Friday, January 16, 2015

Historian Bruce Schulman and the 1970s

Everybody who knows me and this peculiar blog knows that among my many aesthetic passions, alongside music and the many arts, can be found the decade of the 1970s.

When it comes to the 1970s, there was one person who was the first to take it seriously, to rescue the decade's boomer centric relegation to middle child status - or worse - the person who wrote the book on the seventies, indeed called it The Seventies: Bruce Schulman. Since then 1970s historiography has certainly expanded, even exploded. Not only is there a new book by Thomas Borstelmann, which blatantly recapitulates many of Schulman's original ideas, but in a turgid and humorless prose style, but there is also Jefferson Cowie's much better Staying Alive, and a few others. My own personal favorite after Schulman's is Thomas Hine's The Great Funk. Hine's book is unique in that it tries to make sense of the aesthetic exceptionalism of that decade - its flouting of decades old restraints in design and manners. Since Schulman's book  perhaps there have been many others too numerous to name. I've read practically all of them.

But Schulman was there first. This makes Schulman an original, an innovator in history, in my book. Time and again I see his original insight -s about the "Southernization" of American politics and culture or the shift to a local, self-help kind of culture after the loss of trust in or even existence of larger institutions and universalistic aims pop up all over the place. Daniel Rodgers took a rather theory oriented, more academic approach in his Age Of Fracture. Rodgers book is certainly deep intellectual history and it is mightily impressive and learned - indeed it was one of the most important non-fiction books of the past few years, but it is a different kind of book in its intention than Shculman's. Schulman's book is actually the kind of book that serves as the best popular history, not unlike some of Arthur Schlesinger's books from the fifties and sixties, say, or a Howard Zinn or Jill Lepore (whose new book on the history of Wonder Woman is a must read if I may add a plug) This makes Bruce Schulman, though not a household name, a public intellectual of sorts. He writes the kind of clear and entertaining prose that too many historians shy away from out of a mistaken belief that it is less valid or serious. Here he is giving his take on the meaning of Martin Luther King's famous speech.

In this all too brief sample of Schulman discussing the meaning of Martin Luther King, we see that Schulman's work on the 1970s is marked by a moral seriousness. When he talks about popular culture as he does at length in The Seventies, it always for some very good reasons, and not as an honorific to the popular status of the works he reviews.

Back in 2003 when I discovered his book I did a lengthy interview with him. It was interesting to revisit that article, a scanned excerpt of which is found below.

This is the only copy that exists of that. For a good twenty-five years I was a staff writer for a really decent periodical called Organica which is now sadly defunct. They gave me a lot of freedom, and used that freedom to spread the word about Schulman's new and exciting thesis about the centrality of the 1970s to subsequent decades. This is the shift to a "symbolic politics" and an increase in a decentralized ethic, and an abandonment of larger civic purpose and larger institutions.

Of course there is the "lighter" side of the decade, if that is the word for it.

Here is an excerpt from that page, if you cannot make it out from the picture.
"It seems ludicrous to us today but if you look at Gentleman's Quarterly or Esquire, all of top highest end designers were proud of the polyester. They wold say '100% Quiana. It was the chief selling point in ads, not just for the leisure suits. but especially for their most conservative and refined business suits."

If there is anything that perfectly illustrates this feature of the decade it is this ad I came across most recently. Now if there is any fabric that epitomizes the virtues of natural fibers it is tweed, specifically wool, yet here is Johnny Carson modeling his line of tweed and proud as a peacock of the fact that it is a synthetic tweed.
Of course after the obligatory design elements are scrutinized the decade resonate even today in all sorts of ways. Schulman teaches at Boston University and we had the opportunity to have a reunion of sorts at the close of 2014. The foremost matter on my mind was how his students have changed over the years.

"One of the new things is that what you used to be able to rely on (students knowing) you can no longer rely on. They can be very smart and sharp and analyze texts well but you can't assume knowledge."

"Sometimes I will show something with absolutely no introduction and no identifying information. For example the famous Stanley Forman busing photo from 1976. And the results are interesting."

To this day Schulman's text continues to regularly sell 1,500 to 2000 copies which is encouraging. One thing of which I am proud was giving Schulman the idea of using the overlooked, underrated comedy How To Beat The High Cost Of Living as an example of the economic situation of the 1970s in popular culture.

Another new insight I learned from Schulman is one concerning sensibility, a matter that should definitely interest the fine folks over at the Society For U. S. Intellectual History
 This concerns the emotional manic-depressive character of the 1970s. Too many films that are set in the those times are only manic and miss the depressive aspect. I think for Schulman Boogie Nights and The Ice Storm were exemplary in this regard and last year's hit, American Hustle only hit the manic mark. Manic depression is an interesting way of looking at a sensibility, not as a scientifically proven diagnosis but as a metaphor.

