In Robert Browning’s well known poem My Last Duchess, Browning gradually reveals his speaker to be a dangerously controlling husband who, wounded by his former wife’s perceived flirtations, has her killed. In the duke’s thinly veiled confession, he wrestles poignantly with his conscience when he explains himself to a visitor:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift.
Then, he poses a question: “Who’d stoop to blame this sort of trifling?”, marveling at the vanity required to fault someone for being “too soon made glad”, as well as at the madness that proceeds from watching the paltry things of this world elevated to the same status as those things that are most precious.
Recently, I’ve noticed a particular video which has been thus elevated. In it, a young man (I’ll call him Wilson on account of both his football jersey and the necklace he made while stranded on a desert island) sits down at a public piano in a Paris train station and begins to play. Soon he is joined by another stranger (Mel, owing to his affinity for Braveheart), and the two continue to play an improvised duet that runs just over seven minutes, total.
The performance consists almost entirely of ostinato-heavy, pentatonic based music. Ostinato simply refers to a repeating musical figure, and if you listen to the performance I think you’ll understand what I’m referring to. By pentatonic, I mean in this instance that the musical ideas derive from a couple of particular groupings of five notes each, called pentatonic scales. The effect sounds a lot like a sentient wind chime, combining some intentional elements (rhythm and repetition) with the more or less arbitrary sequencing of a rather small set of pitches. As you might imagine, it’s a relatively straightforward formula for accomplishing a reasonably pleasing sound, but rarely yields a product to celebrate and make a fuss over. Yet, propelled by the mysterious hidden logic of viral sensations, it took off, receiving a write-up on The Huffington Post and over 13 million views* over the span of one year with comments dominated by bizarrely glowing enthusiasm. “After many times of replaying this [I’ve] started making a story in my head where two different souls meet [that] gradually accelerates to flashing memories…” wrote one viewer. “I want them to get together and have babies” wrote another.
Scrolling through the comments, I finally spot exactly the one I’m looking for: “Who else is studying music and knows that performing this takes no more skill than knowing how to play [an] F, G and A minor chord” – a classic frustrated music student barb, lashing out to denigrate something popular and ruin the party. Not only is it not helpful, it isn’t even technically true. Simply knowing three chords isn’t quite enough to reproduce this music. The most intentionally deceptive part of this comment, though, is that anyone who has studied music is likewise fully aware of how much worthy, artistically honest, and often challenging music is based on no more complex a harmonic framework than is represented in this performance, or even one less complex. Complexity never makes bad music better and often makes good music worse, so a lack of it rarely ever serves as convincing grounds for indictment.
Nonetheless, there is something about witnessing the popularity of a video like this that will inevitably be troubling to some listeners, and it’s this: it’s just not very good. In fact, it’s bad. Very, very bad. Even if we limit ourselves to only those criticisms that are the closest thing to objective we can get when discussing inherently subjective music, it runs afoul of virtually every standard of musical merit. I specify “musical” merit because I agree that the video holds more general, humanistic merit, and I also do not intend to suggest that these guys deserve or intended for their performance to become subject to serious critique. I admire them for making themselves vulnerable by playing publicly, and I’m happy to see a sincere moment of human connection that far transcends what we are conditioned to expect from our daily grind through the thoroughfares of modern transportation. And, ultimately, my concern isn’t so much the actual quality of the music, but specifically the question of whether finding oneself truly impressed to the point of sharing and listening to it repeatedly signifies a level of musical illiteracy that is not only remediable, but also culturally and personally worth the cost of striving diligently to overcome.
Since these are just a couple of guys doing their thing and since I’m not writing for musicians, I really don’t relish picking the performance apart, but since I said it was bad and have to back that up in some fashion I’ll do it quickly and very generally. The overall performance is pretty rough from the beginning, when Wilson sets out playing what someone else has pinpointed as Ludovico Eunadi’s Una Mattina from the film Intouchables. His phrasing is harsh and jagged, and he seems intent on turning what in the film score sounds like decaying bells into a hammer to the forehead.
