Grasp the Weapon of Culture! Radical Avant-Gardes and the Los Angeles Free Press

I have an article coming out in the Spring issue of the Journal of Musicology. Here it is!

Andre Mount, “Grasp the Weapon of Culture! Radical Avant-Gardes and the Los Angeles Free Press,” The Journal of Musicology 32.1 (Spring 2015): 115-152.

Concert Happening - 1966-02-18 3-07 p05

Advertisement in the Los Angeles Free Press (vol. 3, no. 7, February 18, 1966) for a “Concert Happening”

Abstract:

In the 17 June 1966 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, members of a group calling themselves the Los Angeles Hippodrome advertised an upcoming event: an “Homage to Arnold Schoenberg.” The ad seems to suggest nothing out of the ordinary: a recital of the composer’s complete piano works along with a slideshow of his visual art and the playing of a recorded lecture. The facing page, however, paints a very different picture. There, the Free Press reproduced a series of manifestos written by the event’s organizers. The manifestos range in content from lengthy ruminations on the death of art to a cartoon of a dog-like creature brandishing a knife and poised to cut off the head of a snake above the words “GRASP THE WEAPON of CULTURE!” With their absurdist humor and heady, abstract proselytizing, these statements stand in marked contrast to the refined poise of the music of the Second Viennese School.

To address this incongruity, one must look beyond the Los Angeles Hippodrome to several other closely related communities. Dorothy Crawford (1995) provides an invaluable account of one such group in Los Angeles, focusing primarily on a circle of modernist music enthusiasts who organized and attended the Monday Evening Concerts series. But the individuals behind the “Homage to Schoenberg” were in equally close contact with participants in the Freak Movement, a Los Angeles manifestation of the 1960s counterculture led by iconoclastic rock guitarist Frank Zappa. Despite superficial differences, the political affinities and geographic proximity of these groups facilitated a free transmission of values and ideas that blurred the boundaries between them.

Grasp the Weapon of Culture! Radical Avant-Gardes and the Los Angeles Free Press

Question from a stranger: justifying the minor subdominant

From time to time, I’ll get a distressed email from a stranger on the Internet asking some sort of music theory question. I’m always happy to oblige and answer these inquiries, often with a more long-winded explanation than I think they’re expecting. This is my way of giving back to the community! (I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never be asked to speak on a podcast or testify in court as an expert witness.)

Here’s one from the other day:

Dear Andre
I’m ashamed I need to ask this question.

I need a compositional justification for the existence of the iv chord.
Ex: Fm in key of C.

I have played it and composed with it for decades,
but I don’t really understand it.

I have a some grasp of other “altered” diatonic chords
ex: II major (secondary dominant function)
ex: A7 in key of C

Just don’t understand the iv.

Can you help me please

Thanks so much

And my response, in case anyone else is wondering the same:

First of all, there’s no need to be ashamed! There’s never a straight answer to this sort of question. (And, perhaps unfortunately, you’re not going to get one out of me!)

There are several ways to conceptualize the derivation of a minor subdominant in a major key. The simplest of these, I would say, is that it is a simply an alteration of the diatonic (major) IV done for coloristic reasons to heighten the dramatic intensity of a particular moment. In this sense, the minor subdominant is a lot like a Picardy third (the raising of the third in a minor tonic triad, often appearing at the end of a piece that is otherwise entirely in a minor key). It makes the chord stand out but not so much as to sound out of place. It has a somewhat unexpected quality, but it usually retains its pre-dominant function and leads smoothly to some sort of V chord.

You can also think of it linearly in terms of the direction each chord member tends to move. The diatonic subdominant consists of scale degrees 4, 6, and 1 (FA, LA, and DO). The minor subdominant differs only at the third: b6 instead of 6 (LE instead of LA). In Common-Practice voiceleading, the sixth scale degree tends to resolve downward to the fifth. This is particularly true of the flatted sixth scale degree given its placement a semitone away. (You can think of the half-step resolution from b6 to 5 as being analogous to the resolution of the leading tone up to the tonic.) In this sense, the alteration of the subdominant to include b6 may be understood as a chromatic intensification of the voiceleading as the pre-dominant harmony moves to the dominant. In fact you will see this from time to time as a composer such as Brahms will first use the unaltered 6 and follow it immediately with a b6.

