The Day the Music Died Page 2

This is particularly true now that the Billboard Hot 100 is compiled from radio playlists as well as from sales figures (footnote 6). Songs are now played on the radio largely because they are played on the radio. This may make it easier for record company executives to sleep at night, but it has turned a healthily divergent situation into one that is artistically and commercially convergent.

Classical music appears to be in not much better shape. Frank Zappa recently stated that a composer who wishes to be performed can no longer "just sit down and write because you know how to write and love to write and eventually somebody will listen because they love to listen and maybe somebody will play it because they'll want to play it" (footnote 7). Instead, he or she has to deal with a strict conformity imposed by the business of classical music, which at present means writing minimalist music: "It's the only way in which a composer can function in contemporary American life at all, that is to do this shallow, empty, repetitive, disposable stuff."

Indeed, pianist Earl Wild confided to me during a visit to Santa Fe last summer that he feels live classical music to be a dying form. While classical records still sell in healthy numbers, he doesn't see anyone in his audiences under 40! And faced with an audience which generally seems opposed to music written within living memory—"I say it's 12-tone, and I say the hell with it," wrote J. Gordon Holt last August of Stephen Albert's "Tristopher Tristian"—orchestra managers are retreating into ever more conservative programming, something that is reflected in record company release schedules. As Bert Whyte pointed out in the October 1991 issue of Audio, with few exceptions the classical recording industry is devoting its efforts to massive duplication of the popular repertoire.

As for jazz, I find it alarming that the artists selling the most records are Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. Both typify the new conservatism that is afflicting music in the '90s; both are recreating the music their fathers would have been familiar with; both are retreating into the museum.

But all is not gloom. Just when you think that there is nothing more to be said in the jazz piano trio vocabulary, along comes someone like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whose Discovery album is reviewed by RL in this issue. And while symphony orchestras across America are churning out ever-more-mundane performances of classical orchestral warhorses, there are still diamonds on offer from the more imaginative musical directors. Under Neal Stulberg, the financially starved New Mexico Symphony has nevertheless been offering its subscribers adventurous programming, such as a superb 1990 concert that coupled Charles Ives's Three Places in New England with Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, throwing in An American in Paris to get the crowds to enter the door. And as you are about to cast the major record companies into the pit for releasing yet another Four Seasons—60 performances currently available—along comes ECM with their superb recordings of the strange yet moving music of Estonian post-minimalist composer Arvo Pärt.

Perhaps it is healthier to put such left-brain musings to one side, therefore. As Woody Allen sort of said in Hannah and Her Sisters, as long as you can go to the movies to see the Marx Brothers life can't be all that bad. Corey Greenberg was visiting Santa Fe just before we all took off to the New York AES Convention in October and, together with Richard Lehnert and his singer friend Ursula Drabik, we spent an evening jamming on those great old songs with which David Marsh filled his book. We fooled around with the Bo Diddley "shave and a haircut, two bits" beat. We worked through that soul-satisfying 1-4-5, tonic-subdominant-dominant, departure-discovery, return-and-reaffirmation black blues progression that lies at the heart of the great white magic of rock'n'roll (footnote 8), from "La Bamba" through "Twist and Shout," "Louie, Louie," "Hang on Sloopy," to the chorus of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Southern Cross"—and even endows that Dvorák symphony with its Transatlantic feel.

To play music live is to know that the currently morbid state of recorded music is merely a sign of transition, much as the condition popular music was in before Elvis blew it apart in the '50s, as jazz was before Miles, Bird, and Coltrane reshaped it in their image. As long as you can open yourself to what the music, any music, has to offer, nothing much can really be wrong with your world. But we miss you, Stevie Ray!

Footnote 6: To quote David Marsh in The Heart of Rock & Soul, p.561: "I once asked a friend who edited a music industry trade paper (not Billboard) why album charts were based on sales only while singles charts factored in airplay. ~`Because if we based them only on sales, there wouldn't be anything but black records in the Top Ten.' he said."

Footnote 7: Interviewed by Florindo Volpacchio in Telos No.87, Spring '91.

Footnote 8: For a serious examination of why certain chord progressions seem to evoke universal responses in listeners, see Deryck Cooke's seminal The Language of Music, Oxford University Press, 1959.