Purveyor. Not of goods, but of good ideas

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cultural Learnings of America

John Marks, a music commentator for Stereophile magazine, has thrown down a challenge:

What I am trying to do, and would now like your assistance with, is put together a short list of musical works or recordings that people should have heard at least once or twice to satisfy the most basic requirements of cultural literacy in music for contemporary Americans...pieces of music that tell us what it means to be American.
Other requirements: Not primarily intellectual, no silly music (Ish Kabibble, Tiny Tim), not just "serious" music, not just merely popular, no one hit wonders.

Here's what I sent in:

Dear Mr. Marks,

I’m going to try to answer your challenge of compiling a list of music that tells us what it means to be an American, but first I need to ask: What makes us all Americans?

Here’s one answer: We're all the people, or the descendents of the people, who got off their asses and MOVED. I wish I could remember who said that, but unfortunately it wasn't me. Still, it speaks to our national sense of purpose and optimism and it brings to mind other unique qualities of Americans, including naiveté, rebelliousness, inventiveness and a sense of wonder and possibility, that have found articulate and moving expression in our music.

Lest you think I'm violating your directive to avoid intellectual justifications for this list, just listen. All of these pieces transcend cogitation and tap directly into the heart and gut. Just try not to be moved. I dare you.

1. Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
A single trumpet, behind the audience, repeats a simple phrase that rises in pitch at the end. That is the question. After each repetition, the orchestra responds with increasing dissonance. The screechy final "answer" is close to pure noise, but this is no amateur game show. Beneath it all is an achingly, profoundly beautiful string progression that allegedly represents infinity or silence.

What? Using sound to represent the absence of sound? That's either going to be a pretentious and crashing failure, or something altogether original and transcendent. To me, it's mind-bending and soul stirring. The piece ends precisely where it begins, suggesting that it can be looped infinitely (making it perhaps the original "Music for Airports?"--see #2 below).

Other Ives pieces are more straightforwardly "American" (Central Park in the Dark, Three Places in New England...), but this one, written in 1908, is more deeply representative of what is possible here in America due to its sheer innovativeness and audacity. It may be that Ives, who composed alone while pursuing a very successful career in insurance, single-handedly invented every major musical innovation of the 20th Century—atonality, bitonality, polyrhythms—prior to Stravinsky and Schoenberg and all the others who traditionally have been credited with them. Or it may be that he impishly post-dated his manuscripts to create the impression of his own transcendent genius. Either way, what isn't open to debate is that he was a true American original.

2. Brian Eno: Music for Films
"As interesting as it is ignorable" is how Brian Eno described his Ambient Music, intended to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.” (Sounds pretty democratic.) His most famous example is Music for Airports but I slightly prefer this album, perhaps because its title prompts me to imagine a richer visual world than a mere transportation hub.

Not everyone "gets" this music, but it has held its own for thirty years now and with good reason. As a reaction to pervasive and insipid Muzak, Ambient Music embodies the spirit of freedom and revolution, throwing off the shackles of imposed sonic tyranny and offering the listener a choice to ignore or engage. For those who choose to involve themselves, the rewards are enriching and ennobling.

As you listen, contemplate what such truly calming art offers us freedom from.

3. Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
Minimalism is an appropriate term in some ways, but not others. It too easily suggests that there is less than meets the ear—shallow arpeggios and rhythmic patterns repeated ad infinitum. But such a dismissal is itself often shallow, a failure to recognize that what is being minimized is our own perception of what is supposed to be happening over time. For example, when all 18 musicians shift simultaneously at 31:24 into this nearly hour-long piece (ECM 1129-2), it feels like a major physical EVENT.

What’s new isn't necessarily good because it's new, but the American ability to shed the past and reinvent the world occasionally has its benefits. This music shows us how.

4. Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson
John Lennon's favorite singer/songwriter, with a multi-octave vocal range and a stylistic range that included pop, rock, folk, r&b, tv and movie themes and soundtracks. He was a supremely talented but troubled one-man American music encyclopedia. He's gone now, but ever green.

5. James Horner: Soundtrack to Sneakers
The soundtrack genre rides the cultural coattails of American film’s enormous influence, but on the occasions when it is able to step out of the visual shadows and stand on its own, its rewards rival those of other musical forms. Out of many available candidates, I chose this sleeper: Obscure movie. Ugly album art. Magical music. This could not possibly be anything other than American. Buy it immediately. Start with track 1, 3, 6, 8 or 10 to get hooked. Then go back and listen to the whole thing. Come to understand that American-style enchantment has its uses.

6. The Monkees: Re-Focus
How can we cover American music without touching on the influence of music written for television? The Monkees were aping of the Beatles, of course, but the music isn’t just slavishly imitative; this is high-quality pop penned by some very talented people. Earworm alert: If you haven’t listened to I’m a Believer or Last Train to Clarksville in a while, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

7. John Adams: Shaker Loops
Another minimalist. You’ll stop using that term once you’re swept up in the relentless rhythmic sweep of the third movement of this juggernaut, which references the dances and spare but elegant aesthetics of the Shakers. Its power may surprise you.

8. John Adams: Hoodoo Zephyr
No album ever, anywhere, had cover art that visually expressed the feel of the music better than this one. If you want to hear the sound of a quintessentially American landscape of obscure, rusting industrial machines lying abandoned in the deserts of Utah or Arizona, listen to this. Of course, you may wonder why would you want to hear that. Listen anyway.

9. Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense

10. Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic

11. Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring

12. Leonard Bernstein: Candide


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