Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Barock-Plastik, part 1

In general, the music I like is pop music*. Actually, I'd like to rephrase that into something that's on the one hand stronger and on the other less specific: I think pop music is the highest of all musical pursuits, and that the perfect pop song is the greatest of all possible musical achievements**. I say this is less specific because it says more about the way I listen to music than what music I actually listen to.

Because I also listen to and love a lot of classical music (particularly Baroque-era), and, more recently, a lot of jazz, experimental and avant-garde music. The music from these genres that I love, I love with a pure passion that equals my love of the greatest pop music. I get as much pleasure out of Terry Riley as I do out of The Ronettes, as much out of "Love Cry" as out of "Womanizer". But the way I listen to the non-pop music*** is different from the way I listen to pop music.

Pop music justifies itself; it is art for art's sake. Non-pop music, to me, is only justified if it is in some way applicable to pop music--if it teaches me something about how I relate to pop music, if it expands the vocabulary available to pop music, if it plays with pop convention in an interesting way. If I can't see a link to pop music, I don't like it. This is not to say that I discard it out of hand (I've listened to a bit of Nurse With Wound, for example, and not found anything I can learn about pop music in it, so I'm not a big Nurse With Wound fan--but I will revisit it eventually to see if I've managed to figure out something worth hearing there) but it does mean that I at least temporarily don't see the point of listening to it. I should mention that this doesn't immediately happen on a conscious level; somewhere in my brain, I recognize that I can learn about pop music from this other music, and that translates on the conscious level as "Hey, I like this!" Eventually, though, I always end up realizing that what I've described here is what's going on.

To revisit something I said in passing in the last paragraph, one thing non-pop music can do to justify itself to me is to add tools to the pop musician's repertoire, to expand the world of sound available to music in a way that can be used in pop. To keep using that pompous and non-specific word, "high", this to me is the highest purpose of the avant garde, and incorporating the lessons of the avant garde into pop music is one of the highest pursuits in the already high pursuit of pop music. This is why I consider, say, Terry Riley one of the greatest non-pop artists of all time, and The United States of America one of the greatest pop artists--listen to how Terry Riley provides ideas in compositions like "A Rainbow in Curved Air" and USA uses them to further their own in songs like "Coming Down". (This is not to say that I think either is superior to the other; rather, I think each is doing pretty much the absolute best work possible in their respective idioms.)

I'm not issuing a manifesto here, though it might sound like it. This is all background for a fairly minor observation I want to make about Baroque music and minimalism, particularly about J.S. Bach and Steve Reich, two of my absolute musical heroes. I'm so longwinded, though, that I think it's gonna have to be two parts, so I'll get to Bach and Reich (hopefully) tomorrow.

*Which I define very broadly--I'm not just talking about top 40 radio, though that is included, of course.
**I could try to justify this, and could probably come up with a pretty good argument, but when it comes down to it, it's a matter of taste. And since taste is entirely subjective, I'm just going to say that when I talk about music, "There is no greater pursuit than pop" should just be taken as a first principle. If anyone's getting tired of me saying that I could make some argument without actually making it, well, I'm sorry. In general when I say it I'm pretty sure it's true, and it's just not what I'm interested in getting at right now.
***And yes, where you draw that line is a very idiosyncratic and indefensible place. Where I draw it is where the shift I'm about to talk about happens.

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