I’ve been arguing for years that musical genre is only an invention of the commercial system. Basically it is a falsehood; to the extent it carries any information at all, that information is socioeconomic, not musical. When you sit down with a guitar and play your first E minor chord, that chord doesn't resonate into a genre. It resonates forward into the room, and it resonates backward, into your chest.
Duke Ellington said there are two kinds of music, “good music, and the other kind.”
I want to propose that there are no kinds of music. That verbal description and comparison are inherently reductive, incomplete, and inaccurate. That identifying any musician as a “jazz musician,” a “folk musician,” or whatever, is a failure to understand that musician, and is a denial of individual freedom and mobility. That the deployment of binaries like “pop/classical” is always an act of exclusion, of violence to the creative spirit. I want to propose that when we self-consciously funnel our creation into prefabricated categories, we do the music a disservice.
I recognize that we cannot negotiate a society without recourse to these sins. Nonetheless I hold that they are sins.
This is a demand for better, more specific, more precise musical writing and thought. This is a plea for listening.
People are crossing the ocean from Syria to Europe. People are crossing the desert from Mexico to the United States. These people are “migrants,” or they are “refugees,” or they are “asylum seekers”; they are fleeing war, they are following family members, they are seeking economic opportunity; anyway, intentions are various, words are just words, and people are moving.
Here in the American Southwest, authors like Charles Bowden and William deBuys have written with clear-eyed intensity about border policy, and clear eyes see that we are not facing the real questions. The recent wall-related mania among the Republican presidential candidates is just the freshest batch of this longstanding denial. Walls will not address economic and political ruin in Mexico and Central America. Walls will not ease overpopulation or the warming and drying of the planet. Walls will not stop people from moving. Walls will protect no one’s culture or “traditions,” because culture is just people, and migration itself is the tradition.
Many readers are aware that last month Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, came under fire for a blunt comment in the New York Times defending his school’s decision not to prioritize jazz education (“Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music”). In his response, conductor Michael Lewanski took issue not specifically with the walling-off of jazz, but with an implication in Blocker’s comments regarding the nature of canons. “The notion of ‘training people in the Western canon and in new music’ is flawed,” Lewanski writes, “first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever ‘it’ is).”
Almost a decade ago, in an interview with Molly Sheridan, composer Nico Muhly drew an analogy between musical genre/practice and geographical origin. “I feel like I’m very proudly from the classical tradition,” he said. “It’s like being from Nebraska. Like you are from there if you’re from there. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else.”
I’m from Iowa, and now I live in New Mexico, for reasons I like to claim are spiritual but are also economic and social. I’m here because I “found myself,” as the saying goes, during summers spent in the West. I’m here because I subsequently found it difficult to deal with life without mountains. I’m here because I got a job in New Mexico in 2011. I’m here because I found a community here. I’m here because my music feels like it makes sense here. And I’m here because there is public land here, for me to roam around and dream in. This land exists for my use and imagination as the not-inevitable result of centuries of land aesthetics, economic values, and specific policy decisions.
New Mexico was not predetermined for me. But then, neither was Iowa.
One Easter weekend when I was about sixteen, I drove with my parents to my mother’s hometown in the southeastern tail of South Dakota, down where it borders Iowa and Nebraska. Halfway between Vermillion and Yankton there’s a little bar called Toby’s that serves broasted chicken on paper plates. On Saturday we took my grandpa out there for dinner. I remember stepping out front and looking at the flatlands across Highway 50, to the north; the floodplain of the Missouri River stretched out to the south. Spring was lifting over the Midwest, and the horizon held just hints of color between pallid green field and pallid gray sky. I felt a certain ancestral gravity. I had to ask myself: is this where I belong?
My grandfather lived in Vermillion nearly all his life, owned the same house for half a century. He was a teacher, a coach, a World War II veteran; he was the patriarch, the moral center of my extended family. But his personal integrity, the depth of his relationship with Vermillion, and his classic Greatest Generation biography do conspire to make my connection to the American Midwest feel more essential than it really turns out to be.
