tom moody

teaching vs lying in music, a proposal

A couple of years ago a friend had an idea of making e-books of music theory and asked for proposals. The idea seems to have died on the vine but in a way I'm glad because am not sure I have the stamina to write the essay proposed below. Am posting it here as a rough manifesto for my own work as a musician.

The essay explores a tension in music since the early 20th Century between what I'll call "teaching" and "lying," that is, between the need to explain new techniques and processes and the perverse desire of the artist to indulge in misdirection, fiction, and untruths.
I'll start with an Auden lyric asserting that music -- in contrast to words -- can't lie. Daniel Albright, in his book Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and the Other Arts, argues that French composers from Les Six group, often described as musical surrealists, were able to lie with music by "shifting its semantic plane." See notes at http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2008/03/26/daniel-albright-on-poulenc-and-surrealist-music/
Other composers of that era explored a more responsible, pedagogical approach. I'll talk about Carl Orff's Musik für Kinder (music for children) which was made simple for teaching purposes but survives as intriguing modern music in its own right, and has been used by filmmakers such as Terence Malick (in Badlands).
Somewhere in the middle is Erik Satie and his notion of interchangeable "furniture" music. I'll discuss his score for Entr'acte Cinematographique, Rene Clair's film that ran between the two acts of the Relâche ballet, as an example of modularity, anticipating DJ and techno music.
With the twin poles of dissembling and pedagogy in mind, I'll discuss more recent developments beginning with sampling in the late '80s. An example of lying or Albright's "shifting the semantic plane" would be the Beastie Boys' use of the '70s David Bromberg song "Sharon" in their song "Johnny Ryall," or De La Soul's use of a Turtles string sample in "Live Transmission from Mars," in both cases turning "authentic" or innocent expression to the dark side of absurdist irony -- even though it's exactly the same music.
Working counter to these tendencies is a strong pedagogical streak in present-day electronic music. I'll discuss how techno-ambient techniques are taught "from without" (via instrument demos) and also "from within" (classic Detroit-style techno that reveals and hides its structure during its run time).
These arguments will be mostly intuitive and based on close readings of some old and new works. Other than Albright (whose ideas I think need to be better known) I plan to talk less about music theory (say, Adorno) than music itself. Ultimately I support the need for pedagogy in an evolving technological landscape but at the same time recognize the need for dissembling in a society of surveillance and "unitary identity" initiatives.

My working title is "Teaching vs Lying, from the Modernist Composers to the Techno Era." I may not use that, since it will take 30 pages to dope out a dichotomy that in a title just sounds baffling.
Anyway, such is my drift.
Tom Moody, December 2012

- tom moody

January 31st, 2015 at 12:45 pm

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