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Thread: Basic requirements of cultural literacy in music for contemporary Americans.

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    Basic requirements of cultural literacy in music for contemporary Americans.

    Basic requirements of cultural literacy in music for contemporary Americans.



    Hi to all

    Came across this in Stereophile and thought some may have an interest.
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    A short list of musical works or recordings that people should have heard at least once or twice, to satisfy the most basic requirements of cultural literacy in music for contemporary Americans.
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    The Fifth Element #41

    John Marks, April, 2007
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    I have not seen Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and I am not likely to. But the phrase cultural learnings of America is a good jumping-off point for an important topic: cultural literacy.

    I am in favor of cultural literacy—at least in theory. In practice, though, problems can crop up. "Cultural literacy" is the notion, fostered by thinkers such as Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind), former Education Secretary William J. Bennett (The Book of Virtues), and E.D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know), that adequately informed participation in democratic society requires a basic familiarity with our common cultural legacy as much as it does familiarity with the mechanics of our system of government.

    I would stress the personal benefits as much as the societal ones. Bad things, trying things, happen to people all the time, and our common culture—from the Book of Job through King Lear through Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs allows us to tap into a larger community of archetypes, models, and fellow-sufferers. The riches of culture—drama, painting, dance, poetry, music enable us better to cope with life when times are bad, and more fully enjoy life when times are good.

    So far, so good. But the problems that crop up are at least threefold.

    First, people inevitably will disagree about the contents of the minimally required boxload of our "common" culture. You aren't likely to get any two music lovers to agree about the 10 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time. Good luck getting consensus as to the 100 Most Important Works of Music. From the outset, you'll get at least as much disagreement as agreement about what is both "great" and "common" (common meaning held in common rather than ordinary).

    Second, apart from the incontestable greats—such as King David, Bach, Mozart, and Shakespeare—inclusion in someone's proposed canon of cultural literacy will at times be the result of a self-perpetuating cycle of mass exposure. This is often related to factors other than ultimate quality. Were I to have to choose a musical example of this phenomenon of popularity disproportionate to quality, I need look no further than Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (or the Eagles' "Hotel California").

    Third, once a work or creator is included in the canon of cultural literacy, he, she, or it risks being reduced to those elements (or element) likely to show up on the test, so to speak. This is probably the biggest problem. There are two kinds of students: those who are engaged by the subject matter, and those who are in it only to pass the course. "John Coltrane? Who? Oh, yeah! 'Sheets of sound'! Next question!"

    Multiple-choice testing only adds insult to injury. Reducing an unusually complex artist's entire career to a three-word catchphrase does not enhance comprehension, it impedes it. But that is what happens when 800 years of Western music account for less than 20% of the class time in a Western Civ survey course.

    Free stuff!
    Anyway, by now you may be wondering where I'm going with this. What I have been trying to do, and would now like your assistance with, is put together a short list of musical works or recordings that people should have heard at least once or twice, to satisfy the most basic requirements of cultural literacy in music for contemporary Americans. I vividly remember a conversation I had years ago with Michael Tilson Thomas (I was then writing for Digital Audio magazine, which shows how long ago that was) in which he passionately and eloquently spoke about pieces of music that tell us what it means to be American. That's the kind of list I mean keeping in mind that Americans have made a few contributions to the performance of Bach, etc.

    Not that I'd seriously suggest adding any new requirements on the road to US citizenship, but here's one way to look at this: If a new-minted US citizen from a non-Western culture, or whose exposure to music had been limited, wanted a short list of records to listen to, to get some idea of what American musical life was about, what should be on that list? What are the pieces that say "American musical life," as Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and An Oxford Elegy say "British musical life"?

    I want the list to rank the works and recordings in terms of importance, impact, and accessibility not any chronological or typological scheme. The ability to engender a passionate response means more to me than do other, more intellectualized justifications.

