Frank Zappa. Don Giovanni, Intentional listening.
Roger CortonWe got the most comments since I’ve been on board about your remark regarding Frank Zappa Guitar Player. You touched a nerve.
JCHYeah, I don’t have to work very hard to alienate people it seems. I got to fill in at Don Giovanni and it happened there too.
RCI didn’t know there were any parts for Telecaster in Mozart.
JCHThere’s not. But there is a mandolin bit at the beginning of Act II. A lot of operas have these oddball interludes. I actually only had about two minutes of work and that was the problem. They were not thrilled when I asked if I could split after my part was over. There’s this seemingly inviolable rule against moving once the music starts. If you don’t have anything to do? Tough. So asking was in itself a reason to not be considered for future work.
RCSo this is what gets me about you. You know this, so why ask?
JCHI wanted to watch the Commendatore open up a can o’ whoop-ass, of course. DON GIOVANNI! A CENAR TECO M’INVITASTI E SON VENUTO!
RCI can never understand how you remember all those kinds of things. But, OK, so we need to get back to Frank.
JCHIt’s the Jeopardy thing. The funny thing is that since I got sick I can’t remember anything from like five minutes ago. Italian Opera from twenty years ago? No problem!
But my comment was only about Frank’s guitar playing. Or rather, I don’t like the adulation about his guitar work. He was a lot of great things, but that doesn’t mean he was great at everything. If you like the way the guy played, cool breeze. But consider that Frank’s guitar was primitive, like a lot of the greatest blues players; no more no less. That’s why he had his ‘stunt guitarists’ like Steve Vai. Guys who could really play. I just wanted make that distinction.
Now here is what I really want to say about Frank. The guy was a tremendous bandleader, showman and he created all these great opportunities for himself to get exactly the kind of music he wanted to get out into the world out into the world. The only other guy I can think of with that track record is Duke Ellington. They both got to do exactly the kind of music they wanted to do over decades and gave a career to lots and lots of excitement. I don’t mean to imply that Frank was the level of composer or musician that was Duke but he said a lot of things in his songs that were pretty deep. I think they got missed because he was perceived as sort of a comedian, but he was a tremendous satirist. I watch Bill Maher every once in a while and Frank reminds me a lot of that.
RCYou may have smoothed over one issue and raised another.
JCHWhat, you mean the ‘composer’ thing? C’mon. Duke was, well Duke. Frank wrote some fun songs. Full stop. But he was deep in another way. The most profound thing that I take away from Frank’s music was where he talked about music as being an advertising commodity. Remember that line “not a speck of cereal”?
RCRight, the comparison with dog food advertising. Like ‘Raising my lonely dental floss.’
JCHYep. The thing that I worry about most with regards to music, is the fact that very few of us want to single task anymore. We don’t want to think about one thing anymore.
JCHI mean do one thing at a time. I mean listening to music solely for the purpose of listening to music.
RCWhich is in the the poem for Beautiful Sounds.
JCHRight. For most people now, music is part of a multi-media experience. You can’t go to a concert or any kind of show now without seeing accompanying video. It’s not just that people tend to enjoy music more when there are accompanying visuals, it’s that it is getting tougher and tougher for human beings to physically sit still for 90 minutes and only listen to music. I mean physically just listen to music. And that freaks me out.
See you can’t imagine how music must have sounded back in Mozart’s day. Or even Miles Davis’ day. Things have changed so much so fast. And I think the reason that there is less and less interest in music is because people have changed that way. I mean like at the DNA level. You can’t expect people to listen to music because they’re not wired for it anymore.
RCWired? What does that have to do with Frank Zappa?
JCHSo back to Frank Zappa. He foresaw the change in wiring. But people didn’t get that he wasn’t joking. He had a way of saying very controversial stuff but not coming off as serious and sanctimonious. He made fun of stuff that would be impossible now because it would be considered to PC. All those songs like “He’s So Gay”? Fawgeddaboudit.
The thing is that it took decades for Americans to even think about smoking being bad for you let alone react to it. Same with seat belts. People did not want to be told. Drinking while driving? Same thing. It took decades for people to react to that. And now look at dieting. People have known about all the stuff that makes you fat for a long time. They just don’t want to be told about it. It takes a long time to get people, especially Americans, that we aren’t driving the bus. We don’t want to be told that our appetites are not totally within our control. We all think hey man yeah I can eat whatever I want. I can quit whenever I want! I can control this. I can control that.
At some point were going to have to accept the fact that we have to practice concentrating. We’re going to have to practice listening.
RCYou mean like music appreciation?
JCHNot really. I mean we are going to have to practice listening, the way that we now have to exercise. We are going to realize that we simply cannot keep our brains in shape without active effort. We’re going to realize that the world now supplies so much junk for our minds in exactly the same way that food is now bad for us. Were going to realize that 90+ percent of the sound we listen to and the visuals we see are designed to appeal to the visceral parts of our brain the lizard brain and were going to have to work to learn to listen to music. Were going to realize that just like people who are physically out of shape can’t enjoy life as much, people who don’t practice listening or practice reading or thinking will be at a similar mental disadvantage.
RCThis kind of sounds like Zen.
JCHIt is a lot like Zen and that it is something that has to be practiced and that seems counter intuitive;
RCHaving to practice doing nothing. Having to practice focusing on one thing at a time.
JCHYes. And it’s going to be tough because look at all of the “apps” there are now to improve your mind. There are even apps that claim to help one with various aspects of Zen.
RCWhich is a joke.
JCHWhich is a joke. I’m going off on a tangent here, but who’s to say that a lot of this Alzheimers shit isn’t the mental equivalent of what happens to the rest of the body with junk food.
RCLet me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You’re claiming that someone cannot really appreciate Mozart without methodically practicing listening.
