Tag Archives: in-a-gadda-da-vida

What is classical music?

It can be hard to pin down. Many have tried to define it; certainly, they believe they can know it when they hear it. But the outlines of what we define as classical music are unhelpfully squishy.

Is it merely European aristocratic music from the 18th through the 20th centuries? Certainly the audience for Mozart’s Magic Flute wasn’t aristocratic. And Italy’s appetite for opera is wider than the upper crust.

Is it orchestral music? Not if we count Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. Is it instrumental? Not if we count the masses of Palestrina.

It is often called “art music,” as if music in other forms could not aspire to the condition of art. Tell that to Frank Zappa. And frankly, much of the music played in concert halls was never intended to be more than entertainment, albeit of a refined order. Not everything is the St. Matthew Passion; some of it is just Skater’s Waltz.

To look at what we call classical music, we should consider: What is the central question of classical music? That is, what question does classical music answer?

And by that, I mean not only European classical music, but all those around the world, from Indian ragas to Chinese opera.

The question is so banal as almost never to be asked. What is the central question to all classical musics?

It is this:

“How do you make a piece of music last more than three minutes?”

Popular music consists of songs, and, in our culture at least, that means a 32-bar song that you can repeat over and over. But imagine listening to Memories repeated for half an hour and imagine the tedium. It would be my substitute for pistol and ball.

Whether it’s folk songs or rock and roll, the idea is to get in and out quickly, establish a mood and then finish it off.

Yes, there are exceptions in popular music, from In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida to Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo, but a case can be made that they are “classical musics,” also.

When we ask the first question, a second question arises immediately:

“Why should a piece of music last more than three minutes?”

And it is here that we come to the difference between popular and classical musics: the difference between simple mood and complex emotional developments. Between a New Yorker cartoon and a Tolstoy novel. cartoonA song gives us a passing mood, seldom offering any narrative complexity (it may offer psychological complexity and even complexities of melody or key structure, and a great song usually has something of this). But a symphony, like a play or a movie, starts in one place and takes us on a journey, leaving us someplace else at the end.

The time spent allows for not just complex emotions, but a sequence of emotions that interact.

You can think of it this way: Classical music is movies for the ear. There are characters, there is development, there is a plot and plot twists. Fight scenes and love scenes, perhaps a mystery, perhaps a road trip.

It presents ideas in time in a way that makes sense to an audience listening for them.cellar 1

Most young filmgoers know the habits of filmmakers so well, for instance, that their expectations become part of the appreciation of the film: They know what to expect when the teenager opens the cellar door and goes down to the dark to investigate that funny noise, and they are delighted if the filmmaker does something fresh and new and upsets their expectation with a surprise.

Classical audiences also know what to expect and are delighted when a composer takes a left turn and expresses a new way to think about it.

It is often thought there is special, arcane knowledge required to enjoy classical music. And, of course, there is a lot of specialized language. There is with films, too — key grip, D.P., fade, dissolve, two-shot — but you don’t need to know any of them to enjoy a film. It is the same with symphonies or sonatas.

It isn’t the words that matter, but the sounds. You don’t need to know the words to enjoy the music.

These are words about wordless things.?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

When you see a gun being put in a desk drawer in the first half of a movie, you know instinctively that it will be used in the second half.

When Beethoven’s audience heard C-major sneak into the first three movements of his C-minor symphony, they knew it would come out blazing in the finale: They waited in suspense to hear how he would do it.

This is the appeal of classical music for its audiences.

This isn’t something technical only a musician would know. “Major” and “minor” are simply words: It is the emotional shift that matters, from the tight, constricted, frustrating feel of the opening of the symphony to the ecstatic release of the ending. It is an emotional journey, and one that you could not accomplish in a simple song.

It’s also part of what distinguishes classical music from its popular cousin. Popular music is like a commercial: short, punchy, memorable; classical music is like a novel: long, involved and with many characters and a slowly achieved resolution.

None of this is meant to denigrate popular music or songs. I love a good tune as much as the next person. But popular and classical musics are attempting very different things.

You couldn’t pack all of Indiana Jones into a three-minute trailier.

walrus and carpenter

“I read your blog about Surrealism,” said Stuart. He had come back through town on his way home.