These days Schulman's research has him going back to even earlier periods of historical time the years from 1896 to 1929, his contribution to the Oxford History Of The United States. Schulman expresses great curiosity and even a sense of awe at what he is learning, things he did not already know.

That is the best thing about the life of the mind. It is a joy that it is never boring and never done, and there is always more to learn.

Above all I have Bruce Schulman to thank for introducing me to Richard Hofstadter way back in 2003. He was kind enough to lend me Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. That too is a book that never seems to be out of date.

My only regret is that the film Selma had been released when we had our early fall reunion, if only so I could get Bruce Schulman, an L.B.J. scholar and author of an important text on Johnson, to respond to that newsworthy current release.

Next time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

New "Album" Hard Listening and Easy Listening

"I sit at the piano and write at the piano. I will freely improvise for an hour or two, to try and get this stuff out of my system. I'm writing a piece right now that has an orchestral feeling to it, with bursts of sound and energy. When I compose a piece it has to have a few elements to it. It has to be beautiful whatever that word may mean to you. Part of what that means is that it might have to be ugly in places, in order to be beautiful. I look to develop enough contrast. I also think in terms of color and texture, and will often write a piece of music where I will stay on one chord to develop it and really violate that chord. I'll take that chord and play it inside and out, then throw a pop thing in there, or something Elton John did. i'll do it consciously in a way to irk or disturb the listener who isn't expecting it. Or maybe I'll bring you to 1933 with Harlem style piano. I like breaking down boundaries and making a single piece of music feel like it has the whole history of music within it. I want people to be reminded of what musicians have done in the past. So it's almost a way of honoring the past. My goal is not to reinvent the wheel but rather for the music to be interesting and exciting and reflect the past. I think we as humans have to understand that we humans make and create stuff. We could debate about whether what we make is the Sistine Chapel or some junk, but what's most important is that humans create things." (from bdcwire interview, Mitch Hampton)

My last post was on that most important of themes Love, last February, on Valentine's Day.

You might be tempted to ask what I have been doing over the spring and summer. Well mostly I have been working on my music. After months of deblogging I am back to do a little promotion and little philosophic reflection.
Now when that great of an amount of time has gone by, especially given the rapid rate of change you could worry about all of the newness that you would feel pressured to reflect, assuming that it could even be processed.

Luckily I am back to discuss music, in particular the release this month, on October 14th of my first solo recording work in, well, over fifteen years. It is called Hard Listening, I suppose to reflect the influence of Easy Listening. I am most happy with it. Not only are all of the pieces original, they were all recorded on the most beautiful piano I could ever hope to find, and for the most part were done in a single take, "live" with no digital manipulation.

There were so many inspirations for this particular album. The oldest and most important inspiration was studying with the great pianist and composer Stanley Cowell, at New England Conservatory of Music. he taught me so many things, chief among them was the truth that though a pianist should be a good ensemble player and comp in a rhythm section, the central focus should be on a pianist's ability to be a complete solo pianist. Doubtless this conviction was in part inspired by the fact that the greatest pianist of them all, Art Tatum, played on Cowell's family piano when Cowell was still a child, in Ohio.

Cowell would have his students come in and prepare any piece of music as if that piece of music were meant to be written and performed by the piano alone, regardless of the original material. He wanted to hear good bass, and the full orchestral range of the piano and all registers. I cannot underestimate the spiritual and aesthetic value of studying under a master like him. It was the kind of experience for the ages, like a real apprenticeship from an older world. Here was a musician that could and would go from something as funky and "contemporary" as this:

 to this:

Maybe my so-called extreme eclecticism is similar.

One inspiration for Hard Listening were those album covers from the past.

Another inspiration was an obscure indie film by Pamela Corkey called Easy Listening.

The other inspiration was the fact that I consider a lot of what is called easy listening music to be good or enjoyable music and was curious about it being considered dated or irrelevant and also curious about why it was demoted or rejected by so many people.

I almost want to write an essay called the Myth Of Relevance.

The most recent inspiration was from rewatching the movie Lifeguard from 1977, about which I wrote on this very blog a few season ago here One scene depicted a woman bringing a man home and her worrying that her female singer-songwriter album with a pensive and mellow piano and guitar would offend her date's presumably more masculine tastes.

She says, "if you don't like that kind of music I can put something else on". It was very effective that this was Anne Archer delivering the line.

My heart and brain reeled. Kind of music. Something else on. Appropriate music. Good music. Bad music. Cool music and uncool music. Music for "getting it on." Easy listening music. Mellow music, Art music. THAT kind of music. What does this all mean?

