I am from the United States; but artistically, I identify as closely with my Italian heritage. More importantly than my citizenship or ancestry, however, I am an idealist. Like Abraham, I look for a better country.
- April 1, 2021 On Moral Fallacies: Why True Liberalism and Conservatism are Both Valid
- September 8, 2020 Long Artist Statement
- August 22, 2020 Artist Statement
- March 17, 2017 Karen Armstrong’s St Paul: An Epistolary Review
- September 7, 2016 Review: The Triumph of Vulgarity
- February 5, 2016 The Holographic Universe: A Review
- February 2, 2016 Reflections on Sculpture
- January 30, 2016 Reflections on Civil War Letters
- January 25, 2016 Review: Pope Francis’ Letter to the World
- January 20, 2016 Schumacher: Two Reviews
Notes on music by Gregory Kyle
In my work I acknowledge John Keats’ simple maxim—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
September 7, 2016
Vulgarity is understood to mean indecency, obsceneness, and lewdness; but this is the vulgar definition of the word. The classical meaning of vulgar is of or pertaining to the common people, unrefined, undiscriminating, and accessible to all. The title—The Triumph of Vulgarity—captures the paradoxical nature of Robert Pattison’s examination of American culture through the lens of rock—it is a refined, discriminating, and narrowly accessible discourse on music that celebrates the opposite of those qualities.
Pattison contends that rock is “the music of triumphant vulgarity” and “the liturgy of vulgar pantheism.” A reflection of nineteenth-century Romanticism, rock is “America’s most powerful weapon and most successful export.” Having received the embrace of both “high” and “low” classes in less than thirty years since its inception in the American south, vulgar rock has triumphed over the long tradition of humanity’s refined culture, embodied by the work of poets and artists from Homer to Wordsworth. Pattison’s claims hold implications for culture, society and politics, and are as worthy of consideration today as when Vulgarity was published thirty years ago.
Again, the book is paradoxical. The central revelation—“vulgarity has triumphed”—personifies vulgarity, like the Nike of Samothrace, and positions it over its enemies. This personification is a kind of metaphor commonly used in Classical and Romantic literature to uncover otherwise hidden or obscured truths; but the vulgarity that has triumphed scorns such revelatory talk. Pattison writes, “Vulgar is not a word in the vulgarian’s lexicon because he has no transcendent vantage from which to make the implied distinction between the ordinary and the cultured.” That vulgarity has triumphed is not a cry of exultation before the masses, but a frank revelation—perhaps a bitingly sarcastic one—given to those who speak the language of classical poetry—the cultured and the refined. The opening lines of the first chapter capture this irony with brilliant wit.
The Nike of Samothrace
What follows is a beautifully articulated description of vulgarity and refinement, the history of pantheism, and its necessary connection with vulgarity and rock. The author’s stated methodology is “not to condemn [vulgarity], which has been done without success, but to describe it, which has yet to be undertaken.” Pattison’s description of pantheism overlaps with what some term “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” today—“Pantheism is necessarily vulgar because it rejects the transcendence from which refinement springs, because it delights in the noisy confusion of life, and because it sacrifices discrimination to eclecticism.” The author enumerates the positive features of rock’s vulgar pantheism—infinite tolerance, personal contentment, and outrageous energy, fun, and humor.
The examination of the mythology and pantheist ideology of rock that unfolds in subsequent chapters is challenging, even-handed, and hilarious. The tone long remains objective, however momentous may be the implications of vulgarity’s triumph. In the last two chapters, the author opens his mouth for the voiceless, articulating for the rocker a defense against the Marxists, psychologists, and fundamentalists that have attacked rock. In the end Pattison rebukes his academic peers and President Reagan’s Secretary of Education who “lust after foreign models of culture,” and counsels the few American “champions of refinement” that remain to pay tribute to triumphant vulgarity, which merits no more or less respect accorded to the “prophet of vulgarity” who anticipated the spirit of rock, Walt Whitman.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Make the Most of Vulgarity?
