On David Byrne’s Surprising Comments on Classical Music

I’m finally finishing How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s a great book – the time it took for me to almost be done with it has nothing to do with its quality, and everything to do with the fact that I’m afraid of book-commitment. Indeed, having How Music Works waiting there for me while I’m in the depths of some <immortanJoe>mediocre</immortanJoe> genre fiction book is a comfort that I’m sure I’ll soon miss. That said, I got to a point in it last night where I went, “Now you’ve done it, David Byrne. Now you’ve made me want to go and blog about this.”

The point, you’ll not be surprised to hear, came when Byrne was discussing classical music vs. pop music. Specifically, he was talking about the perception and function of high art vs art in pop culture. (Or, as the kids put it, “pop art.”) There’s a whole hell of a lot to say about that “debate,” and Byrne gives short shrift to it. Now, admittedly, it’s a book in and of itself, and Byrne doesn’t have the space to go into it in a book that’s ostensibly about the business of music, as well as how music itself functions as social glue and as a phenomena in our daily lives. And further, Byrne is very straightforward throughout his book about his biases toward pop music in general, and against classical or “high-art” music in general.

There are a couple of points that set me off in his chapter, “Amateurs.” The first one is that “The dead guys won’t write more symphonies” (p. 298) and the second is in reference to the arts funding that symphony halls and art houses receive but that pop music venues do not – “Why not invest in the future of music, instead of building fortresses to preserve its past?” (p. 282)

It’s almost a platitude to say that Beethoven is dead, so he won’t be writing more symphonies. Of course not – not until the glorious day that we can clone him, and install him as Minister of Kultur in my Iron Fist government, of course. However, as I’ve written about before, it’s not like you can’t get anything important out of a dead guy. The works that, in Byrne’s book’s examples, the Koch brothers and the capitalist vultures prop up as a means to assuage their egos, can mean a whole hell of a lot to people – and yes, symphony halls are costly as hell to maintain, but they’re also where symphonies sound best live. You can hear a pops concert in a park, but you miss a lot of the textures of the music.

Let’s talk about symphony halls for a moment, shall we? They’re stuffy, and if you go there and you’re 30 or below, you’ll be the youngest person there by at least 30 years. They’re not a little intimidating at first glance, and they’re not in any way like your local venue. They are, some would argue, relics of a long-gone past, and relics that should be swept away if they can’t hold their own as a business. (Not that Byrne says that, though he does come damn close to it.) However, symphony halls and opera houses are a certain style of architecture that you don’t see anymore: Ornate. They stand as a reminder of history and the human need to embellish, and as a counter to glass-faced condos, new-retro buildings, and whatever horrible styles the hipsters at architecture firms are coming up with next. I’d say that they’re visual art as much as they are a place to hear music, and yes, the arts need public funding – as well as whatever cash the ravenous hordes of capitalists or whoever want to throw at them. Why? Because we live in a society that doesn’t value its works, only profit and results. And yes, we’ve been that way for centuries, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that, more than anything else, the arts keep us, as a society human. Whether or not the billionaire philanthropists are thinking about that or their egos, I don’t know, but I do think this is an example of shutting up and taking money when it’s offered.

As for stuffiness and intimidating, as someone who comes from a family of steel salesmen, restaurant servers, and, yes, lawyers, I think that wears off the second time you go into a building. Going to the symphony hall is like like going to a museum. If you’re not used to it, and you don’t know that, no, it’s not cool to touch a 300 year-old artwork, then you’ll be a bit weirded out by the security guards and the vastly different atmosphere. But once you’ve gone a few times, know how they work, they become a lot more welcoming. The empty space becomes room to wander around, to look at pieces from different perspectives. From personal experience, no one in my family aside from my brother was really into classical music, despite the fact that, somewhere along the line, one of the Simons was a concert violinist in Austin, Texas. My dad took me to art museums, and made them less intimidating by interacting with the art in the form of mocking the paintings in a Cockney accent. It drew weird looks, but it showed me that places of “high art” are not places to be feared.

Same with the symphony halls: Once you’re used to the rows of seating and the appearance that you’re in a cathedral from the year 1700, you realize that it’s just another venue. One that you probably shouldn’t form a circle pit in, but just another venue regardless. They are, I maintain, intimidating only if you let them be, and only if you buy into the common line that these places are only for the upper crust.