My parents were both born in South Dakota. They moved to Michigan in 1972 for graduate school, then to Iowa in 1983 because my dad got a job there. My grandparents were born in South Dakota and Nebraska. Up another generation, the births are still around the Midwest. Up another, one family is in Canada. One more, and you find yourself in Germany, Ireland, and Norway.
Must I point out that these relatively recent migrations in my personal bloodline were social and economic in intention? People got married, people sought good farmland, people sought jobs. People moved, and they will continue to. Where they’re from is just where they’re from.
Bowden and deBuys are devastating on the effects, current and coming, of overpopulation and climate change on the American Southwest. It makes a person feel horribly guilty about choosing to live here; except, as I argued in an essay for NewMusicBox last summer, feeling guilt for being alive is only a dead-end trap, and it does not lead a person to a useful ethic. We need to know how to live, not why to feel bad about it. For a long time, I didn’t believe in original sin. That was before I read much Native American history or thought much about the foundations of our society in slavery, violence, and exploitation. Anyone with clear eyes knows we’re living on stolen land and borrowed time. Original sin becomes a useful concept because it does no one a damn bit of good to feel guilty about any of this. It’s not your fault, and it also isn’t not your fault; actually the concept of “fault” does not meaningfully apply. Things are as they are, and what we have to do is figure out how to live thoroughly, generously, and creatively right in view of all the outrage.
The road brings me back to art: for me, primarily fiction, theater, and music. In my last essay here I called music a “utopian social idea,” and indeed over the years I have assembled a personal, forceful, poetic, complex and no doubt internally contradictory ethic—my own moral code, as they say—from books, plays, and sound. In a real sense, though one that can’t be accurately described in words, I’ve learned how to live from the novels of Marilynne Robinson, the songwriting of Elliott Smith and Richard Rodgers, the piano music of Bach and Mozart and Schoenberg, the chamber music of Maurice Ravel and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Bud Powell; from piano lessons and music history classes; from every jam session I’ve been to and every concert I fell asleep during. I learned an ethic from these experiences, just as surely as I learned one from my grandfather’s life story. There are things in this world to aspire to, standards to contend with. We have each other, and we have each other’s stories. We can take those stories wherever we go.
One of the first concerts I attended when I landed in Albuquerque this year was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Accounts differ on the specifics of the circumstances, but regardless of the details, listen—he wrote that piece in a Nazi war camp. Would you look at that.
People are still moving, the temperature is still rising, California is still burning. I turned thirty this year. I don’t know what the world is going to look like by the time I turn fifty. Neither do you. Neither does Ravel—who has, of course, been dead for almost eighty years. Or I should say, it's not Ravel's absence but rather his life, from 1875 to 1937, that was brief and exceptional, just like our periods of rest and reaction. The world keeps changing and people keep moving. Migration is the tradition—migration, and art, and change. Walls and canons? They’re the exception.
I didn’t see Whiplash, which was written and directed by a thirtyish filmmaker named Damien Chazelle. Have you heard of him? I have. Because I did see Grand Piano, his previous screenwriting credit. Grand Piano takes place mostly on stage during a Classical Music Concert—believe me, this movie capitalizes. Elijah Wood plays a Famous Pianist who, during the Concert, through an earbud or something?, is communicating with a sniper, played by John Cusack, who has threatened to kill him if he misplays a single note.
It’s a strange little movie. It’s strange that such famous people are in it. It’s strange that it seems to take its concept so seriously. It is, yes, a novel concept. Music had to be written around every turn of the screenplay—the several implausible instances, for example, when the pianist leaves the stage mid-piece and the music continues.
There are small, revealing inaccuracies and falsities of writing throughout the story; it appears, in sum, to have been written by people who have never personally attended an orchestra concert. But the larger issue is the basic dramatic premise, the necessity of playing every single note correctly. There is this pervading theme of technical perfection versus expressive/“emotional” musicianship, which is simply juvenile. These things are not mutually exclusive, as every grown-up musician knows. The pianist-hero eventually “triumphs” against the sniper—and, we suppose, his analogues of fear and self-doubt in the pianist’s mind—by playing an intentional wrong note. “The audience couldn’t tell,” he says, and the script doesn’t even realize what a snotty and condescending line this is.
