Music of the United States

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Month: September 2015 (Page 1 of 2)

Clara Kellogg

Clara Kellogg was a soprano opera singer in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Her rise to popularity began in New York, and before he career was over, she managed her own touring company and translated tons of German and Italian operas into English. Her company’s goal was to make opera accessible and enjoyable for all people.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a concert pianist born in New Orleans. As an American composer, he was one of the first to be recognized outside of the United States. His popularity originated from the mix of cultures seen in his music, including French, African, and Spanish. Because of this fusion of sentiments in his music, he was a unique and extremely talented musician.

Miska Hauser

Miska Hauser is a Hungarian violinist who moved to the United States in 1850. After his career on the east coast of the United States didn’t work out, he moved west to experience the gold rush in San Francisco. He was a leading force in the classical and opera music boom on the west coast during this time period.

Hip Hop as Art Music

Over the past few weeks we’ve discussed the topic of Art vs Popular music and their similarities and differences. For this topic, we are breaking down the notion that these two categories are inherently different.

Who defines art? I can’t say. You can’t say. It means different things to different people and we can’t all agree on one meaning  because someone’s interpretation is not going to align with everyone who wants to have input. So today we will discuss how Hip Hop is art music and the reasons why and how they allowed it to evolve into such.

It all began in the early 1970’s when a group from the African-American Civil Rights Movement called The Last Poets released their debut album of spoken word over music. Through their sound and voices, they pursued the mission to embrace the black national movement to claim and redefine national identity for African-Americans after years [and years and years] of oppression. Shortly after, Jamaican artist DJ Kool Herc began mixing vinyls and began a more rhythmic style called toasting (African-American equivalent of rapping) which eventually was coined emceeing.

A little later down the line, Djing became more popular and DJ’s such as Grandmaster Flash began cutting, mixing, and scratching tracks. Grandmaster Flash collaborated the Furious Five to create a subgenre of Hip Hop called conscious rap which illuminated the harsh and unsettling conditions faced by minorities in urban areas they were living (in this case The Bronx of New York). This style of Hip Hop music became popular because it not only allowed listeners to become socially aware of the dead-end conditions of life in these urban, poverty stricken areas and attempted to uplift the community to get out of and defy these conditions.

Further down the line, the introduction of political rap came into play with artists such as KRS One with songs like Sound of Da Police. Songs like this expressed the frustration with the corruption of the “justice” system that often times racially profiled, attacked, and killed African-Americans out of suspicion, spite, or hatred. Other artists and groups like Public Enemy also had their interpretation on the violence, chaos, inequality that plagued African-Americans and their communities. Also around this time West Coast rap groups and artists like N.W.A, Eazy E, Ice T, Ice Cube began a coevolving era of Hip Hop called gangsta rap which highlighted the “thug life” and face-offs between the corrupt “justice” system as well.

As we travel further down the line, we run into MC’s like Nas, who came out of New York and introduced a unique and powerful lyricism that served as a mixed medium to portray the “street” life and at the same time address the social issues of the time period he experienced growing up. After he dropped his debut album Illmatic in ‘94, it served as a landmark musical piece for the East Coast that allowed more and more artists to become inspired by his lyricism and style and start producing more tracks. In the southeast (Atlanta, AKA The Heart of the South), the duo Outkast (comprised of Andre 3000 and Big Boi) began producing music that revealed the struggles and similar lifestyles of African-Americans in the south that also enabled a breakthrough for musicians and Hip Hop artists from southern locales.

Later in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, artists such as Talib Kweli and Immortal Technique came to the scene. They carried on the lineage of both conscious and political rap in their lyrics. Kweli often collaborated with Mos Def (another artist that shared the conscious rap view) and their music seeked to bring to light the continuous persecution, unfair treatment, and stereotypes of the African-American community. Although Immortal Technique was from Peru, once he moved to the socially unjust United States (more specifically Harlem, NY) he began to rap about the crookedness of socialism, class inequality, and institutional racism.

As we come to the more recent evolutions of Hip Hop we meet the artists of the Millennial generation like Lupe Fiasco. Lupe Fiasco began his Hip Hop career in a rap group called Da Pak which was inspired by West Coast gangsta rap and illustrated morals and lifestyles he quickly became uncomfortable promoting. So he moved into socially aware topics by rapping about poverty, Islam (he is Muslim), and racism.

