Friday, 29 June 2012

Thoughts on the Piano Man

In recent years, I haven't quite been able to work out Billy Joel. For a long time, his music was quasi-inspirational in the sense that his level of singing and piano playing always felt attainable. That I can barely play the solo from 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant', let alone 'The Entertainer' or 'Root Beer Rag' now suggests my ambitions were somewhat, well, ambitious. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Joel perform (he must have been at least 60). Imagine a dark concert arena, and the lights come up as Joel is launching into the Prelude. The effect is quite hard to describe, but it was one of those moments which crystallized my desire to play rock piano. What followed was no less incredible - two hours of flawless singing across probably four octaves and a virtuosic display on the piano (though not in the sometimes esoteric manner of prog rock).

And then I read a piece of criticism maybe last year which suggested Billy Joel was deeply uncool and  guilty of being a bit of a phony. Now you can't believe everything the hipsters say, but it got me thinking and reevaluating Joel's musical contribution to the world. Some of these charges are probably accurate. Take 'It's Still Rock and Roll To Me' - the song attacks the hipsters of the 1970s and 1980s (the punks, the new wavers) by claiming an affinity with the good old days of rock and roll. Who needs fashion and style when you have nostalgia? But the song is set in a new wave style (minimal texture, minimal harmonies) with a touch of pop (the ubiquitous saxophone solo). Maybe this could be considered a parody, but it seems rather convenient that Joel is critiquing current trends, while still following the current trends that will ensure he, oh I don't know, get into the top 10 of the Billboard charts.

So beneath the virtuosity, is there something of aesthetic worth? I don't know Joel's entire output well enough to answer comprehensively, but I want to look at two songs that deserve high praise. The first is off Joel's first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor (1971). 'Tomorrow is Today' is similar to the opening track of the album 'She's Got Away' (another Joel beauty I might add) - it is only Joel accompanying himself on piano; the basic structure of the songs is quasi strophic with each title line serving as a refrain; and both songs' harmonies are based on a bass part (the left hand of the piano) moving in steps.

The difference between the two is the lyrical content. 'Tomorrow is Today' was written taking lines from Joel's own suicide note (written in 1970). I'm not sure which lyrics stemmed from the note, but it is not hard to hear to suicidal tone in the song. The refrains play on the notion of time - yesterday, today, tomorrow - which I think is a fairly powerful concept and pregnant with connotations. A cliched view is that we leave behind yesterday, maybe to live in the present, and always with the dream of things improving tomorrow. Joel shatters that myth in the title line - if tomorrow is today, then when he does wake up, nothing will have changed; he doesn't need to see his dreams tomorrow because they're the same as yesterday. It's a bleak picture.

The music reinforces these ideas. Note how the progressions at the start of each verse rise (C-C/E-F-D/F#-C/G, etc.) as the narrator dreams of a better life, but then fall as the narrator sinks bank to reality. It's a simple, yet effective touch. In 'She's Got A Way' we hear the same technique but inverted; thus, as Joel ponders the mystery of his object of affection, the harmonies drop away from G major, before returning upwards as he proclaims he can't live without her. Back to 'Tomorrow', the initial bridge ("I don't care to know the hour...") uses the same type of pattern, rising in the first phrase, and descending in the second.

To conclude each verse, Joel plays a stock gospel progression (Dm-C/E-F-F/G-C, or ii-Ib-IV-IV/V-I). While I might be reading a touch too much into these harmonies, to my ears, they convey a sense of spirituality, as if Joel is appealing to a higher figure for guidance and salvation. These suspicions are seemingly confirmed when the second bridge comes around, with its overt references to the river and being delivered by the Lord. As it stands, this bridge is the song's weakest point; the mood change is out of place and contrasts too much with the initial material. Nonetheless, it sets the song up for the concluding statements, which, musically, offer a resolution (return of original verses), but lyrically point to the end.

It is difficult to interpret 'Tomorrow is Today.' Perhaps our own emotions aroused only because we know the song came from Joel's personal experiences. But, the song appears to present a genuine sense of helplessness and desperation. It would take a listener with the proverbial stone heart to not feel some sympathy.

Where 'Tomorrow is Today' back ups its sentiments through the music, 'Piano Man' offers us greater meaning, I believe, than is already present in the ballad's lyrics. Supposedly autobiographical, 'Piano Man' (from the 1973 album of the same name) tells the story of the titular character, who works in a deadbeat bar and observes those around him at "9 o'clock on a Saturday."

