Okay boys and girls, I have a question for you…
I posed a question to my artist guitar class the day of their final exam. The make-up of this class is typically 11th and 12th graders who have been involved in musical performance and study (at varying levels) for upwards of 5 years.
Some of the students have a very high knowledge of music aesthetics, theory, and stage performance. However, that doesn’t always correlate with describing music in a way that is understandable or relevant to a larger, more global view that I was looking for. Sometimes, those with less formal knowledge have a way of giving a more “listener/observer” viewpoint that is more in line with the general public’s viewpoint.
My question to them was:
“Do you think that the musicians who made the most impact on music throughout history were rebels?”
A few disagreed. So, like a good teacher I went on to describe what was really a random idea that came to me. I started with Johann Sebastian Bach and went up to Kurt Cobain . These ideas are, of course, entirely subjective and I’m sure I left many out. But, it is a great topic for discussion and does get music students thinking about making a few waves on their way to fulfilling their own personal goals in musical performance.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – The use of 7th chords was a bold move by anyone in the 17th century let alone a hard-working church musician/composer from Germany. But J.S. Bach was not to be ruled by anyone. He used 7th harmony to the extreme and boldly set forth a harmonic language that to this day remains head’s above the rest. Moments of jazz and rock spring forth that sound surprisingly fresh and modern. The most astonishing part of Bach’s music was his movement through keys. Like a magician he treated keys as pawns pushing them to their breaking point and finally releasing them allowing them to return home exhausted and spent. Music to J.S. Bach was like child’s play and done so effortlessly that one would have to be a court reporter to keep up with the rules and traditions he shattered.
WA Mozart – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart started out in the classical style composing his first symphony at age 8 (rebel enough for you?). That he was surrounded by his father a composer, and his sister a fine musician and pianist, mattered not. He was the most genius of all musical geniuses. Mozart was not recognized during his lifetime for the powerhouse he was, however by the time he composed his 40th symphony he was headed for music that would surely change the landscape of the art. Had he lived long enough he would have changed music more than Bach himself. But unfortunately, bad health and unhealthy living caught up with him and cut short the most brilliant musical mind in history.
Ludwig Van Beethoven – Was there ever a composer so revered, so influential, so respected, and so feared? No. Beethoven bridged the gap between the classical and romantic periods and by the time he wrote his Late String Quartets (the most incredible four-part musical excursions ever conceived) he had leveled all remnants of the “safe and orderly” classical system. Even today, his ideas still reverberate among us as Beethoven’s life of defiance, drama, and duty still inspire and motivate. We can be comforted in the knowledge that the status quo can be broken, broken by an unorganized genius. Beethoven lived in disorder and chaos as family situations drained no little time from his music. His composing style mirrored his personality. Where Mozart could and would copy music from his head down onto paper with barely an alteration, Beethoven would labor over a section of music for days until he was satisfied. But, never once think that these quirks of personality took one bit of creativity from this ultimate master. Ludwig Van Beethoven set out to change music, to rebel, and that he did. Lesson learned? Yes. Musical sameness can be altered by a brave young genius who cares not what others think or say.
Claude Dubussy (1862-1918) – By far the most boldly defiant and rebellious composer who ever lived, Claude Debussy unashamedly set forth to dismantle what he saw as uncreative. He despised the method of hanging on to music of the past with its formulaic banality. He was not popular with his music professors and challenged them at every turn. His music was bold and new and this was not met with approval from either his peers or his elders. In and interview, Debussy set forth his mission statement clearly: “I myself love music passionately; and because 1 love it, 1 try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art, gushing forth, an open air art, an art boundless as the elements, the wind and the sky. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.” He set forth to change the harmonic language of music and surely put a dent in it. Jazz musicians owe him a debt of gratitude for giving them a new way to stack chordal and melodic tones. Thank you King of Rebels.
My Favorite by far: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn.
Another one of my favorites by Debussy: The Sunken Cathedral.
Robert Johnson – Nasty, down and dirty; raw and uninhibited, this man, Robert Johnson, would infuse his music with freedom, emotion, and pain and create a legend that will never die. He lived and played like a rebel and without him the blues would never have remained true to its core, an expressive and artistic sonic carrier of feelings and ideas that would change the very nature of music at its foundation. His guitar and vocals were complex and groundbreaking. Never did a blues artist carry such a message, a message of despair and pain that described the lives of blacks living in the south. His music, his blues, was deep going beyond what anyone had ever even conceived before. Robert Johnson, like many other famous musicians (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain) would only live to the age of 27. Johnson’s lifestyle would catch up with him as he was poisoned by a jealous boyfriend just as he was being discovered as a genuine and groundbreaking artist. But in his short lifetime Robert Johnson revolutionized blues guitar and the music that he loved and lived so deeply.
Charley Parker – Has a musician ever improvised like him? Has anyone ever had such a devastating improvisational delivery? It’s almost beyond belief when you realize just how far he took scales and chords. He could improvise on a C major chord all afternoon and completely shake that chord to its very foundation. His downfall, of course would be drugs and a slight mental illness that would plague him constantly. However, there was no more fearsome improviser than Charley Parker.
Elvis Presley – Say what you will, this man change popular music forever. His legend will never die. He would take video performance and open the doors for everyone who followed. The King had his faults, but the cult of personality that remains around his memory is astounding. One of the most astonishingly moving performances would be one of his last. There can be no doubt that he single-handedly started a revolution and groundbreaking performances are golden still.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Jimi Hendrix – The man who made the electric guitar sing, literally. Jimi had a language and purpose behind the sounds he made. To him, the guitar was just a vehicle for the ideas that were inside him. I sometimes wonder, as I think he did too, that he was from another world. In the end Jimi took the electric guitar and totally dismantled it from the inside out opening the way for thousands and thousands of players who still use his groundbreaking sonic experimentations as a foundational part of their expression. The legacy of Jimi Hendrix will always be mixed as there is no escaping the spectre of drugs and excess. However, Hendrix was a soft-spoken and gentle soul who unfortunately became immersed in stardom; too many “friends” (who did nothing but distract him); and the music business itself, which proved once again that it can build up, use, and throw away its own.
“Castles Made of Sand”
Kurt Cobain – Kurt rescued rock music from guitar excess. The 80’s produced a never ending line up of players who played more notes than needed, posed more than necessary. They made the electric guitar a musical machine full of repeating gymnastics and blurry thirty-second notes with not one bit of soul or heart in any of them. Kurt took the guitar and brought it to its knees, not with technical proficiency, but with emotion, power, drama, and just plain good song writing. But his contribution would also be to expose the rebellious dark side of
us all. The alternative revolution was not happy music but music that lived on the edge of depression. Kurt Cobain’s unfortunate end will always remind us that the tortured artist syndrome is real.
After some thought on this subject ask yourself this question, “Who are the musical rebels of today?” Can’t think of any? Well, maybe music is too watered down and safe and we are waiting.