Steely Dan and Martinis

Ed Feser has another terrific earlier posting on Steely Dan (I recently brought attention to this one). Ed engages with Roger Scruton’s analysis of “popular” music.

In older musical traditions, the focus was on the music itself, which had only a contingent relationship to the performer even when the performer was the one who composed it . . . Contrast here the tradition of classical performance, in which the singer is the servant of the music, hiding behind the notes that he produces.

Whatever else is right about Scruton’s analysis there are counter-examples from the classic world. Think about the big personalities such as Furtwängler, Karajan, Solti and Rattle, musicians such as Martha Argerich and Jacqueline du Pré, or singers such as Fischer-Dieskau, Callas, Pavarotti, Schwarzkopf and many more besides. The singer/musician may well be the servant to the music, but in these cases what gives them the “star” quality is that it their personality is very much part and parcel of the package. And then there is Louis Armstrong who not only codified Jazz but whose personality was intertwined with the music as was Fat’s Domino . . . their early recordings were merely performances in front of a microphone. And much of the Frank Zappa recorded canon was first and foremost culled from live performances.

Ed writes:

Scruton argues that the contemporary pop star plays a quasi-religious social function, like the totem animal of a primitive tribe. The most obvious evidence for this claim is the cult-like quality devotion to pop stars and groups can take on. A fan’s sense of identity can become so associated with the group or pop star to which he is devoted that interest in other groups or singers is excluded, attacks on the group or pop star are taken as attacks on the fan himself, and the community of fans is regarded as a kind of extension of the pop group, to which the community is “united” as if mystically.

This seems to me as applicable to some quarters in classical music. Try talking to a Wagnerian about their favourite singers and conductors; try engaging with someone in the primary queue who has been a regular Promenader for the last 40 years . . .

Roger, a tutor of mine eons ago, is always well worth reading, as is Ed. Check out the other reflections by Ed that caught my eye:

On music

Les Paul contra Scruton

The Metaphysics of Monk

On booze

The Metaphysics of the Martini

The metaphysics of the Martini revisited

Speaking of Martinis, here is Buñuel’s recipe for a dry martini from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

and from his autobiography My Last Breath:

To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of the dry martini. To be frank, given the primordial role in my life played by the dry martini, I think I really ought to give it at least a page. Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen “like a ray of sunlight through a window-leaving it unbroken.”

Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients-glasses, gin, and shaker-in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Stir it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, stir it again, and serve.

The phenomenology of spirits

Speaking of booze, Roger of course has written on wine: Ed and I shared a bottle of Laphroaig when we attended a SABE meeting in San Diego a couple of years back.

Anyway, here is Ed’s full listing of “pop” cultural reflections, but I’d encourage you to delve deeper into Ed’s eclectic, polemical and very thoughtful blog.