Friday, July 22, 2005

Rothbard's unfortunate opinions about music

I'm afraid I'm gonna have to disagree with Murray Rothbard on something, and vehemently so. The subject: music.

There is an old Rothbard article posted at LRC today called "Jazz Needs a Melody!" that has two basic components to it:

1. Singing high praise for what he calls "classic jazz", which is basically anything made before WWII.
2. Trashing not only all forms of jazz since then, but rock music in general.

Some of the terms that he uses to describe bebop and other forms of "modern" jazz are rather asinine: "musical solipsism", "nihilism", and "anti-melodic". He also uses the phrase "mindless cacophony" when referring to "modern acid rock", which nowadays would essentially be the type of rock music known as classic rock (like Jimi Hendrix for example). I don't disagree about the cacophony part, but mindless? Give me a break! It's almost as if he just seems to be hostile towards a lot of individual expression within music.

His views on jazz and rock can basically be summed up with this ridiculous quote:
Since great jazz requires great melodic songs at its base, the degeneration of jazz after World War II went hand in hand with the degeneration of the popular song, which finally descended into rock.

This quote brings me to discuss the portion of his critique that involves melody. Jazz music requires nothing but improvisation. It is a living and constantly evolving form of music that isn't limited by various requirements, no matter what people like Rothbard think.

The claim that post-WWII jazz has no melody, or harmony, or rhythm, is just flat out ridiculous. Just because he didn't have a good enough ear to pick up such elements or realize that musicians often improvise within the melody doesn't mean that things like melody were not present. All jazz, with the exception of free jazz and some avant-garde jazz, contains melody. The same applies to harmony. The fact that the rhythmic vocabulary has become more expansive and complex over the years does not mean that rhythm is a lost art. It's as if he only recognizes certain simplistic variations of musical form to be legitimate.

The last sentence of his piece is perhaps the worst one of them all:
All in all, an important reminder that jazz needs great melodies to make it viable.

I've already covered the fact that his mind was apparently limited to recognizing only certain types of melody, namely the ones that he can recognize and appreciate. There's nothing wrong with having individual tastes and preferences, but his statements on melody cross the line into displaying ignorance.

And what's this crap about jazz needing to be a certain way "to make it viable"? Doesn't viability imply a degree of liveliness, vitality, evolution even? As I expressed earlier, jazz is a living and constantly evolving form of music that isn't tied down by various constraints like the ones that Rothbard would have liked to impose on it. To tie it down like that, to demand that it remain a certain way without any type of experimentation and evolution, is to choke the life out of it and demand it's death.

Why couldn't Rothbard just say that he didn't care for certain types of music rather than develop a wordy critique that opens him up to look foolish on the subject? It's a good thing for liberty lovers (and music lovers) that he didn't decide to become a full time music critic.

17 Comments:

Blogger Vache Folle said...

It's a little like Allan Blomm's going off on the destructive power of rock music in The Closing of the American MInd. THey don't like the music, they don't understand those who do, so it must be bad. I confess to having such feelings about rap and modern country from time to time.

3:28 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

I'm not fond of modern country either, as opposed to the good ol' stuff like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

I'm also not fond of mainstream rap, as opposed to the more intelligent and interesting stuff that can be found in the underground/indie scenes.

4:42 PM  
Blogger born to run said...

As a deadhead and Rothbardian I'm forced to choose between Rothbard and "acid rock" jams. I've got to go with the Grateful Dead. Certain parts of jams (Dark Star comes to mind) may be cacophonous, but it serves the purpose of contrasting with the melodic part and setting a foundation for what is to come.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Wally Conger said...

Hey, what about us POLKA fans?!

5:36 PM  
Blogger eugene plawiuk said...

Hmm lets see pre WWII bands were WHITE swing era bands post WWII Jazz was dominated by BLACKS taking back their music. Do you think that Rothbard may have been suffering from cultural racism.

3:41 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

I doubt it. He seemed to appreciate the African roots of the music, and the types of jazz he spoke the highest of were pre-swing era big bands even. And although the essay focused on jazz, he seemed to equate all rock music with mindless trash.

With that said though, I suppose it's not outside the realm of possibility that cultural predjudices (conscious or not) played a role. That definitely was a factor with some people in terms of preferring one type of jazz (usually big band swing) over another (like bebop or the avant-garde).

1:04 PM  
Blogger born to run said...

