29 May 2007

Sweating The Details

If you read The Nation, you may have noticed that the May 14 issue featured a sizable piece on Ornette Coleman and the long-overdue awards he has received recently. It's always nice when a worthy music-related story gets covered by a non-musical publication with wide distribution. What was not so thrilling, however, was some of the terminological malfeasance committed by the author of the story, David Yaffe. In the midst of putting Coleman's musical innovations into historical context, Yaffe wrote the following:

Miles Davis's Kind of Blue had come out a couple of months earlier, just a few months after John Coltrane's Giant Steps, each disdaining chord changes in favor of solemn inquiries into chords and modes. Davis's So What coolly navigated between a couple of minor Mixolydian modes; Coltrane's Giant Steps circled the circle of fifths.

For all the good intentions behind the article, this passage is nothing short of an embarrassment. It is possible (remotely) that the term "minor Mixolydian" is a provincialism of which I was not previously aware; I've met a few particularly nerdy classical theorists who refer to Mixolydian as "minor major" because it has a major third and a minor seventh. This possibility notwithstanding, I'm reasonably sure that Yaffe made it up. In any case, the diatonic mode which "So What" is based on has its own name (Dorian), so there is really no need to use another name in its place.

There is perhaps less reason to get worked up over the circle of fifths reference. Though what Yaffe wrote is technically incorrect, I have seen the term used in this colloquial manner before. In any case, Giant Steps is based on a circle of sorts, but it's best described as a circle of major thirds rather than a circle of fifths. Of course, each change is prepared by means of an applied V or II-V, and this results in roots moving in fifths (or fourths) from V to I, but who could ever have confused one "circle" for the other at the time "Giant Steps" was released, when it sounded to most people like it came from outer space? The term "cirlce of fifths" refers to something completely different and, even in 1960, totally mundane. On the other hand, Giant Steps uses only three keys (B, G, and E-flat), meaning that to actually "circle the circle of fifths" would be 400% more work.

The misuse of terminology certainly detracts from the authority of the article, but the fatal error in Yaffe's process occurred long before he chose is words. In fact, given the egregiousness of the modal mixup, it stands to reason that at some point the decision was made that it was more important to sound hip than to be technically correct. If he had wanted to be crystal clear, he could have avoided the jargon altogether and written something like this:

Both Miles and Coltrane were moving away from the dominant jazz style of the late 1950's (known as hard-bop), but in different directions. For example, whereas Miles implemented more static harmonies and a relaxed tempo in his classic So What, Coltrane did the exact opposite in the landmark Giant Steps, filling the tune with many then unfamiliar chord changes and taking it at a blistering pace. Somewhat paradoxically, Ornette's brand of "free jazz" appears in hindsight to be the inevitable consequence of both Davis's and Coltrane's innovations, despite the fact that the two were headed largely in opposite directions at this time. This is one source of his iconic standing in many modern jazz cirlces.

That this explanation is both less technical and more to the point than Yaffe's belies the fact that it also (ahem...if I don't say so myself) requires a very strong technical musical background to know how to produce such a thing. It is notoriously difficult to explain obscure technical topics in plain English, regardless of the subject, and editors are justifiably weary of articles that are too technical. One way to address that fear is to hire people who simply don't have the technical background at all; in this case as always, the results of that approach speak for themselves.

I don't think it is by any means too extreme to expect more out of the critical establishment. Musicians as a group may not be a model of intellectual potency, but I would venture that there are more than enough who deal equally well with music and the English language to make a more attractive solution possible. I hesitate to invite readers to peruse the blogosphere in search of support for this claim, but there are a few good examples lurking out there (hint: check out the "Of Interest" column at right for a decent start). And given that it is no easier to make a living as a jazz musician than it ever has been as a writer, you can bet your life that there are more than a few who would accept most any offer to function in both capacities. There are plenty of musicians who could have produced a piece on Ornette that was every bit as well-written and well-informed, yet also technically correct and entirely comprehensible to non-musicians.

