I have never been one to post lists of what I’m listening to lately, for quite a number of reasons. One is that it would often be embarrassing. Right now I’m driving around listening to old Frank Sinatra records from the fifties. I feel like my music needs occasional infusions of vernacular music, specifically music that was tremendously popular at some point, music that people paid for because it was attractive and entertaining. I can supply the complicated cross-rhythms and microtonal voice-leading myself, but I need some DNA from the mainstream: a jaunty rhythm, even just a tempo, a surprising harmonic twist, a melodic quirk. A few minutes ago one of Nelson Riddle’s arrangements ended with a big brass cadence, and then immediately repeated the cadence in the strings, so quietly that it sounded like an echo, and I shouted, “Yes! I’m gonna do that!” What a temptingly style-independent gesture.
In the early 1990s a meme made the rounds downtown that new music, in order to be authentic, must be based in the vernacular. I remonstrated, pointing out that there’s plenty of great music with no vernacular connections: Feldman, Varèse, Tenney, Xenakis. The only reason to ever say music must do something is so that the next day some genius will write a great piece that doesn’t do that. (“Must follows music only in the dictionary,” I wrote in the Voice.) But I am so lacking in the common touch myself, raised in such a rarefied atmosphere, so deficient in street smarts and folksy charm, that I have to steal it from somewhere, and so little sound-shapes from Swing Era jazz, Waylon Jennings, Edith Piaf, Jimmy Buffett, even Strauss waltzes show up here and there in my music, probably unnoticed by anyone but me. I’m sure I have some bizarre blind spots in my appreciation of the world’s musics, but I’m no snob.