…you… have clearly developed a resentment pattern in relation to those tunes… You resent the fact that… those motives … can be sung, whistled, or toe-tapped by anyone–any laymen. — “Glenn Gould Interviews Himself about Beethoven”
Gould slips this admittedly elitist anti-Beethoven argument in a strange rhetorical context – “gg” interviewing “GG” – and “gg” (the reasonably pro-Beethoven interviewer) is accusing “GG” (presumably some other, more anti-Beethoven version of Gould). It’s enough even to make Kierkegaard accuse Gould if dissembling.
Even so, it gets to an ambiguity in music I’ve experienced many times – let me explain.
There’s a commercial I see a lot – it’s for a pickup truck. It’s got the climactic moment of Beethoven’s 9th symphony’s final movement (as if proving the point – that link is from an excerpt from the Die Hard soundtrack) – the full choir sings the chorus of the “Ode to Joy” melody.
Now of course, me being the snob I can’t avoid being, every time I see this commercial I think how terribly that little 2-second clip debases the grant edifice that is Beethoven’s 9th. It’s more than an HOUR of music – four movements each with intricate structures and a layered nexus of emotionally evocative moments – and this commercial (or Die Hard) has just cut right to an out-of-context moment midway through the 4th movement, being used to summon forth the shallow “joy” of owning a new pickup, or killing German terrorists.
And then I think about a great Arcade Fire line –
We used to wait for it/We used to wait for it/We used to wait for it/now we’re screaming sing the chorus again! (“We Used to Wait”)
And on from there I move on to all the angry critiques of soundbite culture as the evil nub of capitalist advertising culture, blah blah blah, that I carry around, half articulating for a few seconds whenever someone will listen and then fulminating on my own about it at in this half-anxious pitch all day long.
Gould is obliquely suggesting something different: what if this isn’t Ford/GM/whoever’s fault for debasing Beethoven’s 9th, what if this isn’t just another instance of destructive culture-wide ADD?
What if, finally, the fault lies with Beethoven?
Sure, he wrote the full symphony, but the fact that it could be excerpted like that, does that say something about the inferiority of the music? And if you’re not familiar with Beethoven’s 9th, exactly the same argument could be made for the opening bars of his 5th – you know “duh duh duh duuuuh….” One of our more widely diffused cultural cliches for “something bad is about to happen.” And I’m sure there several other Beethoven moments that are as easily cliched.
Gould’s claim seems to be that that cliche was so easy because the music itself was already, in some sense, cliched. Sure, when you listen to the whole, you might capture a fully formed musical thought-feeling, but the fact that you can so easily excerpt these pieces (and Beethoven in general) suggests there is a problem. Or does it?
I want to connect this now with my own ongoing musical ambivalence about a certain kind of pop-indie-rock. Ever since I was 12 or so, I’ve been stuck on two sides of a dichotomy at once. Sure, when I was 12 I started listening to R.E.M., and I will still defend those albums to the death (at least that ones that had come out by 1989, which is when I was 12). But on the other side of that coin, at that time, I LOVED U2. Now the whole time I knew that a lot of U2 was overblown, melodramatic, junior-high poetry. I knew that. But I also listened and listened to Joshua Tree, and I can still remember where I was (in a cabin at the now defunct Camp Horseshoe) the first time I heard that album’s first three tracks – “Where the Streets have No Name“/”Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For“/”With or Without You.” To my 12-year-old self, there were some huge emotions in those songs – especially “With or Without You.” But on the other hand, a big part of me was embarrassed for liking this stuff, because it was overblown, melodramatic etc. etc.
What U2 was for my early teens, the Smashing Pumpkins were for the late ones (and heck, the early 20’s, and still at plenty of my more melodramatic moments at 36). Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is an album name that’s embarrassing to type, much less an album I could ever listen to without headphones if anyone else was going to hear it. But again, I’ve got a really vivid first-listening experience – I’m in the car with a few of my friends in high school when “Today” (from Siamese Dream) comes on, and I am totally overwhelmed by its opening chords.
For most of that period, the music I was much more proud of listening to was all the punk and post-punk that seems to deride even the idea of a 2.5-hour-long double album.
Same again in my 30’s, to some extent at least, with Arcade Fire. It’s great when I listen to it, but can I really quote lyrics like
never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount
without blushing in embarrassment? And yet, “City with No Children” is a haunting and totally overwhelming song, and so is the rest of The Suburbs.
And that’s true for Beethoven, for me, too. The first time I really listened to Beethoven’s 5th (I’m sure it wasn’t the first time I heard it) but – it was Leonard Bernstein’s recording – I was listening to it on a flight from Savannah to Chicago last year. I was weeping into the headrest of the seat in front of me when the fourth movement’s trumpet blast opened up. I still can almost not bear to listen to that recording, it’s so overwhelming. But still, there is a resistance, a skepticism.
Instead I can listen to Bach, or Schoenberg, and sidestep all of that. These are things “laymen” can’t just listen to or hum, and there is a distance, a different kind of appreciation there.
With the pop things I was talking about, that’s not quite the same. It’s not that REM’s not hum-able (because it is, and it’s not like it requires great vocal professionalism on Michael Stipe’s part to perform it). It’s more that it’s not this immense EXPERIENCE to hear it. It’s plenty personal, but there is no grand drama, no tragic consciousness, no delusions of grandeur – no “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.” And maybe that’s a good thing?