    I want the list to encompass most genres of music, not just "serious" music. But no silly music, please. Ish Kabibble and Tiny Tim do not belong on such a list. Mere popularity is not cultural significance. And in this regard, I am cautious about claims to significance that have not withstood some test of time.

    Most important, I want the chosen works and recordings to be listenable! Enjoyable! This is not an exercise in "Eat your spinach, it's good for you!" Rather, I want people to write in and say, "I never had gotten around to hearing ----, and I'm so glad that you nudged me toward it." I want works and recordings that can be listened to for pleasure, repeatedly.

    For this criterion—enjoyability—I have stayed away from some otherwise admirable efforts that get bogged down in their own scholarship. The Charlie Christian boxed set is wonderful, but having an alternate take of a song follow another alternate take of the same song, and then another take, gets a bit tedious.

    Here's where the free stuff comes in. Send your suggested list of 12 works or recordings, with the subject line "Cultural Literacy," to stletters@primediamags.com. (Only 12 works or recordings; no recommendations for further listening, please.) The list-scribblers of the 12 most interesting lists (my sole decision, unless John Atkinson wants to pitch in) received by May 1, 2007, will each win something from Stereophile's online store—such as one of our test CDs or recordings. We'll try not to duplicate anything you already have. I'll post the results in a special online-only update. Keep watching www.stereophile.com for news.

    My List-in-Progress
    Please remember that my own list is a subjective and idiosyncratic compilation based on my listening biases, and not simply a report on sales figures or performances. In other words, there are a few intentional omissions of "the usual suspects."

    For classical works, the recommendation is usually more for a work than for a particular performance. The search engine and recommendations of www.arkivmusic.com are very much better than Amazon.com's for classical collectors. (John Marks Records releases are available from both sites.)

    Furthermore, in a spirit of realism, I would not expect that, in order to achieve cultural literacy, people need have heard every track on every original recording, let alone boxed-set compilation; eg, a concrete, experience-based idea of how Christopher Parkening's and Jimi Hendrix's achievements differ will suffice!

    A final word: I am not suggesting that the average Stereophile reader is musical-culturally illiterate. However, we all have our gaps. And some of us may know a high school student who thinks that music began with Britney Spears and reached its apogee with Jennifer Lopez; having a handy shopping list for cultural enrichment might be a good thing.

    To the list!
    1. George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
    For further listening: Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Violin Concerto.

    Leave the deconstruction to the ill-intentioned. Rhapsody in Blue is great music as well as uniquely American music. New parents should be given a copy along with their child's birth certificate.

    I have a slight preference for either of Michael Tilson Thomas' jazz-band–version recordings that does not involve a player-piano roll, and a slight prejudice against Bernstein's cuts to the score. But it's hard to go wrong with almost any recording. If all you've heard are the four chords on the airline commercial, by all means borrow whatever your local public library has on the shelf.

    As for Barber, I'm partial to Dawn Upshaw's Knoxville, and Elmar Oliveira's Violin Concerto remains a favorite. Both of these works are almost as accessible as the Gershwin, both arguably go deeper into the heart of things, and both will repay repeated listenings.

    2. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
    For further listening: Elvis Presley: Elvis: 30 #1 Hits. The Band: The Band.

    California, or at least the idea of California, has had a near-magnetic attraction for the American imagination. But what happens when you travel as far West as you can, you reach the ocean, yet your basic human problems remain unsolved?

    For Brian Wilson, the answer was to create an idealized world of earnest loyal boys (my buddies) and unthreatening pretty girls (the honeys), and, when that was wearing thin, express all of his late-adolescent angst in one place: Pet Sounds.

    The coherence of Wilson's original inspiration was marred by the inclusion of the Beach Boys' unrelated but then-current hit, "Sloop John B." Nutjob Stage Parent From Hell Murry Wilson (a violent assault by whom might have been the cause of Brian's deafness in one ear) did his damnedest to mess things up. But, flawed as it is, Pet Sounds remains as cogent an expression of the American condition as The Grapes of Wrath or The Great Gatsby.

