Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

19 APRIL, 2013

Legendary Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Future of Music, Harvard 1973

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“A great new era of eclecticism is at hand.”

In the fall of 1972, legendary composer Leonard Bernstein was appointed the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, his alma mater — a position originally created in 1925 to bring celebrated poets as campus residents and student advisors and previously occupied by such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and Robert Frost. In 1973, Bernstein delivered his sextet of lucid lectures, aimed at an intelligent listened not musically trained but keenly interested in how music works and how to listen to music.

Titled The Unanswered Question, the lectures — covering Musical Phonology, Musical Syntax, Musical Semantics, The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity, The Twentieth Century Crisis, and The Poetry of Earth — spanned more than 11 hours, all of which are now available online. In 1976, they were transcribed in the eponymous book The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (public library).

Bernstein ends the series with a kind of summation of his credo, one he leaves out — or, rather, modifies and makes less prophetic — in the book:

I believe that a great new era of eclecticism is at hand — eclecticism in the highest sense — and I believe that it has been made possible by the rediscovery, the reacceptance of tonality, that universal earth out of which such diversity can spring. And no matter how serial, or stochastic, or otherwise intellectualized music may be, it can always qualify as poetry, as long as it is rooted in Earth. … I believe that from that Earth emerges a musical poetry, which is by the nature of its sources tonal. I believe that these sources cause to exist a phonology of music, which evolves from the universal known as the harmonic series — and that there is an equally universal musical syntax, which can be codified and structured in terms of symmetry and repetition; and that by metaphorical operation, there can be devised particular musical languages that have surface structures noticeably remote from their basic origins, but which can be strikingly expressive as long as they retain their roots in Earth.

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones, but do not preclude additional responses, which are conditioned or learned; and that all particular languages bear on one another and combine into always-new idioms perceptible to human beings; and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind; and that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And, finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that [the] “unanswered question” has an answer. I’m no longer sure what the question is, but I do know the answer — and the answer is, “Yes.”

Complement The Unanswered Question with David Byrne on how music works and this lovely vintage guide to the 7 essential skills of listening.

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11 APRIL, 2013

How Elvis Presley Ushered in the Era of Teen Consumer Culture

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All shook up over portable radio and credit buying.

The 1950s were a time of monumental transition — color replaced black-and-white, the century of the self was coming into full bloom, and the American Dream was taking its first bold steps into new economic freedom after the sequential devastation of the Great Depression and World War II. But one particular change that took place in that seminal decade grew to be a central driving force of contemporary culture.

In The Fifties (public library), Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist David Halberstram considers how Elvis Presley’s music, at the perfect confluence of the golden age of portable radio, the rise of credit buying, and the rock-and-roll cross-over spearheaded by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, ushered in a new era of the teenager as a flag-bearer of consumer culture:

Presley’s timing was nearly perfect. … Parents might disapprove of the beat and of their children listening to what they knew was black music. But their disapproval only added to Presley’s popularity and made him more of a hero among the young. Local ministers might get up in their churches (almost always well covered by local newspapers) and attack demon rock as jungle music and threaten to lead a crusade to have this Presley boy arrested if he dared set foot in their community (generally, there was no problem, their towns were too small for him to play). It did not matter: Elvis Presley and rock music were happening.

A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music. There was nothing the parents could do: This new generation was armed with both money and the new inexpensive appliances with which to listen to it. This was the new, wealthier America. Elvis Presley began to make it in 1955, after ten years of rare broad-based middle-class prosperity. Among the principal beneficiaries of that prosperity were the teenagers. They had almost no memory of a Depression and the great war that followed it. There was no instinct on their part to save money. In the past when American teenagers had made money, their earnings, more often than not, had gone to help support their parents or had been saved for one treasured and long-desired purchase, like a baseball glove or a bike, or it had been set aside for college.

An essential byproduct of this, just as the new middle class had begun to take over the country, was the rise of a new consumer class: youth. By 1956, the 13 million teenagers in America had a cumulative income of $7 billion a year, a staggering 26% increase over the figures from three years prior. Those numbers, Halberstam notes, were astounding at the time, not far from the disposable income of an entire family of average Americans after basic billpay a mere fifteen years earlier.

But beyond the changing social structures, what fueled this tectonic shift in consumer culture was technological innovation:

Technology favored the young. The only possible family control was over a home’s one radio or record player. There, parental rule and edicts could still be exercised. But the young no longer needed to depend on the family’s appliances. In the early fifties a series of technological breakthroughs brought small transistorized radios that sold for $25 to $50. Soon an Elvis Presley model record player was selling for $47.95. Teenagers were asked to put $1 down and pay only $1 a week. Credit buying had reached the young. By the late fifties, American companies sold 10 million portable record players a year.

What this technological liberation achieved above all, Halberstam argues, was a reshuffling of the authoritarian hierarchy:

In this new subculture of rock and roll the important figures of authority were no longer mayors and selectmen or parents; they were disc jockeys, who reaffirmed the right to youthful independence and guided teenagers to their new rock heroes. The young formed their own community. For the first time in American life they were becoming a separate, defined part of the culture: As they had money, they were a market, and as they were a market they were listened to and catered to. Elvis was the first beneficiary. In effect, he was entering millions of American homes on the sly; if the parents had had their way, he would most assuredly have been barred.

The Fifties goes on to explore the social, political, and economic changes swept in by the era’s whirlwind of affluence and anxiety, control and chaos, uplift and unease.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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20 MARCH, 2013

The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe Live in Manchester, 1964

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“I’m singing, oh I’m singing in my soul, when the troubles roll, I sing from morn’ till night, it makes my burdens light…”

Reconstructionist and Literary Jukebox hero Sister Rosetta Tharpe is celebrated as gospel music’s first superstar, the godmother of rock and roll, “the original soul sister.” No better way to celebrate her spirit and legacy than with her legendary, electrifying 1964 live performance of “Didn’t It Rain” at the Manchester train station, complete with her iconic white coat and electric guitar.

Sister Rosetta’s remarkable story unfolds like never before in the 2007 biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (public library). It opens with gospel singer Ira Tucker’s perfect depiction of her spirit:

When you talked about Rosetta Tharpe you talked about a ball of energy. This woman would come out on the stage she’d have people laughing, she’d talk to them in a way that it was almost like she was related to them. And when she finished her act, they were standing. You know, they would love this woman. And she was a lovable person. I mean she was an approachable person. Even though she was a diva too, you know, because she did play the diva role.

Also of note and delight, the 2003 tribute album Shout, Sister, Shout!.

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