Anyone who knows enough to use those terms correctly would also have been capable of making the same point more clearly without resorting to jargon at all. Of course, the problem is that music critics (particularly when it comes to jazz) love to resort to jargon because they think it will make them sound hip, inevitably leading otherwise respectable journalists to venture further out than even they know they should. In point of fact, this benefits no one: musicians don't need it, and non-musicians don't understand it. Any explanation one could manage with a limited technical background is going to be superfluous to the musically educated reader, particularly in the case of material as widely known as So What and Giant Steps. On the other hand, Yaffe's explanation, even if it had been correct, would not have meant anything to readers who possess no musical training. This is my most frequent complaint about program notes, both at concerts and with commercial recordings, that launch into prose music theory analyses of the music. I don't think I could have fabricated a better example to support my own complaints than the passage from Yaffe's article. In this case, specialists will know the actual chord changes to the two tunes by memory while non-musicians will not know what a mode or circle of fifths is at all. The use of jargon here is truly superfluous.

Lest I be seen as taking cheap shots at poor David Yaffe purely for sport, let me clarify that this is only the latest example of many that I have seen over the years. I wish to level these criticisms at the entire world of music journalism, not just one author or one publication. This case merely pushed me over the edge (although I have to admit, I'm almost starting to like it over here). The following cases also deserve mention:

•the assertion made during the Ken Burns Jazz documentary that Charlie Parker was the first jazz musician to improvise solely on the structure (chord changes) of a tune rather than the melody (anyone over at PBS ever heard of that Louis Armstrong guy?)

•stories told to me by a friend of a certain local writer who frequently confuses rhythm and meter

•stories from a friend of mine (an accomplished musician) who took a jazz history class taught through another (non-music) department. My friend never stopped talking about how poor the professor's technical musical background was, and how way too much of the lectures consisted of this professor explaining concepts incorrectly to students who wouldn't have understood them anyway

If I wanted to absolve the writers of any wrongdoing whatsoever, I would offer this explanation: writers know that the vast majority of their audience won't understand phrases like "symmetrical division of the octave" or "upper structures." Finding colloquial substitutes for such specialized music jargon is impossible, so they fall back on concepts that a fair number of educated people could reasonably be expected to know (i.e. the distinction between melody and harmony in the Burns example, and the circle of fifths in Yaffe's case) and stretch them to the semantic breaking point in order to hold the whole thing together. This, however, does more than merely dumb things down: in both cases, it is actually fatal to the accuracy of the presentation. This explanation may even be too generous, for it is painfully obvious that Yaffe (and/or his editor) doesn't know the theory at all. Hence, another possible explanation would be that the critical establishment has a proclivity for hipster jargon that is all out of proportion to the strength of their technical musical background. It is fitting that this shallow intention should most always doom the bearer to public embarrassment, if not only to those "in the know."

Now we've come to the part of the article where I address the question that always gets asked when anyone nitpicks about terminology: "Who the hell cares, and why?" I would hope that it would be self-evident to a good number of readers that intellectual integrity is crucially dependent on the accuracy of the article from top to bottom. God knows if I make one little boo-boo here, someone often chimes in to correct me (and a hell of a lot more people read The Nation than read my blog). As the errors add up, one starts to question the overall accuracy of the work, or even the publication as a whole. Yaffe says that Ornette once asked a doctor to castrate him; that certainly makes for great cocktail party banter, but how do I know this is accurate coming from someone who describes Giant Steps as disdaining chord changes?

A minor typo is one thing, but making up one's own terminology is another. I will not re-type the Alice in Wonderland quote here; you all know how it goes. Incorrect usage earns seventh graders a slap on the wrist from their English teachers; why should it be tolerated at the professional level? Even if you think it's harmless (and I would disagree), it's still not right, or at least not as right as it could be. Authors ought to have their own best interests in mind anyway (i.e. getting hired back, and/or gaining stature based on the overall quality of their work), but where they don't, we owe it to them to make them owe it to us. How's that for clarity?

