Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Now I have to buy The White Album again!"

There is a scene in the film Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jones' character, confronted by a new kind of digital disc comments "now I have to buy The White Album again!" I like this for a couple of reasons: one is the assumption that this album is a kind of perennial musical icon; the other is that a new technology might create a new perspective on something. Suppose you get a new sound system or, as happened to me once, I realized that to hear properly what was going on in the bass range with Shostakovich symphonies I had to invest in some better speakers. I muttered to myself "now I have to listen to all the symphonies again..." Or suppose you suddenly have a new insight into a character in a drama: now you have to go through the whole drama again looking at things from this new perspective. This might involve reading Hamlet again or watching all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because you suddenly realized something about the moral development of the character of Spike. Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures!

I'm reading the new Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin for the first time and I'm experiencing all sorts of interesting things. One is I am becoming more familiar with some repertoire that I have in the past neglected: opera in particular. Another is that Taruskin manages to "de-familiarize" some repertoire in interesting ways, Bach in particular. Yet another is that he also brings a lot of recent scholarship to bear on some old disputes and theories: the role of women composers, for example, or the relationship between aesthetic theory, ideology and music.

In relationship to this last, it is amusing to read the blurbs on the back cover as they betray something about our current aesthetic ideology. For example, one blurb calls the book "a highly personal (and often delightfully prickly) take on musical history from an original and eccentric mind..." I'm over 1400 pages into the book (which comes in five volumes) and I have yet to detect anything really prickly or eccentric. True, he dissects quite a number of myths and outworn ideologies connected with music, but that just means he is doing his job--not grounds for calling him 'prickly' or 'eccentric'. This speaks either to a kind of institutional dullness having taken over musicology these days where, by comparison, Taruskin's book appears unusual, or to an unconscious ideology that art and talk about art must be challenging or eccentric in some way.


I chose a song from The White Album as envoi to this post, of course. My Friday post was on the "tyranny of the backbeat" and this is a great example of how creative The Beatles were when it came to rhythm and meter. The guys who transcribed all the songs notated this one in 4/4, 2/4, 5/4, 9/8, 12/8 and 10/8. That passage "Mother Superior jump the gun" is a bar of 9/8 followed by a bar of 10/8, both bars repeated. And some people say Ringo isn't a great drummer!

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