Still, it’s not entirely unpleasing by the standard of what you can expect to hear come out of a train station piano. At around 1:10 Mel decides he wants in and begins attacking the piano with a series of ill considered forays, often hesitating in uncertainty and generally muddling around until finally they seem to agree to incorporate the Braveheart theme going into the second minute. From there things continue to proceed more or less uneventfully, with five minutes yet to go. They switch sides and Wilson takes over Braveheart duties, playing that phrase and some other noodling around above the background of Mel’s arpeggios, which shortly becomes a weird boom-chop sort of jaunty accompaniment, then arpeggios again, and so on as they continue vacillating between different modes of accompaniment and quickly abandoned themes (Braveheart is tough to follow). The audience grows, pictures are snapped, and as the final notes linger on the air the crowd erupts in the applause of genuine gratitude. If that description doesn’t seem fair, you’ll at least perhaps allow that the bare facts don’t point to something you’d likely want to listen to numerous times: unprepared musicians (one of whom is standing and wearing a backpack), din of a train station, poorly maintained instrument, Braveheart.
Ok, so let me make a wild and probably false assumption that you’re still with me, haven’t been turned off by my superciliousness, and you actually agree that on further reflection this really is not, for all intents and purposes, listenable music, and that if it had hit you in any other way (like as a bonus track on an album you’d purchased) you’d have been pretty puzzled by it. If that’s all more or less true, then I have only one point left to make: that the fact so many people are so excited about this (and so many other things like it) represents an actual problem. That’s a task even more fraught than questioning others’ tastes, and one that puts me in the creepy position of identifying with the duke, tasting sour grapes simply because others are too easily pleased to suit me. Mentally healthy people might recognize that this all represents a slippery slope into a spiritual abyss, and may question my reasons for even considering treading upon it.
So let’s talk for a moment about the alternative to so frequently letting ourselves slip into a reverie over something that, in reality, sucks, and that is this: refining our tastes as we find and fall in love with some of the myriad great musical efforts that languish in relative obscurity, even if we’re a little intimidated by it and even if the internet hasn’t already curated it for us and placed it in our daily news feed. I’ve pressed that challenge to a lot of people in a lot of settings, and I think the most common rationale that’s offered to explain why they choose instead to listen almost exclusively to music that is very popular and that features a dearth of highly trained musicians is that they just don’t get those other styles of music. It’s challenging, and they don’t listen to music to be challenged. I get the impression they imagine that fans of Shostakovich see listening as an arcane intellectual challenge akin to sitting down to a Sudoku puzzle.
That couldn’t be further from how I experience music. There’s a strong intellectual component for me, but it’s still primarily an emotional experience. Rather than being the difference between hanging out with friends and playing computer chess, for me seeking out great music is the difference between eating canned peaches and going out and picking a fresh one. There is some inherent challenge, yes. You sacrifice predictability. You go a little out of your way. You eschew the strictly saccharine and brace yourself against the possibility of foreign textures and flavors you may not like, but you do it all with a clear idea of what you’re after: something real, vibrant, precious, and much more profoundly universal than something that just happens to be very popular right now and likely never again. Challenge isn’t what I’m after, just something I’m willing to tolerate to get what I want.
If this dynamic was only affecting how we listen to music that would be one thing, but I don’t think any of us have to think too hard to come up with a few other examples of how our society is just abysmally bad at choosing this vs that, at valuing the things, the people, and the ideas that actually have the most value, at seeking the best and making sure we find it. How did we get that bad at it, we wonder? Practice. We do it with everything, from our music to our politics. We make bad, unfulfilling choices until it’s as natural as breathing, often for no other reason than that someone has already made the choice for us. We protect our ability to still feel good about watching ourselves and those around us do it by rationalizing that we’re just practicing inclusiveness, tolerance, and acceptance. Unfortunately, there is someone being left out, untolerated and unaccepted, and sadly enough it’s our best creators who are forced to survive in the ever increasingly pinched subterranean world that struggles for breath beneath our popular cultural landscape.
I honestly don’t think anyone has to be left out or made to feel less than, but if someone does I’d really rather pick someone else. It’s not about piously purging our flippant, idle pleasures and looking down on others, but making sure we’re taking time to look up to those who deserve it and, more importantly, will reward us with something real. On that note, Sonny Rollins, now in his 85th year of experience on this planet, vowed in an interview published today that he will overcome the respiratory issues that have kept him playing and return to the scene. That would make my heart glad.
- To put 13 million views in one year in some kind of perspective, Philip Glass’s very accessible and relatively commercially successful 1981 album Glassworks represents a good example of what I might listen to if I were in the mood for this sort of repetitive musical rumination. The complete album has been on YouTube for three years, garnering about two million views.