Somehow, I'll condense all of this into a paragraph and send it to The Nation. I'd be the first to agree that they have more important things to worry about, so I doubt they will print it. The outside chance that someone might read it and really think about it, however, is enough for me.

22 May 2007

Into Thin Air?

Pronouncements of the imminent death of CD's are increasing in frequency. Digital downloads, so say those in the know, are poised to take over completely. Unlike many, I am not so attached to CD's that I would oppose this simply out of conservative desperation. I do, however, want to point out a few things that I have yet to hear anyone mention.

First, even if recorded music becomes sold exclusively through online downloads, it still must be stored on some kind of media, both before and after the transaction. Whether that is a hard drive, a jump drive, an iPod, or god forbid a compact disc, the data is not simply going to disappear into thin air. The method of delivery may change drastically, but in the end, the music must still be delivered to someone somewhere and on to something. Barring the development of technology for downloading material objects, such devices will continue to be part of the picture. This fact ought to be embraced rather than lamented, for internet communications are too prone to eavesdropping and censorship to be allowed to become the sole method of transporting data from one computer to another.

Next, let's make a list of what one must presently be able to afford/possess in order to purchase and download music and why:

(1) A Credit Card
These days, most bank accounts come with check cards that work just the same, but they do not have the fraud protection that comes with a "real" credit card. They are a direct line to your bank account, and when that money is gone, it's gone for good. This means that it is exceedingly risky to use them for online shopping. A "real" credit card, on the other hand, is something that many poor people don't have, and also something that many others of all income levels do not otherwise want or need. To require a credit card in order to purchase recorded music would be to effectively shut out a large number of people from the process, or force them into a lifestyle decision they don't want to make.

(2) A Sufficiently Capable Computer
Every time I see one of those Dell commercials where the CEO says he is all about improving people's quality of life, I throw something at the television. Computer manufacturers mastered planned obsolescence long ago, and they continue to use it to this day in order to line their pockets. There are 20 year old CD players that still work fine, but how many 20 year old computers are there that can download a 3 minute song from iTunes? In any case, even "cheap" computers of any kind are still major investments for most people in the world today. I know plenty of people (musicians and music lovers all of them) whose computers couldn't download a piece of text, let alone an MP3 of virtually any length. Make this the only way to get recorded music and you have ensured that only the middle and upper classes have access.

(3) Sufficiently Capable Wired Internet Access
Of those who can afford a computer at all, how many can also afford an extra monthly bill for fast internet access? In most areas of the U.S., wireless can be had for free one way or another, but it is inherently insecure, making it risky to make purchases this way.

Of course, I could have it backwards: perhaps the demand for downloads among the working classes will lead to the spread of low-end MP3 players and automated downloading stations in malls where one can pay cash. The music and technology industries speak the language of money, and in the end, one would expect them to leave no market untapped. So, perhaps what we are facing here is only a temporary problem, not to mention one that has been faced a few times before. Nonetheless, I think that it is part of a larger problem anyway. From New York City jazz club cover charges to the price of commercially produced CD's, listening to music has already become somewhat forbidding to those without a lot of disposable income. It has been pointed out that, compared to CD's, downloads cost less for consumers and earn more for record labels. That is only true, however, if one assumes that the consumers all possess the three things listed above, and I still know enough people for whom this is not the case to make this cause for concern. I have enough money in the bank to afford several dozen gallons of jet fuel, but I do not own my own private jet. Such is the situation with downloads: what good is being able to buy a track for a dollar if one must invest hundreds or thousands of dollars accessorizing just to gain access to that track?

