My teachers, and in some cases my colleagues, just knew more music than I could imagine knowing. They could quote chapter and verse. For example, someone mentioned Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1—a piece I’d never heard of—and one of my teachers said, “oh yes, that’s the one with an accordion.” Because there were eight Kammermusik pieces, and he knew all of them. I had some serious catching up to do.
Lacking a structure toward this pursuit, I flailed for years.
Somehow it may have been today, in the year 2020, after everything that’s happened, when I heard Lil’ Jürg Frey perform a set for Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts from within the video game Animal Crossing, that I finally admitted to myself: there will be no catching up.
Maybe I should have known a few months ago, when I heard for the first time Joni Mitchell’s 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, wherein she duets with Willie Nelson on the cowboy standard “Cool Water”—but she's just warming up for the dazzlingly problematic “Lakota,” with a vocal contribution by actual Iron Eyes Cody.
There will be no catching up.
They say there is some music you don’t even have to listen to anymore, because it’s so deep inside you. An example for me is the self-titled debut record by Tortoise. These days I listen so hard, repeatedly, to try and let something in. At age 16 I was completely permeable. I couldn’t even help it: my whole body was a nerve ending.
Place the teachings on your heart, the rabbi taught, and one day when your heart breaks, the teachings will fall in. This is more or less what happened to me with John Coltrane’s Crescent.
In a karstic landscape, limestone or other soluble rocks have been partially dissolved by water. Above ground everything seems normal, but below there are systems of caves and aquifers. Groundwater filters through the karst and finds its way out through a lower stream, cleansed by its journey through the subterranean passageways.
My patron musical saint of quarantine is Joseph Haydn. I’ve been playing his sonatas every morning. This is music in which everything makes sense. Haydn is famous for his cleverness, his jokes and formal trickery. But his cleverness never has anything to do with proving himself. This is music from before the invention of genius, as we now have the concept. So there is this lightness. Look away from the supposedly “important” elements of the form, toward the brightness and jocularity of the transitions and the closing themes: there is this a lack of self-consciousness. Even Mozart at times seems to know that he is a genius. Haydn has never even heard the word. Here is a guy just having fun with music, and it sparkles.
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I love John Prine’s music too much to want to analyze it. People have been comparing him to Mark Twain, but I keep thinking of him as the Vermeer of American songwriting. There are no throwaway characters in Prine’s songs. Everyone is interesting, nothing is out of place, and the rooms are always perfectly lit.
I first learned his music at Cottonwood Gulch. He wrote two immortal standards in the Gulch songbook, “Angel from Montgomery” and “Paradise,” the latter such a perfect piece of songwriting that it sticks in your mind whole on one listen. I remember precisely where I was when I heard “Paradise” for the first time. Compare to a paler, mushier song with a similar concept, James Taylor’s “Copperline.” (My relationship with Taylor's music could be the subject of a book-length study.) Both songs remember a now-gone place from childhood. But Taylor is uncomplicated, saccharine, while in Prine’s music there is always acid to cut the fat, humor to leaven the sadness. In the case of “Paradise” there is real and human anger beside the nostalgia.
He gets the details out quick in that first verse, so he can luxuriate in the second with a gorgeous moment of exposition. This is the verse that starts, “Sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River.” That verse doesn’t actually advance the story, it only buoys up the emotion of it. And then in the last verse there is the real blood of “Paradise,” which is its political position (i.e., Fuck the coal company.)
Prine’s songs suggest a man who has looked the sadness of life in the eye while maintaining a glimmer in his own. For example there is “The Late John Garfield Blues,” which is exactly the kind of song I want to write: it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, but like in the Poe story, he can’t quite hide the heartbeat beneath the floorboards.
(I’ve been thinking about Poe lately, because he wrote one of the plague masterpieces in the English language, “The Masque of the Red Death.” What a great story. Gorgeous, creepy, brutal. And check out how much exposition there is! He takes you through every room, drawing the scene in exquisite detail, so it’s all the more horrifying when it all comes crashing down. Shout-out to my ninth-grade English teacher Adam Witte, who read it aloud to us on Halloween.)