Pattison says “vulgarity is here to stay.” He asks whether we can escape the fate of Rome given “the probability that civilization cannot survive vulgarity.” He estimates that “if vulgarity is without redeeming features, then civilization is lost, because the triumph of vulgarity is assured.” In his satire of American vulgar culture, he imagines a bitter end: “Civilization would pulsate briefly in the throes of anarchy, lapse into the paralysis of overindulgence, and pass finally into the void beyond mind, taste, and decency.” Despite the apparently grim prognosis of culture, the author’s suggestion is to “make the most of it,” and appreciate what redeeming features vulgar pantheism has to offer. There is an implied fatalism in this perspective, despite the appeal of vulgar pantheism’s benefits. Paraphrasing Wordsworth, Pattison says, “We cannot stop at vulgarity unless we are prepared to die in our souls, any more than the child can prevent his growth to manhood unless he is prepared to die in his body.” To accept vulgarity without moving beyond it is to substitute death for eternal life, according to Wordsworth. But his transcendent Romanticism is dead, Pattison says. Meanwhile, the “bastard” version of Romanticism, “unwilling to grow up,” is alive and well in rock. In his commitment to ideological consistency, Pattison offers his cultured readers two unattractive choices—continue to hope in the dead vision of self-transcendent refinement, or make the most of vulgarity’s triumph. It may be that the choices are not quite so stark if traces of transcendent Romanticism can still be found even in triumphant rock.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Is Rock Necessarily Solipsistic?
Pattison states frankly that rock music is self-centered, solipsistic. This is largely undeniable, but surely some songs under rock’s wing are nothing of the sort—“You’ve Got a Friend,” by James Taylor/Carol King; “Don’t Give Up,” by Peter Gabriel; “Tangled Up Puppet,” and other Harry Chapin songs about fatherhood, “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton, etc. The list is long when rock is taken as a blanket term for post-mid-century popular music. In the nineties and beyond, hip hop songs such as “Unconditional Love” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” by Tupac, “Runaway Love,” by Ludacris make the grade of “vulgar” but self-transcending popular music. If the broad definition of rock is just, then without qualification it has become the musical idiom of American culture; but though rock was birthed as a willful reaction to the moralistic strictures of “respectable” society, it is not necessarily fated to remain the music of self-preoccupied youth. Perhaps in the rock idiom there is no way to denote the sort of joy, rapture, and ecstasy that, Pattison notes, is the subject of refined works like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and still remain rock. These qualities, indeed, belong to a world of transcendent values, which vulgar pantheism denies. But if the rock idiom is limited by a vocabulary that does not include “joy,” “rapture,” and “ecstasy,” musicians may yet denote those or similar ideas in whatever capacity the language does allow. In fact, the limitations of the vulgar language may permit a form of expression that was denied to Beethoven because his language was limited in other ways. James Taylor can informally deliver lyrics embodying brotherly love before relaxed audiences in the concert hall or living room. He can sing comfortably without projecting vibrato or displaying refined poetic craft, as a solo baritone reciting Schiller. He can use his catchy rock syncopations, warm major seventh chords, vernacular American English, and hint nothing of solipsism.
Though rock was born as the music of self-preoccupied adolescence, it may, for better or worse, move beyond that stage. Steven Tyler and the Stones celebrate rock’s myth of eternal youth—examined by Pattison—to the present day; but Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) has expressed his monist worldview using the rock idiom, and Bob Dylan has opened the Great American Songbook of his generation’s sires. These examples, of course, come decades after Vulgarity was published, but they are living proof for today’s readers that rock is not necessarily solipsistic. Old and young artists, whether a minority or no, continue to prove otherwise.
It is highly likely, however, that certain subgenres of rock lend themselves more to self-transcendent expression. “You’ve Got a Friend,” for one, belongs in the soft or folk rock categories. It is less likely that psychedelic rock or heavy metal should fall short of self-glorification. This is no pejorative comment per se. Pattison has made the case compellingly that, as vulgar pantheist, the true rocker would either welcome the indictment of solipsism with alacrity or else shrug at it with indifference. Pattison’s contention that it is impossible to make the liturgy of vulgar pantheism “respectable” must be granted—but all rock music may not constitute that liturgy.