The industry has already shown us that changes in format don't just happen on their own for no reason. Perhaps it was inevitable that technology evolves faster now than it ever has before. However, this also means that it becomes more and more expensive for the masses to keep up, and easier for the industry to profiteer through planned obsolescence and other tactics. Coincidence? Consider current events: the RIAA continues it's misguided crusade against piracy, the Copyright Royalty Board is trying to kill internet radio as we know it, computer companies continue to implement planned obsolescence, and internet service providers are busy opposing the construction of municipal wireless internet utilities. Let's face it: to a great extent, the corporations have us by the balls, and where they don't, they sure would like to. If I thought that they had our best interests in mind, I would not be so hesitant to celebrate the inevitability of an all-download music business. As it is, however, I haven't really stopped to think about how I feel about downloading as a consumer; instead, I'm preoccupied with anticipating the consequences of allowing large media corporations to control all access to recorded music. Call me paranoid, but you never know. The affordability of home recording equipment coupled with, yes, the internet, has hastened the demise of the so-called "music industry." I, for one, would like to make sure the damn thing is completely dead (in addition to seeing the "digital divide" thoroughly bridged) before I'll be okay with the thought of obtaining recorded music exclusively through downloads.

14 May 2007

Name The Band After Yourself

If your band is truly a joint venture among the members, if it is going to be heavily promoted through all of the usual outlets, and if you have a really good idea for a name, you have all the reason you need to apply that ingenious name to your group and continue going about your business. However, I have a problem with the idea that every group that has a gig must also have a name, particularly when the group in question does not demonstrate the characteristics of a "regular" band (i.e. being a priority for everyone involved and playing out consistently).

I say this because I occasionally find out that I missed a show I would have really like to have heard simply because I did not know who was in the group, let alone what they actually do when they get together. Knowing the venue is helpful but is usually not enough by itself; if you also know who the performers are (all of them), that completes the circle. How ridiculous it is that this information is seldom available because everyone feels obligated to use their latest play on words in lieu of the name(s) by which they are known to the rest of the world.

If you go to shows based entirely on the name of the band, you have probably been to a lot of shows you hated. If you play with a rotating cast of characters and you rename each subsequent group, you are hurting attendance at your gigs. Your name, your instrument or voice, and the venue are both more pertinent and more helpful pieces of information. People who can't read minds (like me) will thank you.

07 May 2007

Returning With a "Pop" Instead of a "Bang"

Per normal blog etiquette, this is where I'm supposed to apologize for my protracted absence from cyberspace the last couple of weeks. In reality, the person I owe the apology to is myself, for the tenuous readership this blog enjoys is proof that I need you more than you need me. In any case, here's your damn article, saps.

In an attempt to return with a bang/stir up controversy/see if anyone is actually reading, here's an idea I had recently that is sure to get some undies in a bundle. Like many of my ilk, I don't see most pop music as being worthy of academic attention. Unlike many of my ilk, however, I say this not because it is too easy to listen to*, but because it is too easy to play.

It is not uncommon to hear complaints about academia's seemingly exclusive focus on the classical and jazz traditions. The word "elitist" is thrown around with some frequency when this topic comes up. I have three questions for people who level these complaints:

•"What specifically, then, ought to be covered in such a curriculum?"

•"Are these college level academic topics?"

•"Be careful what you wish for. Don't you see what they've done to classical and jazz music?"

If you've spent any appreciable portion of your teenage years playing music, yet upon arrival to college you need someone to hold your hand while you explore the mystical worlds of power chords, backbeats, and modulations of an ascending minor third, you are not functioning on a post-secondary level in this particular subject area (music) in the first place and should not be admitted to college as a music major anyway. There are plenty of fine musicians who play by ear and may struggle with the "theory" behind these concepts in written form, but if these devices are beyond one's technical capacity as an instrumentalist or vocalist, college is not the place to address this deficiency. At most schools, the admissions bar is already much higher than that, and in reality probably ought to be higher yet anyway.

Please don't jump to conclusions about what I'm saying. I wish that colleges would involve many more students in their music programs than they currently do by expanding their offerings to non-majors. (Have I plugged this lately? Please feel free to read it if you haven't already) These offerings, however, need to be consistent with the level of coursework done in every other department at the school.

