Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bernie, we hardly knew ye


Half-watched (a replay of) the Leonard Bernstein American Masters presentation on PBS (okay, so they're not total fuckups) the other night, and was quite inspired, in spite of myself.

What an interesting life this guy led.

I can remember quite distinctly the first time I heard the soundtrack to West Side Story -- it was in the basement of our house in Florham Park, NJ. I was maybe 11 or so, had just aquired my first cassette recorder (which I thought was the coolest thing in the world), and had made my own copy of the LP. We had this old-school yellow formica table down in that basement, and I was seated at it, trying to complete some dumb homework assignment or other. Alas, I couldn't stop checking out the music -- an early example of my inability to put what I needed to do above what I wanted to do. Play, rewind. Play, rewind.

Then I discovered Candide -- thanks to our very ambitious high school band director, Andy Stachow, who apparently thought nothing of asking a bunch of pimply-faced teenagers to attempt the (rather gnarly) overture from that work. Can't remember if we ever got to play that one in concert... but does it matter? What's important is that I found out about it. And that overture continues to be one of my favorite pieces (indeed, I have earmarked it for the IJG "cover" album that I may try to do someday).

I suppose the thing I respect most about Bernstein now -- having discovered much of his other chamber and symphonic music (goodness gracious, have you heard Chichester Psalms?) -- is that, aside from being a consummate musical personality, he stuck to a particular concept and saw it through to the end. In other words, like another hero of mine, Samuel Barber, he never got aboard the twelve-tone bandwagon, but rather stayed true to an ideal of lyrical, melodic, harmonic music, not because it was or was not fashionable or "progressive," but because he liked it. Not that either side of this duality is "better" -- just that I can admire people who ignore a given zeitgeist in favor of their own aesthetic desires.

Ah, pleasure. What a complex phenomenon.

What has always baffled me about Bernstein, on the other hand, is that his total compositional output was not really commensurate with his talent. In that sense, I suppose he recalls Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens. But it just doesn't make a sense that a moron like me could seemingly be unable to stop writing, while Lenny suffered writer's block. Huh?

Ah, personality. What a complex phenomenon.

5 comments:

Kris Tiner said...

I have a great Bernstein story... too involved to go into here, but remind me to tell you someday. Personally, I love his conducting (especially of Beethoven), am indifferent to his writings, and can't bear his music. But at least you and I can agree on Dylan.

Andrew said...

Yes... do tell!

Funny you mention Beethoven. I was thinking as I caught the documentary out of the corner of my eye / ear that in some ways Bernie seems the inevitable, somewhat sad end-result of the "Beethoven trajectory"... Beethoven through Wagner through Mahler... except that once you get to Bernstein, the tragedy is not so much in the music as in the life of the man (and by "tragedy" here I mean unrealized potential). But I think the aesthetic was very similar.

Bernstein's an easy guy to dislike, I suppose, especially since most people remember him primarily as the composer of "I Feel Pretty." But he did a lot to undercut the false dichotomy between the "popular" and the "serious" in American music -- that's been one of my obsessions too, so I salute him for that. (Of course, it's hard to know how well he truly understood popular music, but that's another subject.)

And yes! The conducting. That may have been most compelling of all, especially once you get a behind-the-scenes visual sense of how he did it. Some of that footage more or less knocked me out, especially as I viewed it in the context of my own more humdrum approach (which I can finally see now, thanks to the Bakersfield DVD). There was one scene in particular where he wasn't even really moving, just kind of smiling at the orchestra -- and nevertheless getting all kinds of subtle nuances in the music.

I can't bear Clay Aiken. I don't always like Bernstein, but I can sure respect him.

Kris Tiner said...

