Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Magnanimous Bard: Listening to Other People's Love Songs (Part One)

Oh yeah um Happy New Year! Okay so. Corey Dargel's got another big show this week, a revival of his piece Removable Parts at HERE Arts Space in NYC (Jan 7-11, $20, tix here), so let's take this opportunity for a nice hard look at his latest record, Other People's Love Songs, which you've already heard me going on about plenty, but humor me. And before I forget, subscribe to this podcast! Free Dargel mp3s, including his new Christmas song for Time Out New York. It's not a project totally without precedent. There's that Momus album, Stars Forever, where he accepted commissions from people like Jeff Koons and Cornelius to write a synth-pop song about each of them. And of course there's Stephin Merritt's livre of love songs. These aren't a terrifically useful comparisons, I know, since aren't those guys's pop songs (not to put them down) way simpler, way catchier—but I think the fact that Dargel's music has an indie-rock niche ready to slip into, this niche of overenunciating white boys unafraid of synth presets, may have something to do with why I find it so satisfying. He's written here about the advantages of writing, setting, singing, and performing one's own songs—advantages which might seem obvious to lovers of indie rock and other singer/songwriter-driven musics, but which sometimes have to be explained slowly and clearly to visitors from Planet Classical—so instead of talking about how these advantages work for him, let's talk about something just as important, namely the way he makes his project's disadvantages work for him. Disadvantage #1: He is not a highly trained singer. I don't mean that he isn't skilled, or well-practiced, I just meant that he's not going to tear the roof off with gospel melisma or hit a high C in full voice. His range is limited, he probably couldn't (consistently) project to the back of a concert hall without a mike, and he probably couldn't navigate rapid shifts in pitch or color or dynamics the way that a trained singer could. But for the audience he's reaching out to, these skills aren't all that important. Quite the opposite: virtuosity, a highly polished singing style, are marks of insincerity to the indie-rock crowd. Just as the current generation of composers grew up listening to pieces like In C or Clapping Music that could be played by anybody, many of today's most celebrated pop singers grew up listening to artists with seemingly ordinary voices, and rejecting the spectacular displays of R&B and classic-rock vocalists. Bands inspired by Death Cab for Cutie or Neutral Milk Hotel are all about putting the text across clearly, not about showing off or milking each syllable for maximum expressive value. I'm not saying their values are somehow preferable to the values of singers inspired by Mariah Carey, I'm just saying that Dargel's is not only a worthwhile aesthetic, but one that, unlike that of most "accessible" composers, actually does click with what the kids today are listening to. On their crazy "i-Pod" machines. Disadvantage #2: If you're gonna do everything yourself, you're gonna have to rely on technology to play anything you can't play with your own two hands. And up to a certain point, the closer you come with any kind of synthesizer to actually simulating the sound of a musical instrument, the more your audience is reminded that they are listening to something inhuman. In robotics, this is known as the paradox of the "uncanny valley"; here's a handy musical illustration I posted to this blog a while back. Even if you have the resources of time, technology, and $$$ to really pull off a one-man MIDI Symphony, you're just as likely to weird your audience out. Fortunately, Dargel does "weird" and "alienating" very, very well. The sensations of estrangement and alienation are his bread and/or butter. Accordingly, his instrumental patches actually aim towards the false, the cheap, the mechanical, as if attempting to pre-empt accusations of same—while also hedging against sentimentality. A charming melody on a tinny synth patch puts finger-quotes around its designs on your feelings; in the same way, a patently counterfeit "rock beat" programmed into a computer ironizes said beat's designs upon your booty. Here again, he locks into recent trends in rock and, even more, in dance/hip-hop, in which the attempt is not to escape the constraints of dated technology in favor of sampling that sounds "fresh" or "live," but to foreground the falseness of the electronically generated material. Like, you've heard this Postal Service song, right?It's just like that. There's no attempt to conceal the fact that this is basically a record that two dudes made (with a lady singer also), using the resources at hand, without even having to be in the same room together. Yes, the beat makes you wanna get up and dance, but it makes you wanna get up and dance in the brightly-colored costumes of an imaginary 1985. Note Ben (Death Cab) Gibbard's vocals too—text first, "emoting" a distant second. And finally, Dargel's use of electronics dodges this bullet:
One big thing is the drum set right now. There are a lot of composers who are trying to incorporate the drum set into classical arrangements. It’s really hard to do that and make a synthesis that makes sense, because people have been using drum sets for a long time. The drum set is a totally oral instrument and everyone has their own feel to it and if you try writing it down it’s very difficult to do and have it make sense. I feel like there are so many concert pieces that have a drum set in it and the drum set sounds so stupid.
That's Ted Hearne, interviewed here (hattip DJA) Good lord, there is nothing worse than a composer trying to hip shit up by dragging a drummer onstage. STAY AWAY. By rejecting both the hi-tech and the "rockin'," Dargel neatly avoids the risk of trying to sound hip, even as he taps straight into actual, vital pop culture trends. Okay, there's obviously a lot more to say about this album, but why don't I post this right now so that the mention of this week's concerts might actually do somebody good, and then I'll write the rest later. Alrighty? (Image ganked from an old CRACKED Magazine, via Cartoon Brew via Boing Boing. I swear I only found the pic after I had already written the line about "i-Pod machines.")



Blogger Chris Becker said...

"...virtuosity, a highly polished singing style, are marks of insincerity to the indie-rock crowd."

So if the singer - who may have good technique, knows how to phrase a song, and feels their music - is sincere, they are still judged as suspect by "the indie-rock crowd?" Where does personal honesty fit in this scenario?