It's no surprise that pop music has made the most inroads in the musicology area of the curriculum, and that many schools offer classes like "History of Rock and Roll" as token gestures of goodwill towards the other liberal arts departments. As long as they jump at every opportunity to make connections to sociology, cultural studies, or whatever, there's plenty of fodder there for a college level class. Musicology and pop is a match made in heaven as long as both groups are so perversely content to wallow in concerns that have absolutely NOTHING to do with the actual creation of music. Conversely, colleges are understandably unwilling to approach pop music in the applied, ensemble, and theory areas because the curriculum would then fall well short of what could reasonably be deemed "college level" coursework.

There is no college arithmetic, nor do English literature students read Dr. Seuss, and to teach the performance of pop music as a specialization in post-secondary education would come close to crossing this line. You could say I'm biased, but this is something of a style-neutral issue anyway: a 4-year degree is a 4-year degree, and it had better signify a certain level of accomplishment at something. Like it or not, in a field where almost everything else is entirely subjective, raw technique is one of the few legitimate objective standards one can apply. In trying to precisely locate the cause of the problems so many people have with academia, the general emphasis on technique should not be confused with how it is approached. I would argue that the former is correct while the latter, in my limited experience, leaves quite a bit to be desired.

In any case, schools should not be granting music degrees of any kind to people who can't play their instruments (actually, they already do, which means that adding a pop music specialization would be compounding rather than solving the problem). That the techniques required by pop music would be inappropriate for college level coursework should also betray the fact that one does not need a degree to play pop (actually, any) music in the first place. Of course, all of us look forward to those precious few opportunities to get credit for something we would be doing anyway. That, however, is not what post-secondary education is about. Post-secondary education is about being dragged kicking and screaming out of our comfort zones and experiencing unforeseen and unprecedented personal growth as a result. You could call me, as a degree holder myself, a hypocrite, but in truth, "what I did during college" was nothing like "what I would have been doing anyway", and as ungrateful and irreverent as I get about much of my experience as a lowly undergrad, the truth is that it undoubtedly had a sizable impact on my musicianship. Just because someone is earlier in the process and/or interested in different music doesn't mean they don't deserve instruction and encouragement. I don't believe, however, that post-secondary educational institutions are obligated to provide it when the subject matter falls outside their scope.

So far as "nurture" (as opposed to "nature") is concerned, it's not too difficult to objectively evaluate different kinds of music for suitability for academic study (which is not to say I endorse their thought process on this 100% of the time, but academics are the way they are for a reason, and there's an upside to this as well as a downside). As for nature, academic musicians are reluctant to acknowledge it at all, content instead on pretending that they can work miracles with any student. This is a prudent business decision, but it doesn't always yield the greatest pedagogy. Anti-elitists beware: you ought to be careful what you wish for. Two ways academics ruin music are when they, (1) have delusions of controlling "nature", and (2) institutionalize certain biases as objective standards for lack of any other beyond the technique example given earlier.

It's not my place to say whether pop music is worthwhile on its own merit; that's up to individual preference. The requisite abilities (that is, those that can be taught at all) are so basic that they are not worthy of being taught at the post-secondary level. I say this, of course, taking for granted that there would be highly functional music programs in our K-12 schools, which is largely not true at this point. However, in a perfect world, these skills would be part of middle and high school curricula, and those who did not possess them as prospective college freshmen would be appropriately nudged towards remedial instruction, just as in every other academic discipline. I have been known to insist that, "Anything is difficult to do well." I still believe that. The path to doing something well, however, may or may not be worthy of college credit depending on the destination.

*It goes without saying, of course, that I find pop music incredibly difficult to listen to, and therein lies the problem with the all-too-handy convention of using "easy" and "difficult" as euphemisms for other things. I would argue that such labels always tell us much more about the person who made the statement in the first place than they do about the actual music that person is referring to. I promise to produce a treatise on this sometime in the next 40 years. For now, the readership can surely forgive me on the grounds that the cleverness of this particular turn of phrase outweighs the hackneyed semantic transgression I was forced to employ in its service.