In the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."
In other words, the value of a work of art is self-contained. What matters is the imagination, knowledge and communicative powers that are found within the work of art, regardless of political or social agenda.
It seems to me that Art does not necessarily need to be subjected to a moral framework in order to succeed as Art. There are instances where that might be the case, but it all depends on the extent to which moral traits are chosen to be part of the structure of the work of art itself.
Take St. Matthew's Passion by J. S. Bach, for instance. It is a work that proposes to celebrate a story extracted from the Christian tradition, with all the appropriate set of moral values. Such a work is both wonderful and, yes, moral. Bach proposes to apply his musical genius to speak to those who follow a particular faith. The work has survived the test of time and successfully remains with us.
On the other hand, take a look at Shakespeare's Macbeth and find a fantastic work of art. Like St. Matthew's Passion, Macbeth has also survived the test of time. Unlike St. Matthew's Passion, it dismisses any and all moral structure. There is no fairness in Macbeth, no attempt to explain anything based on ethical laws. It could be classed as an "amoral tale". In fact, that is arguably true to the vast majority of Shakespeare's work.
It is all right to refer to a work of art as being moral, immoral or even amoral, but such a statement purely indicates a technical facet of the work. It would be like saying "This piece of music is in G-major". So what? Does that define anything other than its key?
Although sometimes applicable, labels are invariably limiting and many times shortsighted because they try to condense too much in too little. Yet, the process of labeling happens all the time these days when attaching a label to an item increases its selling appeal. There are a number of so-called "marketing firms" that focus in developing labels for items which have not even been created yet! A catchy label may be worth a pile of money, if only it finds the right item.
It is one thing to discuss the current ideologies regarding economic development subscribed by most in this part of the world. Perhaps our western society did, in fact, create fabulous new ways of generating wealth. Getting first-rate money for a label attached to a fourth-rate product is, after all, a considerable attainment. And it seems to be all right if you are talking about tomato paste and the like. But perhaps we ought to try leaving Art out of this labeling deal. For Art, unlike tomato paste, will lose its aesthetical value.
Speaking more specifically about music, it must be stated that the terms pop, folk, classical, jazz, country, rock, funk and so on, are labels that should never be used when discussing the merits of a piece of music, but only to make stylistic references.
In the example above, Bach composed a "religious work". Its religiosity, however, describes its source of inspiration, or some might even say its "style", but does not define its quality. Musical works, like books and paintings, are either well composed or not. They either have inventiveness and beauty or they do not. That may occur as much in pop as in jazz or any other kind of music.
Each one of us has the right to develop preferences and should exercise that right. But we miss the real experience when we arbitrarily dismiss a piece of music by subscribing to mere labels.
I much prefer spending time listening to Bill Evans or, say, James Brown than listening to a great portion of Haydn's production. It has nothing to do with whether in one case you have an entire orchestra and in the other a 10 piece funk band playing. It has much less to do with the time period the music was written. These questions are irrelevant and have no implication on the quality of the musical experience. Simply put, I find some works of Haydn, in themselves, to be unimaginative and tedious.
I suppose that the only way we can be really honest about this is to become familiar with all sorts of musical styles and periods so that we can make educated choices. That way we become more secure and authentic as musical beings and, ultimately, able to obtain enough understanding about our own musical tendencies.
Whatever conclusions we end up with,
we should outright reject labels and base our choices on the intrinsic
value of the musical work. That can only be done by listening with open
The Syncopated Flux: The
Common Thread of Brazilian Culture
Until industrialization arrived in Brazil with the Vargas Era, most people could not even think of, say, buying a tennis racquet, a piano and much less a well tailored dress to attend a formal party. But anybody could make a ball out of old socks and kick it around in alleys (believe it or not, that was how Pelé learned to play soccer), anybody could party on the streets and anybody could buy a second hand guitar. As time went by people took ownership of those things, thus making them part of their daily lives.
Nowadays these habits are deeply ingrained in our culture and share fundamental environmental factors in the way they developed to become part of the social fabric. In all three cases the basic variables came from abroad and Brazilians formulated unique equations with them. We did not invent soccer. The English did, but we are the champions...So sorry. We did not start with either rituals or percussion ensembles. The Africans did, but only the cultural melange resulting in the Afro-Brazilian could turn those things into the festivity called Carnaval. Finally, we did not invent the guitar, the Moors introduced its ancestors to Europe first. The guitar repertoire produced in Brazil, however, is second to none.
The manner of maturing, perhaps
even transforming these primary elements was achieved by continually
incorporating local "blood" and attributes in them, which were already
present in people's basic nature. For those who have witnessed either Brazilian
soccer or carnaval, it is transparent that the swing, flexibility
and the surprise element are manifestations of that basic nature.
"My goodness, what are all these
I will never forget the day I met
Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993). At the time, I was already living in the
United States but was spending holidays in Brazil, my home country.
It was a winter evening of July, 1988 (Brazilian winter, mind you. Nothing
to write home about...) and my teacher, Caio Pagano, a long-time friend
of the composer, took me along to Guarnieri's São Paulo apartment
for a visit. I remember being quite shy upon arriving and shaking hands
with the Maestro.
Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) made a living playing the piano in cafes, at parties and in waiting rooms of movie theatres. In general, his works depict those situations quite well, in particular the one referring to movie theatres. His popular choro "Odeon", for instance, was a piece he wrote in homage to his work place, Odeon Cinema, where he was employed for four years. As well, many musical ideas were inspired by images of films from those days, as the attentive listener who is acquainted with early 20th century films will probably agree.
There are also those pieces which are related to aspects of his own daily life. Nazareth was a "street musician", so to speak, and could not have avoided realizing the impact that the newly arrived automobiles had, going around honking their horns: "F"n-f"n" ! Then there is the sort of piece that one wonders whether it comes from watching people or from Nazareth's own personal experience, but still relating to his contemporary scene. It is the case of "Escorregando", which literally means "losing balance" while walking. Considering that in Brazil there is neither snow nor ice, the title in fact suggests someone losing balance for another reason...like a few extra beers, for example. Something tells me that this is precisely the case.... Regardless, his works are fun, full of swing and charm.
There is much musicological debate on whether these works should be called "Brazilian tangos" or "choros". The difference being, essentially, one regarding the pace in which the pieces are played, whereas the "Brazilian tango" is supposed to be played slower than the "choro".
Personally I prefer to call them "choros" because such a name has more of a Brazilian flavor, while a tango is an Argentine entity and Nazareth's music surely does not belong to the Argentine culture. Besides, to a great extent, the pace used when performing a work is not indicative of style, but has much more to do with one's temperament and audience.
The style of music called "choro" comes from an interesting origin. Around the turn of the century, both in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, young men used to hire street musicians to play serenades. These "concerts" took place under the balconies of young ladies and had the aim of moving the girls to tears. "Chorar" in Portuguese means "to weep" and it seems that the musicians often outdid themselves as they ended with the nickname "choroes", and the music they played, "choro".
From balconies to society parties, to cafes and finally, to the concert hall. I think that decisions such as pace and the like should be made according to the audience one is addressing and never according to stagnant musicological concepts that attempt to freeze the way performers and listeners naturally evolve through time.
Everything suffers change - from the way we make coffee to the way we get to work. Why should our approach to music performance remain the same? The fact that a certain idea began in a certain way does not dictate that it should remain that way forever. You are no longer in a balcony with a performer under it. Rather, the performer is inside your CD player while you comfortably sit in your living room. Let's define our own terms when dealing with music performance, taking into account our own, updated settings.