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Thursday, 26 May 2011
ps. i wish i was Georges Brassens
I was a bit surprised to learn that Georges Brassens never received any musical training. Mainly, i suppose, because he's obviously incredibly good at music, and makes me, with my two music degrees but very little practical skill, look a bit stupid. But i do think there's also a canniness to his music which really seems to indicate training, mastery, knowledge as well as ability. His handling of harmony is perfect, his counterpoint is flawless. And how about the self-control of this Villon setting:
It always feels to me like Brassens is in absolutely complete technical control of his compositions, including their level of complexity, in a way which is rare in popular music. And so i started to wonder about how my finding out about his lack of formal education might affect (or might not affect) my opinion of him overall.
The main point of comparison to raise is this: when critics write about the Beatles, the idea is invariably that their achievements are particularly impressive - more impressive - because they were not musically "educated". This perspective might sound obvious enough, but i don't think it's entirely fair. It suggests that when we listen to "Eleanor Rigby" or "She's Leaving Home" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" we are meant to go "ooh wow" and marvel at how sophisticated the Beatles are even though they don't know precisely how and why one must resolve an augmented sixth. That is, there is just enough naïveté in their music, that they end up endorsing our inherited notions of quality; they are palpably outsiders, but contributing to the canonic tradition, in their own way. How should we hear the harshness of "Eleanor Rigby" - as just-slightly-naïve harmonic experimentalism or as sage folk pastiche? As far as the academic community is concerned, the answer is both, and thank Christ for that.
I think Brassens might be the most effective rejoinder to this slightly have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too perspective on popular music that i've found. He does, at least, prove that it is possible to acquire a perfectly thorough working knowledge of the intricacies of tonal harmony without having first passed through some sort of system, and his essential lack of experimentalism only confirms his full understanding of his chosen style. And though this is to say that he's better than the Beatles at tonal harmony in the traditional sense (in the same way that i should probably acknowledge that, oh i don't know, Brahms is better at it than Brassens), this absolutely is not to say that he's better than the Beatles in any overall sense (and nor Brahms etc. etc.). Brassens just happens to have picked a musical style which is more basically dependent on complete control of traditional compositional techniques than the Beatles', whose style is more multifarious.
All of which is just to say that if popular music can ever be good, which it can, it has to be allowed to depend on whatever set of musical criteria its creators happen to have chosen for it, and it has not necessarily to be made to depend on "purely technical" criteria, such as one might encounter in a textbook, because if it does so then Georges Brassens must surely win every time.
I don't like comparing music to language, because the comparison always falls apart very quickly (as soon as someone says TRANSLATION, for instance). But perhaps we can push it just so far as to observe that while Chinese may be a more formally complex language than English, in some moderately objective sense, this clearly does not mean that Chinese literature is inherently better than English literature. Which is why searching for intricacies in popular music is a very annoying habit, as sometimes they are there and sometimes they are not, and while this may make a difference to how we listen to things, it shouldn't make any difference to our evaluation of them.
Hence i'd hold that "a bit surprised", rather than "really impressed", is the fairer reaction to learning about Brassens's lack of formal training. He is good at the technical stuff, and this is fortunate, because it is a key element of his style. How he got there is not the question. The Beatles, i would say, are less good at the technical stuff, but this is not unfortunate, because their music doesn't really have anything to do with that, or doesn't mean to anyway. We simply have to judge different artists' music according to the different sets of criteria which their music establishes. This is something we would probably do naturally if we weren't constantly surrounded by people and/or Wikipedia shouting facts at us about artists' backgrounds. Though, obviously, i did choose to visit the page myself. Um, here's another song.