Does Rock Music Have No Effect On Its Listeners’ Behavior?
Pattison demonstrates that rock is “impervious to the diatribes” of its accusers. Answering charges that rock correlates with violence, immorality, and crime, Pattison argues that there is a gulf between what rockers feel and what they do. Like religious believers, they can “live a full emotional life inside the myths, not in the danger of external events.”
The traditional metaphysician may argue that under true vulgar pantheism, morality disappears. The “kindness, decency, and toleration” of which Whitman was a model become matters of personal preference, and cannot logically be superior to their opposites. Thus Charles Manson cannot truly be condemned for his violent intentions and murders, apparently inspired or exacerbated by the Beatles’ proto-metal song “Helter Skelter,” because to condemn him or anyone else is to stand in the transcendent place and look down like a judge on hateful deeds—but that place is supposed to be illusory under vulgar pantheism. So the one who approves not only the mythic celebration of violence in music, but the enactment of it in the real world as something neither better nor worse than Whitman’s kindness and toleration holds the most ideologically consistent view under vulgar pantheism.
But if the rocker who maintains the moral rectitude of his Romantic predecessors is accused of contradiction for claiming “nothing is forbidden, all things are permitted,”and meanwhile holding signs that say “fuck war,” the response available to him, Pattison says, is a spate of nonsense syllables. “Rock in its vulgarity,” he articulates, “wants no part of eloquence or logic.” Whether this constitutes a defeat of the rocker’s ideology can only depend on one’s predetermined system of values. Insofar as logical consistency and articulateness are good, the rocker loses; insofar as unfettered commitment to the expansion of infinite self is good, the traditional metaphysician loses.
In any case, while the suggestion that rock inspires violent intentions in those who have not already entertained them may indeed remain nebulous, it cannot be that rock (or any other kind of music) is without effect on its listeners. If so, it is meaningless to speak of it as a “powerful weapon.” Pattison writes, “Any connection between rock mythology and the behavior of large numbers of people is unproven and probably unprovable.” And yet earlier he states that the rocker’s apathy toward capitalism “translates into decreasing percentages of voter participation and detachment from public debate and gainful employment;”and later he cites the marked decrease in church attendance that has coincided with the advent of rock. Whether either of these trends are good or bad, again, depends on a predetermined value-system; but if rock helps create or sustain apathy toward religion and politics, then it is not, as intuition seems to confirm, without effect on the behavior of its listeners. Its status as a powerful force is evident in the real world.
Is Civilization Doomed?
Pattison claims that rock is the product of vulgar American democracy, which is premised on self-interest and liberation from authority. In his words, the American revolutionary myth prizes the same values stressed in rock’s liturgy under the names “democracy, pluralism, individualism, limited government, manifest destiny, and civil rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” American democracy, he states, provides “an ideal setting for the growth of romantic pantheism.” Those in American leadership who wish to “save America from its own vulgarity” live in contradiction, because it is impossible to disdain vulgarity while supporting “the democracy out of which it grows.” That the political system of the United States explains the vulgarity of its popular culture is a point well taken. De Tocqueville, Pattison notes, foretold it before the Civil War, and Arthur Sullivan, he observes, trembled prophetically at the prospect of Edison’s talking machine putting great power into the hands of the vulgar masses.
