“They were graceful and heroic songs in a style out of time…” (Maddy Prior)
One of the questions commonly asked of music students and musicians—probably something like the one asked to physicians: “A friend of mine has this problem…”—is asked by friends and family members who, y’know, like classical music but not that dissonant modern stuff. The question is something like, “Well, why don’t people write like Mozart anymore? We’d like modern music then, wouldn’t we? I mean, what he wrote worked…”
This one is surprisingly hard to respond to. You’re studying music, and you’ve just fallen in love with Pierrot Lunaire, with George Crumb, with Bartok, with Cage, with Ligeti. And you’ve just fallen in love with all this really challenging music but you can’t really explain it to people who want their music to be purty, period. And they think they’ve stumped you, and you think they’ve let their stupid side show, and in any case there’s no real way to respond to them—you cannot explain to them why Mozart is really edgy, in a sense not pretty, why people who liked nice music didn’t really respond to Mozart, all that you hear in Mozart. Forget it. They’ll think you’re crazy, or pretentious.
I wasn’t thinking about Mozart when I had the radio on a couple of days ago; I was thinking about…Traffic. (Not traffic but Traffic: the fabulously gifted early-to-mid 1970s ensemble, consisting of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood.) Steve Winwood has a new solo album, and the single, “Dirty City,” sounds an awful lot like Traffic in the glory days. It sounded wonderful, but…old, from Back Then. I honestly was not sure if it was an old song or new song. Really enjoyable, beautifully played, but…well, dated. Great, but somehow not right. The retro stuff on Springsteen’s latest (I’m hearing “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes” on the radio these days) is not old-style dress-up in the same way, but rather a tribute, and (somehow) more current and immediate. I really like this new Winwood tune, but it just does not feel culturally vital; it feels not like the immediacy of my youth, but rather like me too comfortably remembering my youth.
There is a reason, though probably an inexplicable one, why even the best music written in counterpoint class sounds like a beautiful…museum-piece, exercise, or artifact, but not really an expression of anything real. Contrast Brahms’s olden-style pieces for, say, women’s chorus, which sound like he is ruminating on a beloved style of music, which is something different—there is still elements of Brahms and own time there, hence an intensity and vividness (and, I guess, the same is true for Springsteen). This may be why much academic music sounds so blisteringly yesterday; it is, too often, music constructed in response to a codified structure or belief-system or aesthetic (whether historical or “contemporary”) and ends up talking to itself only, if it talks at all. I can’t help thinking of the vanilla silliness of what the composition profs in the 1970s were turning out, or the sugar-water of the New Agers later. The Moment for those styles was brief indeed, and the compositional nokhschleppers (draggers-after) were so weirdly self-righteous about How It Ought To Be, long after their stuff stopped communicating. I have to admit that some of this self-righteousness can be heard among Classic Rock aficionados: it was fantastic then, now it has no foundation, the kids don’t know what they’re hearing, it all sucks. O Tempus, O Mores!
Myself, I can’t get through the wall to the Mystery—why music from its time can sound timeless, but music out of its time is somehow culturally less connected, less vivid and immediate. And I will still listen to it, and gladly; good music commands attention. There’s a nagging feeling, though, that music in a believable historical stylistic costume just a tad too comfortable. The sort of thing a middle-aged guy listens to in the car. No offense, Mr. Winwood, Sir.