The end of long-winded musicology for a while. Why almost all long-form music stinks, but Tales From Topographic Oceans isn’t as bad as you think.
Roger CortonLast time we gassed on…
JCHI gassed on…
RCThat usually goes without saying. I was just being polite. Last time you gassed on about ‘structure’. And I asked why anyone should care.
JCHSo I want to wrap up this general area of intercourse.
RCYou mean discourse?
JCHI know, but I like to throw in some childish shit…
RCBecause it goes so well with all the pretentiousness?
JCHRight. I went into all that jazz about Beethoven and all because, as I said last time, you always think what you’re interested in has general appeal. But regardless, the older I get the more I realize how terrible most music is.
RCAll music? That’s ridiculous. Isn’t it?
JCHI used to think back to all these old jazz guys who would say something like, “I stopped buying records in 1965.” I thought that was just part of ‘old age’. But I keep coming back to something everyone used to say about Lester Young. The idea that all his great solos ‘told a little story’. There would be a beginning, middle and end. That was something I always tried to do in my own playing…
RCI’d say that’s true. I know we have this unspoken rule to never discuss your playing (and by the way, have you ever considered the irony of that on a site about you ?) Anyway, that has always interested me about you. You go on these verbal excursions all over hill and dale, but your playing always has that beginning, middle, end.
JCHBut I now realize that you have to have that ‘story’ in all aspects of a piece of music; not just a solo. The whole piece has to tell a story. So the thing that I focus on now is structure, which is the one thing that has been avoided in almost all music for so long.
RCSo you’re implying that music of all genres doesn’t tell a story anymore? Doesn’t have a ‘beginning, middle and end’?
JCHYeah, as outrageous as that sounds, that’s pretty much it. Let me ask you. You’re not a huge classical music fan, but have you ever wondered why you might like one piece over another? Or for that matter any piece in any genre?
RCI would have to think about it. When it comes to classical, I think a lot of it might be plain repetition. Familiarity.
JCHFor sure. But I would also say that a big part of it is whether or not you can perceive the story.
RCYou don’t mean literally like in a folky ballad? Like Springsteen?
JCHNo, that’s exactly what I am not talking about is a literal ‘story’. In fact, I think most music these days falls apart without an external story–even if it’s just some biography of the artist that grabs you. But the music itself? It’s simply not strong enough for anything except repeating a melody or a beat.
RCPart of that I can believe. I know there are bunches of times I’ve seen people hate an artist and then they hear something like ‘She was born blind and walked 300 miles through the jungle to learn to play the guitar.’ And from that moment, they love everything she does.
JCHThe fact is, it’s hard to write music that is interesting on its own.
RCWell that depends on what you mean by ‘interesting’, I suppose.
JCHXACTLY! And that’s why I’ve been banging on about Beethoven. People used to listen differently. They could hear structures in a way we cannot. Look, maybe this’ll do the trick. You know Haydn, right?
RCSure, but I couldn’t tell you any piece he wrote.
JCHBut you’ve heard about how he wrote over a hundred symphonies, right?
RCRight. That part I remember.
JCHAnd Beethoven only wrote nine, right?
JCHEver wonder why?
JCHWell, it matters. See Haydn was not atypical. Everyone back then, until Beethoven wrote dozens and dozens of symphonies. They cranked ’em out like DJs do remixes today. People expected to hear new stuff every week the way we expect there to be new movies at the cineplex every Friday.
RCSo there were formulas just like now. And Beethoven changes that.
JCHBeethoven changes that. With Beethoven we’re now at the point where we’re going to hear the same piece more than once.
RCBut I’m sure pieces were played over and over, right? Otherwise how would those guys even be remembered?
JCHYes. The prince might demand a piece be performed again because he liked it. But what changes with Beethoven is that we need more than one hearing to get it. It’s the point in history where the public accepts the idea that a piece of music might be too ‘deep’ to crank out in a couple of weeks. And… and this is the big deal… to appreciate in one hearing.
RCIn other words, it might be like an album where you’re not sure if you like it until you’ve listened to the entire thing a couple of times.
JCHRight. That’s Beethoven. You’re at this unique point in history where people wanted more than the same ol’ same ol’ and were willing to work at listening to something more complicated. And Ludwig steps in with this enormous ego/balls to demand that they do.
RCLike a real Artiste.
JCHAndy Warhol and all those pretentious types had nothing on Ludwig Van in the marketing department. He created even more demand by having the whole ‘fuck you’ attitude.
RCExcept that he wasn’t painting soup cans.
JCHNo. Almost single-handedly he created the idea that every major work had to be different. He made it clear that artists should not repeat themselves. They had to be constantly moving forward.
RCSounds a lot like Miles.
JCHYou bet. But that takes time to generate.
RCThus the low symphony count.
JCHRight. But the ultimate reward is people can listen to his stuff over and over and get something new out of it. There are literally almost never-ending layers. Which is different from a soup can where you may look at it over and over but whatever new you may ‘get’ from it is not intrinsic.
RCIt’s in the ‘story’, or the buzz that is generated about it.