Donald Trump (b. 1946)
Perhaps the American Experiment of democracy has proven that, especially after the Industrial Revolution, vulgarity trumps refinement; but to undercut those who would encourage American citizens, particularly children in the context of education, to move beyond vulgarity is surely fatalistic. Those whose commitment to self-transcendence is absolute may take heart that Jefferson, with Adams, envisioned an America led by the “aristocracy of virtue and talent,” that the political system is not immutable if people are willing to sacrifice for the possibility of achieving a more perfect union; they may respond to Longfellow’s exhortation in his “Psalm of Life” to summon one’s commitment to higher things, and reject the authoritarianism or moralism that serve to stoke the flames of the very vulgarity it seeks to quell. They may do all this and not be guilty of lusting after foreign models of culture. Artistically, Americans have many examples of culture-creators past and present whose work moves beyond vulgarity—Samuel Barber, John Coltrane, Leonard Bernstein, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Whaticre, to name a few. A fatalistic response to the truths, realities, and powerful myths described in Pattison’s work is not the only response available.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Pattison’s analysis of rock as idea offers unique perspective that thinkers and creators of today ought to consider. His command of world literature and assimilation of a broad spectrum of scholarship inform the challenging discourse presented in Vulgarity. The book succeeds brilliantly in relating the underlying philosophical divisions that are reflected in contemporary music, culture, and even politics. Pattison states that, “American democracy necessarily grows more not less vulgar.” Using popular culture and the RNC as the barometer, who can deny that this statement has already proven accurate in the thirty years since Vulgarity was published? While artists, educators, and critics that still value refined craftsmanship must look squarely at the stark reality around them which Pattison has described, they may yet—perhaps they must—contribute to culture in ways that move beyond or coopt vulgarity, whether or not its broader triumph is absolute.
January 11, 2016
This post marks the first in a series of reflections on books I read in 2015, offered mainly for my friends and family, as well as anyone else online looking for reviews of these works or otherwise interested in subjects ranging from philosophy, science, theology, and spirituality to economics, politics, and history. The first on the list is:
There is too much in this long and truth-packed document for me to attempt to summarize or comment on in a brief space; but within the greatness, I found many striking parallels with the Bible. After reading through, I closed the book convinced that Plato was a Christian. Of course he predated Christ, but the essence of his teaching harmonizes beautifully with that of Christ. No wonder medieval Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas deeply respected him. Among the striking parallels with the Bible are the following: Glaucon poses the question as to who is happier, the unjust man who is prosperous and celebrated as righteous, or the just man who is viewed as wicked, and then “scourged, racked, bound…and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, impaled.” Years ago I read C.S. Lewis cite this passage as one of the most outstanding ‘pagan’ anticipations of the truth. Reading it for myself confirmed to me the idea that what I as a Christian call the Spirit of Prophecy is not limited to people who have a conscious knowledge of the Gospel. Equally striking, furthermore, was Plato’s quotation of Romans 8:28 in Book 10 (four centuries before Paul!): “Even when [the just man] is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death…” Peppered throughout Plato’s Republic are many other images, ideas, and turns of phrase that recall various passages in scripture. If there is a single Spirit of Truth which, as Paul preached to the Athenians in the first century, is not far from all men but quite near, it is no surprise that such spontaneous concord should be discovered.
Overall, Socrates’ task is to answer Glaucon’s challenge to prove that the just person is truly happier than the unjust; this he does by sketching in detail the structure of human civilization, ultimately drawing parallels between the State and the individual, which is a microcosm of the former. Like the State, the individual has forces within that strive for mastery, but which must be ruled by wisdom and love for absolute truth. The dialogue becomes an occasion for Plato to propound his political vision, and to envisage the ideal State. Few works have been as influential throughout history.
Glaucon’s challenge is only resolved in the end when Socrates appeals to the immortality of the soul. The idea that there is reward and/or punishment beyond the grave offers rational justification for preferring the life of a just man, even when it means misery and sore travail, to the life of the unjust man, even when it means adulation, merriment and delight in this life.
Also paramount in this book, and of special interest to me as a composer, is Plato’s view on literature and music. Its purpose, he says, is to impart and reinforce the love of virtue within the citizens of the State, particularly the young in the context of education. Music and poetry—Plato often singles out Homer—can be judged based on whether it tunes the strings of the soul either to courage and temperance or to pusillanimity and lust. Reading this reminded me of Beethoven, whose personal library included the Republic and whose music often embodies the virtues Plato praises in this work. The essence of Plato’s teaching, I believe, remains relevant today: goodness in art reflects goodness in humans, and both should be encouraged and celebrated heartily.
