Harmony and History

I mentioned in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond (page 207) that I have heard Desmond, “in the Safeway while reaching for a box of Cheerios,” among many other places. The truth is, I don’t want to hear Desmond, or any other music, in the Safeway, at the gas station, in Starbucks, the Mexico City subway, The Gap or the dentist’s office, certainly not on the street, and not often in my car. I don’t have an Ipod and don’t want one. I want a little peace and quiet now and then.
Most musicians, apparently unlike the public at large, do not want music every moment. Long ago, I struck up a friendship with Jacques Singer, the conductor of the Portland, Oregon, Symphony. One day at lunch in an expensive restaurant, we were planning a television presentation of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Singer asked the waiter to turn off the Muzak pouring down on us from a speaker in the ceiling. It stayed on. Singer asked again. Nothing. He called the manager over and said that if the music did not cease, he would remove the speaker. The manager chuckled and said, “Oh, Maestro, how amusing.” Jacques climbed up on the back of the booth and began reaching for the speaker. The manager said, “Oh, you were serious,” and silenced the Muzak.
In Los Angeles, Bill Holman, Jimmy Rowles, Lou Levy, Bill Perkins and I had an informal luncheon group that got together every month or so. Sometimes it included other musicians, Tom Talbert, Neal Hefti, Jack Brownlow and Lee Katzman among them. We searched a wide swath of L.A. before we found a restaurant, Barone’s in Toluca Lake, that had no background music. We talked about many things, including music, but we did not want music imposed on us. That would have been true whether the music was Oscar Peterson or Nine Inch Nails. Barone’s isn’t there anymore. But, then, neither are Rowles, Levy, Talbert and Perkins.
If I found myself in conversation with Roger Scruton, the British conservative philosopher, journalist, composer, farmer, fox hunter and author of thirty books, we would have a great deal about which to disagree. What a hoot it would be to have that talk. There is one area in which we would not disagree, his views on the omnipresence of music. A few years ago, my wife was so taken with something Scruton wrote, that she copied it by hand. She recently presented it to me. Here, with Mr. Scruton’s permission, is the excerpt.

Harmony and History
By Roger Scruton
The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 1999
The classical language of music arose from practices, such as singing, dancing and playing, which have begun to atrophy. Instead of singing, people merely “sing along” with pop songs; instead of dancing, they throw themselves about in a sexual display; instead of playing an instrument, they turn on the stereo.
The old culture of listening depended on something else that is no longer easily obtainable: silence…they try to fill it with noise. A new kind of music has emerged, designed not for listening but for hearing—music whose principal device is repetition, which employs only pre-digested harmonies and fragmented tunes, and which relies on a monotonous “back beat” to propel it into the ear and the soul of those who overhear it. People brought up on such music lose the feel for polyphony; their musical attention spans shorten to atrophy; and they grasp musical organization only by moving to a beat.

(Sorry, no link. The full article is available for a fee to subscribers to The Wall Street Journal’s online edition.)
The trend gathers momentum with the introduction of so-called Jack Radio stations devoted to flinging into the ether endless successions of records of the kind of unmusic Scruton described. The stations have no live people on the air. Once in a while a robot voice (Jack, Bill, Fred) offers a brief announcement, usually patting the station on the back for being mindless. Go here for a sample.
This is the brave new world of radio music. If you think jazz radio is unaffected, you may not have heard the syndicated satellite shows some public stations now plug into their late-night programming. There are still minimal announcements, but there is no identification of sidemen, no information about the label and no insight into the history of the music or the musicians. It is one step short of continuous music on cable system channels without production or continuity. It is one step short of Muzak, one step short of Jack Radio.
Getting back to Roger Scruton, Sholto Byrnes has a fascinating piece in The Independent about his visit with Scruton at the philosopher’s farm. The introduction reads, “Sholto Byrnes hears the confessions of an intellectual pariah.” Here is a sample.

“One of the great distinctions between the left and the right in the intellectual world,” says Scruton, who has held chairs in aesthetics at Birkbeck and philosophy at Boston as well as a fellowship at Peterhouse, “is that left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken. After a while, if I can persuade them that I’m not evil, I find it a very useful thing. I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can’t discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?”

You can read the whole thing here.

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