July 2011

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I’m continuing to work my way into the book slowly and am enjoying it. I could read it more quickly but I’m enjoying that the slow pace gives me the time to enjoy his many interesting asides or digressions, rather than trying to follow a thread of argument too closely. I will post some more quotes later but I wanted to follow up one one of the quotations from the previous post.

When Simon Reynolds says that, “This is the way pop ends, not with a BANG but with a box set whose forth disc you never get around to playing” or quotes Sufjan Stevens as saying that rock is dead*, the obvious example of what this might look like is Jazz. For years older albums and reissues have been outselling new music in Jazz. People still play and listen to jazz but, as a genre, it is no longer part of the pop culture landscape, more or less. It’s possible to imagine the same thing happening to rock music.

I don’t think that will happen to rock, anytime soon. But I do think it’s reasonable to assume that, if Rock dies, something will replace it. I don’t think there are fewer people making music now than their used to be — to a first approximation at least it’s possible that some people who would have picked up a guitar twenty years ago are now spending their time blogging instead or some other waste of time. But generally, I don’t doubt that people, including young people, are doing some music, somewhere. So if Simon Reynolds no longer feels connected to a contemporary music scene that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

I don’t mean that to be too easy a response. It’s entirely possible that nothing happening today feels like a satisfactory replacement for the music that Simon Reynolds cares about, and I don’t want to dismiss that. But I will turn the mic over to George Starostin at his cranky best.

Now the problem is: when and how does a new musical revolution occur? The obvious answer is – when the previous musical genre has exhausted its possibilities. While a certain genre is new and fresh, its supporters are many and its new creations are welcome. But sooner or later, it inevitably dies down – simply because no type of art is limitless. Classical music was given two centuries to flourish, after which it withered down and, let’s admit it, died a miserable death. How many important classical composers do we know in the 20th century? One can probably count a handful, but even these won’t really be able to compete with masters of the Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin or Tchaikowsky species. And it’s no big surprise that the most accepted ‘classical’ composers of the 20th century were much more ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’, rather than purely ‘classical’, like Stravinsky or Schnitke.

Jazz was given even fewer time: about half a century. Again, jazz is not completely dead today, but who has superated or even come close to Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, etc., etc.? Nobody. Jazz is exhausted as a genre, and today’s jazz is an esoteric and almost perverse affair enjoyable only by complete jazzmaniacs.

Why the hell does that happen? People will tell you about the lack of brains, the corruption of our time, the conservatism, the need to grow… rubbish. It all happens simply because the ‘pool of ideas’ has become shallow. Like I said, nothing is limitless. After all, music is not magic, at least in the process of being composed. Music consists of notes played by people on instruments. The number of notes is limited. The number of instruments is limited. The number of note combinations is huge, but, first of all, not all of these combinations are pleasant to the ear, second, even this number is limited, too. No matter how long you are able to create good music using a given pattern, you won’t be able to do it forever – even if you’re the greatest genius on Earth.

The musical processes that happen now may be interesting to some, but they’re so tiny, pudgety and midgety as compared to the global cultural revolution of 1966-75, that I’m not really interested. It is true that I do not, and cannot, observe much of the things happening in the States, or, in fact, anywhere in the world except Russia, but after all, isn’t Russia part of the world? Here, we have the definite rule of recycled, brainless pop music; the few good bands that are in existence are mostly unknown to the general record-buying public, and have no hope of becoming known someday. But are these ‘few good bands’ really good? Answer is – they’re… okay. There are some bands who I don’t mind listening to; some bands that have interesting melodies I ain’t never heard before; some bands that I’d really like to see in concert, etc. But there are no bands of which I’d say: ‘well, this is definitive modern Russian rock!’ Russian rock also passed its heyday, by the mid-Eighties it was already half-dead, and now it is struggling, but less and less and weaker and weaker….