It is a trope of lazy young pianists everywhere to justify insufficient practice by arguing they “get” the music in their souls and can play expressively. The truth, in the real world of adult music-making, is that everyone plays the notes correctly, or they don’t get the gig, and many of them don’t get the gig regardless. Every professional orchestra audition is full of people playing the notes correctly.
Anyway dramatizing music-making with a mythic “impossible piece,” like the one at the center of Grand Piano, is not just immature; it is the manifestation of a vacuous and unhealthy view of what music is. Because music is not about ever-heightening gradations of difficulty; it is not, in most cultures, in most of history, or where it’s at its best, about a Promethean hero achieving something impossible to the plebeian audience. In fact this is why people hate Classical Music in our culture; Classical Music capitalizes itself too extensively. It tries to impress us with talent and genius, tries to convince us that its practitioners are doing something amazing that we could never dream of doing, when really we don’t want to be outdone, we just want to be spoken to. Music is about conveying something that matters, and it is about reciprocity. It’s not a track meet. It’s a conversation.
Now, I recognize that Grand Piano is a silly film with a bonkers, stagy, B-movie concept, and that a person is probably supposed to just have fun with it; but actually it conveys a worldview which is hurtful to real people and should not be taken at face value. You’ll find, if you read the biographies of artists, that the simplistic equation of musical “success” with quantified athletic-style prowess has wrecked actual lives. And more broadly, classical music (in its many forms) has suffered in our culture because of people viewing it through this capitalistic, zero-sum lens. For me music is—among other things—a utopian social idea and a spiritual practice, not an athletic feat. The latter is something people will buy expensive tickets to see. The former is something they can participate in and which might transform their lives for the better.
Most of the above was written in emails to friends after I saw Grand Piano, and I retread it now because I have a few things to say about Inside Llewyn Davis, a film which is hugely fairer and more respectful to music and to musicians.
Most music movies are built on the model of sports movies, culminating in a competition which our protagonist would like to win. When music is not dramatized athletically, it is usually dramatized romantically. The drama becomes less about achievement and more about relationship. I’m thinking of a few other movies about music: Almost Famous, Once, Amadeus. The latter is, of course, a Mozart biopic with a lavishly romanticized view of “genius” which is every bit as specious and dangerous as the perspective on musicianship in Grand Piano. I’ll talk more about Amadeus later. Almost Famous and Once have more unusual approaches to the dramatization of music, less representative of Hollywood norms than Grand Piano, Amadeus, or—I hear--Whiplash.
Neither of these movies is actually about music. They are about love. In short, Almost Famous is about love of music. Once is about love through music.
Almost Famous is not a movie about great musicians. It is about people who love music. The protagonist is not a musician, but an aspiring journalist. The guys in the band are not the personifications of music; that is the Kate Hudson character, the elusive Penny Lane (her name refers directly to nostalgia toward a place that no longer exists—relationship will be difficult, here). There is not much actual music-making in the story. The band is shown on stage playing a tune, but the movie soon cuts away to its true topics, the characters backstage who love the music.
What is most emphasized? When you talk to people about Almost Famous, what do they mention? Generally the “Tiny Dancer” scene, a dramatically pivotal moment in which music brings the characters together, and the only time we meaningfully hear a song in its entirety. But it is not their own music that brings them together, not the activity of music-making at all. It’s listening to a famous recording by Elton John—a musician they have never, we assume, actually met. Relationship will be difficult, here.
Also likely to receive mention is the memorably drawn Penny Lane character. But she is barely real, even in the world of the movie; and she is not a musician. In this sense Once is unusual, as its main characters are musicians in the story, and we are asked to identify with them—identify with people making music, not just people listening to it. Music is no longer an unattainable dream; now it is part of the fabric of social life. Love through music: this nice little movie captures quite well the feeling of playing music with someone you’re in love with. If it seems sentimental, well, so is the lived experience.