But here’s what I think (and feel free to take this or leave it): The minor subdominant doesn’t really need justificaiton. Remember that music theory, though often presented as a set of rules or laws governing how music works (or should work), it is actually backward-looking attempt to make sense of apparent patterns in music of the past. I’ll say that Brahms uses the minor subdominant to intensify the musical drama as pre-dominant moves to dominant, but the truth is that I have no real way of knowing if that was his intention. In fact, it seems more likely to me that he just liked the way it sounded! You yourself mentioned that you “have played it and composed with it for decades” and that, I think, is justification enough!

I hope this helps!

–Andre

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Andy Partridge on songwriting and composition

Episode 8 of the excellent Sodajerker podcast features an interview with Andy Partridge of XTC. Aside from being quite entertaining, the episode includes a number of wonderful insights from Partridge about songwriting, composition, inspiration, and music in general.

On originality:

All sensual input goes into the songs, whether it’s you see a color you like or, you know, you read a book you like or you hear something and you think “Yeah! That’s inspirational!” or you see a painting. I think all sensory input goes through and you mangle it all up and you kind of make a copy of it and you slap all this stuff together and it goes out through your own guts. And then when you shit your song out, you’ve got one of those kind of play-dough, star-shaped things up your ass and your shit’s shaped like you. But it’s actually made from all this other shit by other people.

What I’m trying to say is there’s probably no such thing as originality. What you do is you just take all your sensory inputs from everywhere, crap it all out through your own play-dough shape, and that becomes your personality. You’re translating.

On theory [after playing several chords from “Senses Working Overtime”]:

No idea what the chords are, don’t ask me. That’s not of interest, you know? It’s not needed. You don’t need to know the guts of music to make music.

Great stuff!

Andy Partridge on songwriting and composition

Laughter Over Tears: John Cage, Experimental Art Music, and Popular Television

The Saturday before last (May 22), I read a paper at the Music and the Moving Image Conference at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. What a great experience! Usually at conferences I have to hunt down the papers on topics that interest me. Here I had to make a number 0f painful decisions when two interesting presentations were being given simultaneously!

As usual, I’m posting the paper as I read it at the conference. Click here to download a PDF version of the paper. Slides and visual examples appear at the end of the PDF. A streaming video of my presentation can be found here (panel #18), but I haven’t been able to open the file.

Follow the jump to read an HTML version of the paper.

John Cage squeezing a rubber duck on I’ve Got a Secret, February 24, 1960

(Yeah, yeah… I know… It’s not a Zappa paper per se. But it is highly relevant to the chapter I’m currently working on that considers Cage’s influence on Zappa and his contemporaries. More to come!)

Continue reading “Laughter Over Tears: John Cage, Experimental Art Music, and Popular Television”

Laughter Over Tears: John Cage, Experimental Art Music, and Popular Television

Temporality, Intentionality, and Authenticity in Frank Zappa’s Xenochronous Works

I just got back from New Orleans where I read a paper at the 2010 conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music US Chapter: “Births, Stages, Declines, Revivals.” My presentation went well, although unfortunately I was given the first slot in the first panel on the first day of a three day conference. (8:30 AM on Friday morning!) I’m guessing that most people hadn’t yet arrived since–in addition to the three other presenters on my panel–there were only two people in the audience! Oh well.

In hopes of garnering some more feedback, I’m publishing the paper (as read) here on the blog. As usual, this remains a work in progress.

Click here to download a PDF version of the paper. (Slides and visual examples appear at the end of the PDF.) Or, follow the jump to read the html version.

