Beyond All That
The other day Judith brought home a box of music CDs, eighty original recordings from the WWII swing era. Sheís planning a birthday party for her mother, and thought that some of the music might bring back memories. We listened to the music, and sure enough, a few of them brought up for me vivid memories of what I was doing as an adolescent in those years. Some pieces used to be really important to me. I knew all the words, and would get upset when a piece was played a little differently from the original version that was etched into my memory. But this day, hearing all that music, I was also troubled. To my current ears most of them sound plodding, trite and dull. It was a little like running into an old flame at a party and wondering what you ever saw in her. The difference, of course, is that there have been other, newer, flames (Judith, for example), but there will never be another Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller. Actually, thatís one of the better ones, seen in the light of the Twenty-First Century. It still moves sensuously and sentimentally. In The Mood, another instrumental, also holds up well after all these years. Sammy Kayeís The Old Lamplighter, on the other hand, is enough to gag on. (The fact that Iím old enough to be that old lamplighter might have something to do with it.) In listening to them, I found that I could tolerate the swing numbers better than the ballads. Still, after hearing Paul Simon doing Graceland, or even Roberta Flack singing First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, my taste in popular music just canít encompass many of the hit parade songs from my adolescence.
It canít be, Iím sure, that music just continually gets better every decade. Rachmaninov isnít better than Bach. Paul Simon isnít better than Johnny Mercer or Hoagy Carmichael. As they say, "tastes change." But Iím curious about that. What is there about experiencing music that accounts for those changing tastes?
From my own life, I can see a certain development. My early classical music favorites were easier to grasp: Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Schubert. The Romantic composers gave me melodies that I could hum along with in my mind. They didnít surprise me the way that, say, Ravel did sometimes. The overall structure was simpler (even if Tchaikovskyís orchestrations were brilliantly complex). After I learned the Romantics, I could hear the complicated dissonance of Dubussy without turning my ears off, and I could enjoy the elaborate baroque sounds of Vivaldi. (Bach, however, was spoiled for me for a long time by the hymns I heard in church.) I came to enjoy Copland through his movie scores, where you didnít have to listen to it but it affected you anyway. Itís a learning process, mostly unconscious, that allows us to become more sophisticated as we absorb more and more variety.
Itís true, no doubt, about all learning. We build on what we understand. So, does that mean that music, especially popular music, grows more sophisticated, even if it doesnít necessarily grow "better?" Jazz musicians have turned simple folk music into a serious art form. Listen for the improvisation that is a hallmark of jazz, whether instrumental or vocal. All the figures of speech that we learned in high school English class, especially in poetry, are used often in the medium of jazz. And not only in modern music like jazzóeven Beethoven used allusion and hyperbole in his music. Bach loved the Fugueótaking a figure of speech, in this sense, musical speech, and playing with it, adding, compressing, turning it upside downóto delight our ears and challenge our minds. Alluding to some other experience, as when a jazz musician throws in a few notes from a different song, communicates something, often humorous. To "get" the humor, you have to know the piece alluded to. Victor Borge used to do that in his recitals all the time, and Peter Schlicke, of PDQ Bach fame, still does. When Borge did a parody of Wagner, if you hadnít at least heard the original, you missed much of the humor.
So what does this have to do with feeling bored listening to that classic 1947 recording of Near You? Part of it might be that Iíve gone beyond it in my lifeóIíve gone beyond the feelings I had when I was eighteen. Not that I canít get sentimental anymore; only that Iíve experienced that bit of sentiment and that degree of musical sophistication and have been moved by different sounds. I can imagine how tired Tommy Dorsey must have been of playing In The Mood exactly the same way, night after night in dance halls around the country. But the fans wanted to feel exactly the same way, get the same drug hit, until they (we) grew tired of it and began to look elsewhere for a different high. Itís the nature of youth. Swing eventually was replaced by rock and roll, and that replaced by subsequent variations. Real jazz doesnít go out of style so much because itís different every time itís performed.
I havenít found a replacement for Paul Simon in my life because Paul Simon didnít continue to do Mrs. Robinson forever. Each of his albums moves a little further, along with his own level of sophistication, both musically and psychologically. A Life Magazine interview in 1993 said about him in the 1980s, "While businessmen and journalists wrote his obituary, Simon was quietly at work lighting the fuse that exploded in 1986 with the primal accordion and drums that announce Graceland. Although he went halfway around the world to record it, Simon has always seen Graceland as an inner journey."
Classical music doesnít draw the numbers of patrons that it used to. Is it merely a case of "dead menís music," as some (usually younger) people claim? Why does Vivaldi still move me, after almost three hundred years, if Glenn Miller doesnít, after only fifty? How is it that Beethovenís Emperor Concerto holds my attention still? For one thing, itís not just a matter of old and new. "Serious music" is different from "popular music" in its depth. One could go to college for four years then study the nuances of Emperor Concerto for a couple more, and still have work to do to "get it." You canít say the same thing about the pop-jazz masterpiece of Duke Ellingtonís Take the A Train, great as it was at the time. Every pianist does Emperor a little differently, but I doubt if any would say they were bored with it. Every time I hear it, even the same recording of it, I hear something I hadnít heard before. The melodies and the simpler rhythms that I know so well are just the ground I stand on when I listen for the thousandth time. I donít expect to enjoy a new concert piece the first time I hear it. Itís enough if itís by a familiar composer, so that I can recognize the style. Communication, the theorists tell us, is necessarily made of both redundancy and new information. Without redundancyóthe repetition of what we already knowówe donít have a handle with which to hear, much less to understand, the new information. And without new information, weíre not challenged to listen. Weíve heard it all before.
So when we hear Johnny Mercerís Paper Moon one more time, we might get a charge out of some old feelings we havenít been touched by for years. But we arenít likely to want to hear it twenty times in the next week, as we did when the feelings were new. Itís a little sad, actually. Coming across a photograph of that old flame we left behind forty years ago, thereís something to say for feeling the feelings again, even for a few moments. They were real feelings, and in a sense are worth just as much today as they were then. But we have expanded our repertoire of feelings since then. And of people. And of music.
I suppose itís possible for me to outgrow Dvorakís Symphony From the New World. There was a time when all I knew of it was the theme, "Going Home." I still hear those words when the symphony is played. As the theme ends, however, now Iím anticipating the chords that signal the beginning of the next movement. And a part of my mind is alert for something new, something I havenít paid attention to before. Because I know that thereís much, much more there.
There are only a few people in my life about whom I feel the same way. A pity, perhaps. Think of what Iím missing!
February 27, 2002