September 10, 2015
I continue my look at the pinnacle of pop-music success, #1 on the billboard hot 100. Apart from my personal curiosity as a classical composer, I hope to put into words what attentive listening looks like. Pop music is not meant for attentive listening, but for passive listening either as aural sugar or else dance music. But what happens when you listen to it attentively? This is the ongoing experiment. Finally, a discussion about popular music is a discussion about culture—what we value, how we think, who we are collectively, etc. It is never a bad thing to know such things about the society one finds oneself in.
For the week of September 12 the no. 1 song on the charts was “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd.
The song opens with a synth emerging out of silence like a star walking onstage. Soon he seizes attention with lyrics to a simple pop melody. Comparisons to the King of Pop are warranted: there’s a Jackson-esque urgency in his voice—hot, sharp, full of self-assurance and performance energy. It’s the repetitive cadence of the melody that belongs to the present decade, as The Weeknd celebrates the perennial theme of badness.
What makes the song ‘bad’? Look at the opening lines:
And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb
And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come
But at least we’ll both be beautiful and stay forever young
This I know, yeah, this I know
Obviously there is a contradiction. Will you die or stay forever young? But contradiction is the point. There is a strange pleasure in intentionally embracing falsehood, especially when you are addicted to something.
The celebration of contradiction, though, is an old strain in rock music (broadly conceived). Think of U2’s “With or Without You,” Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” and even the Beatles’ “Getting Better”—it’s getting better all the time (it can’t get no worse!).
But still: what the heck is the song about? I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…but I love it?
The first thought is that it’s simply about an erotic relationship. But if so, how could numbness of face have any significance? Isn’t facial sensation a good thing in the midst of (ahem) romantic interactions? How could it possibly be construed as a compliment: “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you”?
Apparently it’s a reference to cocaine, which can act as a numbing agent. Like Eric Clapton’s “she’s all right,” this song personifies the stimulant with the feminine pronoun—She told me ‘don’t worry about it’. So the song is about cocaine personified as a girl. On the other hand, it could be about a girl who is compared to cocaine. Either way, to understand the song, one has to get the reference. If one doesn’t, it must be exceedingly meaningless.
But how many people playing, streaming, or dancing to this tune know or care about what it really means? There doesn’t seem to be any widespread acknowledgement of its real meaning. The whole situation looks like a very sad, but not surprising, commentary on the state of popular taste. “Who cares what the song is about; it makes me feel good!” There is no need to satire this; the masses are already satiring themselves.
The song is in some way parallel to the name, The Weeknd. First of all, he’s saying “I’ll spell my name however I want to. I don’t want another e in there. Done.” But now non-initiates might think: “Are you supposed to pronounce it ‘weekend’? What else would it be? I guess it must be that.” Then, “Oh, of course, The Weekend!” when they hear someone else say the name, or look it up on Wikipedia. Abel Tesfaye creates an image for himself that people don’t quite understand unless they’re initiated—in the circle. People desperately want to be in the circle. Now they’re singing “I can’t feel my face” thinking it’s just a dope love-song. It looks like The Weeknd is playing on how ignorant people can be—when the beat is good enough.
What about the music itself apart from the lyrics?
The first verse doubles as a sort of intro. Synth sounds keep the tension up until the beat comes in. The beat has a slight disco-feel, and is obviously simple and repetitive, which lends to its rhythmic power. It makes you want to move. Without this beat, the song wouldn’t be #1. There are other factors too, but the beat is the sina qua non.
“Woo” happens every time the chorus starts. Tesfaye channels the height of feeling, which is what dancing in da club is all about. Yielding to the power of the beat is analogous to yielding to the power of cocaine, or this girl who is like cocaine, or both.
