In which we discuss why they don’t write ’em like Beethoven anymore. Including Dada, Beat poets, hip hop and William Burroughs. Next time, we’ll get to why it matters to prog-lovers everywhere.
Roger CortonSo your Seahawks did it again?
JCHThey ain’t my Seahawks. I can’t stand that neon green.
RCThen you must’ve been a lonely guy today.
JCHI heard Garrison say something funny… “For people who don’t like football, the Superbowl is like Christmas for Jews.” Which is true. Man, if you wanted to book a table at the most exclusive restaurant in town, today would be the day. You could probably drag race on I-5 and not get a ticket.
RCI thought you had sworn off radio for a while?
JCHMostly. One other thing I heard was a re-run BBC documentary on William Burroughs.
RCI didn’t know you were a Naked Lunch kind of guy?
JCHMost definitely not. But it’s a great documentary. And, love him or hate him (as I do) it points out how influential he’s been to the culture. Most people don’t get just how huge that influence is. He’s a god to so many people that we all like. And if you listen to it, it’s easy to see why it’s so hard it is to do anything long form now.
RCThat sounds like a warm up.
JCHYes. When I was in music school, the greatest composers were considered those who knew how to create pieces with structure. Take small ideas and really build something. Bach, Beethoven. It’s a ‘German’ thing: craft, order. But after Beethoven, it was like, ‘now what’?
RCWhat is that quote about Michaelangelo?
JCHVasari supposedly said, “You’ve ruined things for your successors because you didn’t leave them anywhere to go.” But that’s not quite true. While it’s true that after Beethoven concert music tended to become bloated, the more important thing is that it became less ‘German’; more about repeating a melody and less about ‘structures’. And a reason for that is frankly it’s easier to write (and listen to) melodious, repetitive music. It was very popular.
RCRepetitive music is popular? I’m shocked. Shocked.
JCHSo after Beethoven, you have music that is far more about beautiful melodies, played over and over. The orchestrations get fancier. The pieces get longer. Louder. Basically, all music becomes more like all those aspects of opera everyone makes fun of. And those are the pieces everyone knows today–the pieces with the beautiful melodies played over and over. Tchaikovsky is maybe the best example.
RCCan we fast forward to William Burroughs?
JCHWe’re getting there. The success of concert music became mostly based on having a popular song. ‘Tunes’ became what mattered. And after World War I, the whole system of ‘art’ fell apart along with the empires. Basically, everything that was ‘important’ in Europe fell apart. That’s when the Dada movement started.
RCWhich you’ve railed about many times.
JCHYes. The Dada guys invented collage; the original ‘cut up’ art. But it never hurts to repeat: Collage was intended as a joke and vicious satire. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. That’s the whole point. It’s punk. Anyone can do it. The Dada guys were the Sex Pistols and the Charlie Hebdo of their time all rolled into one. It was a take down of anything self-important. The Dada guys saw that their governments, with all their empires and structures had destroyed the world and that was their reaction: Anarchy; no structure. But like a lot of Euro stuff, it didn’t really catch on in America at first. But after World War II the disaffected people got it. They were the Beats.
RCBut the analogy breaks down. We won World War II.
JCHYes, but the Beats were just as disaffected. Look, guys like Burroughs were total misfits. Maybe ‘winning’ is just as bad as losing, but for whatever reason, they were first American generation to really ‘question authority’. So they started doing the same stuff that the Dada guys did: Rebelling against anything structured. But the difference is that they took themselves deadly seriously. They considered themselves to be real ‘artistes’, regardless of their technical skill.
RCAnd that takes us to Burroughs.
JCHRight. Burroughs did with words what the Dada guys had done in Europe forty years earlier–said goodbye to ‘structure’. But he did it by making collages out of words. He would literally cut out sentences of text from books, throw them up in the air and combine them together randomly until he found combinations that he thought sounded interesting. It didn’t ‘mean’ anything. It just had to sound cool. They weren’t called ‘Beat’ poets for nothing. The whole idea is the -rhythm of the words as much as their meaning.
RCAnd then it’s a short hop doing the same thing with music.
JCHExactly. Once you have tape (and then digital) it’s inevitable that you’re going to start cutting things up; manipulating sound the way Burroughs manipulated words. In fact, academics were manipulating tape as collage as soon as it was invented. But the important thing is that those experiments never caught on. They were like Neanderthals… a line that died off. What caught on with musicians was what Beat writers like Burroughs were doing with -words-.
RCSo the medium really is the message. Since we’re talking about beats, I always wonder what the relationship is between the technology and hip hop.
JCHI don’t think hip hop exists without technology. People have been ‘rapping’ since for-ehhhver. But it’s the ability to create ‘beats’ that makes rap truly compelling; even more so than the words. That’s why I am often so dismissive of rap as poetry. No matter how good the words are, they are no more compelling than any other lyrics. It’s the beat that makes it a hit.
RCI’m not sure any rapper would agree with that. They consider their work to be important poetry. But I see your point. When people free-style, they always rap to some beat.
JCHRight. And let’s bear in mind that when DJs make beats, they usually do it as Burroughs would: combing through lots of pre-existing albums and samples and just splicing together bits that sound cool. None of it is pre-planned. They just ‘sample’ stuff until they hear things that grab them. Hence the term.
RCSo to sum it up: The current musical idea of a ‘beat’ is the audio version of the literary idea of a ‘cut-up’, pioneered by Burroughs in the 50’s, which is in turn derived from the Dadaist movement which created the visual idea of collage after World War I.
JCHCouldn’t have said it better meself. So you have these gradual trends in music away from the kind of structures that defined how music should be put together. And neither of them are great for doing long form work of any kind.
RCIf I buy into this, why haven’t novels also disappeared?
JCHThat’s another whole discussion, but the answer is also about technology. I will say one thing which I used to find merely odd humour, but now realise is kinda sad.
JCHAs I just said, I’ve read little anecdotes from several composers where they say something like this. Brahms is with a buddy and they both hear some melody: ‘Do you hear that, Cherubini? Boy, I wish we were as well trained as guys back in the day.’
RCI assume Cherubini was some sort of composer–not some tiny angel with wings. Get it?
JCHGot it. But this is Brahms complaining that he wasn’t trained well enough! But the thing is, lots of composers made the same remark. Beethoven would make these remarks like he didn’t really ‘get’ counterpoint well enough ‘like the old guys’. I figured it was just a ‘composer’ whine… like all professions have bitches. But now I’ve decided that they weren’t kidding or drinking too much of the old Schlivovitza. From their POV they didn’t have the same skill set as Bach. There would be things that they felt were lacking… perhaps like handwriting today. They couldn’t quite put their finger on why it mattered.
RCYou mean that handwriting is no longer being taught and most people shrug, “yeah, that’s progress. But I could never do it myself so whatehvs…” It doesn’t have any practical utility.
JCHRight. Something is being lost. Even if we’re not exactly sure what is being lost, something is being lost.
RCDon’t worry. We’ll figure it out after it’s gone.