“It reminded me of the garage band I was in.”

“You were in a band? I didn’t know you played music,” I said.

“I never played an instrument,” he said. “I was the roadie.”

“Roadie for a garage band? Did you tour?

“Heck no. It was high school. My job was to bring the Cokes.”

“No beer?”

“I said it was high school. Drinking age was 21 back then, besides, when you’re high on weed, you want something sweet.”

It turns out, they played not in a garage, but in the basement of the home where the lead guitarist lived with his parents.

“We played very low volume, sometimes without even plugging in,” he said. “We didn’t want to disturb Sal’s folks. But that’s not why I brought it up. It’s because of our name.procol harem cover

“You wrote about rock bands using Surrealism. This was 1967 and we listened to Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Procol Harem, the Velvet Underground — it was a whole list of Surrealist wordplay.

“I remember a whole subcategory of culinary surrealism,” I said. “Moby Grape, The Electric Prune, Strawberry Alarmclock.”

“And those were just the big ones. Don’t forget the Chocolate Watchband, the Peanutbutter Conspiracy and Ultimate Spinach. And I guess we could put Captain Beefheart on that list, too.

“There was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — bet you don’t remember them — Blossom Toes, Bubble Puppy, Pearls Before Swine, 13th Floor Elevators, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stone Poneys and the Monkees — not that we listened the them. Nobody did; they were too popular.”

“And your band? What did you call yourselves?”

“Well, at first we were the Buddha Fumes, but later that year, we decided that was too simple, so we changed to Unlit Booth/Breakfast Out of Context. We thought it was a great name.”

“Maybe a little unwieldy.”

“Yeah, but we really got on a kick with the slash. We made up albums we were going to record, all with great two-part names, like ‘Sudden Eyes/Velcro Sunrise’ and ‘Burlap Lapels/Unexpected Lady.’ Inagaddadavida single

“I became more involved in the band our senior year and wrote lyrics for our songs. Mostly they were covers of our favorite bands, but with my new words. It’s how I became a writer, I think. I wrote a song about my dog based on Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida with the words, ‘Ah, we gotta go feed her.’ And we did. Feed her, that is.

“We broke up after graduation. We all went to different schools, except Sal, that is. He got a job.

“But this is all prelude to this list.”

“What list is that?”

“Well, back then, we made up a list of possible names for the band, and it follows exactly what you said in the piece about Surrealism. We had all these great concepts built out of wild juxtapositions, like taking a dictionary and running it through a blender. Of course, we never heard of Surrealism then. We just knew this stuff was cool.silvertone guitars

“I found this list in an old folder from that time.”

And he pulled out a folded sheet of lined yellow legal paper, brittle at the edges, with about 20 or 25 names on it, written in faded violet ink, obviously from a fountain pen (“really, a cartridge pen,” Stuart said). The ink was illegible in a couple of places where spills had made the color spread into a bright blot. I recognized the handwriting as Stuart’s from the many letters he has written me over the years. His high-school cursive was much neater, though, than the scrawl that has evolved.

“Wax Monkeys,” it began.

“Xenon Aftertaste”

Buddha Fumes, Sudden Monkey, Jalapeno Fistula, Orlando Death Car, Sequined Monotreme. The list continued: Fog Hammer.

“There was a fraudulent PR company called ‘Frog Hammer’ in Slings and Arrows,” I said. “You know, the Canadian miniseries about actors.”

“Don’t know it,” Stuart said. “But frog hammer just makes me think of a squashed schoolroom dissection. Fog Hammer is more genuinely surreal. Soft and hard at the same time, dense and vaporous.”poster 1967

He’s probably right. The list went on:

Spit Wax

Able-bodied Saints

Red Suits and Whispers

Sound Midden

Ear Stubble

Leatherette Wilderness

Snarling Confessor

Audible Hernia

Slice of Breath

Waking the Badger

Fraternal Animism

Painted Snakes

Money Under the Hood

Ashcan libertine

Pineapple Fuqua


“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t Pineapple Fuqua a real person? Didn’t we know him when we were kids?”

“Yeah, ‘Few-Kway.’ Ran the service station. Good name, though.

“Any of them you wanna use, go ahead,” Stuart said. “I don’t mind.”