An interlude forms the bridge—the beat stops, and the spotlight is on what’s going on in the subject’s mind, regardless of any external realities, like the noise and bright lights of a club. This breaks up the monotony and creates some real contrast. It also recalls the intro, so that when the chorus starts again it’s like a new beginning. It also emphasizes the conscious choice the subject (i.e. the singer with whom the listener is supposed to identify) makes to enter and reenter the state of inebriation which the beat symbolizes. The song is short; but offers plenty of playing ground for DJs, who can mix it, sample something over it, make it last as long as necessary.
In sum, it’s the latest popular oblation to goddess of hedonism, the mainstay of the popular music industry, inviting people to discard their moral inhibitions and yield to the object of their affections, whatever it may be, whether it’s addictive, destructive, face-numbing, fatal, or worse. And why? Because this is what sells.
December 8, 2014
A few weeks ago, “Blank Space” supplanted Taylor Swift’s other hit “Shake it off” for the number one slot on Billboard. Here are some thoughts on why and how the new chart-topper appeals to the masses.
“Blank Space” uses a harmonic cycle made famous in the 1950s : I-vi-IV-V, along with a melody that repeats with each chord change. The song is a story of the subject—Swift—meeting a boy and the possibility of either extreme pleasure or pain that might descend upon him as a result. Meanwhile she remains, as usual, immune to disaster whatever may ensue.
Swift’s vocals open like pugilist jabs. You have to listen closely to catch them. No one listens to them until they slow down with lines like, “you look like my next mistake.”
As usual, Swift exudes high self-confidence. “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend…” she chants knowingly at the end of the first verse.
The transition melody to the chorus is sweet and comely. Everything before was barely a melody at all, a bare minimum of notes to carry the fast-proceeding text while the rhythm and harmony kept listeners happy. The transition melody to “let’s be friends…” is the hook. When it comes, there’s excitement. Like a high school dance.
The chorus is double-length. The poetic variety there is exceptional for pop-songs. As with the opening verse, you have to listen attentively to get all the words on the first hearing—which, again, nobody does. To most listeners, it’s not about that. You can always hit repeat anyway.
The acoustic guitar in the chorus, which is along with everything else is highly-mastered, offers warmth. And the sweet high-register melody that proceeds is like an enchantment, especially with the portamento at “they’ll tell you I’m insane,” with the chord change to V. Of course it’s all highly sardonic. She shouts at end of chorus: “and you love the game,” to a deliberate, assertive rhythm, with reverb. It all communicates power, specifically sexual power. The message is clear even without an assiduous comprehension of every word: handsome boy, I am your doom.
For a more explicit sexual innuendo, listen to the breathy vocal-trail at 0:27. This is a common technique now for female pop vocalists, and it sells.
The bridge is very dark, musing on boys, love, and torture. The parallelism of the lyric is mediocre (“say I didn’t, say I didn’t”), but she gets away with it. The whole phrase repeats verbatim, and would have been intolerably boring if she didn’t harmonize with herself each time the melody repeats, gradually expanding to four-part harmony. The dramatic point here, incidentally, is self-justification: boys really love the game of being tortured with infatuation, so there is no sin in toying with them like a cat does with a mouse.
The song follows the traditional formula: the chorus repeats after the bridge. The harmony is all diatonic too. The music is very conventional in this sense. The spoken lines are the most innovative feature. The beat, also, was manufactured to be “new” without straying from marketability.
Overall, I think the song is famous because it has a cool beat and sweet melody—when it blossoms forth as a pink rose in the sunshine—and exudes a self-confidence empowered by feminism. There’s also a freedom in it: freedom from pathetic moral restrictions such as “thou shalt give a shit about thy boyfriend’s heart.” Taylor, in this song, relishes the feeling of power, both in seducing her boy and in her immunity to any potential heartbreak (which in the video is more than evident; I recommend, however, listening to the song without watching the video since video can distract). Your fate is in my hands she revels throughout the sweet progressions. The song appeals to the need to feel this way. Or it simply appeals to those who like new music and don’t care to listen to it closely, but dance to it affectionately with their boyfriends.
