Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Music and Performers

My sister Rachel, in an effort to ruin my life, comments on my previous post:
Seeing the word "composer" there toward the end has me wondering: do you ever like a piece of music because of the performer, more than the composer? People who are really into opera, for example, are often quite picky about which performers they want to hear interpret which pieces. Vivaldi's 4 Seasons is pretty blah to me UNLESS it's Perlman playing it (that's the one we grew up with, I guess, and I prefer his interpretation).

When you get into popular music, the question becomes even more difficult to untangle, I guess. You get people performing their own music, covering each other's music, performing music by professional songwriters, performing traditional songs. There's much more scope for individual interpretation there, and again, a song that may be so-so may get a lift from someone else's touch (or may not - I can't think of a single Beatles cover I like better than the original).

A long way toward saying: sometimes it's not the music that's most awesome, it's the performance.
Sure, a performer can make or break a piece of music, I'll grant you that. Perlman playing a piece is going to sound a lot better than me playing it, because even assuming that it's within my skill level, his interpretation is going to be more nuanced and his execution is going to be better.

There are plenty of cases where the individual(s) performing the piece completely ruins it. For example, I abhor Rod Stewart because his voice makes me want to forcibly remove my eardrums. The Mommas and the Papas have some pretty good songs, but when I listen to their poor intonation I want to reach through the radio and change the record to something else.

Likewise, a good performer can make anything sound good. If I had to listen to Pachelbel's Canon, I'd want to hear it played by somebody good like Perlman, because it would be the best Pachelbel's Canon that it could be.

An example of the cover being better than the original would have to be anything by Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is proof positive that the American Dream is true -- anyone, if they work hard enough, can succeed. Because, lemme tell you, I don't know how else he got to be such a well-known performer. His voice is just miserable -- an unpleasant tone, poor intonation -- he's just terrible! But, he writes really good songs, and for example, Joan Baez singing "Blowing in the Wind" is great (and a huge improvement over him singing it!). Simon and Garfunkel also did a cover of "The Times Are A-Changin" which was far superior to the original.

I could hear the song immediately, but it took me another 20 minutes to remember enough of the lyrics to reconstruct that last title, which brings me to another point that I should have made in yesterday's post: I mostly ignore song lyrics.

It is profoundly difficult for me to remember the lyrics to a song. I'm lucky to remember how to sing the alphabet song with Vinny -- it almost seems like the only reason I can remember it is because I know the alphabet. I enjoy singing to him every night, but I have an extremely limited repertoire of "real" songs that I can sing, because while I know thousands of tunes, I cannot for the life of me remember more than a dozen lyrics. It's kind of embarrassing to admit to this.

To me, the voice is just another instrument. This explains why it's easy for an atheist such as myself can listen to so much medieval and Renaissance music,* which was really centered on Jesus. And why I enjoyed playing gospel music during my workplace's annual black history celebrations. The lyrics hardly register.

That being said, there are some songs with lyrics that have made their way past my incomprehension, which I cannot bear to hear. Those songs include "Hard-Headed Woman" (Elvis' tribute to misogyny), "Under My Thumb" (The Rolling Stones' foray into controlling abuse), and this certain song by some asshole from the 60's in which the lyrics make him sound like a creepy pedophile. And for that last one, since all his songs sound alike, any time he's on the radio I have to change the damn station, because I get the dry heaves every time I hear his voice.

Anyhow, now that I have all that out of the way, next time I promise to actually talk about a piece of music that I like.

* Yeah, it's mostly in Latin, but it's simple enough to translate.


rachel said...

I almost wrote a long screed here in your comments, but then it occurred to me, "Hey! Easy blog post!" Expect my rebuttal! Or, y'know, a different perspective on Dylan, anyway. I like talking about music, too, but I take it from a different angle than you do.

Can't wait to read more in your series! I'm really enjoying it!

rachel said...

(Of course, I'm going to have to ruin your life with that later, since the vote in Maine threw me off my game temporarily...)