Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Tunes of 2311

by Vince R Ditrich
The sheer volume of musical ‘recording artists’ past and present represents an impressive catalogue of accomplishment by human society. The artistic achievements of the 20th century might well go down as the zenith of western musical culture, should the 21st century continue to merely re-hash and repackage as it currently is doing.
What will be the legacy of 20th century music to people living 300 years hence – in the year 2311? Who will be remembered by future generations?

We might get a perspective on the future by looking back to the past, listing all the great composers that we love so dearly from the 1700s. Go ahead – list ‘em off. I’ll just pause here while you reel off the names.

You’ll instantly see my point….It’s the rare person indeed who can come up with more than two names and probably only a musician or an aficionado can dredge up the names of 4. Classically trained symphonic players will hopefully do a better job still, but there aren’t very many of them, comparatively, in a world of multiple billions of music listeners.

I bring to mind Mozart, first and foremost. Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, and at the end of the century, Beethoven. There are others of course, but only if I cheat and check their bios to make sure that they lived in the 1700s.

Most will be acquainted with Mozart and Bach, surely two of the most famous and important musical minds in human history. Handel and Vivaldi, both completely delightful, are not as widely known to the average listener, and are likely not as much on the radar. Although practically everyone on Earth has heard of Beethoven most will think he was born much earlier than was actually the case. (He was born in 1770 and died in 1826). Even though every royal court and every aristocrat supported the musical landscape of the era very little of it remains resonant to us today.

I think 20th century music will be remembered in the distant future as principally American or powerfully influenced by American culture. It also seems fair to me that there’ll be several categories of historical figures to remember, not merely ‘famous composers’.

Recorded music will probably allow the performers or ‘artists’ to take top status as iconic historical figures, with crossover ‘entertainment’ figures (read: singers who became film stars) to retain second tier status – and though their faces might be more recognizable their musical performances will likely be reduced to a more limited selection of sound bites).

A distant third in this hierarchy, I feel, will be the actual composer or writers of the songs – songs which generally will be ‘Pop’ songs in the 2-5 minute format and less often taking the form of huge orchestral pieces with multiple movements and long durations.

If this is all correct then I suspect that the 20th century’s list, for all its vast resources, will be reduced to a very, very small number of representatives.

I start my list with Louis Armstrong. Armstrong, in addition to being one of the most revered and characterful trumpeters in history almost singlehandedly propelled the early popularization of Jazz and turned it into a signal achievement for the thousands who followed in his footsteps and the millions of fans who listened. His lighthearted, almost throwaway singing style remains one of the most recognizable, influential and era-symbolic in music.

After Satchmo there is an historic lull. Jazz exploded like a bomb and was one of the most impressive artistic movements of all time but it seems clear that the next great peak did not arrive until the early 1960s when The Beatles collected the diaspora of Rock and Roll and redistributed it to everyone. Jazz was still kicking – Brubeck was establishing brilliant new frontiers when the Fab Four were just beginning to build upon earlier seminal American Rock and Roll, Country and Blues; but before the advent of The Beatles, the world had never seen anything like their powerful combination of high-achieving technical production mated to massive world-wide PR, built on the bedrock of solid talent and honest workmanship, quirky character and boyish accessibility.

In my second category of ‘entertainment’ crossover figures I can think of only two that fit the bill for all the ages – first and foremost being Sinatra, second being Elvis. Sinatra’s body of work and remarkable duration of career will stand out, and the margins will always contain notes about his live concerts, his legendarily tempestuous lifestyle, his success as an actor and his occasional second-rate sallies into dancing and ‘comedy’. He may well be highlighted as the quintessence of the century’s conception of a ‘star’ – the embodiment of celebrity as it was then known. His notoriety will be of greater importance than his musicality.

Presley, on the other hand, will be a light hearted footnote, focusing probably on banned hip swiveling footage, outrageous superman-like costumes, and a body of silly films consistently and sufficiently formulaic to be considered their own unique genre. It seems fair to guess that he will mostly represent the famous ironies and absurd excesses of his times. Imagine if you will a 24th century remake of ‘Hound Dog’ by a Chinese, Indian or Indonesian vocalist, and you’ll be able to conjure up the time distorted, department store Santa Claus caricature that I envision for The King.

As far as composers are concerned there are a small handful that should be included to give us the sweep of the century. Speaking chronologically I will begin with Irving Berlin, who started his long career with ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ in 1911 and kept contributing massively to the American songbook for decades afterward. He wrote ‘God Bless America’ and ‘White Christmas’ among hundreds of others – those two songs alone practically guarantee his hallowed enshrinement in the annals of musical history.

George Gershwin was a contemporary of Berlin (as well as one of his admirers) and although at one point a song-plugger for Tin Pan Alley, he was also capable of composing some of the most interesting, representative and socially resonant orchestral works of his time. Gershwin’s first hit was the populist ‘Swanee’, but he is also responsible for the complex, passionate and sublime ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, so rich and musically metaphorical that one can almost see the environment in which it was composed.

