Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Banal and Mediocre

A couple of friends were raving about an upcoming music event on the weekend and I, having a dubious feeling about it, offhandedly said, "I tend to avoid about 90% of the music out there." They thought I was kidding until I confirmed, "no, really, I do avoid about 90% of the music--if I can!"

From my point of view, most music is banal and mediocre. Or worse. Don't worry I am going to provide examples! I just ran across one. The great classical guitarist John Williams formally retired a few years ago, he is seventy-six this year, but has taken the opportunity to release some recordings on his own label. There seem to be three to date. The first one I think was this one, titled From a Bird.

Let me get the caveats out of the way. John Williams was a huge influence on my development as a guitarist and musician. He was the greatest technical master of the instrument during my formative years in the 1970s and also an important figure in developing the core repertoire. He was the first to do a really authoritative integral recording of all the Bach lute music on guitar, the first to record all the important guitar concertos, the first to do a whole disc of the music of Agustín Barrios and so on. His thoughts on the education of guitarists are ones that I agree with entirely:
Williams has expressed his frustration and concern with guitar education and teaching, if it is too one-sided, e.g. focusing only on solo playing, instead of giving guitar students a better education including ensemble playing, sight-reading and a focus on phrasing and tone production and variation. Williams notes that "students [are] preoccupied with fingerings and not notes, much less sounds"; some are able "to play [...] difficult solo works from memory", but "have a very poor sense of ensemble [playing] or timing". He notes that students play works from the solo repertoire that are often too difficult, so that the teachers often put more "emphasis [...] on getting through the notes rather than playing the real substance of each note". To encourage phrasing, tone production and all-around musicianship, Williams arranges for students to play together in ensembles, choosing works from the existing classical music repertoire, such as the "easier Haydn String Quartets". [from the Wikipedia article]
But over the years I also became aware that there were some areas in which I was not entirely in agreement with his approach. While I am less a fan of the way Julian Bream approaches the instrument, in many ways he was the more dynamic interpreter and he certainly had an unerring sense of which composers to approach to write for the instrument. Williams, on the other hand, tended to collaborate with non-classical musicians with varied results and, to my knowledge, rarely commissioned music from composers of much significance. I think we might deduce from this that Williams does not have a lot of sensitivity to contemporary composition.

His recent private recordings have included a number of his own compositions so when I first noticed a clip of one of them on YouTube the other day, I was very interested to see what he was doing. This was not least because I find myself in a similar boat these days: a classical guitarist, retired from performing, who has a serious interest in composition. The CD From a Bird is temporarily out of stock at Amazon, nor are there any clips there you can listen to, but there is a clip of one of the pieces on YouTube played by Stephen Kenyon. Let's have a listen:

Williams also has a website where you can download this and other pieces:

Please let me know what you think in the comments. Here is another piece from the album, the title cut "From a Bird" this time played by the composer (Blogger won't embed):

What to say about these pieces? I suppose the positive side and the reason that people are enjoying them is that they are pleasing and relaxing. But to my ear they are painfully banal. The melodies are repetitive in a fairly uninteresting way and wander about aimlessly. Harmonically everything is either predictable or awkward. The rhythmic structures are also oddly awkward with the stresses never quite falling where they should. This is just a superficial appraisal, of course. I haven't done a real analysis. I do notice things like where he writes a 4/2 inversion he doesn't resolve it to a first inversion chord as  would traditionally be done. The result is both random and flabby, harmonically, because he ignores the function of the harmony. Actually, that is a pretty good description of the musical language: random and flabby, but pretty in an innocuous way.

I won't go any further because neither Williams nor his fans need my comments! These clips came around just when I was looking for some examples of banal and mediocre music. The playing is neither banal nor mediocre, of course!

There is something interesting to learn from this, though. One's instinct as a performer is to write music that is pleasing and that will charm your audience. This tends to lead to banal and mediocre compositions, however. The problem is that a composer, a real composer, has to come to grips with something rather more than just the passing fancy of the audience. He (or she) has to live through, aesthetically, the times, has to experience and confront the disturbing aesthetic context of the last hundred years, has to go beyond pretty sounds to the bedrock beneath. This is, in fact, what composers have had to do for centuries.

Yes, a lot of the music we hear from the past seems perfectly innocuous, but I doubt it was perceived so at the time. Take almost anything by Bach, for example. While his music is lovely and charming, it  also has real firmness and substance and sometimes is very challenging. The same is true of Mozart and Haydn though they have the gift of concealing the steel fist within a velvet glove.

On one of the Williams albums he plays a Bach Andante and I think it is this one. Make the comparison for yourself:


aworks said...

I have no opinion about (this) John Williams but maybe Sturgeon's Law applies here.

Bryan Townsend said...

It certainly seems to have general application!

Steven Watson said...

I must say in favour of John Williams that he recently commissioned for theorbist Matthew Wadsworth a piece by Stephen Goss, and it's really good! The first two movements are on YouTube:

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much Steven! There is always so much going on out there that one is unaware of. Quite an interesting piece in what I would call neo-classical style. I see from the Wikipedia article that Stephen Goss is a guitarist and professor who melds different styles.

Will Wilkin said...

Last night I was browsing the CD box sets at hbdirect and noticed a 59-disc set of John Williams recordings, sale priced at $130. I noticed it among their many hundreds of box sets both because I was influenced by John Williams when I was a young beginner to classical music, AND because HOLY COW did he record a LOT of music!

Regarding the mediocre and banal aspects of most music, it's funny how that is the first criticism I usually have with music that bores me but also funny how I can ignore it when something about the music still gives me feelings. Some old country and some rock music come to mind. Take for random example this song on my mind a lot lately, "Can't You See (what that woman's been doing to me)?" by the Marshall Tucker Band. Must just ring so true and have enough feeling in the performance that I can't let go of it and don't find it mediocre and banal, however much a theoretical analysis might dismiss it as trivial. Perhaps the words carry through a lot of popular music that would be otherwise completely disposable --not that the playing on this one fits that description.

Will Wilkin said...

As for Matthew Wadsworth's playing of Stephen Goss' "Miller's Tale," it sounds to me much more like modern guitar music than the theorbo music I'm used to as the lute-like ensemble voice in early baroque operas and sonatas. There is much more continuity and flow in this theorbo music, whereas the early music use of it was often with either an emphatic strum followed by silence (to emphasize the opening phrase of a vocal line), or the slowly plucked almost background it provides for instrumental passages where a violin (or vocalist) solos out in front. The Goss piece keeps the theorbo in near constant ringing of many notes, again, like guitar music of the 20th century. Very nice! Not at all mediocre or banal!

Bryan Townsend said...

The price over at HBdirect sure beats Amazon where it is listed for $375! I was tempted to buy this when it came out. I used to own probably 80% of these albums on vinyl and have only replaced a few of them with recent boxes of CDs. But the thing is, I would rarely listen to them anyway, so not quite worth it. Yes, Williams recorded pretty much everything worth recording as did Julian Bream. A real aficionado would own both boxes as the integral Bream is also available.

I wouldn't say a good country or blues or rock tune were necessarily mediocre or banal! Quite the contrary.

The piece by Stephen Goss does echo quite a bit of Baroque music for the instrument, but blended with contemporary gestures. You might have a listen to some music by Sylvius Leopold Weiss or Robert de Visée for comparison.