Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Music and Transience

When you just can't get that tune out of your head ...

With all the furor over music piracy in recent years, it never ceases to amaze me that most of the music in question is of the most transient kind. The popular song is certainly one of the most enduring forms of music, with roots going back farther than we have written history. But start looking at what remains, and it's clear that most of the individual examples have the lifespans of houseflies.

Take rap, for example. They say the roots of this genre date back to the 1970's. You could place it even earlier if you link an instance like Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," with its semi-spoken lyrics delivered over a driving beat. But, Dylan aside, out of the hundreds and thousands of compositions since, how many are classics, still remembered and hummed (or chanted) by fans decades later? How many will there be in another few decades?

Or look at the earlier styles of the 20th century. This is still living memory for many of us, but styles changed with almost violent rapidity during those 100 years. In 1900 people were still turning out for oompah-band concerts in the park, with tunes like "The Girl on the Flying Trapeze" and "I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair." Twenty years later we'd moved on to jazz and the Charleston, another ten and it was Swing, Big Bands, then post-war Pop, Rock, and all the Rock variations. Makes you dizzy, Miss Lizzy.

When you try to see farther back the details are soon lost in mist at the horizon. We have some choice examples of Civil War tunes, ditties like "Just Before the Battle, Mother, I Am Dreaming Most of You." And of course we still know "Yankee Doodle," which the redcoats sang to taunt the soldiers of the Continental Army in our Revolutionary War. But before that?

Well, let's see. We have some Christmas carols still in use after a few centuries. "What Child Is This" even uses the tune of the ancient "Greensleeves" that might go back over a thousand years. And we know some of Thomas Morley's compositions from the Elizabethan period because they were immortalized by being included in Shakespeare's plays, but we don't even know how many others have been lost.

Last year I reminisced about the music of Lennon and McCartney, but in spite of their hits that are still being performed today it's clear that many of the lesser works are already falling by the wayside. The chaff falls away, and the precious grains are few and far between.

What a different landscape it is in the world of classical music, and how glad I am to be living in that world. It's a place where you can wander for a lifetime, constantly discovering new composers and new performances of their work, even if there was never another new piece composed.

We can start in the Middle Ages with the quaint strains of recorder and crumhorn consorts, with lute music, madrigals, and the timelessness of Gregorian chants. (And what an odd best-seller that was when the album Chant was released in 1994!)

As if cruising down a river, we can progress through the glories of the Italian Renaissance with brass choirs and contrapuntal organ music, passing the monumental works of J.S. Bach along the shore, the scintillating diversions of Mozart, the heroic struggles of Beethoven, the soaring emotion of the Romantic period, the wrenching turbulence of Mahler, the startling iconoclasm of the atonal 20th century and its many conflicting ideas of what music could and should be.

The grand procession is ongoing, with an explosion of electronics and computer enhancements creating a growing arena of possibilities. Gaining full appreciation of it requires, and deserves, a lifetime of attention. You'll excuse me if I couldn't care less who wrote, or has the rights to collect royalties on each copy of [insert song of the week here].

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