A Style Out of Time

Jonathan Bellman

“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.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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17 Responses to A Style Out of Time

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    Makes you wonder though how styles like alt-Country can sound like country but still new.
    Yet, when composers try to sound old and new today, they are accused of being “populist”.

  2. Peter (the Other) says:

    It seems to me that you are raising the most important questions in musicology (relevancy, authenticity etc.). I just noticed the other day, that the term ‘film music’ has grown the same quaint inaccuracy as ‘horseless carriage’. I have found that I can’t go home anymore, all contemporary jazz and blues sound like a deep, if well intentioned, formalism, but then, I AM middle aged 8-p.
    Somewhere in the last third of the 20th century, all the great rivers and streams of western musical styles got lost in a dark swamp (whether or not a result of commercial/corporate exploitation?)(I consider hip-hop a creature from the deep). Now, every once and a while some one bravely shouts “I think I see a way ahead”, only to be followed by the horrible sound of an alligators jaws snapping shut and the now muffled voice allowing “oh, never mind”. The way ahead will not be televised, we won’t recognize it, it will blind side us and those over a certain age will only come to see it in begrudging retrospect.
    Traffic was wonderful, Steve Winwood’s voice has been of some kind of remarkable rich quality from his mid teens (Gimme Some Lovin’). Although perhaps a bit simplistic and crude, I harbor suspicion towards any music not created with a reasonably close hope that it will help the creator ‘get lucky’.

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    Bookers used to dismiss Lenny Bruce on the basis that “he breaks up the band”–i.e., that his stuff was too hip and recherché for the paying customers to enjoy. Maybe–this is a very tentative hypothesis here–what stays fresh is material that, when it was new, broke up the band, but made the ticket-buyers (or church elders in Cöthen, etc.) nervous? Maybe the stuff that sounds tame or comfortable–I’m thinking C.P.E. Bach–is the stuff that never made any listener wonder why nobody writes purty any more?
    I know, you can take the boy out of the Modernist aesthetic, but you can’t take the Modernist aesthetic out of the boy.

  4. Jonathan says:

    “Breaking up the band” is an idea worth working with and thinking about, in this context, but the C.P.E. Bach comparison could be improved. Emmanuel Bach wrote some of the wildest, weirdest s— in the entire family history, and is only now coming into his own, historically, though he was lionized in his own time, truly the musician’s musician. I always thought it was his lack of disciples that hurt his posthumous reputation, and his affinity for the clavichord, an instrument that was the very antithesis of public vehicle.

  5. Birdseed says:

    Well it just goes to show that you’re never going to take any of the arts out of their social context. This phenomenon is a lot more obvious when it comes to less abstract arts – have you seen a film that tries to look “old style” or a building or a piece of literature, and how fundamentally off and fake it feels? Here in Stockholm we have this area of buildings, Sankt Erik, that is made to look like it was built in the 20s. And it’s wrong on so many levels – the proportions are off and buildings are ugly, it dilutes and devalues the real architecture, and they’re almost morally repulsive.
    Music is really no different though – thrown out of its context of influences, class structure, instrumentation etc. it’s just never going to work. In fact, the closer the pastiche the more obvious it usually is that it feels wrong and fake.

  6. Peter Alexander says:

    Not to go all academic on you, but there is an article in the latest JAMS (!!) that refers directly to this point, concerning the Mozart Requiem. It’s is an interesting article that touches on the question of “authenticity” in the completion of the Requiem. Among other things, it makes the point that Süssmayr’s version has one advantage on all the later attempts to find a way to perform the piece: it was written by an 18th-century composer who lived the style, worked in the late 18th-century Viennese traditions of church performance and so forth. So whatever you can say abstractly about *quality* — and I have always thought that I can hear a great loss of depth when FXS takes over from WAM — his completion still has a cultural immediacy that none of the later attempts can match.
    Interestingly, Constanze pointed right at the issue in one of her letters — I think to Breitkopf & Härtel — when discussing whether or not certain parts of the Requiem were by Mozart. The question she said, is not quality, it is whether or not it is authentic Mozart. So even at that early date, she was making the distinction between quality and authenticity. Now the issue is broader — between the quality of the music and whether it is stylistically authentic — but it’s still the same distinction.