    Elvis Aaron Presley, another blighted quester, and The Band, lovingly examining the musical treasures in our second-hand store of a culture, supplement—but in my view do not supplant—Wilson's masterpiece.

    3. Willie Nelson: Red-Headed Stranger
    For further listening: Hank Williams: The Essential Hank Williams Collection: Turn Back the Years. Garth Brooks: Ropin' the Wind.

    Before California was a fixture in the American psyche, the West—the "territory ahead"—exercised its own pull: Leave your past mistakes behind you, become someone new. It's said that the difference between Europe and America is that in Europe, 100 miles is a long distance, while in America, 100 years is a long time.

    Created on his own initiative at a time when Willie Nelson was almost on the cusp of stardom, Red-Headed Stranger retells the thrice-told tale of violent sin, and redemption through the love of a good woman. The irony is that the violent sinner was himself a preacher. Recorded on so small a budget they couldn't afford to screw up the sound, Red-Headed Stranger is a feast of small touches that add up to an integral work of chamber-opera proportions.

    Hank Williams lived an even shorter life than did Franz Schubert. I hasten to point out that, contrary to legend, Williams did not drink himself to death, but died from acute curvature of the spine—although, without question, anyone suffering from such crippling pain will self-medicate. A tragic life indeed. Nearly all the country music that came after owes him some sort of debt.

    Garth Brooks' three best-selling albums account for more than 45 million copies among them. That, and the diversity of his sources and influences—things now taken for granted in country music—show how dynamic a cultural force country music has become.

    4. Miles Davis: Porgy and Bess
    For further listening: Louis Armstrong: Hot Fives and Sevens. The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions. Miles Davis: The Complete Birth of the Cool.

    Miles Davis' collaboration with Gil Evans on themes from Gershwin's opera of black life, Porgy and Bess, constitutes a high-water mark for song-form jazz, which is why I give it the nod in favor of the ubiquitous Kind of Blue. This might be the best cover of "Summertime" ever.

    No Louis Armstrong, no Miles Davis—it's that simple. If you remember only the amiable clown from Armstrong's television appearances late in his life, you must make the acquaintance of the young lion. The only drawback to listening to Hot Fives and Sevens is that it's hard to conceive how revolutionary this music was at the time of its birth, Armstrong's gestalt having since so thoroughly pervaded the musical landscape.

    The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions is an encyclopedia of the best post-WWII playing. The Complete Birth of the Cool includes airchecks from the legendary live performances at The Royal Roost that predated the recording sessions. Far be it from me to deny Mike Zwerin his asterisk in music history.

    5. Christopher Parkening: Parkening Plays Bach
    For further listening: Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt: A Meeting by the River.

    From the land of sun and surf (and the Beach Boys): Christopher Parkening. It might not be much of an exaggeration to say that Parkening has contributed even more to the popularity of the guitar as a classical instrument than did his teacher and mentor, Andrés Segovia. Disregard the fact that J.S. Bach never wrote a single note for the guitar: Parkening's album of transcriptions remains as musically fresh and technically astonishing as it did thirty-plus years ago.

    Also from California: Chameleonic Ry Cooder, this time paired with Indian slide guitarist V.M. Bhatt and an Indian rhythm section. Do I hear an echo of "The Streets of Laredo" in the title track? Regardless, compelling music, in as good a recording as one could ever wish for.

    6. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?
    For further listening: Stevie Ray Vaughan: Texas Flood. B.B. King: Live in Cook County Jail. Bill Frisell: Have a Little Faith.

    Hendrix burst upon the psychedelic music scene in 1967, but he had served a long and difficult apprenticeship in the R&B clubs of the South. He was also an accomplished jazz player. The story is told that Les Paul walked into a club, heard Hendrix auditioning, was flabbergasted, but had to leave before Hendrix had finished playing. Assuming that Hendrix had been hired, Paul later asked the club owner when he would next be playing. The club owner said that Hendrix was too weird, and that he didn't have any contact information for him. Hendrix continued to live hand-to-mouth for a few more years. What might have been...

    Hendrix was as important a developmental influence on the guitar (and rock) as Louis Armstrong had been on the trumpet (and jazz). Love him or hate him, if you haven't heard these tracks, you are not culturally literate in American music.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, and Bill Frisell each embody different strains of America's obsession with the gee-tar: King, the original bluesman; Vaughan, the resurgent blues; and Frisell, a kaleidoscope of Americana.

    7. Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band
    For further listening: Glenn Miller: The Essential Glenn Miller. Harry Nilsson: A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.

    Just as Louis Armstrong exemplified the volcanic force of improvisation in jazz, Ellington showed the power of meticulous planning, arranging, and concentrating on execution. The Blanton-Webster Band is so called because it featured bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor-sax player Ben Webster; many view it as the best of Ellington's many lineups.

    Glenn Miller's work bridged the worlds of jazz and popular music; no one did more to make swing the predominant popular-music style of his era.

    Rocker Harry Nilsson proved himself a surprisingly apt interpreter of the Great American Songbook, covering everything from "Makin' Whoopee" to "As Time Goes By," in sessions with a full orchestra conducted by Gordon Jenkins.

    8. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
    For further listening: Simon and Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water. Van Morrison: Moondance.

    Take equal parts Pet Sounds' narrative and West Side Story's local color, mix à la Phil Spector, and not-so-gently heat with the awareness that if this album does not succeed, your recording career is over. Doubters can point out Bruce Springsteen's huge debts to Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, that this music can be more than a little bombastic, or even that "timing is everything."

    Certainly the last bears thinking about. Born to Run hit at a time when rock had split into (weenie) soft rock on one side and (dead-end) heavy metal on the other. Springsteen reclaimed the vital center as a genuine rocker, but one who could write lyrics as sophisticated as any folkie's. Born to Run is a glorious achievement, even as it displays our national tendency toward occasional excess.

    "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is one of the top 20 most-recorded songs. Curiously enough, it is an outlier in Simon and Garfunkel's work, most of which called on Everly Brothers–style harmonies and bouncy, catchy melodies. Whatever. The song derives its power equally from being within the American song tradition that stretches back beyond Stephen Foster, and for its echoes of gospel style.

    American music (of all kinds), heard on the radio in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was the decisive influence on Van Morrison's development. Recorded in New York with some great (and some merely okay) session players, Moondance melds the influences of American swing, jazz, folk, soul, R&B, and rock as no other album I can think of.

    9. Roy Harris: Symphony 3
    For further listening: Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite.

    Roy Harris' Third Symphony takes the cake, as far as I'm concerned, for the largest disparity between quality and popularity: It is the greatest piece of American music that hardly anyone (today) seems to know about. Just as being anthologized becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, falling off the radar screen makes it that much harder to rise again.

    Part of the reason must be that sections of the symphony are unusually demanding to play in terms of rhythm and ensemble, even for a top-tier orchestra. Clocking in at about 20 minutes, Harris' Symphony 3 is awesomely concise. Through-composed, it proceeds by organic rather than formal development. But enough of that—one listen to its first three minutes should hook you. There are a few worthwhile recordings available; Marin Alsop's on Naxos is particularly fine, and is bargain-priced. Go for it. Right now!

    Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra was written in America, for the Boston Symphony. It is also one of Bartók's greatest achievements, one of his most accessible works, and the first phrase of the last movement is as "American" as anything I can think of. Georg Solti's Chicago Symphony recording from 1981 benefits from corrections to the score. Avoid foolishly reconsidered versions that omit the coda Bartók added after the first performances.

    Ferde Grofé's impressionistic travelogue gets an idiomatic performance from fellow conductor Morton Gould, reissued on SACD for not that much money at all.

    10. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On
    For further listening: Stevie Wonder: Innervisions or Talking Book [or Music of My Mind—Ed.].

