Art Song/Pop Song (part 2) - a response to some comments

Greetings folks. It’s come to my attention that there may be something going on with comments. First off, I didn’t realize some were awaiting approval, because I didn’t get email notification. Now I know to check, and I’ll soon fix that. If you make a comment and don’t see it within say 24 hours, probably best to drop me a line and say what the eff.

My last post prompted some responses from songwriters/composers with quite a bit of cred, and I’m going to devote this post to responding, and in the process, further developing my thoughts on this matter.

First John C., who is a singer (both popular AND classical), actor, songwriter, composer, and all kinds of other stuff to boot. I’ll respond bit by bit.

John C.

I used to think that it was some quality of the composer that made something an art song... but now, having been a creator of both art song and pop song (and also feeling that some of my pop songs are greater works of art than some [see: most] of my art songs), I know that that's a load of bunk.

Yes – we agree here. It is not a question of a quality threshold, beyond which point all songs are granted art song status.

In class (not yours), I was taught that some element of the orchestration or the quality of the text made it an art song- I remember discussing at length whether or not a microphone could be used

Well, what if the recently departed Dietrich Fischer Dieskau were playing Yankee Stadium? He’d need a mic, and he’d still be singing art songs! But seriously, I think that's a very legitimate question (one which I will address more seriously, but not in this post).

(I still contend that Kurt Elling's "The Sleepers" is an art song- I mean, it's got a string quartet and the text is by Whitman!).

Here John’s raised two interesting qualities that we generally associate with art song:

1)    Orchestration and minimal use of technology.

2)    The setting of a poetic, or at least pre-existing text.

 I think both of these cut close to some core normative attributes of art song. To start with the second, in art song, the text is a “text” and not a “lyric.” In pop, whether the lyric is written first (as I often at least imagine the case to be with Tin Pan Alley tunes), concurrently with the music (which I think is common in rock) or afterwards (also common, I believe, in rock), it is conceived as a lyric, a bundle of words that is somehow incomplete until animated and elucidated (or further obscured) by musical setting.

In “art song,” I would say the normal condition is that the text exists first, either as a poem, a portion of prose, a cookie fortune, what have you. Sure there are the exceptions that prove the rule the Paul Bowleses and Charles Iveses (it is funny that both of my examples had to end in “s” eh?) that occasionally wrote their own art song texts, and we know not at what point in the process.

So then, is “Sleepers” an art song? I am new to the piece, but can form some quick opinions.

On first and a half listen, I would say no, not an art song. I remind you at this point that for me (as I believe, for John,) this is not a qualitative judgment. Let me see if I can quantify why it’s not (for me), and maybe that will get us somewhere.

Reason: There is a stylistic footprint here, and it belongs to another style, namely jazz song. Despite the presence of a string quartet, the rhythmic propulsion – straight four, lightly swung, tasteful jazz brushing on the kit, and the mellow crooning over some lush extended chords are what’s most important in this song. Though the string quartet hearkens to classical music, its use here is not classical – it’s too groove oriented for that. And the overall groove of the piece trumps the importance of the text, which bends more to it than vice versa. I will go out on a limb here and say that any percussive element whose function is strictly, or at least mostly to keep time and establish groove is inconsistent with art song style. Lastly, but importantly, the text is backgrounded to other elements in the mix, even to the singer’s vocal style.

I imagine of the vast multitudes reading this blog post, there is not unanimity of opinion on the above paragraph; I feel confident guessing that at least a slice of my reading populace thinks I’m twisted, possibly even evil now, and so be it. I would still like to cull from this example some art song characteristics, that can then be tested against future examples.

1) An “art song” can make references to other styles, but when those references become so dominating that they are no longer allusion but instead a genre inhabitation whole hog,  the song in question is not an art song. It is an x song (and for “x” insert “pop,” “jazz,” “rock,” what have you).

Of course this reason immediately crushes any possibility that a “pop song” can be an “art song,” and as such may need future refining, since that is actually the core question I’m investigating.

2) The text – its rhythms and meanings – is central to an art song. The rhythm of the song accommodates the text, and not the other way around. And the singer’s style is secondary to his or her clarity, and felicity to the sound and meaning of the words. The words in an art song, are ideally at the front of the texture.

 I’m just gonna let that one sit for a bit.

Back to John C:

 But while "respected" (whatever that means) poetry set to music is almost always automatically considered an art song, Bernstein showed us with La Bonne Cuisine that even recipes can make for engaging and witty art songs.

Great example, as I love those Bernstein songs (and they inspired my own The Art of Eating, which is not available on this site but probably should be - instead you can listen to my setting of the most ghastly recipe in human history). But certainly in contemporary art music there is no requirement of an art song text to be a poem (I would be disgraced were such a rule in place – witness my Detuned Radio, which IS available here, and has not a single poem in its pages).

So, if it's not the orchestration, nor the text, nor the background of the composer... what makes something an art song?

Good question. See my answers 1 and 2 above!

To me, the only qualifier is the same as that which makes any object art: intent. All of my songs are works of art, yet only a handful are "art songs." What makes them such? My having said so.

 No – I won’t buy that. Copout. Intent, in the long run, matters not a whit. I am far more sympathetic to the listener than the composer when it comes to sorting out the meaning and even the genre of musical artworks.

For the last little bit of this post, let me turn to my old friend and sometime collaborator Billy Dechand, St. Louis based composer, songwriter, producer, web-tv host, blogger, and much more who, like John C above, has plenty of experience in both the popular and artsy-fartsy domains:

Billy D.

Can pop be art? Yes.

I agree. Although, as I’ve stated several times, I distinguish “art” from “art song.” I think pop can most certainly be art, but I’m not yet convinced that pop songs can be art songs.

Can art songs be pop? Not by my definition. The label implies that A) they are too weird to be popular, or B) they are deliberately distinguishing themselves from pop by giving themselves that name.

This is curious. I do not think that the label “art song” implies weirdness – it just implies a particular style, as I’ve been arguing. I have the sense that Billy is talking here from the perspective of pop, and not the other way around. In other words, from within the pop tradition (so the “art songs” he is imagining or conjuring here are in fact written with more trappings of pop (instrumentation, commercial context, relationship to text, role of percussion, etc.) than art song.

If I follow Billy D correctly – I’ll note that “Pop,” by its very nature implies an appeal to the popular. Weird pop is generally disdained by most as self conscious, pretentious, or irrelevant. Of course, all of these might be arguments for such songs’ inclusion in the art song category, since ostensibly, the weirder they are, the further from the mainstream, the less inculpated in the “starmaker machinery behind the popular song.” (though this doesn't resolve the other stylistic requirements I've been setting forth). And that’s a thorny distinction between art song and pop song that needs to be made: it’s in a pop song’s very DNA to reach masses of people, to appeal to not just their musical sensibility but also their buying priorities. At some point, I will flesh out how that is at least in part true of even the weirdest, most erudite, esoteric and enlightened of pop songs. Meanwhile we’d like to think an art song’s imagined audience is Art itself – the God of Art or the Muse. It strives for Truth, yes? Though in reality there have always been commissioners, patrons, juries, etc. who were VERY important to please. Still, there's a substantial difference between those individual (wealthy) opinion-holders, and the platinum record public.

From this – perhaps my own discussion and potential misreading of Billy’s comment – I think I can cull one more normative value of art songs:

3) Art songs appeal to Art and Truth rather than to Popularity. At least they purport to. I realize full well what a can of worms this third value opens up, and rather than sort through those worms, I think I’ll stop here.  This value can seem to be making a qualitative statement - the one I've argued all along I'm not trying to make. But so be it for now... I will sort these things out in time.