“But what about the dressing up?” some will ask. Well, yeah, you should probably dress up. That comes with the territory. It’s like dressing up for church or services. You show respect by not showing up dressing like an asshole. It may be a bit classist, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Next, let’s look at the lazy “Dead guys won’t write more symphonies” line. Well, no. Of course they won’t. But guess what: John Lennon and BB King aren’t going to be writing any more songs, either. That’s what happens when you die: You stop working. It’s the ultimate retirement! But let’s not even get into the implication that “the dead guys” have works that aren’t important because they’re dead. Instead, let’s consider the fact that, yeah, at this very moment, there are composers coming out with new work. New work that doesn’t fit the mold of the Romantic composers! The classical scene isn’t dead by any means, it just works wildly differently.

As Byrne admits in the book, by quoting Alex Ross, who’s a much better source to learn about classical music from, symphony programmers are constantly trying to find ways to draw people into the halls – or bring events to the public. It’s a singular difficulty that they face, because most of the people they’re trying to court don’t know that they already know a great many Important Works. How do they know these Works? By being consumers of media, of course. You hear snatches of Gershwin, Wagner, Mahler, Beethoven, and Glass in everything ranging from airline commercials to the Lone Ranger theme to the Interstellar soundtrack. (That last example is more an example of being heavily influenced by Philip Glass, from the minimal background of the sonic backdrop to the repetitive tones going on through the piano to the percussion – best listened to at high volume and with stupid high quality headphones.) The best programmers know that the way they reach people is through pops concerts, held on lovely days in public parks. There, conductors have a bit of exposition about pieces before the orchestra plays them, and the audience learns something about what they’re going to hear.

And I think that’s at the crux of the matter. To not feel intimidated by classical music, you have to learn a bit about how it works. Whether that’s done through school education or by watching something like Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts doesn’t matter – but in order to really get what’s going on, you have to know the context – which Byrne also notes is important for pop music. I don’t think that’s oppressive, or exclusionary, or whatever. You just have to learn. Classical engages a different part of the body than pop music.Though there’s plenty of opportunity to dance to classical music (waltzes, anyone?), those dances are a bit different than you’ll experience if you go to the Goodfoot in Portland.

Byrne isn’t a classical music fan. He’s a pop guy, he’s a rock guy, he’s a funk guy. I won’t comment about pop or funk, because those are definitely not my purview. Byrne is, however, a really smart guy, and seeing him handwave away Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart because they’re dead and you can’t dance to them is disappointing to an extreme. The arguments he uses are lazy and they ignore a vast swath of compositions that are intense as hell simply because they’re – presumably – not as well known as Figaro, or Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. How Music Works is a fantastic book to learn about pop music, or rock, or even get a good idea about the way tech and buildings change the way music works, but it’s not a great place to expand your horizons about the vibrant realm of classical music.

The Spite Gene

“Ari shit directly on me yesterday,” my brother said. “And I looked, and there in his eye was the slightest twinkle, and I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s a Simon.’”

There’s a part of my genome, I’m sure, that’s dedicated solely to spite. Depending on how much coffee I’ve had on any given day, I think about it either as The Spite Gene, or The Fuck You Gene. It’s a familial trait, as far as I’m concerned, but it seems like only my Dad inherited it from his Dad. All of my uncles and aunts on the Simon side seem to be very lovely people who aren’t driven solely by spite, but for whatever reason, my pops inherited it and passed it down to my brother and me.

I bring this up because this past Sunday, I watched Whiplash. It was fantastic – and not for the reasons you’ll hear from other people. Yeah, JK Simmons was great, and the music was brilliant, and the pacing was spot on, and the cast was inspired and – okay, it was fantastic for the reasons you’ll hear from other people, but also because the protagonist seems to be, like me and my brother and my father, driven by spite. Funnily enough, the protagonist is also Jewish. I don’t know if that was typecasting, or just a personal quirk written into the character, but it was a nice connection.

Anyway, the reason I bring that up is because the story centers around this kid going through an intense program presided over by a sadist. In many ways, it’s Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard, but in some ways, it’s worse. Think about it, you expect drill sergeants to be awful. That’s what they’re paid for. But music is supposed to be uplifting and human and everything good in the world – and music teachers are supposed to be encouraging the next generation of greats, not throwing chairs at their heads!

As to that second point, I don’t think anyone actually believes that. Musicians are pricks. Beethoven drove his nephew to attempted suicide. Rock is full of drug-addled assholes. The blues is so full of leery, dirty sex that it’s surprising you don’t get syphilis after listening to a Robert Johnson song. (Not to mention anything by Lucille Bogan. Good Lord.) Jazz, apparently, is chock full of abusive psychopaths – which, I guess, isn’t too surprising. Jazz figured heavily in On The Road, and Kerouac wasn’t a shining beacon of ethics. Does that make the music bad, though? Of course not. The music’s music. And just as GWAR doesn’t inspire people to go murdering others, jazz doesn’t inspire people to throw cymbals at neighbors or coworkers. However, it’s not surprising that you have the greats acting like they did: Music’s primal, and in order to be one of the greats, you almost have to tap into and embrace that primality of music.

So, the idea that Fletcher (JK Simmons) is a riotous asshole shouldn’t surprise people, but it sure as hell makes for an interesting hook to a movie.

But really, the thing that hit me about Whiplash was the protagonist’s drive to succeed. The guy could have given up, but he didn’t. And where did that drive come from? Not from some external source – certainly not from his father, who wasn’t exactly all about supporting his son as a musician – but from inside. And what was that source of drive? The Fuck You gene. Neymann isn’t some schlub who has to be picked up by his girlfriend (he didn’t have one long, because he dumped her because he was an asshole) or friends (as near as we can tell, he didn’t have any), but because some voice deep inside him heard Fletcher’s criticisms and said, “You know what? Fuck you.” And from thence, Neymann decided that he would be one of the greats even if it physically destroyed him.

And something about that connected with me. Well, scratch that, I know just what it was: My personal “Fuck you” moment came in grad school, as I was being told that my writing just didn’t work and if I kept it up, I wouldn’t pass the program. This wasn’t Justice Trio-level stuff I was writing, either: This is stuff that has been well-received by people other than my parents! So, I thought the key phrase, and kept churning it out. I wrote like a madman from October to June, far surpassing the required word count (“You want a novella for a Master’s? Fuck you, you’re getting a novel.”) and churning out something that outside readers said was good enough for an Merit degree at Kent. Yeah, it’s not Oxford, but that’s leagues better than getting failed out of a program for going against what I know is my style, and what I know is what I write well. And I hold on to that moment not out of personal spite (partially personal spite), but out of professional spite – because the purpose of an MA or an MFA in writing isn’t to churn out Jonathan Franzen clones, but to make good writers better in their own genre.

That idea, that the best way for me to get inspired is to go against the grain of what I believe is right, is why I don’t have any freakin patience for feel-good woo spread around by sites like Upworthy, or Buzzfeed, or any number of bizarre offshoots that slap a semi-inspirational quote on a semi-inspirational photo and call it insightful. The world does not run on good vibes. The world is fueled by humans, the majority of which are too wrapped up in their day-to-day existence and egos to acknowledge anyone’s idea of the greater picture – most of all, their own. To slather sugar on a piece of shit idea and call it smart is insulting to anyone who got to where they are without an entire cheerleading section on the sidelines. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have that, but to be fueled entirely by that is self-delusion and self-denial of the grandest scale.)

In order to be successful in whatever you practice, you have to be willing to smell the sewage as well as the flowers. The Buddha may be a fresh breeze, but the Buddha is also a shit-stick. So, what do you do? Do you focus entirely on negative feedback? Well, no. That way lays self-destruction and annihilation of whatever social structure you might otherwise build around yourselves. But you have to embrace the anger not as a friend, because that’ll then turn it into not anger, but as an enemy you have to surpass. The world is a stage, says the bard, but every play needs a villain for the protagonist to overcome.

So, in my day-to-day, when I’m looking at something in front of me, I know I’m most successful if it’s something I want to do and think I can do, and someone tells me that I shouldn’t. I need that something to look in the eyes and go “Fuck you” at.

And when my brother told me that story of his baby son seemingly purposefully shitting directly on him, I knew: That kid’s gonna be someone.

