Lying to Myself

Sitting with two friends in an apartment downtown, doing the iTunes shuffle. Lovely lazing, shlumped out on a sofa for hours, blabbing about nothing.

At a certain point we came upon a series of meditative songs which seemed to go on forever. Certain modern “popular music” crawls over and through me disturbingly; I don’t feel in my own skin. It is melancholic, pulsing, repetitive; it makes me feel suddenly “this is what it’s like to be modern” (me who’s probably stuck in the 19th century somewhere), all that 20th century crap of existentialism comes to me in a wash, and I realize, yes, it’s a dehumanizing routine and mankind’s progress is merely a self-destructive path, etc. etc. I said, with my usual eloquence, “it’s so sad.” And I realized that normally I am a happy person…

But then a Cole Porter song came on, and I turned off the shuffle, and we kept in that world. The charm of one phrase obliterated the whole preceding morass. Above all, there is what is not done: not too much emoting, the rhythm swung but not too much, not too overt. It is always stylized, refined, smooth, cultured; this music is like a graceful, natural pose. But the refinement (the pose) is not snooty, not stifling, it puts no limits on this music’s joy, on its eternal internal smile, its bemused, knowing survey of harmony and verse. It creates its own syntax of style, class, wit. There is no visceral push/pull, all that is behind the curtain: considered, absorbed, relegated.

Think of it: from the Baroque endlessly flowing phrases of Bach emerged the “early classical style,” the new simplicity (Rousseau, etc.) and the four-bar phrase as God. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven: all mainly in thrall to this phrase ideal. Then the Romantics start putting quotation marks around their phrases, start wondering if phrases exist, melting them, expanding them, denying them; they expand the harmonies which define the phrases, begin a general semantic blurring…. What if a seventh chord actually could be the “tonic”? And Wagner did it. The harmonies get more lush, more plural, more ambiguous. Think Brahms Op. 119 #1. There they all are, those seventh and ninth chords, almost too beautiful to be functional. Wandering, almost meaningless, fragments of phrases …

It struck me! In Cole Porter, all the “Romantic,” blurred chords are there… but there is also this tremendous “last gasp,” or resurgence of the four-bar phrase, of the classical ideal! In these songs, the simplicity of the phrase structure (always subject to exceptions, deviations, but nonetheless persistent, essential) is God again. It absorbs and subjugates the tremendous and refined harmonic language. It is like a game, to make these Romantic harmonies fall into place, to make them obey their phrases. And how delicious it is, what an odd couple the harmonies and the phrases make; and how many subtle transformations and voice-leadings and enharmonic tricks are required to merge them!

I listen to a lot of music and love a lot of it. But on those days when you are tired, weak, feeling a little cynical about the hospitality of the world… then, when you can no longer lie to yourself, you turn to the music you really need, which lies next to your heart, which literally feeds you. And I have to admit that Cole Porter and that whole era: I need it.

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  1. DO
    Posted April 24, 2005 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    De gustibus non disputandum est, but if your exaltation of the turkey burger at the Old Town Tavern is any gauge of your feelings about contemporary music, then please pass the salt.

  2. Jeremy Denk
    Posted April 25, 2005 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    My friend casts aspersions on my beloved turkey burger, and I hope he is not offended that I found some modern music a “morass.” It was not meant as a personal as-salt. It must be admitted that the prosciutto and arugula pizza at Otto makes the Old Towne burger look like a real turkey. Whim, mood, and context are the three contributing editors to this blog, & they prefer not to be second-guessed. Was “dean” there? Did he see the energy coursing the room, the energy of my companions, once Porter replaced that modern, aimless porridge?

  3. DO
    Posted April 25, 2005 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    There’s no arguing that Cole Porter is one of America’s great gifts to the world, but why the black-and-white thinking? Does one have to shine at the expense of the other? Isn’t there something to be said for the AA rule of trying something six times before deciding it’s not for you?

  4. DO
    Posted April 25, 2005 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Oh, all right.

    Let’s celebrate our renewed frienship at Otto.

  5. Jeremy Denk
    Posted April 26, 2005 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I decided to remove my earlier, conciliatory comment because a) it was boring and b) it displayed a “dramatic lack of conviction.” This was pointed out to me by an anonymous commenter, whose identity I nonetheless suspect, and who I believe was correct. If I felt saved by Porter from a whole slew of more recent music, so be it. I will eat crow later, with gusto, when/if I come to love whatever it was that constituted the “morass.” Sorry, Dean, there will be more black-and-white thinking, but I hope we can still eat more pizza at Otto.

  6. DO
    Posted April 26, 2005 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    It will be fun seeing you in a future, updated edition of Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective.”

  7. punjabi
    Posted August 26, 2006 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    it was nice reading u …

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