I'm a trained musician and I have played just about every kind of music you can think of. I don't like all of it, much of it is not even my favorite. Little of the music I like as much as the music of my mentor Stanley Cowell. I am not as eclectic as this album might have you guess. But I can't but help respond to the world's music and find in it a limitless fount.

I do have preferences. I would really rather listen to any Soul Train show from the 1970s that practically the whole corpus of "classic" rock. I really find the trumpet and flugelhorn of Freddie Hubbard more inspirational to me than many pianists. I would rather listen to Duke Ellington than Brahms. I would rather listen to Patrick Williams' television scores than most contemporary concert music! Influence is a mysterious thing.

I agree with Miles Davis that art and life are "all about style." Styles are made up of little gestures or details.

For example the late and very great Bobby Short had a habit of punctuating in between the musical phrases he sung these wild upward arpeggios on the piano. Even more remarkably, he would often hit or slap the top C key of the keyboard as part of these arpeggios, seemingly in indifference to whatever the key of the song was.
In a similar vein, the pianist Bill Evans would start a solo portion of a piece with the most glowing and radiant statement of the dominant of the key, usually with added extensions, really usually what some call a sus chord of some kind. It set the tone, the stage for the piece, it always struck me as like a plant and the sun meeting in sympathetic harmony. Both of these ideas were the initial inspiration for the very first piece on the recording, The Royal Blue Trickle. Yet I doubt anybody listening is going to think necessarily of either Bill Evans or Bobby Short even though both, in so many ways, are guiding spirits behind this whole recording.

I grew up watching Soul Train every Saturday so that would have to be a spirit or a soul guide on this album as much or more than anything else especially as Don Cornelius passed away recently.

As a result of such inquiry, forms of pop made their way in, but on my own personal terms. Yes you might hear rock in here but I hope the articulation will be more Cedar Walton than Steve Winwood. (Nothing against Steve Winwood).

Even though I have some sympathy for Stravinsky's hyperbolic claim that music doesn't express things, especially in a contemporary climate in which tendentious and irresponsible musical scholars try to claim that there is a spirit of sexual pathology or masculinist flaws in something as wonderfully abstract as Beethoven, I nevertheless wanted to make a philosophical argument but in musical language, in the most abstract musical form no less, music without words: piano alone. Music might not have the specificity of narrative representation but it is the most highly expressive art of which I am aware perhaps because of the very absence of such specificity.

Thus, when I write and perform a twelve minute work called Feminist Singer-Songwriter Without Words it is a nod to Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words, a musical interpretation of the story of women's liberation in the Berlioz programmatic mode, a way for me to "wrestle" with cliched folk material about which I have some ambivalence, a way to celebrate political feelings that I endorse, and a way to embrace "Americana", folk rock, and 1970s culture more generally - all at once. I asked myself - philosophically, conceptually, rhetorically - if I didn't have any words and I were a woman in the mid to late1970s and wanted to do something instrumental and though unconstrained by any particular stylistic restrictions but still acknowledged my love for Bob Dylan and Carole King and Elton John like a lot of my peers, and by some fluke I got assigned to write a "classical" piece of music for some feminist anniversary of some kind, what would the resulting music sound like? This imagined hypothetical though experiment of a woman would be confronting many things at once: love for the identity and meaning of a certain music, need to stretch and expand out of an alleged comfort zone, the need to communicate as well to a wider public than her sisters in the revolution.

Except there is a catch. That piece doesn't end like that. Now the way I would write it is to take the end result I just described and hand it over to Charles Ives or maybe through some ideas of Bill Evans. I like to go out once and a while and I do like dramatic contrast. As much as I experiment on this album with trance-like ostinatos and repetitions, I do have to deliver some contrast. Music for me is a very delicate matter; the end result may have a rough texture at times, but it has to be right, and I might spend a long time indeed to get it to where I am satisfied.

A lot of my love for things has very little and at times frankly nothing to do with all of the things surrounding that thing that I love, all of that context that academics and now popular audiences go on so much about. That is why, in the end, when I hear a Patrick Williams or Henry Mancini piece it matters not in the least that it was intended to accompany this or that banal or forgotten television show because I find the music to be itself so good. I am using my ears to hear what was created and am not interested in having my attention distracted unduly by all of the stuff surrounding this musical creation. The world needs both a Patrick Williams and Gustav Mahler. It needs both a Pedro Coasta and Sam Peckinpah. It matters not whether we call it high or low or popular or unpopular, but whether in some way, in the most generous sense, it moves us.

I do hope everybody enjoys the music on this album as much as I enjoyed making it, I even enjoyed writing about it on here, which is a rare thing for me.