There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.
Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.
But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous?
I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing.
Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:
They do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago. (1)
Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it.
This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show.
I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.
But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian! Obvious double agent/love interest.
Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this:
While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals.
I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places. It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world.
Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age.
Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes.
Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults?
Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is.
Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good.
Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801!
It’s so common to think of Bach as – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten.
So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them.
The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough.
The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.
The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt.
Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice?
- The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.