You got a copy of the Bakersfield DVD? I want one...
Bernie and Clay are both likable enough guys, but if theirs were the last two CDs left on the planet, I think I'd opt for silence.
Yes, I totally dig Bernstein as a conductor, but I guess I just don't have much of a taste for his "jazz" influenced works. As I see it, much of the history of the expansion of the European musical aesthetic has had to do either with appropriating the surface features of other musics (think Debussy at the 1889 Worlds Fair hearing Javanese gamelan music and deciding to adopt whole-tone structures), or else rearranging its own surface features in order to disguise itself (i.e., the total serialization of Boulez, etc.). But the deeper, functional structures and processes of the music never changed. So I feel a bit of hesitation in appreciating some of the early 20th C. attempts by American or European composers to appropriate "jazz" sounds (be it Gershwin, Stravinsky, Milhaud or whoever) - because what results is only a superficial similarity, making something sound like another music vs. making it work like another music are very different processes. We're not talking about incorporating improvisation or giving the performers any more control over the musical outcomes. There have been a few composers who have actually changed the way Western classical music works (Webern, Messiaen, Ives, Lutoslawski, Cage, Feldman, Stockhausen off the top of my head). And on the other hand, think of how revolutionary certain jazz composers were who implemented processes from classical music into jazz (Ellington, Mingus, Ornette, Braxton, Tristano, Cecil Taylor, Gil Evans, George Russell) vs. those who simply made jazz that "sounded" like classical music (Brubeck, Loussier, early MJQ, some Kenton).
That said, I do also appreciate what Bernstein did to affect the way art and popular music were perceived, as well as being an American conductor that European orchestras and audiences (for the most part) could respect. I just don't think that his music had much to do with the evolution of either the jazz, popular or classical worlds. I don't mean to sound abrasive, really I'm just very interested in this discussion and currently tied up in thinking about some of these things...
So here's the great story... My composition teacher Doug (who you met at the Bakersfield show) was a doctoral student at Harvard when Bernstein was there giving the Norton lectures. He worked directly with Bernstein on several occasions and has a number of great stories to tell, but my favorite (and he tells it far better than I can) has to do with a class session during which Doug presented one of his compositions at the piano, and Bernstein said something to the effect that he heard a jazz influence in it... to which Doug responded, "No, no, I love jazz too much to make a parody of it..." Bernstein was speechless, and I think it took Doug a few minutes to realize the weight of what he had just said...
Ah, we'll have to get him to tell it to you sometime.

Andrew said...

Thanks very much for this. (And please: no need to pull any punches or fear abrasion, as I too find the subject important, and deeply engaging. You know I have tons of respect for your work, both musically and intellectually, so there isn’t much you could say here that would offend me, regardless of how strongly we might disagree. Write on!)

I suppose all of this has a very personal cast for me, since I have at various times been accused of the very things that you fault Bernstein for (superficiality, roughshod appropriation of various genres, lack of innovation). I think it was my own frustrating experience with being labeled a dilettante / dabbler / hack by some of the more purist jazz critics out there (and feeling that they were full of shit) that finally inspired me to stop putting so much weight on issues of musical “authenticity” / “progress,” per se (even though those issues had been very important to me throughout my twenties). Instead, I began to focus on what I have come to see as the all-important (admittedly less analytical) Ellingtonian question: is it good music or not?

Actually, in a weird way, this relates back to “My Back Pages” (especially the self-critical line “Fearing not that I’d become my enemy / in the instant that I preach”). I realized, for instance, that there would never be any consensus on what is “real” jazz, only various camps that became more or less powerful. And I began to see the emphasis on innovation that characterizes music history in general as very subjective, and the tendency to lionize the “latest” development as potentially very provincial (sort of like punk purists in the seventies, completely denying that so-called hard rock had any value). I began to resist the urge (developed in college, I guess) to write off music that wasn’t self-consciously trying to upend some tradition or other (whatever that means). Couldn’t it be just as “worthy” (whatever that means) if it simply used all the available methods extremely well (whatever that means)? Like Bach, for instance?

Now I (respectfully) prefer to skip these debates altogether and spend my energy and time just listening to and trying to write music that “works” (to adopt and adapt your term). This, I would submit, is the big difference between Clay and Bernie: whether you enjoy it or not, Bernie’s stuff works as music; Clay’s stuff is an incidental backdrop for a modeling / acting career.

To respond more directly to your comment: I have never considered B. as anything other than a classical musician (conductor / composer / pianist), and I’m not aware that he ever made claims to be anything else. Certainly classical music was the world he moved in, and it’s worth pointing out that many of his (non-Broadway) works had no jazz pretensions whatsoever. Whenever he did appropriate jazz elements (which I guess amounted to the occasional use of a blues scale, and certain rhythmic devices / harmonies), it was done in such a fleeting and casual way that I think his designs with it were fairly innocent. But even if they weren’t, I don’t think it’s fair to use jazz criteria to evaluate his work.