Throughout this [very] brief summation of Hip Hop and its evolution and significance in the growth of the “United” States, we may begin to see a common topic: Inequality and Injustice. All through the timeline of the African-American’s establishment in the “United” States of America we can see the apparent mistreatment and unfairness shown toward these members of society. Hip Hop had the most important role of being their voice. It illuminated the shadows of the country that the common public were ashamed to admit, scared to address, and complacent with the situation because they were doing just fine. The expression of these emotions were pivotal in the advancement of the African-American life. These emotions, illustrations–this culture–came from the soul, the heart, and that is the root of art itself.

Take a moment to educate yourself and click the links.

Boston Symphony Orchestra

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of the earliest and most famous symphony halls in the United States. It gave its first concert in 1881 under George Henschel. The founder of the orchestra was Henry Lee Higginson and his vision is carried out through this day in one of America’s most influential orchestral halls.

(http://www.bso.org/brands/bso/about-us/historyarchives/the-history-of-the-bso.aspx)

Theodore Thomas

Theodore Thomas (1835-1904) was a German born conductor that immigrated to the United States at a young age. He is best known for being the first well-known American orchestra conductor and for being the founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Additionally, he is known for spreading the classical genre westward during the era of manifest destiny in the 1800’s. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/chicago/peopleevents/p_thomas.html)

Classical Music

Serious or conventional music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition. Classical music has traditionally been written in the European tradition during a period lasting from roughly 1750 to 1830, even though classical composers have also written at later dates. (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/classical-music)

Art vs. Popular Music

In the debate the differences and similarities between art and popular music were discussed. The general question that we explored was are art and popular music fundamentally opposed? The question presented was intriguing due to its implication of a tension between these two genres. I think the question itself poses a problem in the implicit suggestion that the genres may be at odds, or that genres can be opposed in general. I think it has been quite evident throughout the history of American music that both popular and art music can coexist and are not fundamentally opposed. To truly understand their relation we should dive deeper into the question and define the relationship between the two beyond just the yes or no answer to if they are opposed.

Even though the genres may be dissimilar in many different fashions, they have clearly been able to both be successful in their own spheres of influence. Opposition implies that there is a fundamental tension between the genres. Classical and popular music have both enjoyed their own successes and failures. It seems that the better question to explore would be if the two genres are different or similar, drifting the discussion away from the concept of opposition. I think it is evident that the dichotomy posed by the question is too simplistic and to truly explore the relation of art and popular music in the United States an understanding of the “gray area” between the two genres in addition to some of intricate nuanced points is necessary. Thus, I do not think that the genres are “opposed”, there is evidence that suggests that the genres intersect in many ways, and even though there are similarities and ambiguities we can still conjecture about general trends in the genres that make them “different”.

It is important to deconstruct the first position, that popular and art music are opposed. This position negates, or at least diminishes, the possibility of the intersections and similarities between the two genres. By looking at a few artists that do not neatly fit into the genres of art or pop music, we can see that the distinction is sometimes very difficult to make. George Gershwin is a great example. Gershwin is known for being simultaneously influential in both the genre of pop and art music. In his song Rhapsody in Blue, it was hard for myself to distinguish this piece as being purely classical music. His utilization of the piano at points in this song seem to be somewhat similar to what one would get in a classical piece while also incorporating certain aspects of a jazz song. Additionally, Duke Ellington produced music dubbed by some as “classical jazz”. In his song A tone parallel to Harlem it is clear how some of the elements of jazz are fused with symphonic styles. Ellington and Gershwin successfully represent how the two genres can often collide and diverge from the art versus popular distinction.

Even though art and popular music sometimes do not have clear distinctions, it is still possible to classify them based on general trends when we view the two communities holistically. For example, art music is more complex in its musical structures and is often more difficult to play and produce. A more complex piece does not necessarily translate to a “better” piece but generally speaking art music is more advanced. Pieces of art music tend to be longer, entire symphonies can last hours while many pop songs last the duration of a few minutes. The culture surrounding art and popular music is also different. Popular music tends to have a larger consumer base relative to art music and is more intertwined with mass consumerism and capitalism. Music companies aim to produce music at the lowest cost and distribute it to the broadest range of people while art music tends to be funded by foundations and philanthropists instead of whimsical market forces.

However, haven’t most people heard of Beethoven? Would that not make his symphony popular music? When comparing these genres it is important to once again remember that the labels are often arbitrarily created and frankly unnecessary in many contexts. However, what we define as art music versus popular music and the distinctions that we make are grounded in some degree of commonalties. Namely, the culture, formatting, and production of what we define as art music would as a whole be more similar when compared to the community of what we define as popular music. Regardless, it is important for listeners to understand that even though these genres may be different in some regards, they do coexist in the same cultural space, influence each other, and do not “oppose” each other as history has shown that they can successfully thrive together.