There are other movie musicals about musicians, or more specifically singers; again Once is something a bit different, because its characters also play instruments on camera. If you want to get a sense for how unusual this has become, pull up Chico Marx playing piano in A Night at the Opera (1935). There he is, in the middle of a narrative film, just playing unbelievable piano for a couple minutes. “This is great playing, great musicianship and showmanship,” they said. “Let’s put it on screen.”
Which brings us back to Inside Llewyn Davis, a narrative film full of musical performances. This movie is not romantic. This time our personification of music is the title character. He is, unlike Penny Lane, human—which is to say, as real as everyone else in the movie. He has the capability of creating transcendent beauty; he is also persistently mean, irresponsible, and self-defeating.
Charlie Haden said something amazing in an interview with Terry Gross:
“One of the great things that improvising teaches you is the magic of the moment you’re in and the importance of living in the moment. The artist is very lucky because in an art form that’s spontaneous like that, that’s when you really see your true self. And that’s why, when I put down my instrument, that’s when the challenge starts. To learn how to be that kind of human being at that level you are when you’re playing…that’s the key, that’s the hard part.”
This is how Inside Llewyn Davis dramatizes music, if I might presume to encapsulate its very subtle premise. Inside Llewyn Davis dramatizes the challenge of being a musician and also being a human, of reaching a sort of perfection in one’s art and finding that perfection nowhere else in one’s life.
There are musical performances throughout the film, all of them done for real, on set by the actors. There are three of special dramatic importance: one at the beginning, one at the end, and one in the middle, when Llewyn plays “The Death of Queen Jane” for Bud Grossman, a music-industry higher-up.
Observe that this movie’s form and argument are musical. What is the cat? A theme, a motive, an idée fixe. What is this Chicago road trip that brings Llewyn to Grossman? A contrasting episode in the great sad rondo of Llewyn’s life in New York. The sonata-rondo is a better model for this story than the Freytag pyramid.
And the songs are, importantly, allowed to speak for themselves all throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, but the performance of “The Death of Queen Jane” is unique in its emphasis. It is a quiet center to the film, speaking from its core. Llewyn rarely fails to be a cantankerous asshole; nonetheless he succeeds in getting Bud Grossman’s ears. We suppose he might somehow self-sabotage. He does not. He plays a beautiful song beautifully. Because that’s just what this person does. He does it every day. It is not hard for him to play that song beautifully—not anymore. If this story took place in the world of Grand Piano, one might be concerned that Llewyn will play a wrong note. Instead the movie is adult enough to know that the melody and the chords are automatic for this performer. Of course he plays it beautifully. From back to front, and we hear the whole thing, so we are allowed a real sense of the world the music conjures. As Oscar Isaac performs “The Death of Queen Jane,” Llewyn Davis becomes the “true self” of Charlie Haden’s description.
And then the challenge starts. There is a pregnant silence. And Grossman says, “I’m not seeing any money here.”
But Llewyn is not surprised. He barely reacts. This is not the first time his effort has fallen on deaf ears, and he knows it won’t be the last. He is aware how shitty the world can be outside the music, how shitty he can be outside the music. If Grossman didn’t like his choice of song, maybe that says more about Grossman than it does about Davis, who has been turned down a thousand times and kept playing anyway. The point of this performance is that it’s transfixing, and the movie dares to suggest that this might not matter.
Bud Grossman is played, in just one of the Coens’ brilliant dramatic ironies, by F. Murray Abraham, who portrayed Salieri in Amadeus. That film’s attitude toward music-making is crude, reductive, and disrespectful. Salieri is simply not good enough, not the “genius” that Mozart is depicted to effortlessly be. This is a fucking lie, and again, it wouldn’t matter if the mindset behind it weren’t still giving real-world pianists tendonitis. The real Salieri was an important composer who lived a meaningful musical life. He wrote 37 operas. If we no longer hear his music very often, that is not necessarily his fault, and it does not make him a retrospective failure.
