Later style

Pundits sometimes argue that blogging becomes a kind of race to the bottom, because blogging creates an environment that encourages anonymous sniping, foments mindless controversy, discourages nuanced thought, and consequently turns normal people into blowhards and jerks. I like my blog; I like reading blogs; I hate the covert appeal to authority hidden in a lot of whingeing about blogs (free speech is scary! can’t someone stop it?). So  I usually hate the race-to-the-bottom argument, but I have to admit I can see the point. A couple of days ago I wrote a post that ended with the assertion that “there is simply no equivalent of a “late style” in popular music.” Which I realized was bullshit five minutes after I posted it. “Name any jazz musician whose performances became more vital, innovative, and influential after age forty,” I asked. Two words: Miles Davis. Davis was 40 in 1966, the year he made Miles Smiles. In the following years, he made Nefertiti, Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On the Corner, etc. etc. And then there’s Duke Ellington, who was 40 in 1939, the year Jimmy Blanton joined his orchestra. And there’s Art Pepper, whose comeback albums on Galaxy in the late 1970s and early 1980s are the best examples of late-style jazz I can think of. Pepper recorded Goin’ Home, a duet album with George Cables, a couple of months before he died; it’s one of my very favorite records.

So what I wrote was nonsense. But here’s the thing: I’ve been totally rewarded for writing nonsense. I check my visitor stats constantly, and since I wrote the “late style” post the site has enjoyed a spike in traffic and, what’s more, a couple of links. (Not to mention Jonathan’s rejoinder.) At last I understand Ann Coulter. Her act is basically cable-news geek show: bite the head off a chicken (or a 9/11 widow) and everyone comes to gawk. Does she believe what she’s saying? I dunno — that question is probably beside the point, because her act is not about truth, it’s about getting an audience.

So. Coltrane, Mozart, and the Beatles all suck.*

Anyway, here are some of the musicians who, according to the bloggers and commenters who have weighed in on the matter, are aging like fine wine:

Tom Waits
Randy Newman
Paul Simon
Ry Cooder
Procol Harum
Mark Knopfler
Scott Walker
Steely Dan
Pere Ubu
Vashti Bunyan
Robert Wyatt
Scott Walker
Joe Maneri
Peter Brötzmann
Sonny Sharrock
Steffen Basho-Junghans
Derek Bailey
Keiji Haino
Fred Frith
Otomo Yoshihide
Tony Buck
Jon Rose
Evan Parker
John Zorn
Warren Zevon
Peter Gabriel
Solomon Burke
Terry Callier
Merle Haggard
The Blind Boys of Alabama
Eric Clapton
John Paul Jones
. . . and Bob Dylan, dammit

The author of Waste (apparently a philosophy blog, and a good one) noticed a vagueness in my question about “late style” in popular music. Was I talking about “relevance”?** Was I talking about artistic quality? In truth I was conflating the two, which is something I hate in a lot of writing about pop music. But let me try again. Granted, lots of rock and jazz musicians continue to make great music into old age. But: is there a rock/jazz/whatever equivalent to “late style”? By which I mean, late style in the sense that people like Edward Said use it when they talk about Beethoven or Thomas Mann or whatever.

I mean, OK, take Robert Fripp. I’ve always loved Robert Fripp’s guitar playing, and his playing on his recent album with Brian Eno, The Equatorial Stars, is beautiful. But it’s beautiful in pretty much the same way as the first Eno/Fripp collaboration, No Pussyfooting, which came out more than 30 years ago. Which is fine. I don’t buy into the notion that an artist always has to “progress.” If It’s beautiful in 1973, it’s beautiful now. But my point is that while Robert Fripp is still keepin’ it real at age 60, this isn’t the same thing as saying that he’s developed a “late style.” When people talk about Beethoven’s “late style,” they’re talking about the sense that Beethoven has reached a certain point where the mighty personal struggles of his earlier music are not so much left behind as they are contemplated from some impossibly high vantage point and abstracted into some mysterious new language. Late style has something to do with things recollected in tranquility, but that’s not quite it. It also has something to do with paring things down to essentials: Art Pepper’s late playing is a true late style, I’d argue, because while Pepper’s still playing some of the whipcrack bop licks of his earlier days, it’s like they’re now almost symbols of that style, reductive traces of something done long ago — the old gestures worn down and smoothed like driftwood.  Late Liszt is sort of like this: his earlier music is full of diminished and augmented chords stuffed with fistfulls of notes; a piece like Nuages Gris gives us the augmented chords shorn of their filigree and standing forth naked and harsh. Late Beethoven isn’t reductive in the same way, but there is some similar sense that the old elements of style have become more abstract, that they mean something different, that something of the old urgency and brilliance has been replaced by . . . what? Something a little mysterious. I guess that’s what I mean by late style.


