Dissonant Counterpoint

Misunderstandings about Duke Ellington continue. Maria Popova just posted a shocking piece that goes all out to give the impression that Duke didn’t write the music he’s famous for.

What Ellington did was simply follow the fundamental impetus of the creative spirit to combine and recombine old ideas into new ones. How he did it, however, was a failure of creative integrity. Attribution matters, however high up the genius food chain one may be.

Of course there is a hell of a lot (over 1600 pieces?) of Ellington music that he wrote entirely alone. What Popova is talking about are some of the most famous tunes from the early years.

Perhaps I didn’t engage with this specific area enough in the recent essay “Reverential Gesture.” Formal compositional attribution is often a red herring in jazz. One reason I’ve always known this is from Duke Ellington records, where pieces from the early years have the white publisher attached as a kind of permanent indenture.

Quick: whistle something from Stravinsky!

Chances are, you whistled the opening to The Rite of Spring. That iconic phrase has an interesting provenance: Stravinsky admitted that he took it from a book of folk melodies.

This was his source:


This was his transmutation:


The source could never have been a hit. But Stravinsky’s asymmetric rhythm and the astonishing orchestration (the highest notes of the bassoon) made it an earworm.

I am absolutely convinced this is what Duke did with fragments from the early horn players as well. None of them - not a single Duke horn player, ever! - has contributed a standard to the repertoire. It was the settings that made these fragments famous.

Is the B section of “Mood Indigo” by Barney Bigard - except maybe it really was taken from Bigard’s teacher, or maybe somewhere else in New Orleans - that great a tune?

No. It is not. It’s awfully foursquare, which is why modern jazz musicians rarely play it.

But there was just barely enough there to inspire a “Mood” from Duke. That mood originated with him and suffuses his whole canon. That mood immortalized horn phrases from the jazz community the same way Bach's harmonizations immortalized chorale tunes from the Lutheran community. (Thanks to Matthew Guerrieri for that comparison.)

I don’t deny that Duke occasionally fiddled with attribution to keep as much royalties in his house as he could. But those eager to fault him for a "failure of creative integrity" must also remember: Everyone who loves jazz has always known how important dozens of great musicians were to Duke Ellington and the sound of Ellington's music. No other bandleader has shined such a powerful light on so many of his team.

Looking at Popova’s site further, I came across an earlier piece about Duke that is even more shocking:

Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective.

Duke undoubtedly did contribute to racial healing, partly through works that were proudly Afro-American in title. I can’t understand why anyone would want to take that away from him. That is not Terry Teachout’s perspective, it is Popova’s. She is in dangerous waters.


At the other end of the spectrum, the internet has another mild convulsion about the supposed death of classical music, this time begun by Mark Vanhoenacker in Slate

This kind of think piece seems to crop up annually, but maybe Will Robin’s devastating response to Vanhoenacker on the New Yorker blog will keep doomsayers quiet for a while. 

Those that attack classical music as irrelevant never seem to understand that writing it all down has pleasures and uses that can’t be replaced. Of course, all kinds of music interface with notation these days, but classical music remains the genre that generates intensely detailed manuscript requiring no recordings or community folklore to be understood.

In the wake of Vanhoenacker, Matthew Guerrieri proposed an amusing T-shirt where the word “necrophiliac” is made out of esoteric symbols from orchestral scores.


Full notation is a powerful resource that enables composers of a certain temperament to give their best. And if one of those types doesn’t succeed during their lifetime, there’s at least a chance that they will be discovered and understood by future generations. 

It’s actually a boon time for classical music. Now that the biggest names have been programmed and recorded over and over again, lesser known but significant figures are finally getting their chance. This is the theme of my two classical reviews for The Talkhouse, Hamelin plays Busoni and Staier plays melancholy harpsichord.