Aren't you in fact describing a very adolescent attitude towards anything that doesn't fit into a prescribed clique or subculture? Are you really describing a cultural zeitgeist or just a handful of creative people who are more comfortable as a gang than as a collection of individuals?

And it seems to me that in rock and roll now, a desire for maximum expression is sort of a norm. There are a lot of screamers out there!

I'm not taking Corey or his work to task here...but isn't a crappy boring singer just a crappy boring singer?

P.S. Just throwing you another spin on this essay. My own bio might offer some perspective as to where I'm coming from. I'm not trying to bust your chops :)

January 8, 2009 at 12:31 PM  
Blogger Chris Becker said...

And again, because these things sort of spiral out of control...I totally appreciate where Corey is coming from as a composer and performer. My comments are not directed towards his work.

January 8, 2009 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger Chris Becker said...

...so I guess my point is that the attitude you're describing on the part of the "indie-rock" crowd is just an attitude and not an aesthetic. And not a particularly healthy one or one that is (thankfully) pervasive in what constitutes independent rock and roll these days.

And I can't speak for Corey, but listening to his music my impression is he's just doing his thing using what he's got. He's not consciously reaching out to any scene - especially a scene that would express distaste based on technique (or hair style, or skin color, or gender, oops - we're not gonna go there are we???)

Okay, three posts is enough...

January 8, 2009 at 1:44 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

I essentially agree with everything you're saying here, so I'll just clarify.

I don't think Corey's trying to fit into any kind of niche. I haven't asked him, and actually I'd be really surprised if he didn't turn out to be a big fan of some of the indie-rock acts I mentioned—but that doesn't mean he's trying to imitate them. I think more than anything, he's internalized something that's in the air and is creating an honest response to popular/classical/experimental music he admires.

What makes pop-classical fusion really unbearable is when we hear one music or the other represented by a set of unexamined clichés: the pounding drumkit, the vocal belt, the blazing electric guitar. The idea seems to be that this is the syringe full of adrenaline that will revive the flatlining corpse of classical music. But there are way too many unchallenged assumptions there—are these the elements that make popular music exciting or engaging? Can they be cut and pasted from the context of pop's oral tradition into a carefully composed classical piece? Does this kind of borrowing do either music any favors?

I'm happy to acknowledge counterexamples. There are great pieces of classical music that use screamin' guitar theatrics and live drums—just the other day, I was listening to Scott Johnson's 'John Somebody', a genuinely funny and enjoyable piece of music that would unthinkable without that longhaired guitar-hero craziness—and then you've got rockers like Zappa or those zany Deerhoof kids who make hot rock with all the brains of contemporary classicalia. And conversely, I'm really not such a fan of the Overenunciating White Guy genre of indie rock. It's a little played out, and hard to do right. The difference between wry, counter-sentimental pop and "just a crappy boring singer" is honest-to-god musicianship, same as it is between passionate rock music and embarrassing hammed-up schlock.

And just to head off the race-&-indie-rock argument you allude to, I'm gonna point out quickly that the trends I'm talking about are not limited to anything that could usefully be called "indie rock."

Look at Kanye West, for one. Dude's a gazillionaire; he could pay anybody he wants to sing the hooks on his records, but instead he goes with the cheap, mechanical sound of sped-up samples. On his latest album, he could have used a tasteful amount of auto-tuning, some guest vocalists, fresh drum samples, etc etc etc, and come up with an disc that sounded about 10x as "soulful". But he's been hanging out with T-Pain and those French androids, and so he decided that the best way to make what could have been a maudlin, self-pitying album a fresh and affecting one was to cut it against the grain, make the technology sound like technology instead of trying to hide his art more gracefully. Hence, 808s & Heartbreak. I singled out indie rockers only because I thought Dargel has a lot more Merritt and Gibbard in him than he does West.

Finally, no, I don't think it's a good thing to jump on the latest pop trends. I'm a classical music lover, after all, so my primary interest is in music of enduring value. I hear a lot of contemporary classical music being acclaimed for no reasons other than it attempts to react to the challenges of a shrinking globe or to the broken-down boundaries of iPod-shuffle culture or whatthefuckever and bleh. I am not going to be listening to that music in one year's time, unless in addition to reacting to all of those things it is also good. My point was more that Corey's music succeeds because he's found a workable solution to his project's inherent limitations that also responds sincerely to the contemporary musical vernacular—instead of responding merely to received ideas of what pop music is or should be.

January 8, 2009 at 4:16 PM  
Blogger Chris Becker said...

"My point was more that Corey's music succeeds because he's found a workable solution to his project's inherent limitations that also responds sincerely to the contemporary musical vernacular—instead of responding merely to received ideas of what pop music is or should be."

Makes sense. That's the personal honesty I mentioned that I think is so crucial to your or my understanding another composers work - especially if we don't like it. With that in mind, I am reluctant to pass judgment on "pop classical fusion" or whatever you want to call it (and if I'm understanding what you are talking about) as if there exists some kind of mysterious score card we're supposed to carry to help us gage the sincerity of a composer's work.

As I get older, I have little or no patience for the very "indie rock" attitudes you describe (which you find unfortunately in all musical circles). Let's not in our celebration of our peers find ourselves becoming just as intolerant (or ignorant) as "those" composers or "that" musician.

I mean...Ted uses drum kit with classical orchestral instruments. Why exactly is his efforts more sincere and authentic than Corigliano's? I'm not knocking Ted, by the way...but do you see my point?

Good post by the way. Got me thinking...

January 8, 2009 at 4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a curious thing. Why do composers wast time writing pieces about something that doesn't exist?

January 9, 2009 at 2:14 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Dr Whatever, not such a waste. I'm really only interested in things that don't exist.

January 9, 2009 at 7:39 PM  

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