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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Social History of Music

  Discussion is drawn from A Social History of Music: From the Middle Ages to Beethoven by Henry Raynor.

   If you want to talk about the "history of music" you are  basically talking about "biographies of composers" or, if you want to consider the 20th century, "biographies of musicians."  If you want to pull in the most recent output of those who write and read music hisof tory, you could add the "ologization" of music history, where historical subjects are analyzed using non or quasi historical discourses (sociology and anthropology, for example.)

  However, I would argue that if you go back to the "biographies of composers" era, another route of analysis exists, namely looking at the environment and human relationships of "famous musicians."  This is quite easy to do using the techniques of social history, and it's a wonder that it is such a neglected era of inquiry- almost... not interesting to contemporary intellectuals.  I honestly have no idea what Music Professors are doing these days, but they are not writing social histories of music. Also not writing social histories of music: history professors.

  In fact, the only comprehensive Social History of Music that I have found is the one by Henry Raynor circa 1978.  That is a generation ago.  And it's not a popular book, either.  I read A Social History of Music back in January and at the time I thought, "there has to be something more recent."  BUT- I don't believe there is.  And Raynor does a really, really good job of laying out the terrain is his introductory essay, which I am about to quote at length.

        Raynor's approach has only one methodological flaw, and unfortunately, it's a whopper.  Specifically he is a victim of "Bacon's Fallacy" which is the idea that the investgating intellectual must collect all the facts "as he finds them."  I.E. there is a pretense of objectivity in the collection of factual information.  Despite the flaw, the Introduction is a ready introduction to a Social Historian perspective on Music.  Raynor notes that "music history" consists of two main themes: biographies of composers, story of music styles and their development.  From this perspective (the non-Social Historian of Music) the purpose of Music History is to appraise specific Artists and approve their output as being significant.  Raynor does not dismiss this approach as irrelevant, in fact, he thoughtfully observes:

  "The mutability of stylicistic history does not invalidate what it has to say. A history of historians of music..would demonstrate quite clearly the function of historians as historians of taste."

   Obbiously though, Social History takes a different approach in that is starts from the premise that music exists socially:

"It is written down so that people  other than its composer can play it.  The bulk of it presupposes the creative and interpreative efforts of two, three or up to a hundred performers.  Most music presupposes the attention of the audience."
     A neglected area of Music History is the attitude of notable Artists towards their Audience (What Mozart, Beethoven and Bach thought about the people who listened to their music) and the views of the Audience itself.  A critical shift in this regard is the growth of the University in the 18th and 19th century, which led Artists, Audiences and Intellectuals to be much more detailed about their views regarding music.  This shift reached it's apogee with the "neglected genius' Schopenauer, whose legendary contempt for the Audience was a watershed moment for Artist/Audience relationships- not to mention Intellectual ideas about that relationship.

    As for an explanation for WHY the social history of music is neglected, Raynor has a clear villain:

 "nineteenth century conceptions of art as pure activity, occupying only the higher strata as those which reckon up the bills and consider the possibility of paying them, that we do not consider the Artist's relationship to the musical world in which he performance and publication."
        I would say nothing has changed in that regard 30 years later- that quotation is still perfectly true when it comes to intellectuals and their ideas about music.

The Recording Angel: The Experience of Music From Aristotle To Zappa

The Recording Angel:
The Experience of Music From Aristotle To Zappa
by Evan Eisenberg
Penguin Books
p. 1987

   Now that I'm actively writing my own book, I'm becoming more interested in the rhythm and structure of other people's books.  I'm generally interested in books that make use of specialized knowledge ("discourse") in the course of writing a general interest book.  All this writing about artists and audiences makes me all the more aware of similar precepts in the world of books.

   Here are a couple of principles that seem to apply:

  1)  A general reader does not want to read a book longer then 300 pages unless it features wizards and/or dragons.
 2)   Books that try to convey specialist knowledge to a general audience need to convey it the way you convey medicine to a dog:  Take a piece of hamburger and stick the pill inside, hope the dog doesn't notice as he wolves down the meat.
 3) If you are going to reach a general audience with a book about ideas, you need to convince book industry professionals, and the smaller audience of people who read magazines like the new yorker and the atlantic monthly, or read the Wall Street Journal, or watch Fox News:  I'm talking about members of the general public who are interested in ideas.  These are the folks who get regular people buying off of Amazon.

   The Recording Angel clocks in at a spare 250 pages and has no footnotes or bibliography: Principle 1 is certainly satisfied.  Principle two is more ambiguously realized.  "The Recording Angel" is the musing of a journalist on what he considered a quasi academic subject, "the impact of recording technology on the social experience of Music."  Also, he is writing in the mid 1980s, during a time when the vocabulary for describing the social experience of music was itself limited, let alone the vocabularly for talking about the impact of recording technology on the social experience of music.  Here, however, the proof is in the pudding, or rather, the proof is in the handsome revised edition that was published in 2005.  Clearly, Eisenberg succeeded in writing a general interest book about music drawing upon specialist knowledge, particuarly in the disciplines of history, musicology and philosophy.

