Rush Music: Spontaneous as a Baroque Jam Session

[Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of essays that looks at selections from Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press: 2011), edited by Jim Berti and Durrell Bowman. The book came out in March 2011 and looks at Rush’s music through different philosophical lenses.]

What’s coolness? Well, it’s the way John Coltrane plays the saxophone, for one thing. It’s not that he’s the best sax player there is. In fact, some music critics say his playing from a technical standpoint can be awkward at times. Rather, it’s how he uses the instrument for self-expression. There’s nothing artificial about it.

Now compare that to, say, a performance of Arcangelo Corelli’s “Concert Grosso Op. 6” by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You might very much enjoy the piece, even love it, but no one would ever use the label “cool” to describe the music or the symphony that performs it.

What makes something cool or gives it cachet is how natural or “unlearned” it is. The person who picks up the sax with a bit of swagger and just starts playing is cool; the person who meticulously sets up his music stand, sits up straight in his chair, and then, very didactically, goes through a piece with studied precision, is not. In fact, we would even call it nerdy.

It’s not that cool musicians never practice. It’s that their musicianship is more natural. Perhaps they were born into families for whom music comes naturally. They thus possess a self-confidence that comes from their early immersion in music, an imperceptible learning from their earliest days.

That’s very different from the person who’s had no such early immersion and so very self-consciously and diligently practices to refine one’s skill.

John Reuland of Princeton University in his piece, “Nailed It!” says music critics pin the nerd label on Rush because there’s nothing natural or self-expressive about their music or how the band plays it. The music has been described as baroque— complex and tightly composed, not spontaneous or natural, and the band doesn’t do much improvising when it plays it live. In fact, it strives to replicate a piece as precisely as it can each time it performs it. Of course, that’s partly because it has to; there just isn’t the musical space for them to get spontaneous if the song is going to hold together.

The nerd label transfers to Rush fans because they appreciate the band’s music in much the same way that lovers of the symphony appreciate classical music. They admire the complexity of the composition and the virtuosity of the performance. They admire the music as an artifact to be studied and understood.

It’s this notion of music as artifact that sets up something of a class divide between music critcs and Rush fans. The artifact has a whiff of western whiteness about it. The artifact is the piece of music that can be analyzed, studied, appreciated, and replicated, and anyone with enough diligence can look at the notations on the sheet of music, so precisely laid out, to learn the piece and strive to come as close as possible to replicating it.

Not so with cool music, with its roots in black culture. It’s spontaneous, emotional, natural. Each time its played it might come our differently, because it’s the experience that’s key, not the artifact.

Thus, you might say music critics, who hail from the upper class (in spirit if not necessarily in actuality), have always looked down on Rush and its fan base, because they’re so outside the naturalness of black music. Being nerdy has been defined as being hyper-white, so on this view Rush and its fans are hyper-white, the very opposite of black coolness.

What the upper class shares with black coolness is just coolness. A person born into an upperclass family can be cool—natural or casual—even in a stiff social setting, because class is embedded in their DNA, and everyone knows it. They have cultural legitimacy that stems from their early immersion in the things that the upper class know. They have no need to aspire to know what the upper class knows, because from their early immersion in their identity, possession for them is a kind of birthright.

But for someone outside this class, possession of such knowledge is aspirational, and that’s very uncool.

Reuland draws on some statistical work of others to point out that much of Rush’s fan base is comprised of post-industrial, post-countercultual working and lower middle classes. And many of them—as much as two-thirds—are self-identified as amateur musicians. So for these working-class musicians, it’s a worthy pursuit to try to nail down Rush pieces with precision. They’re aspiring to possess Rush’s music as an artifact. And thus they’re willing to spend hours practicing at their drum set to try to nail down the time signature changes of “YYZ.”

Such autodidactism is admirable. It’s hard work. And if you practice a piece and post a video of your playing on YouTube to get feedback on how close you came to replicating the real thing, you’re opening yourself up to critical review. That’s not always pleasant. But that’s how you become skilled.

That’s a very western thing to do. From the standpoint of some, it’s a hyper-white thing to do. That’s another way of saying it’s a very uncool thing to do. But when you do in fact master a piece, you’ve accomplished something that’s real and measurable, because you can measure how well you did against something that’s concrete: the music as an artifact. And if you’ve done that, you can take satisfaction in  knowing you improved yourself, and now you’re ready to take it to the next level. And that’s something even the cool can’t take away from them.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

Read Q&A with book co-editor Durrell Bowman.

Read the first essay in this series: “Philosophy of Mind has a Headache; Cygnus has Aspirin.”

Read the second: “It’s Just Chemistry: Rush Try to Make Sense of Reality.”

Read the third: “Is Rush Helping Humanism Out-maneuver Religion?”

Read the fourth: “The ‘Rand’omness of Rush’s Libertarianism.”

Read the fifth: “Rush’s Table of Virtues.”

Read the sixth: “Rush’s Rosier Shade of Reality.”

Read the seventh: “The Trees: More Than Meets the Eye?”

 Read the eighth: “Plato: ‘Rush Non in Forma Petra Musica'”

Read all book reviews

~ by rvkeeper on February 26, 2012.

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