It's another bleak setting, and much of the song's appeal lies in the group of losers that comprise the cast list. There's the old man who "makes love to his tonic and gin" (a clumsy rhyme, but an amusing image), John who thinks he's destined for movie success, but can't get out of this town. Presumably, if he was so destined, Hollywood would have come a-calling by now. It's the same with Paul who "never had time for a wife"; he's also a "real estate novelist," a meaningless profession if ever there were one.  And then there's the kindly waitress "who's practicing politics" — Barroom 101. For all of them, excuses are central to their existence. "Oh, I would do something better, but..." And for all of them, the piano man offers a glimmer of hope, of happiness, of respite from mediocrity.

So what of this piano man? In the final verse, the manager asks in exasperation, "Man, what are you doing here?" Maybe he's too good for the losers. Certainly, his musical prowess lifts him above the others. But then again, his music itself is nothing special. Every verse and every chorus, he plays the same harmonic progression - basic chords in the right hand, a simple descending line in the left hand. There's a little variation in the bridge ("daa, daa, dah") but it's the same pattern starting on a different note. His brief solo is little more than a few blues licks up and down the A minor scale; likewise the opening call to attention. Sure he can play a harmonica too, but his pianistic skills are flashy with little substance.

My point is this: the piano man is, ultimately, just one of them. He could probably get out of the small town, but in Los Angeles or New York or any other hub, he wouldn't stand a chance next to all the other piano men. And thus, the narrator is stuck in his role as a quasi-saviour, revered by a bunch of drunks who know bugger all about anything, especially music. "Sing us a song" they clamour, probably every Saturday evening; and the piano man obliges, probably with the same songs every time. The final nail in this ironic coffin is apparent when the musical details are summed. We have a waltz time signature (read lilting rhythmic feel), a repetitive structure, a simple melody that can be sung by everyone (hence the song's subsequent popularity in karaoke bars); in other words, it is anthem. But it is not an anthem sung in honour of a country or a heroic individual. No, it is an anthem sung in honour of the deadbeats, a group to which every member of the cast belongs.

The interpretations would appear to rest on the assumption that Joel consciously used the music as a reinforcing and contradicting agent in 'Tomorrow is Today' and 'Piano Man,' respectively. I have no reason to believe this is the case, so I have to hide behind the claim that these are my interpretations only; their success or otherwise depends on whether I can convince you to hear these songs accordingly. But, if I may return to my initial thoughts, we know that Billy Joel is a supremely talented pianist, capable of performing in varied styles at a ridiculously high technical standard. Thus, it is not unreasonable to claim that Joel pared back his piano playing for 'Piano Man,' which creates this irony and tension. Similarly, he knows enough licks that his gospel arches in 'Tomorrow is Today' may have been a considered choice amongst other options, in order to reflect the lyrics. And if this is the case, then however uncool he may have been or still is, Billy Joel deserves our recognition as a fine songwriter.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata and Other Thoughts

It is often difficult to explain and justify aesthetic judgments, and more so, it seems, as one attempts to account for those residing in the musical pantheon. Received musical wisdom has traditionally told us that the pinnacles of classical music are Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and, perhaps, Wagner.

That notion has been challenged in the last thirty or so years by the liberal left (the same arguments have been applied in America to the literary canons), who have, broadly, argued that our conceptions of what makes great art and music is, in fact, reflective of our social standing. Thus, the argument goes, we are told by the 'ruling class' that Beethoven is a great composer; in telling us, the ruling class extols the virtues of being a white male, which reinforces their own white male status. This is, of course, a greatly simplified view, but the main problem is that it denies the importance aesthetic judgments; that is, our potential to look at or listen to a work of art and judge it on its own terms independent of social and cultural considerations.

Anyone with an ounce of musical blood in them will tell you that such aesthetic considerations are possible and, indeed, are made all the time. Furthermore, as the musical philosopher Roger Scruton (Aesthetics of Music) has asked, if our sense of aesthetics is based solely on socio-political grounds, then why is Mozart revered so much more highly than his father, Leopold Mozart? Or Chopin much more than Hummel, Czerny, or Field?  Surely, it is something in their music that leads people to these views.