RCIt’s starting to dawn on me how controversial that is going to be. I’m thinking about that movie ‘Pretty Woman’ where the prostitute is moved to tears watching opera for the first time.
JCHRight. That’s an urban myth. Doesn’t happen. It’s a very sweet story but it doesn’t happen. It’s like the myth about how every kid can grow up to be president. Or that I can control my weight when I’m surrounded by all these fast food joints. People cannot enjoy opera without some background. But broader than that the average person cannot be expected to choose to listen to a piece of music of that complexity these days.
RCAnd people will say who are you to tell me what I should and should not like.
JCHRight. Art is whatever I say it is.
RCBut I was thinking about musicians. So many musicians feel that their music is under-appreciated because they can’t get it out there.
JCHThey do. And in my opinion they are as bad as the ‘know nothings’. They really believe that because they happened to respond to Louis Armstrong or Gentle Giant or whatever out of the mainstream music that everyone would ‘if they had the chance’. Like seeds given good soil. Which is total bullshit. A few oddballs like you and I…
RCSpeak for yourself!
JCH…respond to that stuff, but most people do not unless they have heard it enough times or it got burned into their memory by a particularly wonderful night.
RCLike if the guy in the next cubicle was always blasting Dixieland…
JCHEventually you’ll develop an affinity for tubas and banjos. Or, if they were playing Klezmer music at the hospital when yer kid was born. But what you cannot do is expect people to be intrinsically drawn to any deeper music intrinsically. It takes effort. You have to learn to like it.
RCEat your vegetables!
JCHMore like wine tasting. It’s something that requires study and comes off all pretentious. So it’s it’s gonna be a war, like smoking or dieting. It is an incredibly painful thing to tell human beings that they cannot multitask when they want to multitask so much. And that they cannot appreciate higher art without diligent practice. It is tantamount to going into a rib shack and telling all the patrons that they are not living right. Even though they well know that they are obese and that they are heading towards diabetes and heart attacks. They don’t want to hear that shit. But over time, over several generations their kids and their grandkids will learn this message and take a different point of view.
RCBut maybe not. Maybe things will just keep on the same trajectory. You’re implying that there is some intrinsic reason that Don Giovanni should survive. Might not happen.
JCHThat’s a distinct possibility. There are as many forgotten artists as stars in the sky. Bach was largely forgotten for a long time. There’s a line in Nietzsche about some art being too perfect. It survives because you can never get it right. That’s Don Giovanni. It can never be performed as it deserves.
RCThat’s where you lose me. That sounds even more patrician than the ‘wine tasking’ idea.
JCHI know. And so will this: I don’t mean it to sound that way, but if you knew Don Giovanni you’d get what I’m talking about.
RCYou’re right. That sounds even snootier. I didn’t think it was possible.
JCHSo I’ll stop. But some day, we’ll get to where there will be more absolutes in terms of music, just as there are absolutes with regard to diet. And Frank, way back in the day, started that conversation. He was way ahead of his time on a lot of issues. In fact I like his ideas more than his music.
RCAnd his guitar playing.
JCHOkay, I think we’ve busted in my chops on that remark quite enough. Wanna know why Don Giovanni is too perfect?
RCGee, I don’t know. Do you think I’d be able to understand?
JCHOh, boo hoo, motherfucker (laughs). The thing that opera can do that no other art form can is transmit multiple messages at the same time. Don Giovanni is the epitome of that; the first psychological drama. There’s everything from the lowest of low-brow comedy to questions of human behavior that make one
RCThat’s not true. I just have to turn on the TV. Breaking Bad does that. So do a bunch of shows and movies and books.
JCHNo. And I’m only pressing the point because I think this is worth a college course. Like, instead of taking a ‘music appreciation’ course in college, you’d just take a ‘Don Giovanni’ course. I think that would be way more useful; to get inside one great work of art than just this ‘overview’ thing.
RCSo give me your sixty second pitch on Don Giovanni and let’s wrap this up.
JCHThe closest pop culture thing I can think of is that TV show ‘MASH’. Remember?
JCHThey were in this intrinsically horrible situation, but they were telling these jokes, right? So they’re constantly trying to find a balance to ‘the horror’ and the wise-cracking. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or not. But at the end, you could see how the characters had all been changed.
RCRight. Allan Alda’s character even has a nervous breakdown.
JCHDon Giovanni is like that times a hundred. You can do it for laughs; there are lots of sex jokes and that’s what most shows do. It’s safe. Or you can do it dead serious, because there are also a lot of really disturbing ideas. And there are many moments like Borat where, if you know what’s going on, you’re not sure you should laugh. Don Giovanni is a cad, but he’s a straightforward cad. There are self-destructive characters, weaklings, bullies, sluts, etc. and they can express multiple sides of their personalities at the same time. It’s not like a film where the director chooses the shot he wants you to see. The music for each character is like being able to see two sides at once. And all this comes at you at once. So the reason they can never do the piece justice is because it’s too much to ask of anyone. The thing is the ultimate multi-media gesture. The piece says so much that no one ever finds the right balance over the full 2-1/2 hours.
RCOther operas do that, though.
JCHThey try. Some, like Wagner try to do more and end up being ginormous gas bags. And some try to go for laughs and just seem silly to anyone except die-hards. There are many ways to go overboard. But Don Giovanni is just perfect. It’s the right length. It’s easy for first-timers but deeply satisfying for devotees. It’s funny as hell. It’s really terrifying in spots. It’s deeply psychological, but hasn’t a trace of self-importance. If you don’t require a love story, it’s the perfect opera.
RCAnd this brings to our longest, and most riveting, episode of Pretentious Theater Critic with your host James Lipton.
JCHAnd your humble narrator, Leonard Pinth Garnell.