Continue reading “Temporality, Intentionality, and Authenticity in Frank Zappa’s Xenochronous Works”

Temporality, Intentionality, and Authenticity in Frank Zappa’s Xenochronous Works

Does Serious Music Belong in Pop? Borrowings from Stravinsky in the Music of Frank Zappa

Yesterday morning, I read a paper at a meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the American Musicological Society at Stanford. It went pretty well! There was a wonderful audience that provided some stimulating questions and conversation afterward.

A couple of readers (feeling teased by the abstracts I’ve posted lately) have asked me to post my papers, so I’ve decided to do just that. Keep in mind that this is a work in progress…

Click here to download a PDF version of the paper. (Slides and visual examples appear at the end of the PDF.) Or, follow the jump to read the html version.

UPDATE (2/10/2010): In hopes of providing audible examples of some of the tracks (but without infringing upon any copyrights myself) I’ve embedded the audio from two YouTube videos–one for “Status Back Baby” and another for “Fountain of Love.” Be warned, however: I did not upload the embedded media. It may be subject to changes beyond my control. The video for “Fountain of Love” has an odd mix and may not initially seem to match my transcription. You’ll have to listen hard! (A video with “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky” could not be found.)

Continue reading “Does Serious Music Belong in Pop? Borrowings from Stravinsky in the Music of Frank Zappa”

Does Serious Music Belong in Pop? Borrowings from Stravinsky in the Music of Frank Zappa

ABSTRACT: “Temporality, Intentionality, and Authenticity in Frank Zappa’s Xenochronous Works”

Several days ago I received word from the IASPM-US (the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) 2010 program committee that I had another paper accepted! This conference, entitled “Births, Stages, Declines, Revivals,” will take place in New Orleans at Loyola University April 8-11, 2010. Jump for the abstract.

Continue reading “ABSTRACT: “Temporality, Intentionality, and Authenticity in Frank Zappa’s Xenochronous Works””

ABSTRACT: “Temporality, Intentionality, and Authenticity in Frank Zappa’s Xenochronous Works”

ABSTRACTS: Stravinsky Borrowings and Cage on Popular Television

Whew! Things have been pretty hectic lately! In addition to the usual chipping away at the ol’ dissertation, I’ve been preparing abstracts for paper proposals at a number of upcoming conferences. (See my post from November 15.)

Responses from conference committees have slowly (but surely!) been trickling in. Unfortunately, the Experience Music Project Pop Conference couldn’t find a place for my proposed paper on Zappa’s xenochrony. Oh well, maybe next year… On the other hand, I’ve had two abstracts accepted! Read the abstracts after the jump.

Continue reading “ABSTRACTS: Stravinsky Borrowings and Cage on Popular Television”

ABSTRACTS: Stravinsky Borrowings and Cage on Popular Television

The Los Angeles Free Press as an Influence on Zappa’s View of New Music

Lately–in addition to spending a lot of time writing abstracts–I’ve been thinking about where Zappa’s ideas about music come from. He’s generally considered to be a sort of musical anomaly, but I think it would be a mistake to say that his was an isolated case. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty about that Zappa that’s unique! But I have to wonder what influenced his (often highly polemical) opinions, particularly with regards to the status of new music in contemporary culture and the perceived division between art and pop.

Recently, one of my advisers suggested looking for a connection between Zappa and Abbie Hoffman, the outspoken yippie activist. I don’t think that Zappa had much to do with Hoffman or the yippies. If anything, he was highly critical of their motives. Posed with a question about his cynicism towards certain social movements of the late 1960s, Zappa responded:

A lot of people were really into it. They thought it was the end-all. They really thought they were going to rule the world with a flower in their hand. It was nuts. They were believing in all these Yippie leaders and whatever else these assholes were telling them. [1]

On the other hand, critical though he was, Zappa does seem to have a lot in common with the New Left and I think that much of his understanding of avant-garde art music stems from radical culture and politics.

Continue reading “The Los Angeles Free Press as an Influence on Zappa’s View of New Music”

The Los Angeles Free Press as an Influence on Zappa’s View of New Music