    Marvin Gaye's stubborn faith in his own inspiration outlasted his label's disinclination to mess with their successful formula of churning out hit singles produced in-house, seemingly with the help of a cookie cutter. The result, the first black "concept album," revolutionized the way R&B and soul records were made.

    Stevie Wonder developed from a child harmonica prodigy to as fine a pop songwriter as America has produced. On reaching adulthood, he took control of making his own records, something that was made conceivable only by the commercial success of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. For most of the 1970s, Wonder's songwriting stayed on an enviably high level of quality.

    11. Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark
    For further listening: Jennifer Warnes: Famous Blue Raincoat. Carole King: Tapestry.

    Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark is an artifact from the singer-songwriter era that has withstood the test of time much better than most such efforts. Part of its success is due to its canny amalgam of folk, rock, and studio jazz smarts. But what gives Court and Spark its staying power is the wry intelligence and cleverness of its lyrics, and its avoidance of self-deception or self-pity.

    Jennifer Warnes' traversal of selections from the Leonard Cohen songbook (though it's important to point out that she cowrote "Song of Bernadette") is similar in spirit to Court and Spark, although far different in execution.

    Carole King had previously achieved success in the role of writer or cowriter of songs made hits by other performers. This album of her own interpretations seized the zeitgeist like a terrier, spent two years near the top of the charts, and sold 10 million copies.

    12. Steely Dan: Aja
    For further listening: Donald Fagen: The Nightfly.

    Under Aja's carefully burnished surface sheen are unusual depth, complexity, and ambiguity. By this time, Becker and Fagen had almost completely let go of the traditional four-beat, three-chord underpinnings of rock, considering them too limiting. They grafted the solo and improvisational aesthetic of jazz on catchy pop melodies and arrestingly atmospheric, often melancholy lyrics. The contributions of former Miles Davis colleague Wayne Shorter are decisive. A magnificent achievement. Problem is, Aja proved an almost impossible act to follow, even for Becker and Fagen, let alone anyone else.

    The Nightfly, Donald Fagen's solo debut, is a semi-autobiographical look back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, the time of the International Geophysical Year and John Kennedy's New Frontier. This is Steely Dan's pop side, without the grafting-on of jazz solos, and also with a far lower cynicism content. Trivia bit: In big-time sound-reinforcement work for major acts in large arenas, many professional sound mixers use the chattering background voices of "Ruby, Ruby" as a benchmark for intelligibility.

    The murmuring begins!
    What, no Dylan? No Woody Guthrie? No Weavers? No Leonard Bernstein? No Copland? Um, right on all counts. Had my list been 25 works or recordings, I'm sure that some of those would have fit in, as prime recommendations or for further listening. No Nirvana? No Van Halen? No Sinatra? Um, sorry. That was my list. Send in yours!

    Send lists to www.stereophile.com/"> with the subject line "Cultural Literacy."

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    minir

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    Talk about some self-important ********...

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    Second Most EVIL YARDofSTUF's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Burke View Post
    Talk about some self-important ********...


    Christ I needed a break after reading the title.

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    Hi Burke & YARDofSTUF
    ---

    John Marks was expressing his viewpoint in his own way.

    As i stated.
    Came across this in Stereophile and thought some may have an interest.

    Its the List that matters and is easily enough found by scrolling down. I didn't feel it appropriate to simply post It without presenting his preamble with it.

    --

    minir

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    This guy sounds like the type who'd sigh and bemoan the contents of your DVD cabinet...

    "WHAT? DUMB & DUMBER? NO FELLINI?"

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    R.I.P. 2015-05-13 minir's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Burke View Post
    This guy sounds like the type who'd sigh and bemoan the contents of your DVD cabinet...

    "WHAT? DUMB & DUMBER? NO FELLINI?"
    ---

    Hi Burke

    Just one mans opinion Burke. As he states:

    No Nirvana? No Van Halen? No Sinatra? Um, sorry. That was my list. Send in yours!

    Still some pretty good recommendations their imho.

    --

    minir

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