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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Rock Music “Canon”

The Pythagorean “music of the spheres” has evolved into the economic sphere of marketable sounds.

Writing for The Guardian, Michael Hann explores the question of the meaning of modern commercial music, especially in the Anglophone West. In his piece, “Bland on Blonde: why the old rock music canon is finished,” Hann offers an interesting perspective on what people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries think is important.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Canon:

A weapon designed to impose massive but local destruction on intellectuals who have a different take on what is important from the past, not too dissimilar to a cannon (instrument of war) with a double ‘n’

Contextual note

In an article aiming to reflect on “music” and the “canon,” Hann has evaded two essential questions. The first is what do we understand by music? Which includes the question, what role does music play in a culture? The second is what’s the point of defining a canon? (Traditionally regarded as a sterile academic exercise.)

Let us start with an impertinent question. What might a musician whose name was “Cannon” think about this article? Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (musicians called him “Cannon”) was one of the truly great black jazz musicians of the second half of the 20th century. He was a leader, a virtuoso alto saxophonist and an original composer and arranger. He played a major role in the best selling jazz album of all time (Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, cited twice by Hann) along with John Coltrane and Bill Evans, two other influential, even legendary musicians.

Like Davis, Adderley moved from the pure jazz tradition — forged by musicians investing in the music itself, often with no interest in seeking celebrity — to more popular, commercial recordings. Adderley launched the career of Joe Zawinul, the founder of Weather Report. Cannonball and Zawinul’s recording of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy made it into the pop charts.

Shouldn’t Cannonball Adderley be considered for the canon? If as Hann says, “There’s no place, for example, for Frank Sinatra,” there’s certainly none for the likes of Adderley, Coltrane or Evans, even if Davis’ very uncommercial but musically important and mythical album, Kind of Blue, appears in an enviable 38th spot in the “canon of canons.” Do the fans of the canon even know who Miles Davis was?

Historical note

Hann tells us that music has “changed irrevocably,” and he is right, though for reasons that cut deeper than the superficial question of how to define the canon. What if Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky or Gershwin (whom Hann cites) could hear how people talk about music today (to cite only the names of a few white male composers known in the Western tradition). What might they say about how it has changed?

Any true musician or student of music — as well as historians, ethnographers and analysts of culture — will tell you that Hann isn’t talking about music at all. The notions he evokes are purely commercial terms that have nothing to do with music: charts, ratings, sales, trends and promotion. In Western media, the word “music” has come to mean one thing: the business of music.

Hann talks about “tastes,” but the determining criterion that allows journalists — “the people who traditionally define the canon” — to define the canon, is level of sales. In pre-commercial traditions, music has always been a bottom-up outgrowth of different features of human cultures: dance, rhythm, poetry, improvised expression, drama, but also the physics of natural sounds and mathematics. Think about this: Some of the most memorable music of the past is anonymous. Can we even imagine a popular composition or tune composed today that remains anonymous?

Many musicians begin their career with little concern for commercial success, though far fewer today than in the past. The attraction of pop music has always had more to do with the glamor of celebrity and expected earnings. Musicians in older traditions typically invested in honoring and cultivating their community’s forms and styles of music. They often sought the mystical connections between musical creation and the order of the universe. They endeavored to commune with other musicians, alive and dead, and their musicianship served to reinforce the rhythm of the community in times of collective celebration.

Carlos Santana, a brilliant and successful musician from a family of musicians, who was initially motivated by the glamor of commercial pop music, summed up, in an interview about his collaboration with Miles Davis, what has really changed in the world of music: “Miles Davis taught me about music and Bill Graham taught me about business.”

Graham was Santana’s concert promoter, the first to recognize his commercial potential. When Santana had a chance to work with Davis, it took him into another world. Miles, he tells us, “had another kind of vocabulary, which came from a higher form of musical expression.”

Though approaching it from different direction, Miles Davis and Carlos Santana reconciled their exploration of the depth of musical traditions with the achievement of the kind of commercial success publishers and promoters work for. This happened during a rare historical moment of fusion. Since then, the word “music,” at least as it’s used in the media, has come to mean simply, the business of producing marketable sounds. Whichever albums end up in the canon that so preoccupies Hann, the canon itself should not be seen as a curious tool promoted by academics to advance their careers and publishers to sell their wares.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.