Art or Pop? – The Velvet Underground and Nico

I was listening to an album recently that, in the wake of our debate over “pop” and “art” music, left me confused on how to categorize it. The album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the classic 1967 debut by legendary New York band The Velvet Underground, seems to straddle the line between the elements of “pop” and “art” music that we so closely defined.

For it’s pop side, The Velvet Underground & Nico features many songs (most notably the album’s opener “Sunday Morning”) that clearly fit within the parameters of conventional pop music. “Sunday Morning’s” 4/4 beat, verse-chorus form, lush instrumentation and soothing, evocative vocals clearly showcase The Velvet Underground’s pop sensibilities. Other tracks on the album (“Femme Fatale,” “There She Goes Again,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) also clearly exhibit the traits of standard pop songs.

However, for every pop song, The Velvet Underground & Nico also features a number of experimental tracks that are not at all representative of standard pop conventions. These songs, such as “Venus in Furs,” “Heroin” and the chaotic closing track “European Son,” are avant-garde experimental tracks that attempt to explore musical ideas beyond the standard three-minute pop song. “Venus in Furs,” for example, features what Lou Reed (the leader of the Velvet Underground) called an “Ostrich Guitar” (a type of unconventional extended guitar technique), while “Heroin” and European feature extensive drone sections. The lyrics on these tracks are also unconventional, dealing with topics such as drug addiction and alternative forms of sexuality.

So this begs the question: how do you categorize The Velvet Underground & Nico? About half of the album features conventional pop songs, while the other half features experimental tracks. This is all done, too, in the context of a rock group (a group that typically performs songs in the “pop” category). It is times like these where genre categories seem rather pointless. At the time of the recording, New York City minimalist composers such as LaMonte Young were as equally influential to the members of The Velvet Underground as 1960s girl groups such as The Ronettes. The group was interested in blurring conventional genre lines, not adhering to rigid rules.

How would I categorize this album? While I appreciate and understand the art music influences, I do however still see this as more-so a pop album (albeit a strange pop album) than an art music album. The songs feature more similar traits to pop songs than they do art music compositions, with the more experimental factors found in the record “affecting” the pop songs instead of having pop conventions “affecting” art music pieces. None of the songs exceed seven minutes in length, feature different “movements” (a common trait of art music), and they rely on studio recording as the primary method of capture (as opposed to the use of sheet music for capturing art music).

Listen to the album yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bARrDYnNLKQ

Star Spangled Banner

Being from Baltimore, the writing and historical context of the Star Spangled Banner has always been something interesting and meaningful to me. Even though this song is our nation’s most significant, and it was written under twenty minutes from my home, I have never really taken the time to explore it. In this blog post, I will look at some of the history behind the composition and meaning of the Star Spangled Banner.

As most are familiar with, the Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key during the war of 1812 as the British bombarded Fort McHenry in Maryland. Originally entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry”, this piece of art was originally a poem commemorating the United States’ survival of this attack. While it is now our national anthem, this work was not set to music until many years after its composition. It became immediately popular in Baltimore as it was printed in newspapers days after it was written. The Star Spangled Banner was officially accepted as our nation’s national anthem on March 3, 1931.

The Star Spangled Banner was eventually set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”, which is an English drinking song composed by John Stafford Smith. The original version of this song was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, which was a male amateur music club in London. This tune opened up each of the Society’s meetings, and it is a dedication to the Greek poet Anacreon.

These tunes are seemingly extremely dissimilar in their meaning. “The Star Spangled Banner” highlights nationalism, strength, and resilience, while “To Anacreon in Heaven” was used predominantly as a drinking song. There are, however, a few meaningful similarities between the two songs, and even though they may not have any historical significance, I think they are worth noting. First, “To Anacreon in Heaven” was always used to begin the meetings of the Anacreontic Society, much like “The Star Spangled Banner” in the United States for all major events. Additionally, of central importance to both of these works is camaraderie, even though this quality has very different meanings in each song.

While I am sure there are many more parallels to draw between the two, I believe just reading and researching these two have deepened my knowledge of a song that has become so second nature to me after hearing it hundreds of times. I recommend that everyone take a few minutes to try to better grasp the origins and historical significance of our nation’s National Anthem.

 

 

 

Singing of “To Anacreon in Heaven”:

Information on “To Anacreon in Heaven”:

https://osaycanyouhear.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/the-anacreontic-song-british-source-tune-for-the-u-s-national-anthem/

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