Then of course there is “Christmas in Prison,” with one of the great first lines ever composed: “It was Christmas in prison, and the food was real good.” Another Prine favorite of mine is “Unwed Fathers,” where the playful rhymes almost distract you from the ice-cold tragedy of the story. At the 2017 Eaux Claires festival, Justin Vernon organized a group-skate John Prine covers set, and this version of “Unwed Fathers” got me the other night.
Another one that might rip you open right now is “Everything is Cool.”
Then there was Adam Schlesinger, who I associate most with the endless hooks of Fountains of Wayne. This Jody Rosen piece is a thoughtful appraisal of Schlesinger’s achievements.
I think of Schlesinger primarily as a great melodist—I’m tempted to say “once-in-a-generation melodist,” though he may have to share honors with Ben Folds, who was born the previous year. This is a rare gift. There are a lot of great songwriters, creators of powerful work, even epoch-defining work, who are not great melodists. Those who can really spin a tune, and can do so over and over again as if on command, are to be treasured, and when you lose one, it’s a moment for grieving.
In his own way Schlesinger was a songwriter’s songwriter, a practitioner of the old-school, melody-and-chord-change craft that puts him in the lineage of people like Porter, Arlen, Rodgers, and yes, Billy Joel. That said, his aesthetic was of his moment, not theirs. I’ll speak about a few songs from Welcome Interstate Managers, because it came out on June 10, 2013, days after I graduated from high school.
The phrase “power pop” is often used to describe this music. When I listen to “Mexican Wine” today, I remember myself as a teenage music snob who went around with his bandmates making fun of four-chord music. We even had a sort of I-V-vi-IV mashup we would do at live shows, pointing out how many famous songs fell into these pat chord changes; as fans of songwriters like Jason Falkner and Elliott Smith, we thought ourselves more sophisticated. But it turns out the question is not so much which chords you use, but how they are deployed, and the issues of phrasing, harmonic rhythm, and melody melody melody deepen in subtlety.
So there they are, right at the top of “Mexican Wine,” loud and unapologetic, I-V-vi-IV. But that melody! And the simple harmony that joins it, a third below, with that slide to the non-chord tone on the word “mine.” Schlesinger has at least one harmonic trick up his sleeve in this song, too: the chord substitutions that appear on the last verse, with a secondary dominant intensifying the move to vi, and the classic iv dramatizing the return to I for the last chorus. A nice touch to give the second half of the song some momentum.
In remembrances of Schlesinger there seems to be a less than wholehearted acceptance of “Stacy’s Mom,” perhaps owing to evolving sexual politics, but maybe these commentators didn’t graduate from high school the month this song came out. “Stacy’s Mom” is a classic song-of-the-summer; it was for 2003 what, say, “Call Me Maybe” was for 2012. Both songs made me think, wait, why isn’t pop music always this fun?
When you look up lyric-and-chord charts on the internet you’ll sometimes see claims of dubious formal elements. Amateur musicians sometimes disagree on what exactly a “bridge” is, for example. I usually narrow my eyes when I see a section described as a “Pre-Chorus.” But that’s exactly what’s going on in “Stacy’s Mom.” The verse proper is a square 16 bars, and the “Pre-Chorus” is the four-bar lead-in that goes from iii to IV to iii and back to IV. It’s delaying the chorus, basically — making you want it more. In the chorus the harmonic rhythm is two beats per chord until, under the words “not the girl for me,” he does the same trick as that last verse of “Mexican Wine,” using a secondary dominant to vi, this time in inversion (much confusing the online chord-chart makers), and then gives you that last IV-V-I in a slower harmonic rhythm. I (IV) know it might be wrong but, (V) I’m in love with Stacy’s (I) mom. Cadence. Also worth mentioning the key change: here the shift, for the instrumental break, is from E Major to G Major—the old modulation by chromatic third, more commonly seen in Schubert or, say, Jerome Kern than in contemporary American pop.
I’m thinking of this interview with Jon Brion, where he makes a distinction between a “song” and a “performance piece.”
