czerny, and Macfarren, which are all fine.”

Toshiko Akiyoshi: “You start like anyone else: Bach, Hanon, Czerny.”

Chick Corea: “With [Salvatore] Suolo, I studied classical piano music, like Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.”

Herbie Hancock: “When I was eleven, I performed at a young people’s concert with the Chicago symphony. I played the first movement of a Mozart concerto. In fact, I studied classical piano all the way through college, until I was twenty.” [How are you preparing for a duo piano tour with Chick Corea?] “I just got out my Oscar Beringer scale book, the Chopin études, Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, some Debussy and Ravel, and Slominsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. I’ve heard that McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane used to practice out of that.”

Even the man from Saturn is in the same bag:

Sun Ra: “The composers I studied were Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, the whole gamut. I think I studied everything at that school except farming.”

Notice how Bach and Chopin come up more than anybody else. We all could be working on some Bach and Chopin. As documented above, this is the jazz tradition.*

You might also take a look at Iverson’s “From Grandma’s Piano Bench.

The great jazz pianists had a casual relationship to European Classical Music. They knew some of it, enough to get by, but they weren’t scholars or notable practitioners of what were then called “The Three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms).

Truthfully it would have been easier to learn some of it rather than avoid it: Around the time the first wave of serious jazz virtuosi — Jelly Roll Morton to Art Tatum, let’s call it a 20 year swath from 1920 to 1940, encompassing figures like James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and many others — European Classical Music was just part of the American environment, much closer to local folklore than it is now.

Back then, there was a piano in most American homes, and American children were told to practice. (A caustic and amusing account of this peak of American keyboard activity can be found in a book by Arthur Loesser, Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History.) America was a segregated society but, black or white, the kids practiced the piano.

The beat goes on.

So what?

So what? Indeed. I have no general conclusion to offer. This is just stuff I’m thinking about. I will make one observation, however. Up though the end of the 19th century the only way to hear music was to hear it in live performance. Broadcast media – radio and television, not to mention the internet – didn’t exist and recordings didn’t become commonly available until the second decade or so of the 20th century. Is the situation Gioia documents somehow related to the demise of active music-making in the population?

I don’t know. But I do know that my friend Charlie Keil wants to see more active music-making, by everyone. So would I. 

 * * * * *

*For extra credit: Why Bach and Chopin? On Bach I’d hazard the way counterpoint guides development of melodic lines. Chopin, rhythmic ambiguity (hemiola and beyond).

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