Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Grumpiest Musician of Them All

Over the course of the holidays, I had occasion to read David Byrne's How Music Works and Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace.  I was ready to compare and contrast their methods of confronting what Robert Hughes (referring to impressionism) called "the shock of the new."  Since Young was so adamant about improving digital music representation with preserved analog content - and since he's a curmudgeon by nature - I figured he would qualify as grumpiest.  But the more I thought about it, the more I placed Byrne and Young on a spectrum defined at its extreme grumpy end by .... Pete Seeger.

Wait, you'll say.  Pete Seeger?  Perhaps the kindest, most altruistic man in folk music?  Hey, I agree with those sentiments, and admire virtually everything Seeger has done in his long and rich life.  But what I'm examining here is the reaction to new forms of music that shake up the existing order.  And here's how I place David, Neil, and Pete on the crabby continuum:

1. The Buddhist 'It's All Good' Path of Acceptance: Byrne takes this point of view in much of How Music Works, a book which instantly caught my fancy.   Byrne admits that lossy audio compression leads to "craptastic" sound; that sampling of the sound of instruments and using that sample to replace traditional instruments leads to a certain form of inauthenticity; that digitization of sound itself leads to something missing between the 1's and 0's; that the disappearance of the physical artifact (CD, LP) leads to a cheapening of musical experience; that detaching musical sounds from the performance environment disembodies music.  But at the same time, Byrne said that all these moments of supposed inauthenticity lead to a new kind of authenticity that can have merit in its own right (say, an all-electronic, sampled performance by DangerMau5 or Girl Talk).  Byrne suggests that an Alan Lomax that purposely tries to snare a rough-cut, scratchy performance of a Missisippi Delta blues artist, or a band like Pavement or Guided by Voices that tries to create a deliberately lo-fi sound, does not thereby gain some level of authenticity.  Any musical form can be legitimate or authentic according to the rules imposed by the listener.  In short, it's all good.

2. The Admit-the-New, Preserve-the-Old Path to Keep the Best of Both Worlds: Neil Young freely admits that he can be annoying at times, particularly when he demonstrates again and again how digital representations of sound are inferior without some preservation of an analog slope.  In Waging Heavy Peace, Young freely admits to being a curmudgeon on many music subjects - not just his endless promotion of the PureTone/Pono music sampling technology, but also in his stubborn insistence that the music "album" as traditionally conceived remains viable, and that it helps to have the physical artifact, preferably an LP.  He does not, however, reject much of what is new, as should be clear from his regular collaborations with the likes of Devo and Pearl Jam.  Young also said he is not out to upend the technology giants.  When someone suggested his PureTone was waging war on Apple's iTunes, he said he is "waging heavy peace" - thus, the book's title is not a referent to his antiwar activities, but a description of his interactions with the world of digital music.  As long as the elderly are given their due as the sages of the music world, Young is willing to admit the whippersnappers.

3. The Bar-the-New and Block-That-Kick Approach to New Ideas: I've been surprised in recent years to discover that Pete Seeger had no regrets about unplugging Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965.  He has made some good points about sound quality at Newport being poor, but Seeger puts the comprehension of lyrics on such a pedestal, sometimes he fails to understand that distortion is the point, that feedback and noise are legitimate contributors to the musical experience.  In recent interviews, Seeger seems to mellow to the prospects of electronic instruments, but how would he ever understand John Cage?  How would he understand improvisational noise?  Indeed, how would he understand Neil Young's use of vocoders in Trans, or Young's use of feedback loops in Weld?

Byrne may have stumbled upon the problem with Seeger, which puts the revered folkie on a par with those musical fuddie-duddies who run screaming from free-jazz or loud-rock concerts screaming "That's not music, that's noise!"  Remember, Seeger always harbored equal parts musical traditionalist, kumbaya togetherness, and old-line Marxist thought.  One of the enemies of Byrne's book is German Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno, who rejected most forms of popular music as akin to religion in being the opiate of the masses.  Byrne actually seems to be the most egalitarian of anyone, in rejecting any distinction between the Irish pub and the symphony hall.  But Byrne said that Adorno is one of many philosophers who create a false "people's history" by saying that pop music is meant to dull and de-politicize one.  Perhaps so, Byrne said, but can we say this automatically happens every time a Madonna arises?  How then can we account for the popularity of Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone,' for example?

The rigidity of traditional Marxism, Byrne concludes, leads to a stultified form of art that leads inexorably to Madam Mao's operas of the cultural revolution.  Maybe it took a Reagan era to make Madonna and Paula Abdul and Duran Duran popular, he says, but not because the ruling class consciously made it so.  Dadaism and art punk may have a dilettante aspect, but they are not thereby petit bourgeois.  In fact, simply by revolting against the existing order, the new forms bring about an instance of the revolutionary.  The playwright Alfred Jarry and the rock band Pere Ubu understood this.  Not so Theodor Adorno and Pete Seeger, both of whom may need to grow a new pair of ears.  Then again, so do many, many people (including many music lovers) in our society.


No comments: