Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Friday, June 08, 2007

Why Can't The Walrus Read?

Richard Taruskin, in his massive and engrossing Oxford History of Western Music, draws a careful Maginot line between the two main musical traditions: the literate and the non-literate. Without rating one above the other, his meaning is obvious: the former is written down, the latter is not. And he is careful not to comingle, only commenting on the literate tradtion--his aim being to address only the former (which for him is, of course, handily coming to its end; the usual ashes-to-ashes)--and reminding the non-literate only on relevant instances...one of which is, of course, the Beatles.

Reading the New Yorker profile of Paul McCartney a few weeks ago drew from me a common screed that happens when rock stars, even brilliant ones, scream to go legit, to make the big orchestral statement, because so often they want to both have and eat the proverbial cake. What got me a little upset was not his desire to make a dent on the so-called "classical scene" with his orchestral pieces, oratorios, and choral works (think what you will of them) but his glorification of his inability to do the one simple thing required of a composer in this genre: to read music. In the article, he speaks of his failed attempts to learn (he got bored) and then turns the arguement around (as so often happens) using the whole innocence-experience split. The notes on the page, he claimed, didn't sound like the notes in his head. Therefore, ipso facto, it is not the head that needs work, it's the whole method. From there he goes on to equate he and John Lennon to the illiterate Pharoahs of ancient Egypt, who needed a team of scribes to dictate their thoughts (which were obviously far greater by being unencumbered by the ability to write, so time consuming, so tainted).

Now, of course, this is an insult to many who have bothered to learn to count to twelve (all you need to know to read music, honestly). But that aside, it's plain dumb, and even a little mean. And Beatle Paul is not the only one to have advanced this same arguement: Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) and Danny Elfman (formerly of Oingo Boingo)--and I believe Prince, though please do not hold me to this--are among the luminaries to stake such claims. Now as someone who's spent his life invested in music, both of the literate and non-literate tradition, I've heard many who made this point, who believe that not learning something and doing it anyway makes it somehow a more pure product than could ever issue forth from the studied. I've stared them down over tables at coffee shops, across smoky coffe tables, from one barstool to another, as they told me that all this training was going to ruin me, that the trust musicians, the purest souls, just have it in them and their sounds are therefore the sincerest possible expression. What's fascinating is that they often want the academic glory but don't want to work at it; and therefore they honestly believe that they who've learned how to write it down are worshipping false gods, and that they traffick in the rarest sincerity, they mean it while we just pose. Innocence, in their eyes, being the opposite of guilt. God is whispering in their ear, and he tends to pass over the wizzened for the wide-eyed, the learned for the chaste.

Never mind that Mozart, arguably the most "gifted" musician ever, took his share of harmony and counterpoint lessons and had a remarkable fluency of craft. Never mind that a lifetime of investment in a certain tradition, especially the non-remunerative work of being a symphonic composer, is hardly the sign of someone who's pursuing something for the wrong reasons--even the richest among us cannot even begin to fathom the Croesan splendor of McCartney's life. Never mind that Mr. McCartney, who's spent 45 or so years in the white hot spotlight with the ballast of an untold amount of money to back up his royal proclomations, cannot be said to be one whose grasp on reality is solid. What gets me about this specious and ignorant argument is that it is never advanced by the literate; rather, it's used to bully them. McCartney, in his insecurity (!) seeks to topple me and my kind with a few public words, to remind us of our low place when that is honestly the last thing we need.

I want to say that I love McCartney, both as the latter half of the greatest songwriting team in the history of songwriting teams and as a solo artist (especially his collaborations with Elvis Costello in the 80s), and don't find academic training necessary for a musician to be absolutely brilliant. I have even seen, in my brief and merry life as a composer, the evidence of the insincerity of which these people speak, composers light on talent but heavy on imposing intellectual precepts who aim to intimidate rather than entertain or enlighten. But my experience is that innocence is not only the opposite of guilt, it's the opposite of wisdom--of "experience," be it spoken of by Blake or by Hendrix. And frankly I am tired of those people who absolutely depend on a team of people--their scribes, I suppose--who have as their solo qualificiation the exact same training as I do to write down their symphonies or film scores and make them sound spectacular (the "composers" do sign off, but that means I could author a cookbook with a team of talented chefs, a few interesting ideas, and an upturned thumb) who turn around and say that their ability to do this depends on their "innocence," which makes them somehow superior. As if three chords and the truth were enough to make a guitar concerto, and anyone who speaks otherwise is a snob, an elitist, exclusive, boorish, dull, or just plain talentless. I am more inclined to agree with Lester Bangs, who famously said "not having chops is not enough." And who will argue with me that McCartney's lack of capacity with his materials is obvious in his work? That were he to even tune in a little to what is really going on in classical music these days--and take a few months to at least acquire the basics--he might not be composing such pappy symphonic Beatles and really actually do something worth more than his famous name but that might exist on it's own musical merits.