Of course, there’s a socio-economic side to this. We both know the troubled and problematic ways that jazz and capitalism and race have intersected in this country, and if you’re complaining about the discrepancy between the fame and fortune Bernstein achieved for his “jazz-like” works, as compared with, say, Mingus awaiting eviction, then I’m with you (although we should be clear that Bernstein had his own, mostly psychological, demons). But I also think that, at least within the field of Cultural Studies (which is, for better or worse, the intellectual tradition I have been trained in), there is a tendency to paint all the most familiar occurrences of artistic appropriation (Twain, Picasso, Gershwin, etc.) with the same broad critical brush -- as if somehow every other artist in the world has operated from a position of creative purity and isolation, and as if somehow art doesn’t actually depend upon constant cross-pollination (whether successful or not) to survive.

In this vein, I worry about the impulse to de-emphasize or obscure the simple, physical fact of music as a set of vibrating molecules that stimulate the brain in ways that produce pleasure, or boredom, or pain, or whatever. And at the same time I worry about the oversimplification of profoundly complicated social questions that require a deep understanding of the motivations, personalities, and biographies of the people involved.

Did I ever show you my dissertation? Some of these issues are addressed there in a more thorough way.

Anyway, I hope this is part of a much larger discussion that we can continue to carry back and forth between our blogs... thanks again.

Kris Tiner said...

Sorry this has been such a long time coming… and it doesn't address all the talkable points in your last post, but the discussion itself is too interesting to drop completely...

As far as your music being accused of the same things (and the more I thought about it the more I hoped that my rant wouldn't be interpreted as a critique of your music or your system) - I do see how perhaps your music could be looked at in the same way in terms of appropriation of other styles, but again, this is only if one looks at the surface of it - on a deeper level you're applying structural ("industrial") procedures that are unlike much anything that’s been attempted in jazz OR classical music before. The Zappa/Mingus element of juxtaposition/stylistic integration is there but somewhat unlike those guys - correct me if I'm wrong - you're looking at these things in a constructivist (is there a better -ism?) way, while dealing with a different kind of cultural information than they were. Of course, we all have our own pet issues, and it's been fun to see similar themes coming up in both your blogging and your compositions. Anyway, I think anyone who knows your music better than the typical "one listen and then I write a review" basis would be able to tell that it is less about appropriation than about exploring and tweaking your influences, somewhat like a kid who tears apart their favorite toy in order to create some new weird hybrid-toy out of it (not to say that the impulse is childish, but fundamental). Do you know what I mean? I certainly remember doing that… taking apart my two or three favorite GI Joe figures and making an "ultimate soldier" or whatever. Wow, that's actually kind of scary to think about now...

So my broad point was that I don't feel that the discussion of innovation in music is reducible to just looking at how a music sounds without also looking at the structural/creative features, or to the measure of its popular impact without also assessing its cultural relevancy. Case in point - your music is extremely relevant to American culture in this time period, although it won't have the popular impact of Clay Aiken. Bernstein's music was popular for what it was (and I agree that it would be a fallacy to use any jazz criteria to evaluate his work), and while I think as a cultural figure he did quite a bit to preserve the high art tradition by including aspects of the popular, I think that composers who were working in the other direction during that time had much more to do with what we'd call "innovative." I'm a determined evolutionist... I look at it as a matter of the highest level of a previous stage looking down (somewhat akwardly) upon the lowest level of the next stage. Jazz was an expansion of Western music in every sense of the word "music" (i.e., melody, harmony, rhythm), but most notably because it initiated the artistic integration of Western culture with nearly every other significant musical culture on the planet. "Classical music" never entered this kind of dialogue on a level of social equivalency - it was always a matter of "appropriation," call it exoticism, colonialism or whatever you wish. Certainly jazz started out as a very rough experiment, but one could argue that Ellington or Mingus were more expansive in their conception of what music was than just about anything preceding them in the Western art music tradition. Beethoven wrote a lot of music, but I think Ellington was conscious of much more of what music was capable of. Certainly he saw more of the world. Beethoven’s music explored the depths of his own tragic soul, Ellington’s did that as well as portrayed the struggle and the strength of his people. And he was a bandleader, and a profound cultural institution. So was Sun Ra. This could get very ugly…