Rothbard definitely wasn't racist. He said at one point that he supported Black Power.

2:50 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

Yeah, that's what I thought. However, I think it is possible to not be racist but harbor some sort of cultural racism on an unconscious level.

I'm not accusing Rothbard of falling into that category, but some of his cultural views may hint at such a possibility.

3:35 PM  
Blogger etnobofin said...

Hmmm, sounds like Mr Rothbard and Stanley "Marsalis is the New Black Hope" Crouch should get together and have a good moan about the state of music in general. Just a case of "I like what I know and I know what I like".

I'd tend to disagree with your statement that "free jazz" doesn't have melody. A prima facie example is ALBERT AYLER and his various groups, for whome I'd argue that melody is probably the primary driving force behind improvisation. Dewey Redman and Don Cherry are among the most melodic players I know.

A good post though - I think I may use the link to spark off some posts of my own :-) Peace

2:48 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

I don't know who Stanley Crouch is, but what you put in quotes is all I need to know. I find it odd for one to describe someone as "the new black hope" when it seems as if he's living in the past.

Albert Ayler, to me, seems to almost be an exception though as far as free jazz is concerned. His music sure is different than the music of, say, Cecil Taylor or Peter Brotzmann. Then again, maybe I just don't have the ear to always pick certain things up when listening to free jazz. Ayler's music is the only example I can think of in terms of free jazz that immediately appealed to me without having to give it multiple listens and really mull over. I suppose melody must be a factor in that.

4:06 AM  
Blogger eugene plawiuk said...

Well what Rock and Roll would Rothbard be talking about that of the early sixties late fifties, that was certainly melodic but heavily influenced again by black music in particular doo wop and rythm and blues.
So I would again assert that even unconcious, Rothbard IS culturally profiling music forms. Whether he supported Black Power from an intellectual position or not. One can support BP and still not accept Afro American culture.

4:47 AM  
Blogger jomama said...

Being a jazz fan for years, (primarily big band- Mintzer, McConnell) you
covered what most who don't like it
don't realize. The melody is based
more or less on the chord structure
and most can't hear the relationship
there. All they can truly hear is
the original tune. When it goes
off to chord structure, as a good jazz artist does creating a new melody, they're lost.

But then most don't see patterns either.

7:51 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

Good points by both Eugene and jomama.

I know people who are definitely not racist who can't stand hip-hop music and culture. That would be a more modern equivalent of what Eugene is stating. It may not be deplorable the way actual racism and bigotry is, but it is certainly unfortunate.

12:55 PM  
Blogger eugene plawiuk said...

You make a good point about Hip Hop which offends me because it uses the N word and dis's women as Ho's and Bitches and has had a large impact on young men of colour outside of East LA or other ghetto areas, into thinking it is hip to be mysoginist.

9:26 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

Yeah, hip hop is an interesting example for sure when you take into account all of the negative aspects of it's mainstream manifestations.

It's unfortunate that the stuff that most people are exposed to is full of misogynist messages and crass materialism. On the flip side, there is hip hop out there that doesn't glorify any of that shit, but it seems as if mainstream media outlets aren't interested in promoting it.

So despite the fact that good hip hop that is free of various moral toxins exists, many people reflexively tune out to hip hop in general because of the limited range of what they know about it. In other words, "if it's hip hop, then it's gotta be bad!"

10:17 PM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

Note also that most crusty cultural conservatives who object to hip-hop care very little about the endless use of misogynist and homophobic invective. Typical complaints have usually revolved around (1) the use of dirty words, (2) hostility towards established authority in general and the pigs in particular, and (3) musically illiterate complaints about how "easy" it is and how there's no musical talent involved and the rest of the usual claptrap.

Incidentally, just to be clear, when you say this: "Why couldn't Rothbard just say that he didn't care for certain types of music rather than develop a wordy critique that opens him up to look foolish on the subject?" -- are you complaining about Rothbard, in particular, holding forth on things about which he was ignorant, or are you mounting some kind of general complaint against people offering "wordy critiques" of general aesthetic trends or genres, instead of merely confining their complaints to "I don't care for it"? Because the first point seems to me to be obviously right, and the second one dangerously tempting, but in fact quite wrong.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Sergio Méndez said...

I wonder what was Rothbard opinion of most of the "academic" music of the XX century, being so (conventionally understood) anti mellodic and anti armonic (dodecaphonics for example).

11:06 AM  

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