Friday, August 9, 2013

My Musical Odyssey, Part VI: If It Sounds Good, It Is Good

 
Peter Schickele didn't say it, but if it wasn't for him, I probably would never have known it.
 
Peter Schickele, in case you're not familiar with him, is an American composer and humorist most famous as the man who discovered and curates the music of PDQ Bach, last and least of JS Bach's many children. The music is all intentionally awful, laden with quotes of popular songs, voiced on bizarre alternative instruments, and setting texts in hilarious ways. The whole PDQ Bach phenomenon is a satirical stab at pompous, judgmental musicologists, a class of intellectual who came to the forefront of mid-twentieth century musical criticism. Pointed as they are at such a rarified field of study, Schickele's jokes can at times seem a bit too obscure to the layperson, but then the orchestra starts playing, the soprano warbles out another twisted aria, and they're all back in the palm of his hand.
 
Apart from his mission of getting the musical intelligentsia to lighten up and look in a mirror, Peter Schickele had a larger mission of breaking down the snobbery inherent in all musical criticism. With this in mind, he hosted for fifteen years a radio program called Schickele Mix, which was "dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal." Schickele Mix would take a music concept and explore it using examples from across the musical spectrum. There was no finickiness in the musical samples because, as Duke Ellington once said and Peter Schickele quoted every week, "If it sounds good, it is good." Schickele had excellent taste, and every piece he played reflected that taste, whether it came from the classical or popular sphere.
 
This dictum--that it is not the style of a piece, but its beauty to the listener, that renders music good--has defined my own taste for many years now. It's an utterly subjective criterion, as I've been saying throughout this series, but in that subjectivity lies its genius: if it sounds good to you, it is good; unfortunately, that can only be said about a piece within the context of the individual listener. I can be fascinated by the eerie Sprechstimme of Pierrot Lunair, while you find it about as pleasing as the death cry of a strangled goose. You may be utterly enraptured by Rihanna's latest bit of soft core R&B, while I find it offensively unforgettable, the worst kind of ear worm.
 
The gift of this love-and-let-love approach is that it nullifies the blanket condemnation or acceptance of the genre of a piece as a criterion for including it in, or excluding it from, a play list, whether it is in the classroom or on the dance floor. An example: I was teaching a third grade music class a lesson about rap, encouraging them to create rhyming couplets that could be spoken with hip hop rhythms and accents. The next day, I received in my email an angry note from a parent, appalled that I would use rap in the classroom when it wasn't music, and what musical elements it might use were plagiarized from other pieces. I ultimately resolved that conflict peacefully, by carefully explaining my rationale, but the lesson for me was clear: I can't please everyone. The children may have been thrilled by learning music that drew on hip hop, but there was at least one parent rendered angry by it.
 
I've been there. There is music that makes me angry. The first time I saw U2 live, the opening act was the appropriately named Rage Against the Machine. I heard a lot of rage, couldn't understand enough lyrics to get what the rage was about, and overall found the music oppressive, painful to my ears, and mind-numbingly repetitious. (The next day, I received an email from my brother James, who had also been at the concert: "All together now: like a bullet in the head, like a bullet in the head..." That chorus was quite effective at making me feel, over and over, like I was getting said bullet in my head. To put it mildly: I didn't love it. Clearly, though, many in the stadium did love it: the band was enthusiastically applauded as they left the stage. By then, I had left my seat in a vain attempt to escape the noise.
 
There's plenty of music that I just don't get. I'll never understand the appeal of dubstep, which sounds to me like Skynet announcing the robo-apocalypse by announcing musicians will be the terminators' first targets. I never like mechanical distortion of the human voice, whether the goal is to make it sound mechanical or raise (or lower) it to an impossible pitch. And poorly enunciated lyrics will always get to me: if I can't tell what the words are, I'd rather listen to an instrumental. Finally, I just cannot get my head around demonic screaming. I know it's a big party of the rebellious music that appeals to a lot of teens, but it just turns me off.
 
That seems like a short list, and yet I can't think of anything else to put in there. If I have any other complaints, they're too petty to merit attention here. And I'm not denying anyone the right to enjoy these types of music, nor am I calling any of them bad. I just don't like them--anymore than a death metal lover is likely to appreciate Beethoven's sixth symphony.
 
The one drawback to "If it sounds good, it is good" is that it may open the door too wide, allowing in some musical parasites we'd be better off just calling bad. Do we really need anything else by Rick Astley? How about the disco piece my brother used to play as loud as he could, so I couldn't help hearing it through the wall: "Get down, boogie oogie oogie oogie..." Ugh.
 
But again, it really worked for him. I doubt if he would've played it that much if it turned his stomach. It sounded good to him, so it was good.
 
It is not my place to take away your favorite song, however much I may hate it. You have every right to like what you like, and love what you love, no matter how incisive may be my critique of the piece itself and the way it is performed. Acknowledging this, we can all get along better. It may not silence our stereo wars--there are still going to be people who'd rather hear something else, and if they live in close proximity to each other, there will be some sound leakage--but it can at least civilize the conversation.
 
And it may, just may, open minds. Dialogue has a way of doing that. If, rather than saying "Could you please turn that off? I don't care for it," we were to say, "That's not my cup of tea, but I wonder if you could tell me why you like it," we might find ourselves learning to appreciate music that has never worked for us before.

This is, as I explained in Part V, how I finally came to love jazz: I listened to it critically in the company of a gifted knowledgeable teacher who loved it, and could tell me and show me why it was so great. He opened my mind to performers and styles I had never been able to appreciate before, and I feel like a better person as a result. I hope that is what I'm doing as an educator as I introduce young people to music that I dearly love, but which is new and strange to them.

This is the final lesson of the sounds-good-is-good approach: accepting that this music that doesn't work for me does work for you opens me to the possibility of learning to like it myself, because it puts me in a place of curiosity. I want to know why you love it so much. Share that with me. Tell me what wonderful memories you associate with it, what elements of it impress you, what about it moves you. Hearing these things, I may very well open my mind enough to give it another try. I'm not promising I'll learn to love it, but there's at least more of a chance this will happen than if I just shut you off and deny you the right to have different tastes from my own.

It took me nearly half a century to learn this, but I believe it so strongly now that it really is my creed, not just as a music educator, but as a lover of music. The world is a far more beautiful place for everyone when that is the case.

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