November 16, 2014
Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” currently holds the title of #1 Song on Billboard. Such status merits the attention of a music analyst. I therefore offer the following thoughts on the current reigning champion of recorded tracks in the hope of better understanding why it is successful and how it appeals to popular taste.
The song begins with a confident drumset rhythm, and vocals that open with: “I stay out too late…” followed by a list of other subjectively internalized rebukes. But then she continues: “that’s what people say….mm, mm.” Immediately, the song’s essence is laid out: she doesn’t give a f**k what her critics think. This may already have been obvious, but the analytical details work together to convey the overall meaning:
First “mm, mm,” is something you do when you taste good food. The fact that she does it here communicates that she is in no way displeased by the list of criticisms, but in fact rather enjoys being immune to them. Also, the drum-beat is telling. It’s syncopated, upbeat, multi-timbral; the bass drum is deep and resonant. It represents her confidence in the face of criticism. She “never misses a beat”—a boast from the second verse punctuated with a vocal effect that sounds like she just took a draught of Mountain Dew…more taste imagery that reinforces the sense defiant satisfaction in the face of her lemon-sucking enemies.
Next, the harmonic progression, sketched by the sax and vocal, is not the usual ii-V-I, but ii-IV-I. Why? Because she feels likes it. The first couple of times it cycles, the resolution on the tonic G is unexpected, but once it’s there, it’s obvious—a sprightly 3-2-1 line with mm, mm outlining a pentatonic set below: happy stuff.
The “sub-verse” that transitions to the chorus, in contrast to the aggressively declaimed “critical” lyrics, starts “but I keep on cruising…” Her tone here is sweeter and slightly softer. This is who she is. Unaffected. Unperturbed. Happy in fact.
All this happens before full instrumentation is unleashed. With the arrival of the chorus, we get the bass, brass, synth strings, and even some choral oohs and other percussive effects. Leading the festivities, Taylor exults in long-breathed descending lines, vamping on what the “players,” “haters” and “breakers” do in direct comparison to what she does in response: “shake it off.” Commendably, she uses different words to the same melodic pattern, a forgotten skill among all-too-many popular songwriters.
The long descending lines of the chorus, furthermore, contrast with the short, aggressive jabs of the opening verse. That contrast keeps the song interesting. There is imaginative variety, despite the repetition of the underlying drum-beat. Also, the descending vamp on the verbs: “hate, hate, hate,” etc. is like a derisive hand-gesture of babbling. She fully comprehends but is bored. When Taylor “shakes” such things off, it’s to the same melody, as if meeting force with force—mildly but effectively.
After the second chorus, Taylor addresses her listeners with the spoken word using a ‘telephone’ vocal effect. At first, I thought this address would be a challenge to her detractors, but it turns out to be an invitation to people to follow in her footsteps—or dance-steps—in getting down to the “sick beat.” She proceeds to rap an example of how she shakes things, in demonstration for her teenage fans.
As the chorus repeats to close the song, she improvises, overdubbing vocals, and at one point throwing “you got to” in-between repetitions of “shake it off.” Again the message of empowerment is issued to those who feel intimidated by the cool kids.
The music ends with octaves on the submediant—i.e., not where it’s supposed to—yet another defiant jest that eschews any need to conform to expectations for fear of judgment.
Overall, the songs reflects that highly-esteemed value of social confidence, the ability to express oneself without fear of repudiation by “mean” people. The song affords her fans the opportunity to share in her sense of liberation. Beyond this, I see it as a not uncommon response among celebrities to the vicious public scrutiny to which they are subject and with which they must cope. As a pop song, it is undeniably a success.
August 27, 2014
Here is one of my Contingency Etudes. Like the others, it features a randomly changing variable, in this case…
…register. My task was to create something meaningful out of randomly shifting registers (sets of 12-note octaves from low to high on the keyboard) determined by the Contingency Theme. This does not make melody impossible; it simply requires that one wait for a convenient register to randomly present itself before the melody can “lawfully” continue. The continuation of the melody is contingent upon register. Sometimes it has to restart because it was interrupted. As a whole, the goal of this piece is to ascend, as if out of the dust, and attain a level of energy from which emotion can be channeled freely. The process is gradual and requires some patience, since the melody cannot ascend but at the behest of chance; but when it is actualized, there is a sense of fulfillment, and the music lays down its head in peace.