I think of Danny Elfman, discussing his score for Planet of the Apes and mugging for the camera as the composer driven mad by his own music, or speaking of the orchestra used in the Spiderman 2 soundtrack when he probably cannot tell you the bottom string on the violin; I think of the three mysterious "arrangers" listed deep in the liner notes for Billy Joel's Fantasies and Delusions, a record of piano music. And I think of the hubub made around the fact that Elvis Costello provided, for a ballet score, some two hundred or so pages of handwritten orchestral music written by him entirely because he, in his ignorance, did not imagine any other way such a project could be done. I am inclined to agree with him: providing a score is, in fact, literally the least a composer can do.

This is not to say that people shouldn't cross genres, mix it up, dip into sounds, seek to change their focus or even leap genres altogether. I just think that a respect for the tradition might do them some good--at least do admit the things you don't do, and rather than glorify your ignorance, why not laud the capacities of those who do. After all, who did the scoring for Elfman's music for those films? Or the Liverpool Oratorio? At least Bjork admits Nico Muhly. Could not the others follow suit?

Again, McCartney hasn't really been on the ground for the bulk of his life, and I can imagine growing up in public takes its toll, and that you are not often discouraged in any of your pursuits. After all, who is going to sit him down now, after all he's accomplished, and say "Ok Paul, today we're going to dissect Mozart's F Major Sonata, and you don't get to eat your pudding until you've properly labelled the themes and key areas"?

Or could it be the number of reports of the death of classical music he read in concert with the number of reports of his own death that led him to the syllogism of his destiny: if both it and he were dead, then of course they were the same thing.

8 Comments:

Anonymous OhMyTrill said...

Why are people so stubborn about learning to read music...I've had the same discussion with people a million times, and those non-music readers won't ever budge saying that "there is no reason to learn"...but all of us readers know, its not that difficult to learn, we all did it when we were 5, and it didn't even take that long. Wouldn't things be easier if they could just take a week and to learn how to read? Wouldn't a whole world be opened up for them where they could look at all this other stuff that millions of people have written before them? Wouldn't that add to their so called "art" ? Gah...its just so frustrating.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Gert said...

I have heard it said, and it seems so obvious it must be true that he didn't orchestrate his own works.

The music I like the most has so much going on in the orchestra. It might be the main melody that initially drew me in, but it's the rich subtle and varied textures of orchestra that pull me back again and again. I also like a lot of pop songs, including very many by Macca, and what I like is a mixture of a catchy melody and meaningful (to me) lyrics.

I don't think I've ever heard his so-called classical works, but if they are sentimental and pappy it might just be because of the lack of connect between melody and harmony. Oh, and does he wonder how his tune, and his assistant's orchestration, gets conveyed to the players and singers and then to the audience without a shared language of communication?

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Hayes Biggs said...

I enjoyed your post very much and, having read the New Yorker article, share your frustration with Mr. McCartney's denigration of the very skills required to bring his more grandiose projects to fruition. To restate the obvious, where would he and Lennon have been without George Martin, who did much of their arranging as well as the other production work? I'm not denigrating their songs, which I love, but the records wouldn't be what they are without the folks who write out the scores and parts. McCartney's attempts, as reported in the New Yorker piece, to explain his intentions to the guitarist who was trying to transcribe them, were pathetic in their woeful inadequacy. Also, all too often, even when the intermediary is an orchestrator helping an otherwise musically literate Broadway composer, something is lost as the link between the musical idea and its realization is broken, and a generic, workaday quality to the scoring is, to my ears, too often the result. I was happy to read that Elvis Costello is an all-too-rare exception to this kind of thinking in the pop world. I've always respected him, and he has certainly now gone up in my estimation. Anyway, thanks for saying what needed to be said.

6:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Thom Yorke's defence, he's referenced his inability to read music as more a situation of hanging onto a kind of magical naivety than a wilful refusal to learn. In an interview within the last couple of years, he said that he's always asking Jonny Greenwood (the Radiohead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist) to teach him, but Jonny refuses, saying that he had to remain "the ignorant one" (as the only member of the band who can't read music).

11:52 AM  
Blogger Henry Holland said...

Great post!

Back in 1969 as a 9 year old, I wanted to play drums, Ginger Baker of Cream was my inspiration. My parents, luckily, insisted that I learn to read music and take some rudimentary lessons before they bought me a kit. My sister's boyfriend taught me the basics of reading music in 15 minutes.

I later switched to bass guitar and played in bands in the 70's and 80's and I *hated* working with players who couldn't read. I was playing in prog rock/jazz rock bands and it was torture to try and teach someone a part (esp. keyboard players) that was full of 1/2 dim chords in 13/8 kinds of things; we avoided I-IV-ii7-V7 and 4/4 like the plague. :-) The hours wasted teaching people the basic music when if it was written out we could have been working on the sound and arrangement instead.....

I'm a huge ELP fan and I like Keith Emerson's Piano Concerto, but when I read that the gentleman he hired to help him out with form and orchestration would basically say "OK, we need this kind of thing here" and Emerson would write something to order from those instructions, I kind of was bummed that a piece entitled "Emerson Piano Concerto" is really the "Emerson/Mayer Piano Concerto".

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two words for the illiterate musicians: BRIAN WILSON. I believe the reason Brian Wilson was able to create lush arrangements and intricate harmonies was his knowledge of music theory. As a fan I am dissapointed Paul McCartney never took the time to push through and learn to read, write and understand music like I am doing now. His Liverpool Oratorio was a great chance to take a few years and do it himself but he took the easy way out. What he doesn't know is that writing on the staff makes it easier to work with other musicians and to clearly arrange complex musical ideas. It's beyond me how any musician doesn't find music theory fascinating. Sure you don't need music knowledge to write pretty melodies but I think people should keep learning and growing and face challenges. No master ever stops learning.
So in 2007 I'm studying the lush harmonies and interesting key change in Brian Wilson's SURFER GIRL (1963) when you compare it to LOVE ME DO (1964) you can clearly the see the benefits of music theory.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two words for the illiterate musicians: BRIAN WILSON. I believe the reason Brian Wilson was able to create lush arrangements and intricate harmonies was his knowledge of music theory. As a fan I am dissapointed Paul McCartney never took the time to push through and learn to read, write and understand music like I am doing now. His Liverpool Oratorio was a great chance to take a few years and do it himself but he took the easy way out. What he doesn't know is that writing on the staff makes it easier to work with other musicians and to clearly arrange complex musical ideas. It's beyond me how any musician doesn't find music theory fascinating. Sure you don't need music knowledge to write pretty melodies but I think people should keep learning and growing and face challenges. No master ever stops learning.
So in 2007 I'm studying the lush harmonies and interesting key change in Brian Wilson's SURFER GIRL (1963) when you compare it to LOVE ME DO (1964) you can clearly the see the benefits of music theory.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous davidsbuendler said...

I agree that if you want to compose "classical" music, like McCartney did, it is kind of a requirement to read and write scores. But all in all I think that notation is a "prison" for music. Most music of today doesn't need that anymore, which is a blessing, really. The main reasons for musical notation were 1. to save the music from oblivion (which nowadays is done way better by conserving the music itself as records) 2. to communicate compositions to interprets (which is irrelevant today because most composers (bands) are the interprets themselves) 3. to distribute the music (also irrelevant today because we have CDs, radio, YouTube and iTunes). So, for modern musicians it is really not fundamental to know how to read music. I think it is totally ok if Thom Yorke can't read music. Try to notate the music of Radiohead.. this is impossible because it is far more complex (in some ways, not in general) than "classical" music - because it is not "born" in that prison of notation... and that's a good thing!

4:07 AM  

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