Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering the Wars

In honor of Memorial Day, a medley from the fabulous 2008 revival of South Pacific, as performed at that year's Tonys.

I don't mean this lightly; both my grandfathers served on the Pacific Front during World War II, one in the navy and one on the ground in mainland China. Remembering wars is always a tricky business.There's long been a sentiment that most commemorations of WWII have focused on the European theater; part of the stated impetus of the HBO mini-series The Pacific is to address that perceived problem. But while it might be true, it's worth remembering that South Pacific premiered on Broadway in 1949, a mere four years after Hiroshima. Part of the central tension of the musical, I think, is negotiating the transition from wartime patriotic glorification of war to the post-war slow, laborius process of deciding how exactly the war was going to be remembered. Which parts were worthy of commemoration, and which parts needed to be forgotten? What knowledge did we as a country learn from those four years? There were a lot of lessons, and it took a long time to process.

Europe, of course, does not celebrate Memorial Day, instead focusing their attentions on Armistice Day in November. Remembering the Great War of earlier in the century, the lessons of Armistice Day are unambiguous: war is horrific violence. When you remember on Armistice Day, you are remembering the lost lives. Memorial Day is a little more ambiguous: it great out of commemorations of the Civil War, and the process of knitting the country back together. So in addition to an outlet for grief, there is an element of nation-building built into the ceremony.

World War II never had its holiday, perhaps because the war never really ended: it melded seamlessly into the various conflicts of the Cold War. Maybe that's why it took so long for the war itself to be commemorated with its own memorial in DC. Instead, isolated moments of glory were lifted out of the war and put on a pedestal, not to remember the dead, but to serve as an example of heroic conquest:

Felix de Wheldon's sculpture for the Marine Corps Memorial outside of DC has stood in for an actual national WWII memorial for forty years; its status as such owes more to the politics of its erection in 1951 than it does to the war itself; war is not about the dead, it is about planting the flag. We finally left the Cold War behind in the 1990s, but it's worth noting that the memory of war as glorious conquest stays with us; I drive by the Marine Corps Museum every week as I travel between Virginia and Philadelphia. It looms out of the woods along I-95 like some monstrous folly. It wasn't until looking for a picture to display here that I saw that the base of the building replaces the soldiers and pedestal of the original with an enormous fortress:

The memories of war in South Pacific also do not dwell in the enormity of loss in human life. The death of the lieutenant at the end of the show (sorry for the spoiler!) hits hard, but it is not the main story of the musical. Instead, it is a forward-looking analysis of the other legacy of war in the Pacific: the tremendous intercultural mixing, as farm boys and girls as corny as Kansas in August encounter cultural differences beyond the scope of their imaginations. That's the other untold story of the Pacific Front, and one that served particularly potent lessons through wars in Korea, Vietnam, and now perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan. The fantasy of the Iwo Jima monument is that the US can just invade and conquer a foreign enemy and plant the American flag on top of now-empty ground, the same way white Americans conquered their own continent. South Pacific tried, in its earnestly-liberal way, to warn us that things will be much more complicated.

So I try to spend my own Memorial Day remembering these things, and thinking about the danger faced by my friends and family members who are in Afghanistan right now, and also thinking about those overseas who have suffered from almost a decade of seemingly random American aggression across the region. And also remembering the kid I met at a wedding last year who was home on leave to be with his girlfriend. They had only been together a little while, but he spent the whole evening telling me how in love he was with her. Two months later he was injured in the CIA base bombing, suffering severe brain damage. He's recuperating surprisingly well, and I hope the same for everyone else.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I Got (1) Feeling.

I've long struggled to figure out the Black-Eyed Peas. It's the kind of music where so much information is pumped into you at such an immense pace that effective criticism is hard to accomplish. Their tourette's aesthetic means that you never know what's important and what's just pure random; sounds, catchphrases, grooves, and snippets of melody spark out at you with haphazard ferociousness. Take "I Got a Feeling." (I cut out the actual video, since we're just talking about the music here.)

Around 3:15 is I think the purest example of that aesthetic. is singing a repetition of the lines "Fill up my cup / Mazel Tov / Look at her dancing / Just take it off." Fergie responds to each line with some electronified stream-of-consciousness retort. Listen to it, it's just so...random.

But the randomness isn't just random, it's a choice by, who I gather is the musical brains behind this outfit. And as I listen to this song in particular, I notice that it results from his very unique approach to structure. "I Got a Feeling" is, like most of their material, a dance tune. As such, it draws upon the usual formal devices of post-disco dance music. It has the accretionary beginning, where the feeling of getting ready for a party is evoked by a gradual building up of instruments and voices, and then the buildup of tension to be released at particularly ecstatic moments. The sort of stuff Chairman Bob writes about. And yet, it does this very perfunctorily. The initial buildup ends when the beat comes in at the one minute mark, and it's distinctly underwhelming. Probably the best such release is the one at 3:46, but again, it's nothing so spectacular. I think the biggest problem is that the harmonic movement at the end of each repetition, going from C to G, is quite flaccid. That's the spot in the progression most often aligned with a movement of release, and it's hard to care that much about a perfect fourth.

So I was pleased to read in a recent issue of Rolling Stone an interview with Will.i.Am that talked a little bit about his musical logic. Unfortunately, it's behind a paywall so you can't read it without a subscription. But in it, says quite forthrightly that he is not interested in the usual structural mechanics of either a pop song or a longer electronic dance music set. Instead, he argues for what he somewhat amorphously calls a "unique sound" to a song, instantly recognizable on the radio. That doesn't seem all that different from any musician trying to find their sound, but I sense that he means this actually quite structurally: his goal with these songs is to make sure that if you happen to tune onto a station playing "I Got a Feeling", you have have 99% chance that you will be listening to this unique sound--not some a bridge, not some varying material, but just the unique, recognizable sound. There is no musical development over the course of the song, because development requires an old-fashioned way of listening where you actually listen to the song from beginning to the end. In shades of Michael Fried, wants you to apprehend and absorb the totality of the pop tune in one instant.

He admits in the interview, forthrightly and apologetically, that his model here is the music of television commercials, where you similarly need to create a musical impression in a compressed amount of time, and where any formal structure in the original song will be chopped up beyond recognition. That's why, he says, the Black-Eyed Peas have been so successful in placing their music in commercials; it's working purposefully for that aesthetic. Late capitalism, yadda yadda yadda.

Interesting, I thought! And whatever you think of that compositional approach, I think it helps to explain the rather aleatoric aspects of their music that confound me so--as any composer will tell you, when you don't have a clear structure in the music to orient yourself to, any musical choice (that doesn't take away from the overall sound) does indeed become quite random.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hunting Babbitts

Image courtesy of my student Charlie Heyer, who was inspired while studying for my final. For the record, and somewhat against type, I'm actually kind of a fan of Babbitt, especially after reading Babbitt's collected essays, and also Fred Maus's thought-provoking article "Sexual and Musical Categories," in which at one point he briefly compares Babbitt to Michael Musto. I'll let you read the article to see how he arrives at that juxtaposition.