Is there such a thing as ‘Urban’ Music?
by Jefferey Cox
Jefferey Cox is a bassoon enthusiast who was elected to the committee of the British Double Reed Society in 1998 (he was its Secretary from 2005 - 2008). He is a regular contributor to Double Reed News, signing himself "Bassonicus" and has also had articles on musical topics published in Germany and France. He founded the Prinzregenten Ensemble in Munich in 1996, and since returning to Britain has been Principal Bassoon of the Kingston Philharmonia and a regular performer with the Surrey Mozart Players. He has played at functions in the chapel of the Tower of London on several occasions and lived to tell the tale !
I was intrigued the other day to come across a contemporary American composer claiming that his music was ‘quintessentially urban’. Unfortunately he didn’t go on to define his terms, so I was left wondering just what he meant. His music was certainly energetic, and LOUD! A xylophone featured prominently, adding to the sense of bustle. So far so good. You could, without much effort, imagine a busy interchange in Chicago or New York. But was that IT? Did the claim to be writing ‘quintessentially urban music’ amount to no more than that?
‘Urban’ music strikes me as an interesting concept. First of all there is the contrast with ‘rural’ music, or what one critic or conductor (was it Beecham?) called the ‘cowpat’ school of music – an over-reliance on folksong as the thematic basis and structural determinant of a work. Whoever it was had English composers in mind, pointing the finger at the Vaughan-Williams generation. ‘Urban’ music could be said to be the conscious rejection of the rural idyll, which to most listeners would be about tranquillity, the natural order of things, and possibly the idea of God as revealed in Nature (think of ‘All things bright and beautiful’, etc.). ‘Urban’ has quite different connotations: here the order is man-made, designed to provide coherence for the large numbers of people who live in conurbations. Time-tables and the clock reign supreme, and in this environment, dominated by man and machine, it is less the face of God that is revealed than those of Babel and Mammon!
Since most of us (if only statistically speaking) are likely to be ‘Townies’, you would have thought that we would be most attuned to urban music But that is not really the case. Nostalgia for the rural idyll exerts a strong pull over our tastes , and just as we like to do our drinking in Ye Olde Bull and Bush, so a bar or two of Greensleeves never goes amiss. It’s somehow timeless and classless. ‘Urban’ taste is somehow more difficult to define. Take class, for instance: should we equate ‘urban’ with middle class? After all, most classical music-making nowadays is middle class, as is the audience at most concerts. Would you say that music is about middle class values as experienced and understood from an urban-dweller’s standpoint? My guess is that you would feel uncomfortable about accepting that idea – it feels instinctively wrong. Music should not be about class. When it has been closely associated with class, as in the Soviet Union, or written to promote a social agenda, as in the Third Reich, it has lost its soul. Naturally ‘urban’ music lends itself more readily to such manipulation because the mechanics of urban society provide the levers to control it. For example, ‘undesirables’ can easily be denied access to printing and publishing and performance. Their voices can be stifled. Escape, or expulsion and exile are often all that remains to them.
Plainly we are in a different world, and one that I would guess is far removed from the experience of most DRN readers. But if you think of Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich, both of whom loved their countries but vowed never to play there until there was a fundamental change in politics and attitude towards human rights, you begin to see that it is demeaning to music to reduce it to an expression of class or race.
Is the description ‘urban’ more than a label? Does it imply a value judgment? It depends upon your perspective. ‘Suburban’ definitely would – there is something quite derogatory about it – a whiff of genteel Philistinism and cultural complacency! But maybe ‘urban’ does too. Think urban, think sprawl; think traffic; think congestion; think Congestion Charge! It is difficult to imagine great art being created in such circumstances. The urban environment may be full of energy and vitality, but so much of that vitality is trivial. Of course ‘urban’ doesn’t need to equal ‘secular’, but there is a fair chance that it will do: urban culture is nothing if not full of distractions from the deeper meaning of life. I try in vain, for instance, to discern any meaning in a lot of ‘Minimalist’ music. There is a lot of surface activity – setting up patterns and introducing subtle variations – but where does it lead? Could it be the ultimate distillation of ‘urban’ music? The Absolut Vodka of vodkas?
Looked at from a historical perspective, ‘Romantic composers such as Beethoven, Schumann and Schubert would probably have emphatically rejected any notion that they might ever compose ‘urban’ music! They liked to think that theirs was the music of the soul, the struggle and the sublime. They inhabited the dark side of the moon. Haydn and Mozart, however, being amongst the most social of composers, would probably have been delighted by the thought. After all, they wrote above all for the court and chattering classes, and for Mozart particularly, the stuff of much of his operatic oeuvre was the social mores of his time.
Urban is only one letter short of ‘urbane’, which is a defining quality of the so-called ‘classical’ composers. Poise; good taste; savoir-faire: these were the watchwords of late 18th century society and art alike. At their worst they could be mannered and stultifying, but they also provided the framework in which talent and civilised expression could flourish. What is interesting in this context is that art and music become less and less self-conscious about seeing the rural idyll from the urban perspective – take Haydn’s Creation, for example, or Mozart’s Magic Flute: Nature becomes ‘intellectualised’ – made into the embodiment of an idea intended to lead the listener in certain directions: in Haydn’s case towards God the Creator; in Mozart’s towards the Masonic ideals of personal integrity and respect for one’s fellow men.
Harking back to the claims of our American composer, I have to say that you really can’t beat Gershwin for the stylish urbanity of ‘An American in Paris’ – taxi horns and all! I don’t personally find that the music is redolent of Paris as such – the tunes are sassy but in an American way, and so is the surface gloss of the writing – but it is my idea of ‘urban’ music par excellence. I would definitely have it in my iPod when I set out to explore the city!
In fact it was the Europeans who looked to America for musical inspiration in the twenties, and a number of composers wrote pieces incorporating elements of jazz. Whereas soul, blues and country are essentially non-urban in their inspiration (or at least they have always struck me as such), jazz, with its energy, dance rhythms and harmonic sophistication is, and these were the elements which European composers mainly drew on.
Martinu was one of the earliest to experiment with jazz in a big way. He wrote ‘La Revue de Cuisine’ and a jazzy Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments in 1927; a Jazz Suite in 1928 (which incorporates a fine bluesy bassoon solo); a piece called simply ‘Le Jazz’ for the famous Comedian Harmonists – a close harmony singing group. He also wrote a short orchestral piece called ‘Shimmy Foxtrot’! Other well-known composers would follow in his steps. Amongst the best-known examples were two Jazz Suites by Shostakovich, and somewhat later, in 1945, Stravinsky wrote his ‘Ebony Concerto’ for Woody Herman (later recorded by Benny Goodman with the Colombia Jazz Combo conducted by Stravinsky himself). And later still, Lenny Bernstein wrote Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and of course the wonderfully idiomatic West Side Story, which took Romeo & Juliet and turned it into a contemporary urban myth.
So where does that leave us? Any nearer to deciding on a definition of ‘urban’ music? Maybe, although I can’t help but think such things are better left undefined!
Jefferey W. Cox
16 September 2007