As much as some might assert this position, it can be a nightmare to argue. Scruton in Understanding Music tries to come to terms with his fascination for Mozart; looking at (for memory) the opening of his C major Piano Sonata, K. 545, he notes the utter simplicity and clarity of the arpeggiated melody line. "Anyone could have written it. Nobody else [but Mozart] could have written it," he muses. He continues with reference to Mozart's Piano Concerto, "we see a new art-form emerging, from a composer who has listened to the piano as he has listened to the human voice, so as to discover the soul within." Having pondered these words for a moment, we might hesitatingly agree with Scruton, but for all his poetry, they are rather abstract sentiments.

The main justification for superior musical achievement has concerned structural aspects of the music. As I may have mentioned in my first post, classical music is often read as a teleological development of tonality. Thus, Bach crystallized the rules of tonal harmony; his sons and Mozart then crystallized the structural plan of sonata form; this structure and the rules of harmony were then expanded throughout the 19th century in the hands of Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler. Again, I present a very simplistic version of history.

The problem with this position is that structure can be challenging to hear. Analysts may rave on about false recapitulations or delayed resolutions of harmonic tension, but often these concepts relate to events five, ten, or twenty minutes apart. From an analytical perspective, the evaluation is made with reference to the notated score. Although this is important within classical music contexts, it may appear to contravene the importance of aesthetic contemplation, which relies on actively listening to the work in question.

All of this leads, in a roundabout and elongated way, to Beethoven and, more specifically, the first movement of his Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, commonly referred to by its moniker, "Appassionata." Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas occupy an important part of the concert repertoire; they range in technical difficulty, with most amateur pianists capable of tackling the famous Moonlight Sonata; more moderately skilled musicians able to work their way through the Pathétique Sonata; the Appassionata Sonata is reserved for those nearing concert pianist level.

Beethoven represents a historical fulcrum, the point at which sonata form and tonal harmony are stretched away from their established conventions. What makes, I believe, the Appassionata Sonata (and Beethoven's music, more generally) so important and worthy of the highest praise is the composer's marriage of structural and surface tension and drama. Thus, the first movement of the Appassionata is structurally intriguing and demanding, yet this is manifested in plain musical terms, able to be comprehended by, I daresay, even the novice listener. To assist in this analysis, I have provided timings which correspond to this performance by Wilhelm Kempff.

Before addressing the movement in any detail, let me provide a brief overview of sonata form, which provides the formal plan for Op. 57's first movement. Understanding this structure lends a degree of support for understanding Beethoven's music. Sonata form is divided into three sections:
Exposition: The first theme is presented in the tonic (or home) key; there is a musical transition before the second theme which is in a different key (usually the dominant/a fifth above the tonic).
Development: A variety of keys are travelled through and we often hear fragments of the two main themes.
Recapitulation: The music returns to the tonic key and we hear the first theme restated. The musical transition is then adjusted so that we hear the second theme in the tonic key as well.
Thus the key point of sonata form is that it is goal-oriented; any musical material initially presented outside the tonic key returns at the close of the work (the recapitulation) back in the tonic key.

The first movement of the sonata opens with the foreboding arpeggios in F minor. Both hands move in parallel motion two octaves apart, outlining the tonic harmony. Two bars of a plaintive melody and left-hand chords follow (00"-10"). Instead of reinforcing the tonic harmony, Beethoven's answer to the opening phrase is to repeat it, but up a semitone. Now, the arpeggios are a major chord (on G-flat) and, harmonically, a great distance from the home key (11"-23"). The subsequent motif has the left and right hands echoing one another in triplets (24"). For some listeners, this may recall Beethoven's 5th Symphony and its famous opening motif, described as "fate knocking on the door." The effect here is unmistakably similar. The harmonic orientation of the work is dismantled from the outset; the hollow arpeggios (due to the space between hands) and the haunting triplets sound an ominous warning.

No sooner have the triplets made their mark when the music erupts in a flurry of semiquavers that fly down the keyboard (32"). The initial suspicions are confirmed. The opening bars are heard again but now with ravaging chords block chords. The schizophrenic dynamics juxtapose fortissimo (very loud) and pianissimo (very soft), before giving way to the more measured triplet figure which is now continuous (42"-1'00"). This is the transition period; its musical ideas are comparatively less melodic and its purpose is to shift the music towards A-flat major, which duly arrives thereafter (1'18"). The second theme is in the major key and is notable for its similarity to the opening theme. It is also arpeggiated and borrows the opening rhythmic structure. But where the first theme was filled with darkness and malice, the second theme is warm, courtesy of the lilting accompaniment in the left hand.