I was also proud to be part of a recent concert performing rarely heard works by Miriam Gideon, Louise Talma, and Vivian Fine.  It was just one fun gig. It wasn’t reviewed; there was no buzz; it didn’t herald an immediate renaissance in Fine, Gideon, or Talma. But the scores aren’t going anywhere. They are currently on the shelves of libraries and when the copyright runs out, they’ll be up at IMSLP.  Talma’s Piano Sonata No. 2 will keep being discovered by the perpetually curious, and eventually it will have its proper place as one of the best 20-century American piano sonatas.


Contemporary classical composition is enjoying unprecedented stylistic diversity. I wish I could keep up more with everything than I do. I have a few favorite contemporary composers, but - just like me - they aren’t getting younger. I wrote about Peter Lieberson when he died. Rzewski, Birtwistle and Reimann are getting on in years. Even Poul Ruders is 64 already.

Speaking of Frederic Rzewski, I was intrigued by his pessimistic response to Will Robin’s piece in the comments. (I've waited a couple of weeks to see if anyone has said that this wasn't Rzewski - sincerest apologies if it was an impostor.)

What has captured this imagination (and the industrially-created market for "classical contemporary") are people like Steve Reich, who, although very skillful at what he does, can in no way be compared (as a composer in the traditional sense) with someone like Carter. 

It’s true that I never felt the need to look at the score of my favorite Reich record, Tehillim from 1981, because it felt like I could hear it easily enough. Is that what Rzewski means about Reich vs. Elliott Carter? I enjoy Carter more when I have a score in hand than when I don’t.

For me, Reich is at his best with a close band of intimates, and Tehillim is a good example of band music. “Performer-proof” scores requiring symbols from the necrophiliac T-shirt shouldn’t be required in this situation. More power to Reich for getting his rhythmic folklore in fair order: "Steve Reich and Musicians" (a steadily working ensemble at that point) includes ringers like jazz vocalist Jay Clayton and professional world music percussionist Glen Velez.

Who am I to criticize Fredric Rzewski? But I’ve long wished that he worried less about “performer-proof” scores and made some more recordings as improvising pianist. He’s a one of a kind genius in that realm. Some of his own recent written music, like The Road, is comparatively anonymous. Enough of that. Rzewski should go into the recording studio and blow.

However, it’s true that the score to The Road isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps it is going to be properly comprehended in the future. At any rate, it is already up at IMSLP. 


Improvisation, composition, tunes, settings - it’s up to the artist to determine what makes the right statement. Duke's band onstage; the score of Talma’s Piano Sonata No. 2; the record of Tehillim: these are all correct solutions.

I’ve finally heard Caroline Shaw’s award-winning Partita for eight voices. It's easy to imagine how much fun Roomful of Teeth must have had when working out how to perform this delightful collection of subversive ideas.

Partita is fully notated, and excerpts can be seen on Shaw’s website

Unfortunately I got to Shaw in a backwards fashion, though a New York Times video of an “Improvisation.”  I recoiled in horror the first time I saw it. On second viewing it wasn’t so bad, although it remains a collection of dated modal loops. Sternly auditing Partita was a relief.

Shaw is part of a current movement by some contemporary classical composers to embrace rock, pop, and electronica. It’s a worthy endeavor to be sure. There are growing pains, but there always are.

Almost a century ago composers started trying to put jazz in fully notated music. Most of it didn’t work, but a few things are still fun to hear, and the best deserve steady rotation. Thanks to Mark Stryker for linking to my Morton Gould celebration when reviewing a recent Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert

Jazz appropriations work best when they are almost totally sublimated, as in Gould’s Symphony of Spirituals. Literal appropriations are problematic. When walking bass shows up in Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes for Paul Klee, it mars an otherwise excellent work. I see Shaw’s Partita and "Improvisation" in exactly the same light: one is vital, the other is flat.

Steve Reich always talks about Kenny Clarke, but he never tried to make some classical percussionist play a swing beat on a ride cymbal. Instead Reich wrote his own rhythms that have become venacular for modern chamber ensembles.

I predict that the path for appropriations of rock and electronica by classical composers will be similar. As always, an echo of folkloric music will inspire new transfigurations from those most inspired by full notation. It’s already happening but the best is surely in the future.


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