  7. rootlesscosmo says:

    I gladly withdraw the CPE Bach comparison.

  8. David Cavlovic says:

    As for C.P.E. Bach. Dudes! Wilhelm Friedeman was teh far more outlandish of the bunch, almost the von Webern of the family.

  9. squashed says:

    Why should anybody listen to music that doesn’t have interesting beat?

  10. AR says:

    People who like Mozart but don’t like Ligeti do not hear pretty music in Mozart, they hear a language they understand. Maybe not too well, but enough to enjoy what they hear. But those who know more also know that the language is no longer alive. I love Shakespeare, but if anybody today wrote “Thou art translated” I’d think it was pretentious. I knew a scholar of Homer who went to Greece and tried to speak Homeric Greek to people who thought he was a joke. It is all too easy to dismiss the less educated as illiterate, but it’s not entirely fair – not knowing a modern foreign language is not the same as being illiterate.

  11. Jonathan says:

    So far so good, but the people I was unfairly oversimplifying would not only be ignorant of modern Greek, they would laugh it off as unnecessary. That’s a bit of a difference! I might cherish a wisp of Shakespearean English–well done–in a period play or film, but it’s hardly the same as someone using it as a natural mode of utterance.

  12. Mark says:

    Ornette Coleman recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 and today it sounds as fresh as ever. While it’s tempting to tie the music to a moment in time by listing its innovations, (at times no underlying chord structure, simultaneous improvisation as in early jazz, no comping instruments), I can’t get past a feeling of timelessness on this record, not in its rhythm, but as if it existed outside of history, even if my inner idiot tells me otherwise. The recording sounds perhaps fresher today than it sounded when it was released, as the title promises. Our ears have warmed to its charms. It’s oblivious about whether or not it is to become a model for others to emulate. (But Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons, Ornette offshoots, are awesome in their own right, especially on “The Cry,” from 1963). I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of Ornette Coleman’s music as as a sort of artifact, a product of its time. I hear only its immediacy, a half century after it was recorded.

  13. David Cavlovic says:

    Sayeth Squash:”Why should anybody listen to music that doesn’t have interesting beat?”
    What about Stockhausen’s Stimmung?

  14. Jonathan says:

    Music sans beat: just think of all the wide varieties of the world’s music have no beat. Coleman: no argument, but what would you think of someone trying to use Coleman’s language now?

  15. I actually think the short answer to the “why doesn’t anybody write like Mozart anymore” question is pretty easy: contemporary composers and musicians tend to believe in the myth of Musical Progress, and tend to prize Innovation over all else. Because Mozart wrote in a style of the past, returning to that style is “going backwards.” The “innovation” angle tends to be rife with hypocricy–slavish immitation of Mozart would be no less innovative than slavish immitation of Schoenberg, or Boulez, or Babbitt, or Carter, and yet the former is verboten and the latter is the path to an academic job.

  16. squashed says:

    What about Stockhausen’s Stimmung?
    Posted by: David Cavlovic | April 24, 2008 at 08:11 AM
    Who? Did he record strangled cat with his 8 tracks? how about delicate and sexy like Jack DeJohnette or maniacally layered like Venetian Snares or Aphex Twin

  17. Squashed says:

    I can’t get past a feeling of timelessness on this record, not in its rhythm, but as if it existed outside of history, even if my inner idiot tells me otherwise. The recording sounds perhaps fresher today than it sounded when it was released, as the title promises.
    Posted by: Mark | April 24, 2008 at 12:53 AM
    “We are the music makers and dreamers of dreams?”
    I used to think that simple early Aphex Twin statement was very brave, until I found out that sample was taken from Willy Wonka quotes (Character of the movie ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) Then I thought it was slightly silly, a clone of sort.
    Then I found out it comes from 19th century poem. Which turns makes the entire quote thickly layered.
    WE are the music-makers,
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
    Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
    And sitting by desolate streams;
    World-losers and world-forsakers,
    On whom the pale moon gleams:
    Yet we are the movers and shakers
    Of the world for ever, it seems.
    I think it’s impossible for somebody like me to understand where all song elements comes from. The good one are interesting and rich, ever changing. Little tid bits of history opens up more interesting area to explore.

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