An unusual aspect of this movement is the absence of delineated sections. In, say, a Mozart Piano Sonata, the exposition would be marked by a double bar line, providing temporary closure to the music.  From the second theme, we shift seamlessly into a more developmental section, which is marked by fragments of both main themes. We hear the first theme in E major (2'30"), E minor (2'59"), G major (3'04", C minor (3'08") and E-flat major (3'11"), none of which are particularly close to the tonic key, F minor; the second theme reappears in D-flat major (3'59") and G-flat major (4'17"). The second theme is also used in a sequence, in which the same idea is repeated several times, each a step higher (4'20"). The tension through this section is palpable. Every time a new key is introduced, the music shifts onwards almost immediately. Even if we cannot hear our supposed resolution (back to F minor), it seems evident enough that the music is far from home during this time.

The first sign that we are nearing a resolution is the re-introduction of the dramatic triplet figure that oscillates between the depths of the left hand and the upper register of the right hand (4'40"). Sure enough, the right hand broken chords give way to the opening theme, signaling the start of the recapitulation (4'55"). But things remain awry, for the first theme does not sound like the beginning of the work. The opening was tense, but this is a different kind of tension. Beneath the right hand, the left hand is playing continuous triplet quavers on C (the dominant). Therefore, even though we have reached our home key, the left hand refuses to join the harmonic party. We almost reach home, but are left agonizingly short.

The quavers crescendo through the following bars and we return to the block chord variation of the first theme (5'30"). Yet now it is grandiose. Why? Because Beethoven has simply switched from F minor to F major. The path home lengthens once more. As if to further confuse the listener, Beethoven gives us a handful of diminished chords — the theme is in a major key, but the music surrounding it sounds distinctly haunting and, well, 'minor'. The second theme is once again presented in a major key, F major (7'44"). Recall the rules of sonata form - this second theme needs to appear in F minor before the end.

We hear fragments of the first and second themes, as Beethoven moves through yet another transition period. The sequential technique is employed again to heighten the tension (8'00"-8'31"). The right hand moves further up the keyboard before both hands sweep through rapid broken chords spanning multiple octaves. And then, the triplets return (8'32"). Just as they intimated fate at the door in the C minor Symphony, each time in this movement they foreshadow a musical explosion. They are heard alone. All seems clear. They get quieter and slower. The right hand embellishes the single notes with a dominant seventh chord....

And fate smashes the door in. The warm broken chords of the second theme are now harsh; the singing melody is cold. Martha Frohlich summed up this moment as the second theme being absorbed into the dark world of the first theme. The music has finally reached F minor and it is patently obvious to hear (8'49"). The triplet chords emphasize this point with a textual fury to match the structural significance of this moment. And then, as if to maintain the surface tension right till the very end of the movement, Beethoven fades out the first theme in the depths of the keyboard as the right hand dies away as well.

This movement's last breath is, possibly, a masterful compositional stroke. Having traversed the keyboard in the first movement, Beethoven faced the problem of engaging the audience for the remaining two movements of the sonata. Movies do not often have the antagonist killed off after thirty minutes; neither can large-scale musical works complete their narrative in the first movement. By avoiding a grand, climactic ending, Beethoven presents the possibility that the musical tension is not entirely resolved (akin to seeing a villian's leg twitching as they lie motionless). The second movement provides some respite in its serene and meditative theme and variations. The final movement opens with thunderous diminished chords, a nod to the first movement, and it is here that the entire sonata finds its appropriate, stormy conclusion in a pulsating rush of broken chords at both ends of the keyboard.

To provide some sort of conclusion, the Appassionata Sonata, I think, epitomizes Beethoven's supreme skill of tying together structural and surface tension. As I have hopefully pointed out, there are a number of points in the first movement which push the boundaries of sonata form, and at each point, the harmonies, the texture and the rhythmic motifs reinforce what is occurring beneath the music's surface. It may be that, from years of listening to Beethoven, some are able to grasp these ideas more readily than others, but with a small amount of background knowledge, it would seem that the power of Beethoven's music can be comprehended. Amongst other reasons, this is certainly why he deserves his place at the summit of Western classical music.