Which brings me to my final, and decisive point. Rock music is dead. The few interesting bands that are still in circulation today can be fun and entertaining (even if 99% of them can only be found in the Underground), but overall they are mostly conservative – bringing up and fostering the old values of the same Beatles, or Yes, or Mott the Hoople, or the Police, but not coming up with ideas that would be essentially new. The widespread idea that rock is alive and well and the only problem with it is that it needs to be saved from corporate greed and greedy, murky managers that only feel the need to stuff the public with all that brainwashing crap like Alanis Morrisette or Puff Daddy or Marilyn Manson, is a myth. It is a myth created by people who simply do not want to face the obvious: there will never be another Beatles, or another Doors, or another Jethro Tull, in rock music. There will be amusing, entertaining bands that’ll go in and come out and be forgotten, but that’s not it. Rock is dead. We do need another Beatles – but these new Beatles, if ever they are bound to appear (and I do hope for it, since I’m an optimist), will not be an element of rock music. They will create another type of music – I don’t know what’s it gonna be called, nor what instruments or harmonies it is bound to exploit, but it’s gonna be something different. Something totally different from rock – rock that died, just like jazz and classical died before it. Do not try to deceive yourself and say, ‘oh no, you’re wrong, it’s all the fault of our commercialized and greedy recording industry’. Recording industry was always commercialized and greedy – yet it let out the Beatles. Do you think today’s recording industry would miss another Beatles if it saw ’em? They sure could bring even bigger bucks!

I just got my copy of Retromania by Simon Reynolds — the book which, indirectly, inspired my recent post on newness in pop music. I’m optimistic about the book. I liked his previous book Rip It Up And Start Again a great deal, and a recently read a review (in the CJR) which suggested that it’s a book which manages to be interesting and thought provoking even though it may not be completely convincing. In fact it’s a book which announces from the beginning that it’s provisional and more an attempt to wrestle with a series of thoughts than to present a linear argument.

So, in that spirit, I find myself skeptical about a couple of comments in the introduction and I thought I’d make note of that now before continuing on to see what he has to say. I may continue to take notes as I go through the book, and it will make a difference if anybody finds this interesting. So please let me know if you would like more on the book.

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I was thinking about the Folk Revival in the US and possible causes. It occurred to me that, if you date it as starting in the fifties, it isn’t a coincidence that it would happen as the development of the interstate highways system and the internal movement following WW II. I theorize that bringing more people into contact with unfamiliar local culture and traditions would lead to an interest in documenting or preserving those traditions.

Before I thought about it I would have said that the interest in local culture was a response to the rise of a more national culture — radio, movies, etc. I think that’s part of the story, but, upon examination, that transition started in the 20s and 30s, which leads me to think that transportation and the mixing and movement of people during and after the war were more important.

Comments? It sounds reasonable to me, but it’s just inference.

Brad DeLong links to an amazing performance by Rosanne Cash.

Listening to it I feel like the tune is just settling into my my bones.

A couple of weeks ago I tried to make the case on unfogged that newness isn’t particularly important to me as a characteristic of music.

I’ve said before that I don’t spend a lot of time specifically looking for contemporary music. If I come across something that I haven’t heard before I’m happy to add it to my body of musical knowledge whether it’s a new recording or an old recording which is new to me.

So, of course, I’m going to be less inclined than some to feel like whether an album is “retro” or not. At the same time I feel like pop music is always of its time, in important ways. So I think it’s largely a foolish project for somebody to attempt an “authentic revival” of older musical forms as pop music. But I have no problems with somebody who wants to play with older styles in whatever form fits their own musical sensibilities.

Having taken that position I was excited to see the following paragraph quoted in a post which was recently linked from unfogged:

Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. “Recent” is not a synonym for “relevant.”

Thinking about it, however, I don’t think that actually captures my position. I do think that newness is a virtue. It’s valuable to have people making new music, and it’s valuable when people come up with new ideas about music and sound, I also think that newness is overemphasized in music writing.

The most important thing which I notice driving that, and which doesn’t reflect my own experience, is the nature of the “ideal music listener” and relationship between the listener and music, implied by most music writing.
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