Monday, July 03, 2006

Rock stars I have babysat

I've never come up with a good, compact answer for the neighbor or person across the aisle on the train who asks: "Oh, you're a composer. What kinds of songs do you write?" or "What's the name of your band?" If I try to explain a bit about The New Music, and my relationship to old music, I get a lot of blank stares, and often the advice to "write a hit, make a lot of money, and retire so you can make the esoteric stuff you do as a hobby." Even pointing out that a lot of film scores they know are filled with music that has something to do with The New Music does not usually do the trick.

I realize well enough that for most people, popular music is the default setting for music in general (when it's not the only setting). But for a variety of reasons, popular music has mostly been peripheral to my musical life* and the music in the center of my life just happens to do something very different than popular music, and I remain at a loss when I try to explain this. Any suggestions?


* Extended autobiographical footnote: My parents were both born in the Depression years, and neither of them had a relationship to rock and roll. Too young for big bands, too old for Elvis. Sure, we watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but I recall that that was mostly to laugh about the haircuts. My mother had lps of musical comedies and some folkish things, my father had Cal Tjader's Latin Jazz concert (an impressive red disk, with "Nixon Go Home" on the cover), a couple of Martin Denny records, Jackie Gleason's Velvet Brass, and The Moldau, the Schoenberg Five Pieces for Orchestra backed with Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and (my favorite) the Montreaux recording of the Rite of Spring. He also had a couple of really amazing sound effects records. He'd show off his stereo and loudspeakers by letting a steam locomotive appear to cross our living room. Mr. Johnson, the band director at Serrano Jr. High, played quite a few records for us, and I was one of the few who paid any attention. His favorite, if I recall correctly, was Respighi's Pines of Rome. Otherwise, my school music classes were dominated by patriotic and christmas songs with a healthy smattering of Woody Guthrie. In sum, I had a respectable introduction to classical music from the first half of the twentieth century, and a smattering of things that just didn't happen to include rock and roll.

In High School, I did play for a brief time in a sort of a cover band, and learned to comp from lead sheets to accompany the chamber singers in pop concerts, but I was really faking it and did so without any stylistic competence whatsoever. I eventually landed the best summer job ever in working for Charles Chase at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, helping to organize his collection of instruments, and getting a good introduction to musical instrument repair, old left politics, and integrating art-making into everyday life. Mr. Chase's daughter Ellen was repairing instruments then, and I got along well with her three young sons, whom my girlfriend, and at least one time, I, babysat. Her oldest, Ben Harper, now owns the Folk Music Center, which Ellen manages, and has an impressive musical career. (At the moment, the whole city of Frankfurt is plastered with posters advertising a concert by Ben here in November). And in College, I was friends with about half of the band that became known as Camper Van Beethoven. I was even Jonathan Segel's RA, so I suppose that that's a kind of babysitting, too.


Adam Baratz said...

I read somewhere of Fred Rzewski's answer to the same question. He goes with "traditional music." I think that's as concise as you can get.

Philip Walker said...

What about Rock and Roll in the movies" You know a lot of movies.

Daniel Wolf said...

Adam --

"Traditional music" doesn't work either -- popular musics belong to traditions, too, and fairly rigid ones at that. "Our" music is traditional, but very much about asserting differences with our tradition, we call it new music, in the same way that, for Plato, Euripides was new music.

Here's a modest example. Perhaps you know the music of Moondog (Louis Hardin). He wrote in strict tonal counterpoint, mostly rounds and canons, but often in metres that were not well-used in traditional music. One of his rounds, "All is Loneliness", was in 5/4. It was covered by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and put into 4/4. The new music composer streched the paradigm a bit, and the popular adaptation reduced it back again. (The situationists might say that Moondog had practiced detournment and Janis Joplin & Co. recuperation).

Philip --

For what it's worth, the only rock-ish film score I can recall (and one that I'm actually very fond of) is Alan Price's for O Lucky Man!. Price's revision of What a friend we have in Jesus as Everybody's goin' through changes is remarkable.

And then there are examples of rock-ish scores which definitely help to defeat movies. David Lynch's Dune, for example. That film had a visual style (most of the sets were made of wood, and all of the space trash was ornamented -- just as you'd expect from a baroque culture that had been in space for millenia) and some comic acting details that were a shame to lose. The prog. rock gestures in the score never felt large or complex enough enough to match the visuals.