Stravinsky, Jacob Collier, and the return of the 1920s in modern music

I go in circles with music. I love music so much and have great respect for all musicians. I approach politics and philosophy similarly, and am inclined to view politicians and philosophers in a similarly sympathetic light (however difficult this may, admittedly, sometimes be!). It is easy to critique things that shine. Once I much preferred Taylor Swift’s music to Kanye West’s; then I switched sides; and now I try to see the best of both worlds, without being a boring fence-sitter. Ultimately it is not bad music that is remembered; it is good music. I try to listen to good music as much as I can, although I can go in circles as to what music I think is good or bad. Indeed, if music is evolutionary, what music is good or bad depends on how well adapted it is to the situation or context in which it is played. Sometimes, music that is otherwise wonderful is terrible in a certain context. I do like changing up the cards, but it is equally important to be sensitive to context and what people like. I want to make a case for the significance of Jacob Collier in the history of music. I have wondered for a while about where to place his music. In my recent critique of his music, I drew on analogies to other great and good musicians like Clare Fischer, Stravinsky, and the reinvigoration of the baroque tradition in late classical and jazz music. I think this is where I want to place Jacob Collier in today’s era. The analogies to Miles Davis and the foundations of jazz don’t quite work, as jazz is already founded as a genre and Jacob Collier isn’t creating a new genre. Or is he?

Stravinsky’s opera the Rite of Spring, portrait by Nicholas Roerich (1913).

There are mysteries I grapple with when it comes to musical evolution. I can see how music doesn’t fall into clear-cut categories, but I also think evolution kicks up a sequence of ‘hegemonies’, or dominant structures of a given time. This is the case in politics and society. Why not in music, too, which reflects the society it is in — just as art, as Shakespeare argued through the character of Hamlet, holds as ‘twere a mirror up to nature?

Music is a distinctive form of art — for it deals with the rhythm and sonic landscapes of life, rather than the visual or olfactory senses of the world. Music primarily concerns what we hear, and therefore concerns the vibrations of elemental particles through air, water, and earth. Nowadays it is made electronic and therefore has a new affinity with the visual arts, juxtaposing the photons of visual art with the electrons of musical electronic art.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche juxtaposes ‘Apollonian’ art, which tends to be focused on visual perception and dreams, with ‘Dionysian’ art, which tends to be focused on auditory perception and states of intoxication. The Apollonian form is ordered; the Dionysian, chaotic. One reason why Kanye West’s musical artistry is so effective is how it fused these art forms together. Over time, Mr. West seems to have become more Apollonian, following the music/art fusion of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the accompanying Runaway extended film, which opens to the music of Mozart’s Requiem.

Which brings me to Jacob Collier. Collier has been heralded as the Mozart of our times. And perhaps he is. Glenn Gould once criticised Mozart for becoming a bad composer in his later years. But if this is so, it is also the case that Mozart’s greatest work is his last, the unfinished Requiem which echoes the tragedy of a mourning parent in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Both Mozart and Shakespeare experienced personal tragedies which compelled them to make some of the most beautiful and compelling art pieces of all time, from ‘Lacrimosa’ to ‘To Be Or Not To Be’.

Tragedy seems to be the key to art, after the technical foundations are laid down earlier in an artist’s career. Sadness is amiss in Jacob Collier’s music by in large, and I think this is the root and stem of the artistic critique of Collier’s almost undeniable technical genius (although some remain sceptical, for reasons that are at once complex and embarrassingly simply). If he is Mozart reborn, he may yet make a Requiem. Sadness is not created, some might say, but discovered — and we all might be reminded of some forgotten tragedy if art prompts us to reenact some primordial trauma. But to wish that on anyone is not something any human being in sound mind would do. For art comes at a terrible price. The price is truth — a self-knowledge which cannot be easily forgotten.

But alongside this artistic journey there is the technical unfolding of musical genres through time. Towards the end of classical music, as romanticism began to give way to jazz music and the reinvigoration of modern music with Miles Davies’ neo-baroque formulation of harmony and rhythm through melodic artistry, there was a false start. Enter Stravinsky.

Around the 1920s, Stravinsky was heralded as the second coming of J. S. Bach. Educated elites struggled to keep up to date with his complex music which echoed the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring took technically complex elements of ‘modernist’, ‘neoclassical’ (or, perhaps, postclassical) music and fused them with an emotional variety that was at once compelling and disorienting. Controversy followed and it was unclear where music was headed.

Much modern music in the ‘classical’ canon owes a great deal to the technical and artistic innovations of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But the popularisation of music was proceeding apace, and classical music forms could not keep up with the times. Jazz music came to dominate the interwar and immediate postwar years, culminating in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue — whose radical innovations in harmony, rhythm, and melody bear comparisons to J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Popular music in rock and hip hop varieties owes a great deal to the new technique that jazz music brought to bear in the ashes of romanticism. Despite efforts of the neoclassical composers, the old tradition could not stand against the deluge. Something completely new was coming, and no amount of ingenuity and good will could save the old.

Today jazz music is being assimilated into the classical canon, and is even canonised in Hollywood films as an at once technically strict and romantically expressive artform (see Whiplash and La La Land for the Machiavellian and romantic sides of neoclassical jazz). Meanwhile Jacob Collier, heir to the Miles Davis legacy through pianist Herbie Hancock’s oversight, together with Michael Jackson producer Quincy Jones’ support, is making new strides in fusing ‘classical’ jazz with ‘popular’ hip hop sounds.

But I am not convinced that this is the new genre. I think Collier is more similar to Stravinsky than Davis, insofar as jazz music can’t literally begin again. Nothing happens twice in the same way. If there is a new beginning, it is a truly new beginning. There is no going back. History doesn’t repeat, but it does echo.

The new Miles Davis will found the new genre that takes up where hip hop left off, just as jazz took up where romantic music left off. But in between hip hop and ‘Wambop’ (as I have playfully called early prototypes of the new genre), as between romanticism and jazz, is a phantom era of experimentation, which may lead nowhere. But that doesn’t make it pointless. In some respects some of the greatest music ever written is written in such times, not to create a new world but as a way of closing the old one by imagining alternatives. From this new randomness a new era may be born. Jacob Collier’s eclectic and imaginative musical style may give way to a new era of artistic substance. Until it does, we should be grateful to live in such strange and exciting times, where anything is possible, and dreams can come real. We just have to believe, and then, perhaps, we may yet enter a whole new world …

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