Thursday, June 17, 2010

Virtuosity as Vice

This weekend I went to a Folk Music Festival, and got into a
discussion about amateur vs professional attitudes about music. At
first we talked about musicians on the stage who were clearly non
pros, but then it shifted to the observation that even the pros (those
who perform/teach folk music as their main source of income) had a
certain roughness or plainness to their singing and playing. I came to
the conclusion that in at least some genres of folk music there was a
disdain for polish or virtuosity. Authenticity in these circles was
shown by knowing lots of songs in the canon, and through communal
performances. Time spent by oneself working on performance craft is
less time spent performing with others. I wonder what would happen if
classical music took more of that attitude, valuing community over
individuality and broader knowledge over specific virtuosity. Jazz has
more of that balance, respecting individual skill but also valuing
communal improvisation and memorization of the canon.


Ashley said...

About classical music -- wasn't it that way in the past, before recordings, televisions, etc., when people pretty much made their own music as entertainment? My great-grandmother had all kinds of sheet music both popular and classical. That's what she and her neighbors and friends did for fun--learn music and play it for, and with, each other. I doubt there were any virtuosi among the bunch.

mrG said...

I will second what Ashley said and add that there was a time when the classical stream was also disinterested in Super Stars and mythic heroes of Virtuosity. Skill was appreciated, no question, but it was secondary to the anthropological role of the music.

As for folk music being less interested in their 'craft', I would say that is severely unfair and bordering on the sort of arrogance that has divested classical stream from its audience. Having moved in both circles (and Jazz) I know for fact there is a tremendous attention to craft in folk music, I daresay it is deeper than Classical simply because, thanks to recordings and the insurgence of Pop, their music has to be handed down by aural tradition more than ever. I remember watching Tyler and Lindsey Beckette backstage at an Opry, they would be doodling portions of their (astounding) fiddle skills to warm up and their grandfather or their uncle would overhear in passing, stop them, and say, "no, it goes di-didu-di-dA" correcting subtle subtle phrasing nuances in 'correct' performance that the Gutenberg Print obsession of classical music has now totally extinguished from much of the repertoire.

Even for a Dave Van Ronk or an Odetta there is clearly evidence of tens of thousands of hours of dilligent practice to "get it right" and thus there is no difference from the so-called jazz and classical streams other than a variant aesthetic.

Ultimately the craft of the musician is to bind a community of humans into a synchronous one-ness of spirit (neurologically measurable as it turns out) and to use that channel to share emotion and empathy, it is ultimately a shamanist art and it is not an easy task in any genre.

mrG said...

an auxilliary thought to the above is the question of why the music of the european aristocratic tradition (egad, what else should I call the stream from Vivaldi to Reich?!) became so obsessed with pyrotechnics at the expense of relevence. Or when.

I worry about this sort of thing ;)

For example, John Cage said that he began to investigate aleatoric composition precisely because he longed for the pre-renaissance idea of music as an "environment for self-discovery" instead of a (I want to say 'pissing content' but that's crude) competition for who has the most spare time to practice spinning a pen around their thumb, or something like that ;) People would pour into the halls to dance to Strauss because he propelled, they sought to bask in the glorious cathedral of a work by Beethoven (up until his final stages, so perhaps he marks a transition point?)

What 'modern' work so moves people today? Berio's Sinfonia, which I love, is a circus, it is a roaratorio, and it is, largely, unpopular. Yes, Steve Reich can get a stadium full of players all playing OUT of tune and, predictably, the audience gets bored and tunes him out. Even just looking at the instruments we use, some of them costing as much as a car or even a house, and I compare those to the simple curled horns with optional tube-sections used by Beethoven's players I realize there was something in the music then that is missing in the music now, something we have lost.

Because it cannot be true that Lady Gaga is just "better".

And yet, maybe, at what we seek to do, Lady Gaga is better. A recent offering by our local Symphony featured a poster of people with ultra-mod haircuts and promising spectacle. LG is clearly superior at spectacle. Cirque du Solais are masters at spectacle, and their music is mesmerizing during the performance, but largely worthless once you get the CD home; was it the costumes and the stunts I was really hearing?

So where did we go wrong? Kids today will pack a hall to listen to tortured electronic devices, so it cannot be that Schoenberg was wrong in believing concert music could also be 'ugly'. Why can we not patronize our local community orchestras unless we import trained seals and fire-breathers? How did we lose our sense of music as an important thing in itself?

Every other culture on the planet now or in the past has seen the community value of its traditional music, so why are we obsessed with clones of Neil Young and yet we cannot name a single recent work in our own 400-year tradition?

Clearly, somewhere, we jumped a shark, and I think we need to find out where that was, and quickly correct it. It is a guess, but I think that shark was Franz Liszt, the first flamboyant global superstar, far surpassing the dandy Mozart, Liszt collided with the then-novel music promotions business that discovered it could fleece its own pockets by making music scarce through promoting the idea that you had to see Franz himself, or you weren't getting the Real Deal.

And so, over night it seems, the twentieth century declared music secondary to spectacle and begat a game of one-upmanship that was clearly unsustainable, and here were are today with multi-billion dollar operas and youtube stuffed with every ridiculous attention-seeking behaviour imaginable, and we wonder where the music went.

btw, on my first post, those kids were the Beckett family, no trailing 'e', and well worth checking out if you have an interest in north american folk groundations.

Scott said...