In Brion’s taxonomy, something like Rihanna’s “We Found Love” would qualify as a performance piece, not a song. I give this example because it is one of my favorite pieces of music in the world. This is no insult, but I can’t sit down at the piano and give you a version of “We Found Love” that means anything or makes any sense. It’s not transferable from its specific sound and context. That’s why I draw a line from Schlesinger to the Great American Songbook: these songs transfer, just as melody, lyric, and chord change—take away the drums and distorted guitars, and they still work.
It’s been commented that Schlesinger’s was a Gen-X sensibility. I was thinking about this idea when I revisited “Hey Julie,” from the same record. A while back, in an interview with Ezra Klein, I heard the author John Higgs spin some (admittedly speculative and anecdotal) theories about Gen-X vs. Gen-Z in the context of The Breakfast Club. He observed that, watching the movie with some younger, Gen-Z folks, they perceived the drama totally differently. For them the assistant principal is not the reflexive villain. They aren’t trained to react against authority in the same way, and see him as a guy enmeshed in a larger system, just trying to do his job,. For them the punk guy is not a hero, just a jerk; the perceived protagonist was the nerdy brainy kid Brian, and the dramatic apex was when he admits that he had considered suicide.
“Hey Julie” doesn’t beg of over-analysis, but I did think of Higgs’ theory when I considered the song’s depiction of the boss-man. (“Working all day for a mean little guy with a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie.”) Nowadays it strikes us as just kind of mean to make fun of this man for his bad fashion sense—and certainly for his body type and hair loss. Besides, he’s just middle management, not a billionaire one-percenter. We’ve become less focused on immediate power dynamics, more concerned with larger systems of oppression. We know who the real victims, and the real villains, are.
I’ve been reading through Haydn piano sonatas every morning. This is music in which everything makes sense. But I keep thinking about the repeat signs.
There are a lot of them. Whole sections, in the opening movements but also in the slow movements; in the rondos, often every eight bars get repeated, which is almost Glassian. These repeat signs are quietly subversive, disrupting the idea of sonata form’s “dramatic architecture” that we learned about in music school.
Everyone is familiar with the repeat sign around the first half of the movement: we repeat the exposition to build familiarity with the themes and reiterate the motion to the secondary key. But what about the repeat signs around the second half of the movement? Once the fundamental conflict is resolved, why repeat the development and recapitulation? There is no internal teleological reason. We’re home already. Why venture out again?
The only reason is hedonism. Classical-era sonatas are supposed to be Apollonian, but the impulse here is Dionysian. We take the repeat because it’s music, and we like music. Because it was fun to resolve the conflict. Because we enjoyed the music, and we’d like to hear it again.
Before they canceled everything, I was playing rehearsals for a production of La Traviata. Maybe everyone knew this already, but basically Verdi is working as a songwriter here. Most of the arias have two verses, and it has become common practice to cut the second. Evidently in the original performance situations for these operas, the listening was informal. The audience might be walking around or talking or whatever, and might not start listening until the second verse, when a friend elbowed them to say hey, shut up, this is a good one. Today instead we have the assumption of rapt, continuous, focused listening, and the assumption of familiarity. A listener hearing La Traviata for the first time might benefit from hearing multiple verses of each tune, so they can start to learn the music. But we assume they’ve heard it before, and already know these songs.
An interesting comparison is the jazz-world practice of CD reissues including multiple takes, sequentially, of the same tune. While the direction is opposite—including more material rather than cutting it—the impulse is the same, presuming the listener to be a scholar of the music. Only an informed listener engaging in rapt, continuous, focused listening would be interested in two sequential versions of the same piece. As though we’re all listening to these albums so we can write a dissertation in our heads as they spin.
I had a friend who was playing a doctoral piano recital for a degree in contemporary performance. His committee would not let him program Morton Feldman’s music on the recital.
See, there was once this idea that some music is hard, and some music is easy. That some music is “simple,” which means it is less challenging to play that music well.
As though style and elegance could be easy, or simple.
I wrote a few posts before all this happened (if you didn't notice: pandemic, all concerts canceled, social distancing recommendations, etc.) that I'll continue to publish over the next week or so—if my tone seems in conflict with the moment, that's why. For the present, I'm going for runs and practicing, taking special solace in reading through Haydn's Piano Sonatas. This is music in which everything makes sense, for a moment in which little seems to.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues