Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Music on Google Drive

If you want access, write to me. 

From 2005

The state of spoken poetry to a rhythmic background is atrocious, filled with violence, betray, boasts, fighting over women, bling and position, it represents a culture which is debased and post-literate. Without ethics, there is only the grasping at life and reputation, and its end is to bring ruin to cities and whatever humanity they have.

I'm speaking about Iliad, a work which features disembowelments, extensive descriptions of almost every kind of dismemberment, rape, concubinage, scheming gods and faithless heros. Plato commented on the contents of it in his Politadae - called "The Republic" in Latin and English. Iliad is a giant rap, and is filled with the tropes of improvised prosody, including epitaphs, stock characters and repetition. It's characters would, likewise, be familiar archetypes from gangsta rap, and its moral universe, where authority is merely perverse and powerful, rather than being endowed with any more superiority, is recognizable as well.

 The story of the armed band, beset by enemies and outsiders is not unique to contemporary urban America, the period of time where social organization centers around the almost amoral bonding of blood brothers has been the subject for artistic acts, many of them still remembered and studies, for thousands of years. Homer's Iliad was composed in a vast dark age, when even writing had fallen out of use in most of the greek speaking world, to the point where the script that had been used previously would remain undecipherable for centuries. And yet out of those times came artistic forms and norms which would remain central to classical Greece, and form the basis for its mythology. 

When I read about music, and instead read critiques of the lyrical content, I'm reminded of all of the uproars over art in the past. The present is worried that partisan words will be married to the emotional affective music and rhythms which are being created, and there is a fear that this potent mixture will overwhelm the present. If that were the case, taking Ionic Greek would lead to an increased incidence of homocide, since Homer's rhythms are, even at the remove of millennia, intoxicating and invigorating.

 Music is always a political act, but it is a very poor partisan act. Scenes of violence, dissolution and desperation from the core of art from most periods, particularly because artists before they are successful often inhabit those border lands of menial labor, petty crime, intoxication and the demimonde. Without this world there would be no blue period Picasso, nor La Boheme. That its figures are struggling against both fate and authority makes them archetypes who come to stand in for everyman in his own struggles with overweening authority.

For those that point to the unsavory acts of some of the participants, I can list a cageful of anti-social acts by composers and musicians in other genres, including at least one remembered composer who committed murder. That is why, if you check sound scan, you will find that rap sells well in suburbia, and among the children of upper middle class doctors, lawyers and executives, just as, a generation ago, various occult themed heavy metal bands rooted in working class England found eager consumers in the well manicured lots of Long Island. The outlaw, and the outlaw culture, is not a model, but a symbol, for those who feel themselves glowered down upon. That it horrifies parents who, "in the day", listened to music which was condemned as licentious, is, of course, part of the point.

 The focus on one genre of rap - namely gangsta rap - obscures the reality of hip hop music and the form in general. Like all genres of music, it must provide ceremony, entre to mating rituals, group anthems - and it must also accomplish another, less obvious, function. Namely it must put under the hand the technology of the time. Whether the violin, the piano, the trumpet or the electric guitar, previous waves of music have had as one of their objectives creating a means by which the technology of the time could be made to produce sound, and thus prove that the human being was control that technology, rather than be at the control of it.

In the present, the media stream forms a major, some would argue the major, factor of our conscious environment, and the technologies of sampling and recording two of the most important realities with which people must cope. Hip hop, by providing a framework within which people, simply by being able to synchronize themselves to the groove, are able to produce an assemblage, is doing the same thing that the opera potpourri gave the pianists in the age of Liszt. The roots of the music are, as with other musics, a collision between the immovable objects of society, imposed by circumstance, and the ingenuity of the people using them.

Where as in the case of Western classical music, church modes were part of this immovable background - which is why setting them was a required part of a composer's instruction well into the 20th century, and the basic theory of counterpoint still refers back to this practice - in the case of hip hop it is not only the media stream, but the fundamental ineffectuality of the individual to overcome it. If the church was Mozart's reality - particularly in the person of one prelate of Salzburg, celebrity is ours.

 Polemics against hip hop are a waste of time, as they were a waste of time against Rock - or Wagner's Ring for that matter. Music is about use, a music flourishes as people have use for it, and dies after then have lost the use for it, only to be preserved in a classicised form if it has deeper integrity that holds interest. By all means condemn anti-social messages, but realize that you are joining a rather unsavory society of people who condemned the upstairs- downstairs action in Don Giovanni, the political subversion in Verdi's early operas, the sexualized messages in rock and roll, and so on.

Particularly if you make the mistake of attributing the anti- social messages to particular rhythmic forms or genres of music. The reality is that the social and economic forces that create poverty, segregation, and the perennial process of human beings finding love, social position and fame are the real culprits. And none of them are going to be changed by program directors on the radio, with or without payola involved.

 But to call Rap tomorrow's jazz is to miss what rap is - rap is the latest incarnation of Pop, that is, a musical form where the manipulation of recordied artifacts and materials is more important than musician ship. Rap can't be the next Jazz, because rap is still, in its basic rhythmic forms and structures, related to its parent - the Blues. Jazz is different in that it created a self-conscious creole of musical influences - taking European harmonic language, African modal language, and, as with many forms of classical thought at the time, including Impressionism and the Russian school, found a rhythmic vocabulary unique to that combination. In short, Jazz is still the next jazz, because jazz' evolution entered into areas which Rap simply is not intended to reach.

Jazz and Rock are far more comparable - as offspring of the Blues that reached for a larger formal integrity. Hip Hop's evolution is its own, and being directed at post-modern, rather than modern, ends, it is unlikely to ever care very much about the formal process of composition, or the process of musicianship. However, that does not mean that it could not spawn such a genre, nor that those who are interested in those formal processes could not use rap fro material, as other popular musics have been the source for material for hundreds of years.

 But the musical substance of rap for composition is, quite frankly, rather thin, in that it simply selects materials which are congenial to its process, and uses the fact that there is a crisis in popular music to its advantage. This crisis is that the rhtymic harmonic vocabulary of pop in its current form is played out, and one can stack pieces on top of each other, since the same topoi have been used so many time.

This isn't an unusual thing, it was noted by Busoni about major-minor tonality in the first decade of the 20th century. We still have classical music. The problem I have with Professor Russell's argument is that it substitutes heuristics for musical depth of perception. Simply because something is banned or attacked does not mean it has the same future or potential. One can rattle off hundreds of cultural purges over time, but that doesn't mean that everything purged was of the same substance. Jazz is an American art form, and its being ignored because of both snobbery and segregation is a fact which cannot be erased - however, having snobs and racists as opponents is in no way connected with musical material, or with social place. Substituting a social argument for a musical one does readers a disservice - rap and hip hop have their own place, and will follow the needs of the people who make the music and use it in their daily lives, whether those motives are noble, base, or some mixture of the two.