**And wtf does “relevance” mean anyway? A topic for another day . . .

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Later style

  1. ben wolfson says:

    The changes in Fripp’s solo (& Eno-enhanced) material is mostly technological, but King Crimson has change stylistically a fair bit over its life—though he/it has been on more or less the same “interlocking guitars” kick since the early 80s. (Unfortunately, IMO—it’s getting old.)
    That was something else that I wasn’t sure about, really, because I’m not familiar with the Said, and because of the presence of a particular age in the original post. I think the claim can be pressed convincingly with regard to some of the above list—Walker, Fahey, Parker, Waits, Townes van Zandt, maybe. (With people like Joe Maneri it’s hard to know what to say, since so little of his output before his dotage is actually available.)
    It seems that one could separate lateness from age, based on the expansion in this post—though I should probably just find the book itself.

  2. kevin r hollo says:

    you’re really catching me off guard here, not having stopped by very often in the last month or so. what a great thread! but so many holes to fill, so many nodes…i posted first at waste’s blog so do give that a read. but what i’m really wondering about is the relevance for you (or any of your self-described classical head colleagues) of improvisational or avant POP music. how do you reconcile the fact that a group of musicians like the PHiSH persevered in the artic ice cap of a pop music world that we live in quietly and consistently pushing avant-theatrics and classical music rigor on a steadily growing audience FOR OVER 20 YEARS?!! the reason i get excited is this: after nearly 15 years of listening to that kind of avant pop music, i’ve come full circle back to the beauty of pop music. and what i’m seeing is that there are more similarities than difference. in discursive terms, there seems to be a feedback loop going between the avant musics and the popular musics, one birthing a ripple or tidal wave and sending it over only to be washed in the jetstream of the other’s passing.
    i’m working on a book documenting the rise of avant pop music in the last two decades, and i would venture that the genre-dissolve that avant music produces in the pop world might be incredibly important to classical music’s future.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hi Ben and Kevin —
    I should say that I haven’t read Said’s book either, though I’ve read a couple of reviews. I need to just buy it and read what he has to say. I’m guessing that it’s somewhat in dialogue with the way people in classical music talk about late style. In this post I’m really thinking about the many conversations I’ve had with other musicians over the years. The mystique of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, for ex. — my Rumanian piano teacher at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto refused to allow most of her students to play any of them, insisting that we were all too young (this included college students). And she had a point: there a musico-semantic slipperiness about late Beethoven that makes that music very hard to perform convincingly. Ben’s right that “lateness” and age are two separate things — Schubert died young and developed a true “late style” in his early thirties. (The Winterreise, the last three piano sonatas . . .)
    Hey Ben, if Waste is your blog . . . nice blog.
    As for avant-pop, I don’t know what would qualify. I actually have a lot of respect for pop, avant or no. Looking forward to American Idol this winter. Seriously. Be prepared for some unironic, geeky live-blogging. Pop has its own aesthetic, which intellectuals never seem to take seriously enough.

  4. Andrew says:

    I think a good example of a band that’s settling into a late style is Sonic Youth. They’ve been going at it for about 25 years now (!!), and their last two record, Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped sort of finally find them playing what feels like late-era, mature Sonic Youth. Not, of course that they’re not “experimenting” still, but a lot of the more experimental stuff is a bit off to the sides, while the main thrust of their work seems to be exploring the sonic/textural/rhytmic world they pretty much created. Critics sometimes accuse them of playing Sonic-Youth-by-the-numbers, but I think the idea of late style fits with grace and ease with which they are doing it.

  5. ECG says:

    PHIL: complete agreement on the ‘intellectual’ dismissal of the pop aesthetic, in nearly every sphere (but most painfully, for us at least, in music). But let’s put *relevance* back on the shelf, right next to *authenticity* and all the other practically copyrighted red herrings of academic discourse.

  6. Canyon Cody says:

    The best example I don’t see on your list is Jay-Z, the pioneer of a hip-hop late style. Unlike Robert Fripp, Jay-Z is no longer “keepin’ it real” but instead embraced a new distinctly mature style.
    Of course it’s different with hip-hop, mostly because the age of irrelevence (or death) is generally so young, but I think when people talk about Jay-Z’s “late style,” like Beethoven’s, they’ll be talking about the sense that Jigga had reached a certain point where the mighty personal struggles of his earlier music are not so much left behind as they are contemplated from some impossibly high vantage point and abstracted into some mysterious new language.
    If late style has something to do with things recollected in tranquility, Jay-Z composing his rhymes while sitting in a beach chair with flip-flops in the Haptons with Chris and Gwenyth defintely fits the bill. And like Late Liszt, Sean Carter is also mos def “stuffed with fistfulls of notes.”

  7. Juno888 says:

    It seems that one could separate lateness from age, based on the expansion in this postthough I should probably just find the book itself.

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