JCHSo Beethoven is pure music. It has everything it needs. I mean you can read about various details,like “Oh that sounds like a bird call!” But it’s not necessary to know any of that extra-musical jazz in order to dig it. But after that, like we talked about before, there was no place left to go. Most composers didn’t even bother trying to write music of that complexity. Instead they wrote symphonies with ‘programs’… stories… and they wrote bigger and longer and more crazy and ‘dramatic’. And that’s still often how it works in concert music. But it rarely has the depth. It’s just got more ‘stuff’.
RCLike how they charge $100 for perfume in fancy tote bag and a velour box and then some jewelry bottle. But it’s the same Eau De Whatever.
JCHEau De Whatever? I really like that.
RCOK, the word count is getting outrageous so wrap it up. What does this have to do with progressive rock?
JCHLook, the thing that ruined ‘prog’ is that the guys wanted to do all this ‘epic’ crap but frankly didn’t know how to do it. Actually, it’s the same with jazz and everything else. At some point, everyone wants to make a McMansion.
RCOr maybe they just wanted to be rock stars?
JCHMaybe. But not all of ’em. See what happens is that everyone has a few good ideas. And that makes for one really good album that pretty much writes itself. It’s the Close To The Edge effect.
JCHYou know how everyone hates Tales From Topographic Oceans?
RCBy that I take it you mean the follow-up record. Sure. Goes without saying.
JCHWell I don’t. I like that record. What I hate are those stupid liner notes.
RCAll that Autobiography Of A Yogi b.s. And then there were all the public comments where Rick Wakeman hated it.
JCHRight. See my contention is that if they had left that ‘story’ out… just had it like Close To The Edge, a cool Roger Dean picture with no ‘explanation’, people would’ve liked it a lot more.
JCHDon’t get me started. But yeah. It was all the extra-musical junk that ruined that record for listeners. That whole need for a story to try to dig music is what holds music back.
The fact is, there is just not that much long-form music of any genre that is worth listening to anymore for the simple reason that people aren’t very good at it. And they’ve been getting progressively (get it?) worse at writing long-form music since the time of the ol’ Ludwig Van.
For 200 years writers of all stripes have tried longer, louder, faster, more bodies; hell they’ve even tried recording in the Grand Canyon or putting the entire New Testament to music. Gimmick upon gimmick upon gimmick. But the fact is, that with a few exceptions the only music people remember now is, above all things, short. Because that’s what most of us can do well. It’s really hard to write something genuinely interesting that is longer than five minutes. It’s hard to write music that needs nothing else to compel an audience. When it happens it’s more by luck or sheer number of attempts than anything else.
RCI usually try to humour you, but I still think that’s outrageous. It kinda offends fans of everyone from Pink Floyd to Duke Ellington to Le Miz to I don’t know… Rocky Horror Picture Show.
JCHDon’t get me wrong. You know I revere a lot of the stuff you just mentioned. But those are all pieces of music that were written to tell a story. Soundtracks. Music for worship. The music is there for some dramatic purpose… that’s their structure. Regardless of their other merits, that’s what holds them together… and at the end of the day, that kinda stuff is generally just not gonna be as good as music that was put together the way they used to do it back in the day.
RCBack in the day being like the nineteenth century?
JCHYep. Even guys as talented as Yes or ELP or whoever generally have only one or two really great records in themselves. And my contention is that it’s not the sex, drugs and rock and roll that ruins it. And it’s not even that tastes change more often than I change my socks. It’s the same thing that ruins it for everyone trying to write music from opera to punk. Lack of craft. Lack of structure. Skills that are now so far away and so long ago that it’s just unbelievable that they ever existed.
RCOK, now you’re weirding me out.
JCHYou think that was nuts? Then try this on for size. What drives me crazy about music education is that the only guys now who even learn the basics of how to put music together on a large scale are not the ones who are cool and hip and will get a chance to go worldwide; they’re just the typical nerdballs in music school. So it’s like we teach ‘how to be an astronaut’ to people who end up teaching high school. But those guys will never get a chance to go into space.
RCAnd who should be getting all this deep knowledge?
JCHWell, in a perfect world, like how they identify star athletes at the age of eight, the guys who should learn about ‘sonata allegro form’? Seriously? Stevie Wonder. That’s a guy who could’ve written something longer than five minutes that would really mean something a hundred years from now. If people had identified and then recruited him like they do promising linebackers… and then given him the right education at the right time? It would happen.
RCBut you do realize that they would laugh at that notion, right? I mean, I’m pretty sure Stevie Wonder doesn’t wake up on any morning thinking, ‘What a shame I never learned to wrote a concerto!’
JCHI know. But that’s what it would take. Because the thing about Beethoven was not just that ‘structure’ thing but also that he had the rock star charisma at the same time. It was a unique confluence of skills at a unique point in time. He wasn’t the ‘Beethoven’ of his time then. He was more like the ‘Duke Ellington’ of his time.
RCSo to sum this up, today most people hear the word ‘long’ next to the phrase ‘piece of music’ and they immediately turn and walk away. And it’s easy to blame ‘short attention spans’ and ‘the internet’. But you’re saying that it’s actually the content that is to blame. Most music today is simply not interesting enough for more than a few minutes. And you’re also saying that writing a (good) long piece of music is a skill that peaked with Beethoven and has been slowly dying ever since. In fact, it is no longer extant.
JCHI’m deeply impressed. That’s just about the most professional summation of an argument I think I’ve ever heard. You made me sound way better than the real me.
RCYou think so?