A Conversation with Kirk – Part 2

Here’s the second part of my discussion with ethnomusicologist Kirk King. Many thanks to Kirk for engaging in this conversation with me and I hope to talk a lot more with him in the future – preferably  over a glass or two of Orion beer in Okinawa. 

JP: I can see that when I condemn enka for its predictability I am on dodgy ground as it is quite true that blues is the most predictable form of all and that doesn’t offend me in any way. I used to listen to a lot of blues especially when I was very young and just discovering lots of British and American music in the folk club I frequented every week in Norwich.

I would agree that although we both love Okinawan music it almost certainly means different things to us and we bring our own feelings and experiences to it. I am sometimes horrified when (usually Japanese) people say to me that they also love Okinawan music and then go on to say they love all that ‘healing’ stuff or their taste in the music begins and ends with Namie Amuro or Rimi Natsukawa.

Many years ago I listened to a radio programme in which some music ‘expert’ made the point that classical music is always superior to pop music. His reasoning was that we listen to a three minute pop song and like it for a few weeks but then we get fed up with hearing it because it is so repetitive and so simple. On the other hand, a classical symphony has such complexity and goes on for so long that we never get tired of it. I think at the time I perhaps believed what he said, although reluctantly as I’ve always preferred listening to pop music. It’s only now, many years later, that I realize he must have been talking a load of bollocks. In those comparatively early days of pop music, no-one knew that years later we would come back and listen to lots of those old songs again and like them all over again. It strikes me as the most appalling snobbery that anyone should claim such superiority for classical music based only on its complexity. The same opinions can still be heard today though much less frequently. Of course, the same is true of painting, art installations and no doubt other artistic spheres as well.

Lady Gaga: better than Beethoven?

To get more to the point, I think it is very difficult to compare one kind of music with another. I personally prefer Lady Gaga to Beethoven, by the way, if I had to choose (and notwithstanding her cringe-worthy Bowie medley). However, some judgements have to be made regarding value otherwise there is no point in my writing album reviews. I think that if it is possible to compare and judge then these comparisons have to be made within specific music genres so that we aren’t comparing chalk with cheese. Therefore, it might be possible to say that one artist in the same field is better than another, though even here we’re on very shaky ground. In the end, the only thing I’m fairly sure about is that I can say an album or song by the same artist is better than one of that artist’s other albums or songs. For example, Bob Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ or ‘Visions of Johanna’ (to name a couple of my favourite songs) are both superior to, say, his song ‘Trouble’ (on the album Shot of Love) which is just Dylan repeating that there’s a lot of trouble in the world for about four minutes to a plodding repetitive tune.

I might also be able to show that the original Nenes albums are all better than the latest album by the new Nenez. A lot may be down to my personal taste but I find it hard to believe that anyone who has listened to all of their albums could disagree.

So where does that leave me? Well, I agree that music serves a function, and I think that complexity is not important, or at least nowhere near as important as a lot of people have always believed. And matters of value can perhaps be made but only within very narrow boundaries.

I’ve just realized that I haven’t answered your fundamental question which was about the criteria we must have if we are to judge if one kind of music is better than another. I suppose I would have to say that it’s just not possible to say one kind of music is better than another, so it’s not possible to invent some criteria. That’s the point. My dislike of some kinds of music is simply my own personal taste (or prejudice) and I can’t say that one kind of music is inferior or better than another.

However, I do say that it may be possible to judge music in narrower ways within the same genre but have no special criteria for doing it other than my own instincts and the usual things such as whether it’s inventive or surprising or emotionally satisfying. But these things can’t be measured scientifically.

KK:  You made some very good points in your last emails, and I’d like to respond to some of them here. What I also dislike is when people say that Okinawan music all sounds the same. No doubt, their only experience with Okinawan music has been in some touristy izakaya on Kokusai-dori (Naha’s most popular entertainment street) where, indeed, a lot of the music sounds the same.

Incidentally, on my last trip to Okinawa I was a bit miffed at a performing duo (in such a touristy izakaya on Kokusai-dori) that sang ‘Haisai Ojisan’ (meaning ‘hey, old man’) replacing the lyrics with comedian Shimura Ken’s ‘hen-na ojisan’ (meaning ‘strange old man’) so as to pander to the largely mainland Japanese audience that seemed to delight in making fun of something because they could not understand it, as people often do. (Or, perhaps, I was in a bad mood and just being overly sensitive.) I’ve seen the ‘Hai-sai/hen-na’ switch done in other places, too, which caused me to think, ‘Oh Lord, not again!’ I happened to be wearing my Shoukichi Kina T-shirt, and the musicians afterward complimented me on it, saying how much they revere ‘Shoukichi-sensei.’ I suggested that if they indeed revered him, they should consider using the correct lyrics. (I suppose I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

The original Nenes: better than Lady Gaga?

Like you, it also strikes me the same way as snobbery to claim superiority for classical music based on its complexity. Yet, ALL OUR MUSIC INSTITUTES ARE STILL BASED ON THIS ASSUMPTION! When I was an undergrad in music, a fellow classmate commented that he didn’t believe jazz was good music. ‘Miles Davis taking a ten minute solo,’ he declared, ‘that’s not good musicianship’. Unbelievable.

I agree with you that it’s very difficult to compare one kind of music with another, and that matters of value can only be made within very narrow boundaries. It makes sense. But some people are trying to measure the differences. I’m not sure they are doing a good job at it, though.

You prefer Lady Gaga to Beethoven. That’s OK — we can still be friends.

Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose it would depend on the purpose for which I would have to make a choice. If I were taking a cruise in the car with a friend and I had to choose between only two CDs, Gaga and Beethoven, I would probably choose Gaga. If I were to stay at a secluded cabin in the woods for a month, and I were given the same choice, I would probably choose Beethoven. I suppose this goes back to the idea of what function the music serves. For the car ride, I might want something more upbeat. For a relaxing month at the cabin, I would have to choose Beethoven.

JP: I was especially interested to read about your visit to the izakaya where you put the musicians straight about getting Shoukichi Kina’s lyrics correct. I don’t think it was just your bad mood at the time because I’m sure I would have felt exactly the same. It really annoys me when people change ‘Haisai’ to ‘Henna’ just to amuse the Japanese tourists. I doubt whether I would have been as brave as you in pointing it out to the musicians though. But well done for saying it!

You are quite right, of course, about musical snobbery and I’m glad to have the support of a real live ethnomusicologist to back me up. On the same topic, I belong to a literature discussion group (in one of my other lives as a literary man) and a while ago the subject of children’s literature and in particular J.K.Rowling came up. Someone said that the Harry Potter books are not good literature and are only useful if they encourage children to go on and read much better novels as adults. The analogy was made that the only benefit in listening to the Spice Girls is if it eventually leads the listener to an appreciation of Debussy. I’m sure most people would still share that person’s view wouldn’t they? And they would be wrong wouldn’t they?

Spice Girls: not as good as Nenes or Lady Gaga but might lead to Debussy?

KK:  It seems to me that people who so freely grace us with their opinions about what is good and what is bad, right and wrong, etc., often fail to begin with the phrase, “In my opinion…” Because ultimately that is all it is: one person’s opinion. Worst case, people don’t even think their view is merely an opinion; they think it is objective truth. Maybe most people believe that adult literature is better than children’s literature, or that Debussy is better than The Spice Girls, but when it comes to aesthetic preference, there really is no way to establish that the majority opinion therefore represents the truth. Ironically, in the examples you gave me, I’m pretty sure that both Harry Potter and The Spice Girls would win in public opinion. But in answer to your question, I believe those people would be wrong to think that their opinion is fact, but that would not mean they are wrong to have an opinion.

I’m also pretty certain that anyone raised on The Spice Girls would not grow up to love Debussy — that doesn’t seem like a natural progression. Because Debussy is no longer ‘popular music’ as he was in his time, an appreciation of his music, and any classical music, is usually something that is fostered in someone through the study of that music (whether formally or simply in the sense of music appreciation). And where does it end? Could we say that appreciating Debussy would lead us to appreciate Mahler? Charlie Parker? One could argue that most forms of jazz music are more complex than any forms of classical music, but that might be getting too close to popular music for some people, especially because jazz led to rock and pop, and God forbid we go there!

Consider this: why is classical music still listened to today? Is it because it is truly great (the greatest?)  music? Or is it because it has been preserved and perpetuated by a certain group of people as a means to some end? What and whom does classical music represent?

Also, why is jazz music not included in the standard curricula of most music schools and conservatories? A lot of the early jazz greats (Ellington is a good example) went beyond what Mahler did harmonically in his music, picking up where he left off as it were, yet classical music is still thought to have ended with Mahler. In this case, the reason is likely due to institutionalized racism, I think. At least it was so at one time in history, and we have just continued in the same way until today.

Regarding criteria for measuring and comparing the value of different musics/musicians, I think you are talking about two very different things: measuring and comparing. I think it is a useful exercise to compare musics, and in a sense, that is what you are doing as a music critic, no? Even if you don’t explicitly compare one musician to another, you are still appraising a musician/music based on a set of values that you have acquired over years of music and life experience. However, I believe there is no way to ‘measure’ the value as such, at least not in any objective way. You could give a CD four stars, for example, but it’s still just four stars on the John Potter five star system, for example. Ultimately, I guess I am saying that your assessments as a critic are still ‘just’ your opinions, but they also happen to be opinions that are based on years of listening and comparing — and caring about — music. Therefore, your readers put some stock into what you write and say — rightly so.

This is how I see this. What do you think?

JP: I would agree that reviews (such as mine) are just one person’s opinion albeit based on experience and years of listening and comparing. I watch lots of movies and always go to the reviews, especially of the critics I trust most, because it’s interesting for me to find out what others think, but in the end it’s just an opinion however well-informed.

I’d just add that as far as the person is concerned who talked about the Spice Girls and Debussy, he was, I expect, deliberately choosing this example because he knows very well that it is very unlikely that a Spice Girls fan would ever go on to be a fan of Debussy or whatever other classical composer he cares to name. So he is basically saying that there is no point in listening to the Spice Girls. This brings me to another point regarding education in general, which is that I am one of those who believes that children and young people should follow their own interests and only ‘study’ what they really want to. It should not be seen as a preparation for some possible future life. Life is to be lived, especially when you are very young, and so it follows that liking music or anything else is something that should not be done with a future aim in mind. I know I’m still in the minority on this one – though a lot of people pay lip service to children’s rights and freedom of choice – and I won’t go on about it but I think it’s relevant to the Spice Girls vs Debussy argument as well as the things we’ve already said.

KK: I agree with your views on education 100%, and I see how it ties into the Spice Girls topic — interesting, I hadn’t thought of that before.

I’ve also enjoyed our discussion, and your deep thinking about music inspires new ways of thinking in me. So thanks for that!

I might also add that I think good reviewers, such as yourself, are helpful indeed to guide people to new music, especially when we have so many choices of music to spend our money on nowadays. I took your book with me the first time I went into Campus Records and bought a stack of CDs!

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