Adam Gopnik continually amazes me with the range of his critical thinking. Whether he’s tackling Shakespeare, physics, bread or the Holocaust, he is sure to bring a fresh perspective and several warm turns of phrase to the subject. “The essential work of discrimination is lost in a blanketing cloud of nostalgia” is a line I could happily wrap myself up in on a chilly winter evening.
That’s a quote from Gopnik’s great article about Cole Porter in the January 20th New Yorker issue. I’d like to piggy-back on that article, because it raises some points that encourage a longer ride.
First, “Porter is so famous for his gifts as a lyricist that it might seem mischievous to the point of perversity to suggest that his real greatness resides in his skills as a composer.” Gopnik didn’t have the space to expand upon this statement – instead, he gave us a terrific rundown on what made Porter such a fun lyricist – but I do, so here are some thoughts.
If you are looking to gauge the “real greatness” of a composer, tunes are an excellent place to start, and Porter delivers. But while humming along with the tunes, it’s also important to take a look at the spaces between the words. Composers capture particular sounds that say specific things – not specific as in “I love you,” but specific in the way the setting in a novel or play is specific. A composer can filter the sounds that are around all of us through a distinct musical sensibility. You’re the Top is a great example, given the stand-up comic pacing of the tune: setup-beat-punchline. Think “You’re the top – 2, 3, 4 – you’re the coliseum.” For a composer, that “2, 3, 4” is an invitation, an opening for commentary. Listen to the recording of Porter singing it: “2, 3, 4” becomes a neighbor-tone evocation of the clackety-clack-ding! of a typewriter. What was the typewriter in the era of this song? Only the sound of new technology, transformed by the composer into a charming musical figure that would have sounded decidedly unlike the musical settings inherited from earlier generations. You could swing your foot in the certainty that your grandmother would probably find it rather too agitating. She might even say it sacrificed heart for machinery (in the manner of Thea von Harbou), which might have made it all the more appealing to her grandchildren.
One could argue that the sound of a typewriter isn’t particularly appropriate for a song that’s being sung on board an ocean liner – the setting of Anything Goes, for which You’re the Top was written — but Porter didn’t tend to bother himself with that kind of consideration. If that’s what you are looking for, Robert Russell Bennett’s swimming orchestration of the song might be more to your taste.
For a striking example of composing the sound in the spaces around the tune, try the second-rate Beatles’ song Hello, Goodbye. I choose this song because nobody can be distracted by the clever lyrics – of which there are none – from hearing the clever composing that’s sliding in and out among them. I’m also choosing it, perhaps subversively, to belie the notion that composing is the purview of solitary geniuses: there is no reason a well-tuned team can’t make some beguiling musical choices.
In any case, I can’t be the only person to have initially dismissed Hello, Goodbye as a little nothing (and no, I won’t link you to the painfully bad video of the band pretending to play it, a lip-syncing songicide if ever there was one). Find a good recording and ignore the lyrics. Pretty much every musical phrase has something interesting going on: a strange vocal reverb, a pulsing crescendo, an in-your-face guitar bend. They all fit together seamlessly. That’s a great example of songwriters making musical choices that transcend the words and tune.
Again, I’m not trying to downplay the importance of melody: with Cole Porter, that’s where you start, and his tunes are as loveable as they get. Let’s go back to You’re the Top, a wonderful exercise in delayed gratification. The first four phrases have this design: 1. Medium range, 2. A bit lower, 3. Even lower, then climb, 4. Overshoot your destination – the tonic pitch (you’re Mickey Mouse!).
Then we start over again. The next four phrases mirror the first four, but with a different ending point: 1. Medium range, 2. A bit lower, 3. Even lower, then climb, 4. Hammer away on the destination (if baby I’m the bottom you’re the top!) – when Porter sings it, he hits that high tonic note 8 times, an exceptionally brash (and gratifying) ending.
Different composers focus on different aspects of music making. For Haydn, great melodies, while they certainly exist, make up a relatively small proportion of what makes his music so enjoyable. Chopin puts more emphasis on big tunes, but it’s certainly not the only thing that makes his piano writing sing. If we want to say that better tunes make better composers, we are on shaky ground, as when giving preference to the colors of a painter over the shapes of a sculptor. At the same time, we are making a grave mistake if we dismiss the value of a great tune altogether. There are so many paths to great composition: we only lose out if we focus on some and ignore the rest.
Back to Porter: Gopnik finds it odd the songwriter never reacted to the recordings Frank Sinatra did of his best songs, arranged by Nelson Riddle. When those recordings came out, Porter was in his sixties. The sound of those arrangements was not the sound of his youth (clackety-clack-ding!), it was a sound designed to appeal to new generations. Those younger listeners would go on to associate the cool opulence of that sound with their youth; Porter could only associate it with his old age. Why would he give it a second thought? And why would those younger generations find anything timely or subversive in the sound of a typewriter?
Gopnik references statements from Kenneth Tynan and Alec Wilder, reminding us how the music scene was a win/lose proposition in their day. There is a lot to regret about our digital age, but here is one cause for cheer: devotees of Cole Porter and Aaron Copland needn’t be at one another’s throats anymore. Both sides of that battle have won; the music of both are in plentiful supply, because all music is in plentiful supply. I suppose the only losers are young people who want to make a living creating new music, but here’s to hoping they will continue to figure out a way, because the world we live in now has more than enough novelty and history to filter through their musical minds in ways their grandparents would probably just find irritating.