Classical Gas

Despite my lifelong fascination with popular music, including such styles as folk, rock, soul, punk, bluegrass, electronica, funk, blues, show tunes, jazz, and genres too obscure to have names, there is a side of me that digs the classics. If I find myself focusing on work outside the classical realm when I write about music, there's a simple reason: I am far more knowledgeable about popular music, both as a player and a listener, than I am with the classical repertoire, largely because I cannot sight-read. Hell, except by carefully reciting "Every Good Boy Does Fine" repeatedly, I can't read music at all. And if there's one skill that classical music depends upon, it's musical literacy.

That does not, of course, make me incapable of enjoying, understanding, appreciating, or even playing classical music (though I can't really do the latter with the kind of precision most trained musicians possess.) Indeed, my academic studies of music were effectively all in the classical realm, though they were limited to a handful of courses in my undergraduate days at UNC: a basic music appreciation course, where I learned about such fundamentals of the classical repertoire as Bach's Cantata 140 ("Wachet Auf"), Stravinksky's Rite of Spring, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"); a course in Musical Theater, which featured study of operas like Mozart's Don Giovanni and Bizet's Carmen, as well as some pieces staged a bit more recently; and a course in Music Theory, where I finally learned why some of the things I knew how to play had the names they had.

My theory class was internalized so deeply that I'm no longer certain exactly what I learned in it and what I learned by taking guitar lessons and mulling over tablature diagrams of Steely Dan songs in my spare time. ("A flat major sixth? What the hell?") My musical theater class helped me in forming several opinions: one, that I really don't like opera sung in English--the language just isn't built for those long, glorious vowels that a good aria requires, and in the middle of one bit of recitative where a character announced his name by intoning "BOBBBBBBB!" in a resonant baritone, I couldn't stop laughing; and two, that I really don't like opera as much as I like instrumental or choral music. The human voice by itself is a lovely instrument, and there are plenty of ways it can sound good, but the style used in opera is often so bombastic (cf. Luciano Pavarotti) that the beauty of the melody the voice sings is obscured by the Lookatmelookatmelookatme! elements of the voice's presentation. To me, it's like seeing the face of a beautiful woman obscured under layers of thick, gaudy, and ultimately unnecessary makeup. Me, I'd rather just see the face.

But the intro class sent me into a variety of places I hadn't explored yet. My parents had exposed me to some classical music (along with all the Kingston Trio and Limelighters we heard), so I wasn't going in completely cold. I knew Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade, Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf intimately, and I had picked up a few other things after my Aunt Patty introduced me to the delights of P.D.Q. Bach. (I would guess that about half of my knowledge of classical music stems, directly or indirectly, from Peter Schickele.) I'd explored a few pieces by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, and learned a bit of Gershwin and Copland, too. But man, I would never have become such a fan of Beethoven and Bach without having studied their work in detail. Bach is Mister Structure, and even in listening to a comparatively simple piece like "Wachet Auf," I found myself entranced by his ability to create new forms out of repetitions. (As my son once said about Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi, it's really interesting and really boring at the same time.)

But Beethoven--jeez, man. Far better and more knowledgeable writers than I have sung his praises, so I'll just say this: the man knew rhythm. His pieces have a groove in the same way that a Jimmy Page riff or a Wilton Felder bassline does. No matter what the melody or harmony going on at the top, there is an anchor, a bottom line, a fundamental promise of consistency; it's the heartbeat of your mother in the womb, there at the lowest layer of your psyche, keeping you going no matter what.

I mention this because I recently got hold of two of his symphonies I don't know that well, No. 4 and No. 7. Oh, I knew the 2nd movement of No. 7, but not the whole piece. (You may have heard the old joke: Q: How many symphonies did Beethoven write? A: Four; Number 3, Number 5, Number 6 and Number 9.) And here I am now, listening to Herbert Von Karajan leading the Berlin Philharmoniker through it and marveling anew at Ludwig's powers. If it's not as audacious as the Third, as marvelously naturalistic as the Sixth, or as transcendent as the Ninth, it's still pounding on me, like hammerblows and kisses and raindrops all at once.

There's such richness in the world of classical music that I sometimes want to just give up on the popular and spend the rest of my life delving into string quartets and clarinet concerti and piano sonatas; it's sort of the same feeling I get when I visit a stunning place like the western coast of Scotland, or the desert landscapes of southern Utah, or the hills of Tuscany, or the gorgeous headlands of Point Reyes. It's simply gorgeous, and I'm grateful to my core that I could stand there and experience it.

But then eventually I'll think of a cardinal lighting in a dogwood, and I'll hear the rumble of Johnny Cash's voice or the chiming of Peter Buck's Rickenbacker in my head, and I know that however much I travel, I always come back. It's where I'm from.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 24, 2010 10:22 AM.

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