Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Two of my odd interests converge:

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that two of my obscure interests include Allan Bloom and his book The Closing of the American Mind and Kansas, the 70s American Progressive Rock band best known for a few Album Oriented Rock hits.

What could bring these two things together? Well, Kerry Livgren, guitarist and keyboardist, but more importantly, the writing genius behind the band, is an intellectual of sorts and became a born-again Christian. Like a lot of evangelicals, politically, he is quite conservative. And like of like of conservative intellectuals in the 80s, he bought and read The Closing of the American Mind and actually quotes from that book in his own autobiography, Seeds of Change (no link, b/c it's out of print), which includes a section on his philosophy of music.

Interestingly, Livgren reproduces excerpts from that chapter on his website.

In Closing, Bloom mercilessly and quite amusingly criticizes rock music. He especially has it in for Mick Jagger whom he regards as the epitome of everything that is wrong with pop culture (the book was written in the mid-80s; he didn't live long enough to see the likes of Eminem et al.).

Here is some of Livgren on Bloom and music.

It must be a symptom of our shallow throw-away culture. Things are no longer built to last. Everything, not just music, seems destined for a transitory life, as if designed only for maximum profit, soon to be replaced by the "next big thing." It is as if planned obsolescence has invaded the realm of human expression. Longevity is only relevant as it relates to commercial viability. Quality or creativity seem not, in and of themselves, to be sufficient reasons to justify the existence of a piece of music. They have been eclipsed by something called "image," and marketability, now a necessity for the artist (if "artist" is the appropriate word).

The motivation behind much of the music being produced today is, to my mind, somewhat less than pure. The artist who is trying to be totally original and creative has more than an uphill battle on his hands. There are the necessary (?) legal entanglements to contend with. The artist must not only attempt to convince a record company to distribute and promote his or her music, but is also constricted by the ever-narrowing parameters of radio formatting. If you don't fit the mold, you're out in the cold. Creative or not, if one steps outside the boundaries of one of these commercial formats, it can be the kiss of death. One could argue that this is nothing new and has always been the case. Audiences supposedly rioted when they first heard Stravinskys' Rite of Spring because it sounded so unlike anything they had ever heard. People seem to prefer to be mindlessly entertained than to be challenged. But even if that has always been true, I maintain that our artistic environment today is getting worse and not better. There is no atmosphere today which can cultivate a Stravinsky. People are obsessed with music at an almost unprecedented level, but the quality of what they are obsessed with is, in my opinion, in a general decline.

Allan Bloom spoke at length (and quite eloquently) on this point in his book, The Closing of the American Mind. Commenting on our culture's obsession with music, he writes:

"It is available twenty-four hours a day, everywhere. There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels exclusively devoted to them, on the air nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place--not public transportation, not the library--prevents students from communing with the Muse . . . ."

This is profound and true. Music is all around us. But the disturbing irony is that so many can be obsessed with so little. One doesn't often hear Bach, Duke Ellington, or Aaron Copland blasting out of a boom box. Don't misunderstand me; I know it's beginning to sound as if I don't like rock or any kind of modern music, or that I think we should remain in the past. That's ridiculous--I grew up on rock and roll, and for most of my life that's what I have written and played. My lamentations are for what I think is a lack of real creativity and the absence of an atmosphere that would encourage and reward it. Incidentally, I am not saying this from the standpoint of an artist who believes he is above that criticism. I constantly struggle to escape the ordinary in my own work, and only occasionally succeed.

Over the years I have accumulated a rather large collection of recordings which covers the whole spectrum of musical styles. Lately I have found that there is rarely time to sit down and simply listen to music, but in one of those rare moments, I pulled a record off the shelf that I have not listened to for probably ten years. It was an early album by a little known British group, Gentle Giant. I happened to notice the liner notes on the album which read:

"It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought--that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this."

I think they fulfilled their prophecy of their own obscurity, but what a credo! They stated most succinctly the exact attitude which I think is missing from so much of today's contemporary music. There is no virtue in intentionally seeking to be unpopular, nor does commercial success automatically mean that a piece of music was conceived for that purpose. The best possible scenario is one in which the highest creative endeavors are accessible to the broadest possible audience.

Bloom makes a point in his book with which I completely disagree. He maintains that the musical soil is rich, and that "There is no dearth of the new and the startling." To the contrary, I find a tremendous dearth of the new, although I grant that some things I hear are indeed startling. I would have to take the position of Ecclesiastes--that there is nothing new under the sun. Virtually everything on the airwaves is so completely formularized that it sounds like it came off an assembly line. I don't really think that there is a total absence of creative musicians on the face of the earth. They surely exist in garages and basements, and might be heard on the most obscure private record labels, but obscurity is the key word here.

Ironically, there are some real virtuoso players out there, but the confines of the styles in which they are trapped can make them stupefyingly boring. Guitarists are particularly guilty of saturating the market with their machine gun arpeggios and ever more flamboyant and postured chromatic explosions. How much more impressed are we supposed to get? The whole genre seems to be designed to draw attention to the player rather than the music.

Even the college radio stations with their "alternative music" suffer from a dreadful sameness. Most of the groups I hear on these stations seem to believe that providing an alternative consists of either imitating the bands of the sixties or being as cacophonous and obnoxious as possible.

There was indeed, an explosion of creativity in the sixties and early seventies upon which we are still coasting. Many of the popular musicians of that decade literally defined how some instruments are played thirty years later. There is not a contemporary rock guitarist, for example, who does not owe a huge debt to Hendrix, Clapton, and a few others.

During that brief period, scores of new bands emerged, almost all of which had a distinctively individual and identifiable style. Musicians were doing many things that had never been done before. It was a very open and creative decade. We are now in an imitative period. I am amazed at the apparently unending number of heavy metal groups, for example, that are strapped with such rigid parameters in both their music and their appearance. Where are the individuals?

One of the things that frightens me most about saying things like this is that I sound just like our dads sounded when we were teenagers! Growing up in the sixties, most of us heard our parents expound on the unequaled greatness of Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller, and how this "modern" music sounded like noise, had no melody, and would not stand the test of time. The generational boundaries were clear then, but interestingly, they seem to be getting less distinct today.

I have seen many families with teenagers in which both the parents and kids were listening to the same groups. In some cases, the kids were reaching farther back than the parents were. That rarely would have been the case in the sixties or even the seventies. I never would have bought a Count Basie or Frankie Carle album when I was sixteen (although I appreciate them now, and I'm starting to really dig Glenn Miller).

As a member of a band that reached its peak of popularity in the late seventies and early eighties, I find it gratifying, but also peculiar to be receiving a significant amount of fan mail from people 25 years younger than me. On the most recent Kansas tour that I was on, our audiences ranged from early teens to late middle age. Something has certainly changed.

Read the whole thing here.


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