In no way is this page intended as a comprehensive critique of Western Music. Rather it’s a bit of our history offered to encourage you to take a new and if possible more dispassionate listen to your own personal favorites.
It’s a description of our shock at discovering much of the music we’d always loved is really not very good. So don’t expect a balanced view. To the contrary this page deliberately focuses on the most appalling of our disappointments, while only briefly mentioning the Western Music we still like.
During the eight years we were immersed in the Indian Classical Music scene, we watched its last precious magic drip away drop by drop. So in 1998 when we returned from Varanasi, we couldn’t help but notice the signs of trouble in our own musical tradition.
We spotted them first in the pop bombarding us from boom cars and at shopping malls. It was just weird so much of it was from forever ago, was music which if pop were still alive and growing, should long since have been retired.
But what spooked us even more was the way our old favorites no longer sounded so good.
And here we’re talking about stuff we used to love.
It was downright disorienting. The same music now struck us as lame and mechanical.
The Beatles were even more whiny than we’d always secretly half suspected them to be. Dylan’s words which once we’d found deep, now seemed facile and superficial. Joan Baez came across like a well behaved but not very hot vocal student.
Even performances enshrined in our memories as very special, let us down.
Listening to stuff from Woodstock we discovered the Dead were badly out of tune and musically boring. Jimi struck us as a sincere young fellow repeatedly playing slightly wild riffs on his primitive electric guitar. Janis’ screams sounded all the same. Joni Mitchel’s pounding left hand was impressive, but after she’d leapt into falsetto a dozen times, it got old. Crosby, Stills, and Nash were in tune but lame. Country Joe was embarrassing.
It was truly depressing.
Sadly the same thing happened when we went back to our favorite classical music. Here too the glass definitely felt more half empty than half full.
To be sure Bach held up pretty well. But though his music still impressed us with its unearthly delicacy, it got repetitive.
Mozart however was disappointing. His pieces were cluttered with pointless complication, shiny with surface glitter, and flat.
And while parts of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas were uncanny beautiful, once he launched into a deafening cascade of notes, the magic vanished and the music became little more than an awesomely skillful reflection of the prevailing materialism.
And these were the great Greats !!
When we moved down a notch to check out some more recent held-to-be-important composers, the situation in the classical world started to look totally desperate.
Schoenberg was clumsy. And listening to Berg’s Wozzeck, though the section right before the murder impressed us as musically elegant, as soon as the hero started sawing at the heroine’s neck it got ridiculous. Satie at least sounded pretty, but it felt like he was just floating along the surface.
As for Jazz, listening to our old favorites we no longer heard much of that mysterious spark which once had so impressed us. Miles was muzak, and after Trane moved past his lovely slow meditative introductions and got up to speed, mostly it was noise. Mingus was a little interesting but often clunky, while Monk was elegant but somewhat thin.
In the “new music” category, Brian Eno was even more muzaki than Miles. As for Saint Cage, his minimalist stuff was tedious, and his conceptual masterpiece 4’33” (more commonly known as “Silence”) was just performance, it wasn’t even music.
We even checked out a light opera, Porgy and Bess, only to find to our new ears “Summertime” was syrupy and predictable. While the “ground breaking” musical, West Side Strory, sounded more like it was from the Harvard music department than the slums. (Two Masterpieces?)
By now we can hear you wondering, “Who do these fools think they are to so freely badmouth music universally accepted as great!” And in truth when we first found ourselves feeling this way, we couldn’t believe it. All our lives we’d worshipped Western Music. What sort of traitors were we to even for a second think it was like that sad sad being, an emperor with no clothes!
Still there’s no way around it, to grow one must sometimes face unpleasant truths….
So like the honest little boy who shouted out the emperor was wearing only his own skin, who urged everyone to use their own eyes, we’re now begging you to use your own ears, to take a new and dispassionate listen to your own list of personal favorites.
Of course it won’t work if you just hear them through memories of how good you once thought they were.
It’s all too easy to confuse the beautiful person with whom you were dancing, the psychedelic ambience, the swirling pulsating blobs of light, the feeling of being young, with the music the Dead actually played that legendary night at Winterland….
But with luck at least some of you will set aside your old judgments long enough to hear that quiet little inner voice, the voice whispering “not so good… not so very good… not so good as I remember…”