Copland, Gershwin and Jazz

Some have complained that [Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto] had no spiritual value, only animal excitement; but what else has jazz?  — Music critic (1927)

[George Gershwin is] the man who made an honest woman out of jazz. — Publicity statement (1930s)

Why did public and critical reception of the “jazzy” 1920s works of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin differ so profoundly, despite the seeming similarities between the two? Where Copland was excoriated for his appropriations of rhythmic syncopation and bluesy melodies, Gershwin was lionized for doing the same thing. What gives?

This teasing question in reception history provides the underlying structure to Ch.11. In this way – framing a perplexing question then parsing it out one historical argument and musical work at a time – RT writes this moment in American musical history almost in the form of a whodunit. This sort of structure generates its own telos: “sociostylistic” cues accumulate until the mystery busts open and the answer to our question is revealed…

Critics placed Copland and Gershwin on different points in the racially-tinged spectrum of high vs low art. Where Copland was seen to sully the good name of concert music by contaminating it with the lowly, “animalistic” sounds of jazz, Gershwin – in his elegant treatments of Tin Pan Alley forms that never strayed too far from their original – was perceived as the great redeemer of jazz by elevating it to the level of concert music. (A distinction also shared with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned Rhapsody and Blue.) The messy “sociostylistic” problems of Jewish composers appropriating African-American forms for the consumption of predominantly WASP audiences was, indeed, a delicate dance that required extreme finesse to really “sell.” In this respect, Copland seemed to have had two left feet.


Musical Chaos

Musical representation is a woolly topic. We all know that music can move us, both emotionally and physically; it can also stimulate our intellects. But how are specific images encoded, sans words, in the language of sound? How can music imitate physical movement, abstract concepts, places?

On the level of bodily experience, certain sounds translate into certain images on account of the metaphoric systems we unconsciously use to make sense of them. For instance, when soundwaves gets narrower, we perceive that the pitch is going “up”; when the waves get wider, we hear them as going “down.” These designations, of course, are culturally and historically based (and may have a lot to do with notation) – not everyone maps sounds onto vertical space (up/down). For example, the Suyá of Brazil conceptualize pitches in terms of the metaphors of “young” (high) and “old” (low); others around the world think of pitch as “light” and “heavy,” etc. In the West, the metaphor of up/down is so reified in our musical thinking that it can be put to service in the construction of musical representations.* Moving “up” in range, then, can be equated to a host of experiences and concepts, such as spiritual transcendence.

Similarly, “madrigalisms” work on the level of bodily experience by imitating emotional and physical sensations. For instance, the word “trembling” might be set to a trill, which sonically conjures the act of physically trembling; weeping (“piangendo,” a common madrigal trope) would find its analog in vocal gestures that mimic the sighing, deflated spasms of crying. Sound-body mapping is central to the musical embodiment of these physical states.

But when you get beyond bodily experience, musical representation becomes a bit trickier. If music is “organized sound,” then how does one go about representing chaos, the very opposite of order and organization? A host of composers have tackled this question over the years and, unsurprisingly, the translations vary widely according to aesthetic sensibility and time. Haydn’s Creation features a particularly well-known instantiation of musical chaos: it begins with a forceful unison, then gradually the threads wind their way through different key areas, often chromatically, in search of a home key and the stability of tonal procedures. As Tovey observed, “tonality is Haydn’s musical Cosmos” (II, 634). Indeed, this opening passage still packs a wildly expressive punch. The defiance of tonal expectations and subversion of the “natural” magnetism of leading tones provides Haydn with a potent musical strategy for representing chaos.

As a counterpoint to Haydn’s point, I’ll close with a very different musical portrayal of elementary formlessness. Wayne Shorter’s “Chaos,” from his underrated 1965 album The All Seeing Eye, uses jagged, dissonant phrases and – fittingly enough – free improvisation to reference inchoate cosmological states. Shorter’s chaos does not implicate tonality per se, but rather goes against the regular, periodic harmonic structures of traditional jazz. Both Haydn and Shorter, then, sought a portrait of disorder in the subversion of the musical systems that served as the syntactical baseline for their respective styles.

* A couple of good books on this: Lakoff/Johnson – Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh; Mark Johnson – Body in the Mind; Lawrence Zbikowski – Conceptualizing Music; Thomas Clifton – Music as Heard; Peter Kivy – Introduction to a Philosophy of Music