The pentatonic scale (the black notes on the piano) is always intuitive. Whatever harmonies result from it, randomly sounding from the depths to the heights, complement one another, as if members of the same family. The intuitiveness and simplicity of the scale, in this case, make me think of plants, animals…life in general. The level of organization in biological life is extremely high; and yet its existence depends to a significant extent upon random forces–both those that shape conditions in the external world, and those that determine DNA during procreation. The interplay of “randomness” and “organization” in this way seem to be metaphorical for life.
Meanwhile, the piece may admit other interpretations. The randomly shifting chords are struck and left echoing like chimes. Yet out of that randomness, a melody emerges, something that would never happen if left to chance. There is Intelligent Design, causation by conscious intent, yet that working through or from within contingency.
In any case, there is the pentatonic scale, which is essentially the universal language of humankind.
July 15, 2014
I’ve been writing piano etudes lately, and here is the latest one: my “Free Etude.” This piece was originally part of my ongoing Contingency Etude series…it had randomly changing dynamics that would have created a sort of strobe-light effect (loud, soft, very loud, moderately soft, extremely soft, extremely moderately loud, etc., following no pattern). It was ridiculously hard to play. I didn’t even want to play it, as the composer, and a pianist who likes to grapple with Ligeti etudes. The idea is this: if something is hard to play, the aesthetic reward must be worth the effort. It wasn’t, so I canned the random dynamics and made them intuitive. The result is a “free etude”—without any restrictions on my creative fiat.
As usual, I like to offer a few thoughts on what my music means. In this piece, there is a sense of logic and order created by the repeating patterns, and yet the counterpoint is abstract and “disoriented.” The sense of disorientation comes from the symmetrical pitch-sets (chromatic scales in the right hand and slowly modulating whole tone scales in the left). All that means to me is: outer space, or something like it. Which way is up? Which way is down? Yes, there are momentary reference points, but they change after not too long–unlike life on earth, in which gravity is always pulling downward. The ground is The Frame of Reference. So this piece is either in (so to speak) outer space, or in a disembodied realm. In my series on power, which I posted in the older version of this website (and am soon to re-post as a single stand-alone post for your reading pleasure) I talk about “metaphysical space”… a realm of pure thought (not unlike, I suppose, Plato’s realm of ideal forms). Anyway, it’s the metaphorical “space” where reasoning is done. In this space, there may or may not be a sense of certainty, depending on the subject matter. This etude, it seems to me after hearing myself play through it, and as I listen to this virtual realization of it, is analogous to that realm, and specifically to a discussion, or speech given, in which someone is articulating a point about something that listeners are invited, or perhaps commanded, to observe. In short, the piece is rhetorical, not in the deceptive sense, but in the convincing sense. And there is an unpredictability to it as well. Surprises happen, unexpected changes. What does that mean? That whoever is giving “the speech” is demanding attention. Surprises demand attention. So then, whatever this speech is about, it is important. Also, there is emotional reward when the point is made, when the thing to be expressed is finally expressed. Emotional satisfaction. That is created by the unified rhythmic punches and climax at the end, not to mention the intermediate climaxes in-between that build up to it.
There is another version of this piece in which everything (almost) repeats verbatim, affording one the opportunity to trace the musical argument again, and possibly appreciate it better the second time. But for purposes of brief, more Twitter-spirited communication, I post the short version.
These are my thoughts. When you listen to this music, let your imagination take you where it will, freely as it were, whether where I have suggested, or somewhere else new and different. Imagination, my friends, is what this is all about.
I won’t say much–only that I plan to be much more active here than anywhere else. Listen for notes I compose about life, music, and philosophy.
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