Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice erawestern tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of western Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. However, tonal theory is inadequate to explain the blues and other musics of the African diaspora. Given the central role of this music in both popular culture and art music, music theory classes do their students a grave disservice by not discussing its harmonic content.
The blues cannot be explained by Western tonal theory. Nevertheless, the blues emerged in western culture and is now a central pillar of it. McClary (2001) observes that while twentieth-century music has no single main stream, it does have a “mighty river” that follows a channel cut the blues:
When LeRoi Jones published his powerful book Blues People in 1963, his title referred to the African American musicians who fashioned the blues out of their particular historical conditions and experiences. Yet a music scholar of a future time might well look back on the musical landscape of the 1900 s and label us all “blues people”: those who inhabited a period dominated by blues and its countless progeny (32-33).
It no longer makes sense to think of the blues, or any other music of the African diaspora, as non-Western. Therefore, Western music theory must grow to accommodate the blues, the same way that the music itself has.
First, a little on my background. I’m not from the suburbs, I’m from New York City. My experience growing up was an odd blend of the city and the suburbs. I lived in a posh little corner of an otherwise pretty tough neighborhood. I attended a very fancy school, but traveled there by public bus and/or subway through other tough neighborhoods. My social circle included very suburban white kids and very urban nonwhite kids. As a younger kid, I loved hip-hop. As a teenager, I succumbed to rockism, probably due to social pressure from our racist society, and pretended not to like hip-hop anymore. As an adult, I’m more centered and confident, and have resumed loving it. So I think I have some pretty good insight into why white kids in the suburbs like hip-hop, especially of the gangsta variety. It boils down to the fact that the suburbs are lame, and hip-hop is cool.
Hip-hop is cool in general. So why is gangsta rap cooler than Will Smith or Drake? The big thing is that gangsta rap tends to be musically stronger and more creative. It has grittier beats, denser and more ambitious rhymes, more pointed political and social commentary, and darker humor. It’s also dramatically more offensive, but that’s part of the allure. If you’re a teenager wanting to annoy your parents, there’s no better method than to blast the Wu-Tang Clan, especially if your dad is a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar. I myself have been known to climb mountains and play the electric guitar, and the fact that GZA is directing his ire specifically at me makes listening to the Wu a complex experience. But listen I do, because why would I want to deprive myself of the music?
As a kid, I liked everything: rock, hip-hop, classical, jazz, pop, dance, country, whatever. In my teenage years, however, I succumbed to the pressures of a racist society and turned into a devout rockist. I dutifully renounced pop, disco, techno, even hip-hop, anything that was “inauthentic.” I swallowed the rockist dogma that grants legitimacy to Delta blues and classic Motown but not contemporary R&B; to bluegrass but not commercial country; to acoustic jazz but not fusion. I felt earnestly moved by the rockist national anthem:
It took me until my twenties to shake this atavistic silliness and re-embrace the whole universe of Afrocentric music not made by white guys with guitars. Wherever I go, however, I continue to encounter resistance to such musical practices as sampling, synths, rapping, dancing and fun. This resistance is epidemic among my friends, fellow musicians and students, and the music world at large. Consider this post my contribution to the fight against rockism.
The backbeat is a ubiquitous, almost defining feature of American popular and vernacular music. Clapping or snapping on the backbeats is generally considered by musicians to be more correct than doing so on the strong beats. However, audiences have a tendency to clap or snap on the wrong beats, to the irritation of the performers.
On October 6th, 1993, the blues musician Taj Mahal gave a solo concert at the Modernes Club in Bremen, Germany. The concert was later released as the album An Evening of Acoustic Music. On the recording, Taj Mahal begins to play “Blues With A Feeling,” and the audience enthusiastically claps along. However, they do so on beats one and three, not two and four like they are supposed to. Taj immediately stops playing and says, “Wait, wait, wait. Wait wait. This is schvartze [black] music… zwei and fier, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He resumes the song, and the audience continues to clap on the wrong beats. So he stops again. “No, no, no, no. Everybody’s like, ONE, two, THREE, no no no. Classical music, yes. Mozart, Chopin, okay? Tchaikovsky, right? Vladimir Horowitz. ONE two THREE. But schvartze music, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He starts yet again, and finally the audience claps along correctly. To reinforce their rhythm, Taj Mahal continues to count “one TWO three FOUR” at various points during the song.
I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.
I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.
I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music, except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront it, listen to it, write about it and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind.
The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.
I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.
I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.
The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer’s] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.
My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?
Anna and I caught one of the best performances we’ve seen in years the other night by Tune-Yards.
My friend Andrew, who was at the show, said this afterwards: “I can’t decide whether hearing the president say ‘This is not class warfare, it’s math’ or the fact that this band could become popular makes me feel more optimistic about the possibilities of life in America.”
A little while back I went to a screening and discussion at NYU of Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, a documentary about the wigger phenomenon by Robert Clift. I’m a very white person who has been heavily involved with “black” music over the years, like for example rapping an Ice Cube song in public on more than one occasion. So this is an issue close to my heart. Here’s the trailer: