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Musical "Purists" and "Impurities"

The discussion that began over Miklos Rozsa and Mario Lanza has led to further contributions from me: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

One of those posts is actually worth reproducing here at Notablog because it deals with important issues on the complexity of different genres of music (including jazz and film scores) and on the nature of artistic integrity. With the great violinist Itzhak Perlman and the New York Philharmonic performing a concert of "Music from the Movies" tomorrow at Lincoln Center, these subjects have a certain timeliness.

Comments welcome, but readers are encouraged to join the discussion at SOLO HQ.

This is going to be a long post. I apologize in advance for its length. But there is no way to discuss these complex issues without opening up a few worm-cans. So, here goes:

George, I am certainly not suggesting that there are no qualitative standards by which to evaluate the complexity of different genres of music. And I certainly recognize that there are primitive and more complex forms of any art. What I was questioning was your own implicit view that jazz is inferior to classical music, at least insofar as we consider performance.

Since most jazz features improvisation based on less complex "popular tunes" or standards, a legitimate argument can be made that most classical composition is superior to jazz "composition." (This sets aside, for the moment, the fact that most classical composers simply wrote down their improvised variations on a theme, while in jazz, that improvisation is spontaneous within a structure; as Louis Armstrong once said, and I'm paraphrasing: "Asking a jazz musician to play the song in exactly the same way every time, is like going over to a bird and asking: 'How's that again?'")

Of course, the argument for "complexity" breaks down somewhat when we start to compare advanced jazz-influenced composition by people like Gershwin, Bernstein, Legrand, Sauter, and others—who explore complexity in rhythm and harmony on a par with classicists (and why wouldn't they? Most of these composers studied the classics, after all.)

Some of this is discussed in a superb work entitled Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, by Robert Jourdain (a hat tip to Joe Maurone, who gave me the book some years ago). I strongly recommend Jourdain's book for those who wish to understand more fully the nature of complexity in music. For example, though Western music has enormous melodic and harmonic complexity, it does not (typically) have the rhythmic complexity that is found in the Middle East, Asia, and especially Africa. Jourdain writes:

Most Westerners have so much trouble with extended meters that even some musicologists have declared them incomprehensible. But much of the world revels in metrical complexity. In fact, it is the absence of complex meter in the West that is anomalous. Wherever music emphasizes complex meter, ordinary people learn to perceive it ... An even greater perceptual challenge is posed by polyrhythm. Polyrhythm might more accurately be called "polymeter", since it's made by playing more than one meter at a time. ... Polyrhythm makes your brain work overtime by demanding more attention than the simple meters found in most music, where sixteenth notes fit evenly into eights, eighths into quarters, quarters into halves, everything nicely aligned. This orderly arrangement lets the brain anticipate coming notes easily as halvings or doublings of the underlying beat. But when three notes overlay four in a polyrhythm, irregular distances fall between the notes of the two meters. The result is a sort of temporal texture that requires close listening to grasp analytically.

Jourdain states additionally:

Polyrhythm is rare in Western music, yet it has been around for a long time. You'll find instances in the experimental music of the early Baroque, in Mozart and Beethoven, and especially in the music of Romantic composers like Schumann and Brahms. In classical music, polyrhythm often is employed ornamentally as a sort of rhythmic bump in the road. But long polyrhythmic passages also appear. There's a good deal of polyrhythm in jazz, but not much elsewhere in the West.

And that point is key: because jazz, as a uniquely American contribution to music, is at a cultural crossroads in its genealogy, integrating Western, African, and sometimes other world cultural idioms (Brazilian, etc.) in its various musical forms. And these textures are not just found in the rhythm of a jazz arrangement; they are typically found in the phrasing of a jazz instrumentalist, who might play triple-notes over a single beat, along with many other complex permutations, integrating these with new, complex harmonies laid over a given melodic structure.

So, where does this leave us?

It tells us that "complexity" is something that needs to be evaluated according to a standard. It is not a "given" that classical performers are "superior" to jazz performers. The complexity is simply different in each genre. (As for the other genres, it depends: for example, there are classical and jazz forms to be found in progressive rock, hard rock, and so forth. That's why a lot of this music is called "fusion," rather than simply "rock" or "jazz," and different forms of complexity will be found in each.)

I'm astounded, George, that a fan of John Coltrane, such as you, could possibly suggest, by implication, that Coltrane is in the Minor Leagues when compared to a classical player. What these performers do is just... different. It can be more or less complex depending on the nature of the piece being performed, and what it demands. And it needs to be evaluated accordingly.

I should note that there are few classical players who can do what a jazz player does, and vice versa... simply because, as I suggest above, the approach and complexity are different. On this, by the way, I have a slight difference with Lindsay: Lanza may have been able "to do a Sinatra," and Sinatra may have worshiped at the altar of Lanza... but Sinatra is Sinatra. He learned from jazz artists the art of singing "behind the beat," which makes his phrasing much different from Lanza. Is this "better" or "worse"? Nonsensical question. It's simply a different approach, based on a different idiom. (Ironic, isn't it, that Lanza, who is being criticized as not "pure" enough by classical standards, is actually much closer to the classical technique than he is to the jazz technique that inspired Sinatra.)

And, in the end, one could look at technique, mastery of rhythm, harmony, melody, and the integration of these, and so forth, and come up with a much more "complex" picture of what constitutes "complexity." That's why I'm not willing to say that the classical performer is better than the jazz performer.

(Let's not confuse issues, however. For the record, I don't consider "pissing in a jar and adding a crucifix" to be art, let alone a primitive form of "art" ... but that's a subject for another day.)

Now, let me turn to Michael's newest post.

You ask, Michael, "is there any way that you can help me explain to you that high art is not a service industry? and that that is a good thing? Or do you like the idea that artists should go back to pre-renaissance times, back to the middle ages?"

The question implies a false dichotomy in my view; it suggests that an artist who is paid for his art is in a service industry necessarily. Now, maybe in certain circumstances, that might be true, that some artists produce art the way Howard Roark's inferior competitors produced architectural designs: they build in order to have clients, rather than needing clients in order to build in accordance with their own vision. (I would, however, caution us in making blanket moral statements about artists across the board on this issue; we would need to know the very specific personal circumstances of any artist in order to make those kinds of judgments.)

The genuine artist creates and is true to his vision—but this certainly does not mean that he must never seek out commissions for his creation or that it is never proper to be a part of a collaborative artistic endeavor (such as a film).

You bring up Michelangelo. Well, one of the best stories about Michelangelo and the Pope is depicted in the novel (and subsequent movie) "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (with a fine score, by the way, written by Alex North). I am deeply aware of the issues that motivated each of these men in what became a titanic struggle for artistic integrity. But Michelangelo's integrity was not compromised because he accepted money or because he chose to perform a service by selling his artistic talent to depict specifically religious scenes in a specifically religious structure.

Even Howard Roark, who created the great, exalted Stoddard Temple, accepted commissions to design a gas station—done in his way. And that is the key: As long as one is not asked to create "in a certain way," contrary to one's artistic vision, I see no compromise of integrity. And I see no difference here between Roark and Miklos Rozsa on this point: Rozsa accepted commissions to do motion picture scores—his way. He never compromised the integrity of his artistic vision in creating these scores.

I sometimes get the sense, however, that Michael is suggesting that anybody who does a film score is, per se, a compromiser, if they can also do concert works. But that's not the case, in my view. Rozsa learned the art of the score (and it is an art), and that art both informed his concert compositions, while also being informed by those concert compositions. Over time, in fact, many of his scores were adopted for the concert stage and presented as the integrated works of art that they were, quite apart from the films in which they were featured. And that is often the mark of a great film score and a great film score composer.

Ironically, tomorrow, at Lincoln Center, the incomparable classical violinist Itzhak Perlman will be performing an entire concert devoted to "Music from the Movies," with the New York Philharmonic. It features selections from the works of Rozsa, North, Newman, Steiner, Korngold, Williams, and other great film score composers. The program (which is available in PDF form here) discusses the ongoing debate over "movie music," which is sometimes dismissed by "purists" who claim that “Movie music is to music as ad copy is to writing and laugh tracks are to dialogue. ... In other words, it doesn’t stand alone but is in service to something else. … It’s certainly technically interesting, like lighting, but it’s not really music.”


As James Keller writes, there is no "good reason to disdain music that stands 'in service to something else,' a characteristic that film music shares with operas, ballet scores (Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, for example), incidental music for theatrical productions (like Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music), and any sacred music composed for liturgical use (say, Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass or J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio)." Keller understands "that some of this attitude is derived from the notion that commercial success somehow taints a work of art, and so a film score is contaminated by its very genealogy." But he asks, "does anyone argue that opera companies should not produce Der Rosenkavalier on the grounds that Richard Strauss composed the work hoping it might be successful and, sure enough, ended up building his mountain retreat with its royalties?" In any event, not all film scores enjoy commercial success, and not all film music is created equal. The fine composer Bernard Herrmann wrote:

Music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It often lifts a mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. It is the communicating link between screen and audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.

Keller continues:

From a technical point of view, composing film music makes specific demands. You’ve got to feel a measure of sympathy for the composer who, having composed a beautifully structured nugget of sound that perfectly reflects the details of a cinematic scene, receives a memo informing him that the director has decided to expand the scene by 30 seconds or cut it by 18. Yet composers in all fields are accustomed to accommodating limitations, whether in fulfilling a commission for an orchestral piece “not to exceed 12 minutes” or in writing a violin part that really wants to descend to F, even though that instrument is thoughtlessly built to go only as low as G.

And the thing to remember is this, and here I truly agree with Keller: The finest film scores

are full participants in the success of a collaborative effort, but they also have complete musical integrity on their own. That’s why it’s possible, and not at all questionable, occasionally to unhook a score from the visuals and present it in a concert format. True, in doing so we lose the music’s connection to the context for which it was conceived (except to the extent that our memory may supply it). However, concert audiences are used to that, since it happens every time a symphony concert opens with Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture or ends with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. If a well-executed musical composition holds its own when transferred from a movie theater to a concert hall, we only impoverish ourselves if we don’t sit back and enjoy it.

I'd maintain that Rozsa's scores—and those of any of the great film score composers—have an internal integrity; they constitute an organic whole, in which each part enriches the experience of the whole, not only serving (and strengthening) the purpose of the film, but standing on their own as integral creations. Listen to his score from "Ben-Hur," or "El Cid," and see if you do not walk away with a sense of that integration, and a sense of Rozsa's artistic integrity, quite apart from whether you like it or not.

Michael brings up the Renaissance. Well, let's not forget one historical curiosity, which is not a coincidence: Just as the Renaissance gave birth to great humanist art, it also heralded the spread of capitalism. And an artist such as Rand was able to articulate the principle that art and entertainment need not be in conflict, that there is no inherent conflict between art and business, and that there is nothing inherently wrong with being paid for one's art. In the best of circumstances, the "service" being paid for is the creation of the sublime, in accordance with the artist's vision.

As a final point: The good thing about artistic taste is that it is personal and that each of us can find the sublime in different forms. We may be able to provide objective evaluations of an artist's technique and complexity. But what each of us likes, we like. C'est la vie, like I said. If opera "speaks" to you, Michael, in a certain way, the way that jazz and film scores and other forms of music "speak" to me, great! I celebrate the difference.


Let me tell ya Chris, that John Coltrane remark hit me like a ton of bricks.

What a vicious uppercut to the jaw I took with that one! Now mind you, I realize that I have NO right to complain, when one argues as aggressively as I do, they have NO right to whine about a hard counter-punch.

Anyone reading here on Sciabarra’s blog, never underestimate him. He is dangerous, - be afraid – be very afraid.


Hey, George... I hope you've recovered! Somehow, the thought of you under a pile of bricks is ~not~ comforting, no matter how "dangerous" I might be.