28 December 2006

Culture wars

Terri Gross's interviews with both James Brown and the collaborator for his auto-biography, Bruce Tucker, were re-broadcast for obvious reasons the other day. It was interesting to listen to Brown's mumblicious rememberances, but there were a few, pointed mis-assessments on music that they both made.

First, Tucker pointed out that Western music theory downgrades things that aren't important in European classical music such as rhythm, and so there's no means of adequately notating it or appreciating it and so we're trained not to hear it. (Listen here beginning at 5:29.) This is very, very wrong. Its great wrongness is the wrong facts that it contains: James Brown's use of rhythm is well explained and appreciated in classical theory, complex rhythms (much more complex that what he is doing) can be and have been notated by classical composers. The examples are so oft-stated and boring in their re-statement that I shouldn't even have to (Beethoven, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Ginastera, to list my favorites). Its minor wrongness is the reverse snobbery that is so pervasive in pop culture studies. The fallacy goes back to the noble savage hoo-ha and should have been eradicated as extremism by good theorists long ago. His one rightness in this statement is that there are weaknesses in Western musical notation, most notably in the rhythms of Indian ragas or the pitches in microtonal and Pythagorean scales. He is, however, not discussing these subjects.

A more forgiving mis-statement came from James Brown. When asked why he got resistence from his band when presenting them with more rhythmic arrangements, he replied that it was because it was in their heads that Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Strauss, Bach, Chopin was correct and [the musicians in the band would] tell me that I was wrong. (Listen here beginning at 10:50.) Bruce Tucker teaches about music and should not have such a flawed understanding of history. James Brown, or any musician, can think what they like as long as the music is good. It's unfortunate that both have to perpetuate the idea that good pop music has somehow turned Western theory on its head. Why can't it just be good music?

[ posted by sstrader on 28 December 2006 at 3:17:03 PM in Music ]