April 28, 2008

God damn European cantatas

CNN devoted quite a bit of airtime last night to broadcasting a speech to the NAACP in Detroit by "Obama's pastor," Jeremiah Wright. The dude is one hell of an entertaining speaker, and it's easy to see why he'd be beloved both within his Chicago congregation and beyond.

Except his views about music are wildly archaic, misinformed, and prone to stereotyping, which is a lot ironic, considering the theme of his speech and its obvious purpose of PR damage repair.

Wright's main point was that it's about time humans stopped looking at other members of the species as somehow deficient on account of their physical and ethnic characteristics, and he used a number of musical examples by analogy to demonstrate, claiming that aficionados of "European cantatas" find those of black American gospel singing "deficient." How ridiculous.

As a general matter, musicians are about the worst comparative example to use in Wright's context because — and I say this from decades of personal experience — musicians are, as a group, the least concerned about "race" than any humans you can find.

Ask Benny Goodman who, in the 1930s, hired Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, and Charlie Christian. Goodman willingly endured the grief of touring the States in those days with black band members because they were first and foremost brilliant and innovative musicians who happened to have dark skin.

And Goodman, who also recorded Mozart clarinet concertos, was obviously an admirer of both "European cantatas" and gospel shouting. In equal admiration, I bet. Like any musician would.

During his speech, Wright referred to a number of prominent European composers in vaguely mocking terms, claiming that the term "classical music" excludes music from traditions other than the European one. That's simply not true.

Of course we differentiate among Western classical music and other traditions. And Western classical composers have been admiring and incorporating those traditions at least since the time of Mozart, who wrote an entire Singspiel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, based in Middle Eastern themes.

Wright tried to get a bit more technical, discussing various time signatures and the emphasis different cultures place on different beats within each measure, invoking Beethoven, of all people, as an example of a non-hip rhythmatist. Wright can't have heard much Beethoven, the hue of whose own skin was such that he bore the contemporary nickname, der Spagnol ("the Spaniard").

One needn't get too deep into the Ludwig van catalog to determine that he was a master of manipulating rhythm. Listen to the third movement scherzo of the Eroica Symphony, one of Beethoven's best known masterpieces. Ostensibly in three-four time, Beethoven shifts the emphasis away from the first beat of the measure so severely it could be in eleven-four time for all you know.

Never mind the ingenious rhythmically manipulative use Beethoven put to another time signature invoked by Jeremiah Wright, six-eight, in his piano sonatas and string quartets.

As for myself, I'm about the last person for Wright to present his silly analogies to, since any random sequence of tunes on my iPod's shuffle songs function will involve J.S. Bach, Ornette Coleman, Liz Phair, Bob Marley, and Jim Liban* (those were the last five tracks). I couldn't care less what color any of them are. They made great records.

Right now it's playing Wynton Marsalis's big band jazz oratorio Blood On The Fields, which I had the fortuitous opportunity to see performed live in Toronto in the early 90s. It was one of the greatest concerts I've ever heard. (Cassandra Wilson is smokin', incidentally; I'm sure Pastor Wright agrees on that account.)

And I doubt the magnificent African American pianist Keith Jarrett would share in Wright's mockery of G.F. Handel, given Jarrett's superb ECM (a venerable European jazz label showcasing the occasional "cantata") recording of Handel's keyboard suites.

The other somewhat annoying feature of Wright's speech was his constant reference to "people of faith." Jeremiah Wright and other religious leaders need to acknowledge that there are plenty of folks out here who don't rely on "faith" to formulate the (self-evident) concepts of human dignity and equality that are the same goals as those of Wright and the NAACP. The religious have no monopoly on those ideals, and as a matter of fact it's often the religious who've thwarted — and continue to thwart — efforts to realize those ideals.

In his public relations role as a now-nationwide Christian pastor, Jeremiah Wright ought to check out a 1964 film by the Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini called The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It's without doubt the most reverent cinematic treatment ever of the life of Christ, and it was realized by a communist, homosexual atheist.

The best Über-Katholik Mel Gibson could do was a snuff movie. **

The soundtrack also features everything, often in immediate juxtaposition, from J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion to Blind Willie Johnson, an itinerant singer of sacred songs who performed on — and was recorded on — street corners in Texas in the 1920s.

Either that or Wright needs to come up with some better "race" analogies than his musical ones. Because they suck. However, I'm not about to blame Barack Obama for them. I'm not a Republican.

Thank god.

* There's an entire album from the legendary Milwaukee bluesman Jim Liban at that link, Hot Tongue and Cold Shoulder. Check it oot. Liban is white, but he's almost black, as James Siegfried would say.

** Full disclosure: I haven't actually seen The Passion of the Christ (but I have seen "The Christ Nail" episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm a couple of times as well as the NASCAR product placement). Personally I can't justify spending two-and-a-half hours watching a guy from Skagit County, WA, getting whipped. Unless it was Glenn Beck.


Emily said...

I couldn't quite put my finger on what bugged me about Wright's speech, but I think you nailed it. As a fellow musician, I couldn't agree more.

Interrobang said...

Not that I'm disagreeing with your overall point, but blind auditions have significantly changed the composition of orchestras, which is something, I suppose. It is empirically true that orchestras, particularly at the high levels, used to be entirely white, male affairs before public pressure to hold blind auditions started. So there at least used to be a significant amount of discrimination in highbrow music. I've heard horror stories from female classical musicians dating from the 1990s that would whiten your hair, but I don't know if that kind of thing is still going on. (My guess is yes; they're just more subtle about it now.)

One wonders what the classically-trained musical prodigy Cab Calloway (or, for that matter, his equally classically-trained sister Blanche) would have done if there had been blind auditions in the 1930s. He almost certainly would have been a classical concert pianist, at the very least. (Now isn't that a mind-bending thought?)

illusory tenant said...

Howdy, Ontarian. Thanks for the observations.