Both unlike indignity

Sunday, 30 April 2006 — 6:41pm | J.R.R. Tolkien, Jazz, Literature, Music, Pianism

I’ve been thinking about words.

I’m unabashedly a word-lover. One of the consequent afflictions of word-loving, though, is a passion for cute little alphabetic clumps that extends so far beyond their utility as meaning-carrying units that this utility becomes fully detachable. And as soon as one accepts that language can be beautiful in and of itself without having to communicate anything, one begins to see all kinds of instances where language in its meaningful state is intrusive and wholly unnecessary.

This is going to turn into a post where I make fun of hip-hop; but first, a few words about Tolkien.

I have, on one occasion or another, heard someone dismiss The Lord of the Rings on the grounds that Tolkien merely intended the mythology of Middle-Earth to serve as a playground for his invented languages. While not strictly untrue, this is an oversimplification and a misunderstanding. The way I read it, what Tolkien had claimed from the beginning is that the sound-patterns of a language – which would naturally include invented ones, since the meanings of individual lexical units are to some extent arbitrary – are able to contain and reflect the cultural history of a people, even a hypothetical people.

And so you have the Elves, whose unvoiced consonants slip and slide off the labiodental oh-so-gently, whereas the Orcs speak in abrasive, glottal coughs and hacks. In both the physical world and the speech-world, the Elves dance lightly, the Dwarves weigh themselves down; and the language and nomenclature of Rohan are lifted straight from Old English, so there’s no question about where that places them in Tolkien’s cosmos. (Allegorical conclusion: the French are beautiful and the Germans are ugly.) But the important thing is this: the mimetic position of each culture is discernible before meaning is introduced in the form of definitions.

This observation, and the illusion of authenticity that it permits when it comes to an invented tongue, separate Tolkien from all the cheap imitators who think dropping unpronounceable apostrophes everywhere is sufficient. For one thing, it makes no sense for an English-language narrator to anglicize everything except for the funny names, especially in a quasi-medieval setting reflecting an order of society organized around appropriation and homogeneity. I like to think of this as a case of contradictory suspensions of disbelief: how is it that English narrators speaking of a world in which English does not exist are somehow incapable of transliteration? Did they never have Peking Duck at the Turin Olympics?

But enough about bad fantasy. After all, this isn’t my area of special expertise. Talk to Wolf Wikeley, or better yet, watch My Fair Lady. Me, I just play keys.

At this juncture, I want to talk about what inspired this post in the first place. About three weeks ago, I comped a chart featuring my old schoolmate Ian Keteku, who now frolics on the Edmonton rap scene and goes by “Emcee E”. It was a surreal experience, and while in rehearsal, the pair of vocalists coordinating the shindig had to remind me on several occasions to keep the harmonies simple and not swing the time. It’s a struggle to let go of the upper structures and blue notes once you’ve internalized them, and I have no idea how Herbie Hancock ever managed to not only do it, but go on to record a hit single with Christina Aguilera. Then again, he’s Herbie Hancock.

Curiously, the last time Ian and I shared a stage was when he passed the microphone to me at my high school graduation banquet – a legendary evening that, roughly an hour later, went down in history (or down in flames). But the really bizarre thing about this whole scenario is somewhat more transparent.

Jazz guy. Rap guy. We’re not supposed to get along. Think of the Capulets and Montagues; now think of one of them as illiterate, and you’ve got it.

Two days earlier, Kenny Drew (not the one who played with Bird, but his son, who is also a pianist) wrote an article on All About Jazz entitled “What the F**k Happened to Black Popular Music?” – which, predictably, led to an explosive messageboard discussion about the decadence of American youth.

The animosity towards rap is uniquely strong in jazz circles for two reasons. First, rap has taken the place of jazz as the inspirational voice of black America, and there’s a certain cultural jealousy at work – jealousy in its second-most justified form (the first being an armed response to the Universal Constant of the Treachery of Women).

For my part, it is my learned opinion that jazz was, and is, a discovery, not an invention; it does not belong to black America, or America on the whole, any more than the moons of Jupiter belong to Italy. At the same time, I am not going to disrespect the forefathers of the great musical artform of the twentieth century by ignoring the hard fact that the syntax of jazz improvisation developed out of a specific ethnic milieu motivated by the desire to express a positive racial identity. The very problem is that once jazz was properly recognized as a universal construct, it lost its importance to African-American youth.

The second peeve, and the more fundamental one, is that jazz is an extension of the accepted musical dimensions of melody, harmony and rhythm, whereas rap thrives on the absence of the first two and the minimalistic reduction of the third.