Loss

Until yesterday, I’d been very lucky in that the only death that hit close to home was my grandmother’s while I was in college. Yesterday, I learned that a friend, Connor Gregory, died in a car wreck. Since learning that, I’ve been trying to figure out where I am on the spectrum of feelings, and thought that, you know, it doesn’t really matter. (I mean, it does, but, well, hold on and I’ll get to it.) The people who are hit hardest by this are going to have a hell of a time, something that I cannot imagine. And, to me, there is nothing you can say that wouldn’t cheapen whatever it is they’re going through. That’s the thing about not having gone through anything like this, you don’t have the emotional toolbox to be able to help someone through the process. The good news is, though, that Connor’s girlfriend, Faye, who was with him at the time, is going to be in very good hands. Mark and Nora, two extremely good people and even better friends, are going to be there for her, and that’s, as far as I can tell, the best thing that can happen right now.

When I’ve told people about this, they’ve asked if Connor was a good friend. Well, of course he was. Connor was an extremely warm and affable guy. One of the messed up rubrics I use to judge a friendship is how many arguments about nothing I can have with a person and still walk away thinking, “Yeah, he’s a good guy.” By that measure, Connor was a fantastic human being and a great friend. If you were to look at his Facebook profile today, you’d see it changed into a memorial wall, with people who he’s affected sharing memories. For my generation, I guess that’s the closest a lot of people will have to a memorial service or a wake for the departed. If nothing else, then, if you’re looking for this sort of thing, it’s an easy way to judge the effect someone had on people’s lives.

Earlier, I mentioned that the only death I’d experienced so far was my grandmother’s while I was in college. After she died, I felt like there was a bit of mercy in it. See, she was a very strong-willed person. She had to have been in order to be a raging left-winger in Smyrna, Tennessee, and remain there for decades both while my grandfather, an officer in the Air Force, was alive, and then afterward. But at the end of her life, she had suffered three strokes and was going through heavy dementia. There were days where she didn’t know her daughters, and that is not who Rose Montgomery was. In that sense, the death was leagues easier—for me, but not for my mother, of course, because holy shit there is nothing like the bond between a child and her mother—than seeing her in that state. So, I went almost ten years without experiencing death, and now am facing this.

Suddenness, as anyone knows, is a harder thing to face than a gradual decline, which allows you to come to terms with what’s coming. Suddenness brings with it shock, disbelief, and an almost subdermal feeling of rage. I didn’t know Connor well enough to get into any metaphysical or philosophical or dharma combat things with him, so I can’t say how he would have liked people to handle it. Thus, I’m left with how to handle the memory of a friend.

One of mainline Judaism’s (simplest) answer(s) is the yearning for the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth, the appearance of Moshiach, and the true justice and paradise that that would bring. [See the Mourner’s Kaddish. This, of course, is extremely simple, and Judaism is a religion that puts a lot of weight on how to handle things like this, whether that’s sitting shiva or anything else.] However, I’m not a member of mainline Judaism, and haven’t been for a long time now. Christianity would—well, I’m not even going there, because I’m not a Christian, and Christianity is a wide potpourri of theological analyses of Biblical texts, just like Judaism, and I’m an outsider.

However, there’s an approach to death that I like, and it’s found in Zen. Zen emphasizes that we cannot actually make sense of reality, because as we try to do so, we are putting our own desires and interpretations and everything else on top of what is actually reality, thus not actually experiencing it. Buddha, Zen says, is a shit stick. Which means that, simultaneously, enlightenment is everything that is gross and filthy about the world, as well as the relief from the grossness and filth. (Apparently, monks used to wipe their tucheses with sticks.) Living enlightenment is fully feeling loss just as it is enjoying a good coffee or tea.

Further, a guy whose worldview I can really get behind, says that there is an element of all of us in the universe, because, he says, we’re all the universe experiencing itself. It’s not a New Age thing—even though it sounds like it is—and you don’t get that unless you’ve read some of the Patriarch’s writings and sat zazen for a while. But the point is that someone who’s dead is never truly dead. They’re not hovering around like a ghost in The Frighteners, either, but they’re never truly gone. You can’t put what that means into words, but after a while of meditating on it—but not thinking about it—you start to gain understanding of it. That, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to process.

If you pray, think, or send good vibes, do so for Connor’s family and Faye Norris.