    The About the Author foreword says that Eisenberg, "writes about music, culture and technology for the Nation, Saturday Review, The Village Voice... and other publications.  He studied philosohy at Harvard and Princeton."  He is an intellectual, writing for a general audience (book is published by Penguin Books.) In The Recording Angel, Eisenberg convicingly synthesizes the history of popular music in the 20th century with the history of "serious" music during the same time span and the ideas intellectuals have about music during a longer time frame.

   What is less convincing is his ability to make a larger point about what it all means.  Writing about the relationship between music and technology prior to the arrival of mp3s is a bit like writing the history of the Jews in Germany and stopping in the 1920s: It would be an interesting book, but not the complete story, and your thesis might change were you to include the next bit.

   Eisenberg does do an excellent job of explaining how recording technology, specifically, the shellac record, changed the relationship between Artists and Audiences in the 20th century.  The primary change appears to be the introduction of "an audience of one."  Before the shellac record of the early 20th century, listening to music mostly meant listening to music WITH OTHER PEOPLE.  The record replaced that prerequisite with new possibilities.

   Readers of this blog might be interested to read his chapter of the Invention of the Record Producer, whom he refers to a Phonographer (as supposed to a Musician.)  This is a person who simply did not exist until the Recorded Music Industry summoned him into existence.   Examples existed before the Rocknroll era: John Hammond of Columbia Records is a prime non-rock example.  However, Eisenberg identifies Phil Spector as the first "auteur"(in the sense of a film director auteur) and likewise tags Zappa as the first Artist/Phonographer: An artist whose entire identity is equivalent with the technology he utilizes to record his music.  To his eternal credit, Eisenberg does not exclude the important development in electronic music happening mostly in Europe in "serious Art Music" circles at the same time that Spector and Zappa were doing their thing.

   I'm seriously considering picking up the 2005 version to see what he has to say about Mp3 and the collapse of the Major Labels, but the original edition stands alone- worth reading.


Monday, March 14, 2011


HERO SLAY SERPENT.  Hero slays serpent is a mythic formula that resonates in multiple countries.




Sunday, March 13, 2011

Be My Baby: The Ronnie Spector Story


Be My Baby:  How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts & Madness, or my Life As A Fabulous Ronette.
by Ronnie Spector
w/ Vince Waldron
Introduction by Billy Joel
Foreword by Cher
p. 1990

   I think it's worth throwing out there the idea that the "Phil Spector story" is the primary narrative in the story of popular music in the 20th century.  First of all, Spector encompassed a large swath of the actual history of popular music in the 20th century:  He has equally interesting chapters dealing with the pre-rock Brill Building songwriters/music industry,  had huge hits DURING the rocknroll era (1953-1963),  recorded a Beatles record and ended up becoming a tabloid specatacle.  What more can you ask for?  And like any good mythic figure, you can look at the story from multipe perspectives.  I prefer to see Spector as a Pre-Christian god:  Remote, Foreboding, Violent Tempered and quite monstrous at times.  Not a god I would choose to worship, but embodying the kind of mythic characteristics that one associates with gods and god-like figures.

      Knowing that Spector is currently serving a life sentence for murder makes the story all the more mythic.  My thought though is that if you were to do say, a film, about Phil Spector, the main setting would be the mansion where he kept Ronnie Spector nee Bennett locked up for a decade or two.  And who better to give a perspective on that location then Ronnie herself?  At least, that seems to be the thesis behind Be My Baby, the clumsily subtitled (How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts & Madness, or my Life As A Fabulous Ronette) "auto"-biography from Certified Rock and Roll Survivor Ronnie Spector.

      This is book is fascinating because Spector is the Queen to Spector's King- quite self-consciously, I think.  I mean, she kept the last name, through it all.  I totally understand, but Spector's lack of agency is the headline in Be My Baby.  Truly, she was manipulated from the start by a master manipulator.   In my view the key to understand the Phil Spector/Ronnie Spector relationship is 1) Phil Spector hated his mother:  His father committed suicide when he was very young, and it's not hard to imagine that he blamed his Mother, who was also very pushy and bossy well into his adulthood.  2)  Ronnie Bennett wanted to be famous, and she believed that Phil Spector could help her achieve that goal.

    The smell of race and money permeates Be My Baby.  Spector places emphasis on her upbringing in a single-parent household, and her status as a mixed race child in a majority African American environment. Spector was working towards a career as a singer of popular music, but Phil Spector was the first person to really "get" the potential of Ronnie Bennett's voice/style.  To give but one of several examples, an early Brilll Building affiliated writer/agent said that the early Ronettes could be like the Andrews Sisters.  That guy... was just clueless.  The Phil Spector/Ronnie Bennett story has some similarities to the Barry Gordy/Diana Ross story.  In both instances, the male producer was LOOKING for something specific, and was operating in an environment where there was competition among aspiring musicians for music industry attention.
       The Bennett/Ross figure is DRAWN to the male figure by his POWER.  On the other hand, the Spector/Gordy figure is drawn to the physical characteristics of the Bennett/Ross.  In one sense that is "OK"(Spector said to Bennett after hearing her sing "that's the voice I'm looking for.") and in another sense it is creepy and weighted with power inequalities and sexual exploitation.  Shrug.  That's life, or at least- it was back then, because the same facts repeat themselves over and over again with female popular music artists.

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