This is meant to be the first part of a series of posts dealing with several topics that this writer has wanted to discuss here. Comments are not only welcome, but kindly requested.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with “theory.” As a student of philosophy and history, “theory,” a.k.a. literary theory or French theory, broadened (and occasionally complicated) matters, while as a music lover, “music theory” explained and simplified its subject, often to the point of reductionism. Apply theory to Moby Dick and it becomes something more than a dense story. Apply theory to Vivaldi’s concertos or King Oliver’s blues, and they might seem like something far less than the sum of all their vivid parts.
While popular wisdom states that an appreciation for jazz and/or classical means a refined ear, over the years many theory experts, in both print and in person, have pointed out how most of the examples of “good music” that this blogger enjoys aren’t very musically sophisticated. For example, Vivaldi is just repeating the same thing over and over again. There are no interesting modulations in his music, just tonic and dominant with an occasional relative minor. King Oliver is just playing what any other trumpeter could play, over a simple (read, “simplistic”) three-chord progression, no fast runs or innovative chord substitutions to be found. “It’s just a…” is a common phrase, as in “it’s just a ii-V-I,” or “it’s just a Phrygian cadence,” whittling down countless musical moments to their barest, most unremarkable essentials.
There’s no arguing with taste, but mocking it remains fair game. Without outright calling anyone a plebian, clever theory-lovers suggest that everyone is free to listen to what they want in the same way that people are free to enjoy reality television, fast food or tap water.
King Oliver and Vivaldi at least get historical street cred as stepping-stones to the advanced, intelligent music any smart listener should appreciate: in Oliver’s case, anything Louis Armstrong recorded before 1931 and in Vivaldi’s case, all the transcriptions Bach made of his music. Yet for many authorities (whether they have a book deal or not), listening to Buster Bailey, Cimarosa, Red Nichols, Salieri, the California Ramblers, Telemann and many other second-stringers is like ordering the meatloaf in a gourmet restaurant: they just never approach the pleasure and refinement of the other items on the menu. Some people may simply like meatloaf, but more importantly, perhaps the connoisseur is missing out on what those other dishes have to offer.