Lennon & McCartney, as well as being among the most noted artists of all time, are responsible for the composition of many of the most popular songs to this point in history – They surely must be on this list. Theirs is a body of work that acts as the soundtrack to an entire generation of baby boomers, and is beloved by the children & grandchildren of these same boomers. The unifying effect of their global popularity and resulting paradigm shift attributed to them and their fellow Beatles was so profound that music is, in some ways, still stuck in the ruts of their deep pioneering tracks. This is an irony that they themselves may have sensed developing as their social and cultural influence peaked in the late 1960s, but which has yet to completely play itself out. Offhand I can think of no composer of more current vintage whose writing does not directly trace back to what Lennon & McCartney synthesized. They represent a major crossroads, where musical influences of ‘the past’ joined with the science, tech & business of ‘the future’. It was potent and has powerfully affected all who come afterward. Every big new Pop hit is like a re-imagined Beatles song. Every Country offering is like a watered down Beatles song. Every modern Pop songwriter understands, courtesy of John & Paul’s time tested template, the point of focus on the hook, the short and logical rising journey to the chorus, its payoff, and then, they hope a swimming pool and a limo at the end of it all. Lennon & McCartney compositions will certainly be loved as long as we value music, but awareness of their identities, personal contributions and social opinions may fade drastically when compared to timelessness of their melodies and lyrics.

I wanted to include Burt Bacharach in this list, but I don’t think his name will be on the tips of tongues in the 24th century. He remains to my mind one of the cleverest of all writers but I am not positive that his work will stand the test of time, though it really ought to. I fear that the rhythmic shapes and harmonic themes that he employed were a victim of their own success. This is to say they were vastly and instantly popular, eagerly performed, greedily covered by all manner of artists, completely related to and emblematic of the times in which they were created, and so he will be, for these purposes at least, shipwrecked in the 1960s. But if there has ever been a writer who can more cohesively marry a melody to chord structure inside a perfectly shaped arrangement I have yet to discover him.

I think Michael Jackson will not do well in music’s memory – I hope at least he will be remembered as one of history’s great dancers, and a spectacular showman. But, as far as music crafted by the likes of diligent tunesmiths, performed by expressive instrumentalists, his contribution, when looked at honestly, actually harmed the art form as it had grown to be. With Jackson came a complete shift in focus away from the craftsmanship of songwriting and the synergy of group musical performance towards a more selfish obsession with the solo vocalist. His dance routines were generally far more important than the compositions themselves, and a new video-driven culture underscored a requirement for ‘tele-genics’. Jackson’s breadth of appeal was remarkable, no doubt aided by the fact that it his performances appeared self-contained: to sing and dance one requires nothing other than one’s own body. This cuts across all class and wealth strata. Combined with this was a corporate mass-marketing machine of unprecedented reach and vigour, pitching a carefully constructed culture of glitzy, dramatic, heroic iconography, designed for easy dissemination via the new conception of MTV. There is a direct line between Michael Jackson and children who type with their thumbs while staring at iPhone screens -- when they might rather be interacting with others. I don’t expect my children to long for a bumpy ride in a flivver while singing ‘In My Merry Oldsmobile’ any more than I expect kids in 2311 to sing and dance ‘Thriller’. But I know they’ll have their own Buck Rogers version of an iPhone... MJ’s effect was powerful to be sure, but I think ultimately it will prove to be not so much ‘artistic’ achievement as a triumph in the optimization of marketing.

The super-keener musicologists of the year 2311 will no doubt toss about the names of many brilliant and influential 20th century artists – cutting edge types like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis or broadly popular stalwarts like Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby, but I strongly suspect that they will not be known by the person in the street. Bird and Miles will be looked at through a lens of kitschy curiosity, having played musical instruments considered archaic, obsolete, about as relevant in that distant future as are Lute or Harpsichord today.

The list will contain no trombonists.


Blogger Fuzz said...

I'm reading this late, but it certainly resonates still. While musical tastes will always be subjective, I do get frustrated when 'quality' music languishes while formula pop flourishes. Here's hoping the extremely high quality of SOTW's offerings get their due long after the world has forgotten Bieber fever.
"I never loved Elvis, and I never sang the blues!"

5:29 am  
Blogger Vince R. Ditrich said...

I'm replying very late, too!

The problem musicians always face is that they're interested in music, but what the audience likes is entertainment. There is a gap of understanding between both parties.

Modern audiences would do well to give a more critical eye to the actual songs, performances, production, musicianship, thereby eliminating shallow crap almost automatically. But musicians have to respect the audience's need for some 'presentation'. "Regular Folks" use music as an escape, quite rightfully, and have no desire to worry about nuts & bolts.

A middle ground might bring us a bit more musical inventiveness and expression, while still supplying some escapist satisfaction.


4:40 pm  

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