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Blogger Book Club II: The Dragon Appears

By Corey Dargel

The author, Dave Hickey, writes in response to the question of how to transplant his argument from visual art to music:

The argument I’m making is essentially formal and abstract. It does presuppose culturally acquired musical assumptions, of course. I am proposing that works of art that are sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising are receptive to radical interpretation regardless of their narrative content.

In culture, formal devices can take on ambient and often fleeting meanings that speak to extra-formal issues. Some pop examples: As Wilson Pickett said, “The back beat IS the midnight hour.” James Brown jumping the downbeat became an icon of black aspiration. Reggae dropping the downbeat creates what a friend of mine called the “mary jane swoon.” Octave jumps and octave drops in melodic structures are associated with attenuated and rising aspiration because melodies usually retreat after octave jumps and rise after an octave drops (“Over the Rainbow;” “Shining Hour”). Keith Richard’s I-V rock and roll chords and open fifth country harmonies both speak of cultural instability because [the major/minor third is missing]. The cultural aggression of the Rolling Stones derives absolutely from Keith playing on top of the beat with Jagger and Watts behind it. The first rule of disco–cover every note length with a pattern–actually teaches you how to dance.

These, I realize, are very tiny, simple devices but they have large consequences. They demonstrate the way formal manipulations acquire cultural meanings.

Contemporary composers of my acquaintance, of course, sneer at pattern and pulse. They should listen to “Heart of Glass.”

I am taken by the phrase “sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising” which is a variation on what Hickey writes on pages 9-10 of The Invisible Dragon:

Without the urgent intention of reconstructing the beholder’s view of things, the image has no reason to exist, much less to be beautiful. The comfort of the familiar always bears with it the frisson of the exotic, and the effect of this conflation, ideally, is persuasive excitement–visual pleasure. As Baudelaire says, “the beautiful is always strange,” by which he means, of course, that it is always strangely familiar and vaguely surprising.

It seems to me that the composers who sneer at pattern and pulse no longer have a monopoly on any but the most conservative musical institutions (and they certainly never had any clout in the marketplace). The most obvious examples–in contemporary classical music–of “sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising” can be found in late minimalism and post-minimalism. Not surprisingly, then, these genres of contemporary classical music have had the most appeal outside of academic and institutional circles.


  1. That was very helpful. I hear what Hickey’s saying about those various genres and modes, with the possible exception of the Rolling Stones reference — I suppose that was the case when the Stones played (revolutionary then, background music for car advertisements now), but even then I think it had more to do with their tone, temperament, and attitude than with the specific chord structure, which certainly wasn’t unusual, let alone particularly associated with them.
    Per Amanda’s comment on the previous thread, jazz as it was coming into its own certainly spoke to and of a secondary citizenship.
    As for “pattern and pulse,” I’m not sure what composers Hickey’s talking about. Anyone who digs the pattern and pulse in “Heart of Glass” will find something to love in Philip Glass.

  2. I agree with Marc—Hickey needs to go to more concerts. And as everyone who looks to put down modernist music does, he really means “easily perceptible pattern and regular pulse”. Some of us like the irrational grooves, too. (Contemporary critics of my acquaintance, of course, sneer at modernism. They should listen to “Eonta,” which rocks harder than the Stones ever did.)

    Hickey’s examples circle back to yesterday’s “abstract” music back-and-forth. I wouldn’t advocate for a hard divide between programmatic and absolute—no art is created in a vacuum—but I do think that there’s a continuum, that some musics more readily advertise their extra-musical cultural overtones. (In Hickey’s formulation, some composers are more eager than others to create music that’s likely to acquire cultural meanings.) Let me try this on for size: as music becomes more “abstract,” the marginality it stands in relation to becomes more universal—that question becomes less “what are this society’s cultural norms?” than “what is music, anyway?”

  3. I think Hickey is talking about the composers he knows personally, at the Univ. of Nevada perhaps.
    Or… Maybe he wasn’t referring to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” but a rare album of love songs by Philip Glass.

  4. Matthew’s definitely on to something on the growing universality of a piece of music gaining ground the more abstract it can be – look at the history of the symphony. It became a canvas (sort of) for people to attach any message to they wanted. Mark Evan Bonds wrote an entire book on it (Music as Thought) and a college music education usually includes some sort of class on the thoughts that were thought to be included in the course of a symphony, and its formal unity, etc. At the same time, though, it’s lack of a clear message untied to any words put on it by its creator seems to take away any revolutionary or breaking-of-social-codes its creator could have intended.

    There’s a Charles Rosen essay in the New York Review from a couple months back where he says that the tonality used by today’s American neo-Romantics is so different than that of Mozart, et al, as to constitute a different language. This is, he says, because they don’t use functional tonality, and the listener therefore has a different sort of argument to follow today than in Mozart’s day. I wonder what Hickey would say to that? Should artists go back to painting in the style of Caravaggio? (I don’t have the book in front of me right now or else I’d check. It’s probably in one of the hundreds of underlined passages.)

  5. Dave Hickey says:

    This aside: I think the non-content approach I am advocating offers the most rational route to explaining the imperial nature of formal innovation—-its tendency to transform instrumentalities like the amplifier, the turntable and the recording device into instruments unto themselves. This from my hero Link Ray: “Distortion means loud and aggressive, so the music doesn’t have to be loud and aggressive to give that meaning.” Just a thought with nowhere to go.
    Best, Dave

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