There is a big difference between the instrumental tradition in folk music and the vocal tradition. And even in the instrumental tradition I would divide out guitar from the rest. Singing and guitar playing usually seem to have that roughness or plainness, whereas ukelele, fiddle, banjo, etc. have more of a virtuosic tradition. There are some excellent singers and guitar players in folk music, but there are plenty of professionals who do not have that excellence. This is not arrogance on my part, as I said in the post I feel that classical music has much to gain from folk music traditions (and has already gained).

mrG said...

and I am encouraged by your desire to learn from it; I was speaking more from my experience in the so-called 'Classical' tradition where people are not so ready to learn from others. NLP founder Richard Bandler said once that when people find something that works, they do it again, but when it ceases to work, they do it again HARDER; that is the behaviour I see in classical circles as they deal with escalating costs (due to the Spectacle issue) vs dwindling audience (because, ultimately, it is not about virtuosity at all).

We would need to separate out some of the 'guitar' folk music from the consideration, though, because historically the guitar is not a folk instrument, it was introduced to that genre only in the 60's as part of an effort that has connections with the propaganda industries and while that all begins to sound like tinfoil-hat conspiracies, lets just leave it out as an artifact of someone's salesmanship. It is true that the Guitar was introduced to Traditional Appalacian culture via a coal miner by the name of Ernie Schmidt who first demonstrated how to get the precious microtonal inflections out of the Sear-Roebuck issue standard western guitar, but again, that is a new thing, and "folk" music is all about preserving old things. From what I know of the folk tradition, yes, it is more about the virtuosity in story-telling, in captivating attention, in adhering to the nuance of the un-notatable aural tradition, and all of that is virtuosic (if that is a word ;) in every sense of the word except the sense that is taught at Juliard.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I know this post and it's comments are a month old, but reading it made me think of a comment I heard about Paganini.

The comment, roughly paraphrased, was basically that Paganini both a good and bad thing for violinists. On the one hand, he showed the power of a violin to a degree no one though possible. On the other hand, in an attempt to reach his level, such an emphasis was placed on technique that the violin was no longer thought of as an instrument that you could just pick up and play with. It became a "serious" instrument.

Of course, the person making this comment came from an almost exclusively classical music background. I don't know how she would have taken into account, say, bluegrass or western.

Rockon said...

There is a big difference between the instrumental tradition in folk music and the vocal tradition. And even in the instrumental tradition I would divide out guitar from the rest.

Brittany said...

I just happened upon your blog this morning, and I really like what you're writing about.
I'm a piano performance major at Baylor University. My fiance is beginning a career in folk music, and as I sit in a practice room for hours every day all by my lonesome, I envy the time he gets to spend with other musicians. I'm slowly remedying this by playing in ensembles (jazz combos and piano ensemble) and doing some collaborative piano work.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees the danger in isolating oneself from other musicians.

Joe M. said...

(a) Brittany, thanks for the link!

(b) "... historically the guitar is not a folk instrument, it was introduced to that genre only in the 60's as part of an effort that has connections with the propaganda industries and while that all begins to sound like tinfoil-hat conspiracies, lets just leave it out as an artifact of someone's salesmanship."

That doesn't ring true. The Carter Family more or less introduced the guitar to country/folk music (I don't know much pre-Carters, but I've often heard it said that they were the ones to popularize the guitar in country/folk), and there are many others that used the guitar pre-60s: Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Flat & Scruggs, just to name a few.

mrG said...

True, the guitar, the Spanish guitar, was in widespread use long before the Carter family, although the fretted guitar as we now know it, the flat-top 6 string, was not popular in North America until the 20th century -- for the Apallachian purposes, being as they were of Brit, Scot, Irish and Scandinavian/NorthEuro descent, their musics required micro tonal inflections seemingly not possible on the guitar, so they gravitated to the violins, bowed saw etc -- when Sears-Roebuck introduced the guitar in the 1890's, and in spite of the success of the ladies' edition Martin triple-noughts in the north-east urban parlours, SR were surprised to find the Hillbillies (named for King William whom many of them had supported and hence had to emmigrate) did not buy the thing until the 1920's, however affordable and portable, they preferred the fretless african 'banjar' of which many examples exist in Appalachian museums. It was not, according to modern legend, until the african americans had already picked up the low-cost guitar and demonstrated the bending of notes using various devices (bottles, knives, raw strength) that the instrument became interesting; the coal miner Ernie Schmidt would teach guitar as a sideline and is known to have taught Mose Rager who in turn taught Merle Travis and from there we get to Chet Atkins, a very different use of the instrument.

The Carter and later folk-style likely has deeper roots in Mexico; I am not certain when the instrument began its popularity South Of The Border, but I do know that the emerging radio corporations did not favour 'hillbilly' music so Jimmy Rogers and the Carters and their contemporaries depended on "border radio" for exposure, the small pirate stations operating just across the Texas/Mexico line. And Woody Guthrie also betrays a knowledge of the Latin traditions by calling himself a 'busker' which he says in American Folk Music is derrived from the Spanish 'buskar' meaning 'seeker'. Nonetheless, the instrument was relatively fringe, played mariachi style, as a nearly droning rhythm much as it did in later Swing bands where it replaced the banjo in the rhythm section.

but the craze, the push for a guitar in every teen's hands, that we owe to the marketing of the 60's folk revival where all the hip names are urban kids singing to a college audience (with a few token old timers like Guthrie); prior to the contact microphone or single-coil pickup, the flattop simply could not function in larger venues or the danceband, but once we had that innovation, the path from Eddie Condon to Jimmy Hendrix is a very short road, with most of the action happening in the late 60's. Suddenly there were Guitar Studios in every one of the newly built strip-malls of the newly invented Suburbia. Suddenly the sheet music folios are featuring guitar chords and even the piano/vocal folio is really a transcription from a guitar recording (eg Simon and Garfunkle)

Whereas even moments before, c.1950 say, folk music, the sort that folk people play and dance to, was still largely fiddles, banjos and a double bass; if there was a guitar, it was either bluegrass, hot jazz or southern blues.