I’m not going to get into the discussion of whether or not rap is music. Hip-hop production is no small task, even if it constricts itself to a limited subset of possible syncopations in 4/4 time – which, at face value, isn’t too different from the rhythmic complexity of early swing. It’s just that one requires a MIDI keyboard and a handful of plagiarized samples, whereas the other requires an instrument and practice. But as with any artform, the EffortMeter is merely the first line of aesthetic defence, and leans heavily towards exclusion (or, in the case of aurora borealis at 28,000ft, religion).

The repetition of vowel sounds produces a series of resonances that could be characterized as a harmonic system of its own, though it’s no more sophisticated than Eliza Doolittle reciting nursery rhymes about the rain in Spain falling mainly in the plain or Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor tapping to “Moses supposes his toeses are roses” over half a century ago. And melodically speaking, there does exist a “correct” diction that distinguishes “good” rap from cheap imitation President’s Choice rap, though in either case, it still deserves a bad rap.

So the genre passes all three tests. I accept that rap is musical, in the same way that the ziplocked excrement of an underfed chihuahua decorated with parsley (the excrement, not the chihuahua) is edible. Technically, yeah… it’s just that I prefer the filet mignon, especially when it’s offered for the same market price.

And I will state, for clarity, that it’s not like all rap is intolerable simply because its musicality is relegated to technical excuses. I will concede that the most outstanding track on Bound Together, a tribute to the music of the Super Nintendo game Earthbound, is the rap remix “Da Black Market”. I will concede that for some reason, French rap is actually not bad; if it’s as full of crass proletarian gutterspeak as the English variant, I don’t know it. I will even concede that the sight of a shrimpy Japanese-Norwegian rugby player channelling the Wu-Tang Clan is hilarious.

However, I am going to identify a general cause behind all of this semantic infighting.

Contemporary popular music has a problem. It happens to be the same problem as the one in mainstream computer animation: there are too many goddamned words.

Rap is the extreme case: the distillation of music for the consumption of the lowest common denominator of the tone-deaf breakbeat bobblehead. Somehow, it always manages to stumble its way back to the but-it’s-poetry tagline excuse. But in almost every genre, there is this depressing tendency for kids with mad guitar chops to obscure their playing with vapid half-sung lyrics about love or death or whatever else is fashionable this afternoon on the bipolar planetoid of Kazaa, when the music is perfectly comfortable speaking for itself.

The meaning of the words is at most a supplement to the music, or a part of some larger dramatic mixed-media construction. The words do not equal the music in any respect apart from acting as signals in the soundspace. Remove the words, and you still have music. Remove the triumvirate of melody, harmony and rhythm, and the music is gone; lyrics are not information-preserving. There’s a reason we file operas by composer, not librettist.

Louis Armstrong recognized the self-sufficiency of melodic expression and invented scat. Annie Ross turned it into a joke and pioneered vocalese. And when jazz vocalists still anchor onto the old standards, the melodies suggest a template for creative interpretation, a crucible for the formation of a personal musical identity. The notes on the page by your Gershwin or Rodgers or Porter, and the words that fit them, are norms. What you listen for are the erratic deviations.

I don’t say this to exclude. I have a lot of respect for the burgeoning poetic tradition of the singer-songwriter, be it those who can sing (Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell) or those who can’t (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen). But in most cases, the words do not equal the music. They are separable, as lyricophiles consistently demonstrate; and that also implies, quite correctly, that the musical dimensions can be isolated. Unless, of course, the music is absent. Just as bad music can get in the way of well-meaning lyrics, bad poetry – or poor enunciation thereof – often obscures the music. And there’s way too much of both going around. Curiously, market forces are driven by the verbally empowered and musically illiterate, a subdivision that is disturbingly representative of consumer society at large where everybody hears and nobody listens.

That’s one possibility, anyhow. The other one is the ego of the musician who feels the need to disrespect the audience by spelling out how it should feel and what everything means. That’s not poetry, it’s narcissism. And when the words are superficial blotches of noise designed to obscure an underlying monotony of composition, the practice is especially reprehensible.

I don’t deny that words can serve a very direct musical function, and in fact, that is what works in rap. That is what works in opera when you ignore the supertitles and listen to the enunciation of a foreign language, which is itself emotionally indicative of something. That is what works in John Coltrane when he chants along to Jimmy Garrison’s bass line in his spiritual “Acknowledgment”: a love supreme, a love supreme. Which is the dominant function, and which is the supplementary one? Here’s a clue: most of what you hear today has it the wrong way around.

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