Many critics have described Llewyn Davis as Salieri to Bob Dylan’s Mozart. This is false, and actually antithetical. Unlike Salieri, Llewyn is not depicted as lacking talent. He is a dick, but he can play. He is not given success, but he is allowed his musicianship. Here is respect. This movie knows that success is not solely a matter of playing the right notes or even playing them beautifully, but also of timing, coincidences of history, and not being an asshole. At no moment does the movie argue that Dylan is a better musician than Llewyn or Dave Van Ronk, the character’s real-world inspiration. I suspect the Coens might actually believe the opposite, but there’s no textual support for this, because in this film, “better” and “worse” are not useful descriptors. The movie doesn’t care who’s “better,” because it recognizes that we are not at a basketball game. Here is respect.
Dylan appears in the final sequence for a brief, sideways glance. But the movie does not dwell on him, because his performance is of no dramatic importance. Actually it is only a red herring for the richer personal drama reaching its apex.
Here is the crux of my argument about Inside Llewyn Davis, and it returns to musical formal analogy. It’s a little bit of a sonata, this movie. In a sonata form, the initial section contrasts two themes. One is in the home key, the second in a different key. Andrew Norman described this principle quite amiably on the podcast Meet the Composer: something is wrong the first time, he suggests, and we spend most of the piece working over the fundamental conflict, so we can return to the same material at the end and get everything right. The discrepancy of key is resolved. The elements are brought to concord.
This is precisely what happens in Inside Llewyn Davis. The opening sequence returns at the end. One more tune, he tells us in the opening. But we don’t hear the whole performance. The movie cuts away to after. Then the story ensues, and we are not told its events all take place in a sort of flashback. When the ending sequence returns us to the same night at the Gaslight Cafe, we might not even realize it’s decisively the final event of the story, but for one critical difference.
The centerpiece of the soundtrack is “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” performed on record by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford. In the movie this performance is by Llewyn and his former duo partner, Mike, who committed suicide before the story begins. His absence hangs over every moment. Occasionally Llewyn performs the famous song alone, but it doesn’t go well. In the most violent and therefore most memorable instance of Llewyn’s assholery, he is singing “Fare Thee Well” in the home of his charitable friends, the Gorfeins. (It has been speculated that the Gorfeins are Mike’s parents.) Kind Lillian joins Llewyn, singing Mike’s higher vocal line on the chorus. Llewyn stops playing, blows up at her, and leaves in a rage. “Mike’s part,” he calls it. “That’s Mike’s part.”
At the end, when Llewyn performs “Fare Thee Well” at the Gaslight, we see what we weren’t shown in the scene’s first iteration. When he proceeds to the chorus, he leaps up to Mike’s part. He takes the higher line. It’s the only time in the movie he does this.
Everyone writing on this film suggests Llewyn is in a Sisyphean loop, condemned to play the same shitty gig for the same low pay, always overshadowed by Dylan or his dead partner, over and over again forever. By taking Mike’s line, Llewyn hops out of the loop. He resolves the conflict of key. He reveals us to be in the recapitulation, not just another endless exposition. It turns out that he has, actually, gone somewhere and learned something and changed in some way during this ostensibly monochromatic story. And the choice he makes to show us this subtle development—it’s a musical choice. This movie’s argument is musical. The difference in the final scene, the moment that unlocks the drama, is subtle enough that only someone listening to the film musically will notice.
Let’s be clear: the tone here is dark, and the movie is not telling us that Llewyn’s path is easy. He ends the story getting beaten up in an alley—again. This isn’t lost on me. Again, the point is not that he wins, because it’s not a competition. We know Llewyn isn’t Dylan, and so does he. The point is that he still gets to be a good musician. The point is that no matter what happens outside the songs, he still has his true self.
Narrative films generally use music. Their view of it is accordingly uncomplicated, perhaps even exploitative. A movie uses music to make its audience feel a certain thing at a certain moment. It helps people know when they’re supposed to be scared, inspired, following exposition, or falling in love. It selects music for surface characteristics that seem to carry these tones. So it’s no surprise that usually when a movie turns to music as a subject, its view remains uncomplicated, and music becomes just another battlefield where the standard Hollywood conflicts can rage onward. How refreshing to encounter a movie that neither athleticizes music nor romanticizes it, but simultaneously suggests that music won’t save your life, but it might save your soul. Here is relationship.
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