Jug Bands: The DIY Movement in Music
Musicians who wanted to “do-it themselves” with regards to their instrument-making gained immense popularity playing in “jug bands” in America in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It’s in the name: jug bands were musical groups that used instruments made from accessible household materials, such as jugs, washboards, spoons, washtubs, broomsticks and more.
While not often talked about, the genre was highly influential. In fact, some musicians continue to use this style of lowbrow instrument creation, sharing knowledge through the internet. The following paper hopes to bring to light how this “Do-It-Yourself” movement parallels the goals of the Arts and Crafts movement in the visual arts. Linked to the Arts and Crafts movement through interest in folklore, I will discuss why and how the counter-culture DIY movement in music has grown. Examined through the guise of material culture, I will also discuss the study of folklore and folk revival, as well as the independent representation of artists, and the changing contexts of “authenticity” through time. Regardless of decade or century, having pride in one’s own creation is the strongest thread that ties the craftspeople of the Arts and Crafts movement and the musicians who “Do-It-Themselves” together.
Jug bands as they are commonly known today are adaptations of African and African-American musical traditions. The tradition of using jugs or pots in music, in the form of “musical pots” and “pot-drums” can be traced back to Nigeria, where the “creation of music and pottery meet […] as perhaps nowhere else [in the world].” Like American jugs, these Nigerian pots resemble those that are used in the kitchen: “The simplest form is the ordinary pitcher, perhaps equipped with a pot-ring at the base and a crude rope container, which is set on the ground and beaten over the mouth with some fibrous material such as the frayed inflorescence of the palm tree.” It is interesting to note that while American jug bands are often overlooked as ingénues, writing on the Nigerian pot musicians draws attention to the talent it takes to play these instruments and how these skills vary regionally.
One can become quite resourceful under economic constraints. In the “Western world”, jug bands had their origins in the 1890’s amongst African-Americas, known then as “spasm bands”. In Louisville, Kentucky in the 1900’s the term “jug band” came about, signifying a group that combined the musical styles of country, jazz and the blues. Jug bands reached their height in popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s, with big names like Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band, and Whistler’s Jug Band. These jug band musicians turned to their domestic spaces for inspiration and found potential in objects such as tea chests, brooms (for bass), a washboard and a thimble or spoons (for percussion), and, of course, jugs to create new instruments.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, as economic hardship began to dissolve, these musicians continued to make their instruments in “rent party bands,” celebrating the abundant available resources and their personal creativity. In Britain, beginning as early as the 1920’s, such bands were called “skiffle bands” whereby traditional instruments were replaced with homemade ones to create music inspired by the blues and jazz. Skiffle bands peaked in popularity in the 1950’s when British youth, who had become interested in America, fused folk, country, jazz, and the blues together, creating a precursor to rock and roll. The industrious and rebellious spirit of the post-war youth, who were shown on TV, paved the way for other young musicians who felt inspired to build their own instruments. Among them were famous musicians like John Lennon who led his skiffle band “The Quarry Men,” before The Beatles, and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. In the history of DIY music, jug bands and skiffle bands are important not only because of the high quality of the music made, but because of the ingenious spirit of the instrument creation. These homemade instruments not only perpetuate the values of the Arts and Crafts movement, which placed great emphasis on the labour of their creation, but they also recall the spirit of an authentic rural lifestyle, a nostalgic theme frequently attached to the Arts and Crafts movement.
Folklorists too share this interest in preserving the authenticity of various localities, aiming to research the old and document the present lore, or the sage knowledge, of the people. The Briton, William Thomas, coined the term “folklore” in 1846. He intended the word to define what he sought to recover. In his eyes “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs” made up the romantic “Lore of the People”. Folk music, while sometimes an umbrella term, “was represented in an ideological way as the music that characterizes the people, being out on the road, and the counter culture.”
Jug band music was reinvigorated within the folk revival of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Like fellow artisans and craftspeople in the Arts and Crafts movement, those who appreciated the folk revival did so because they were not satisfied with the flourishing rock and roll movement (although skiffle bands influenced early rock and roll). Like those participating in the visual Arts and Crafts movement, those interested in the folk revival felt that added technology, like the electric guitar, took away from the honesty of the work, much like the machine did for craftspeople. Folk artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan sang songs that referenced a simple and straightforward lifestyle that was ideally “primarily rural or isolated, and superorganic.” Contemplating the “genuine” quality of the subject comes up again and again both in the discussion of the folklorists’ writing on the folk revival in the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as in the Arts and Crafts movement. Folklorist Alan Lomax once said, “To be folk, you live folk.” The ideology of creating and living out an alternative to the present reality with nostalgia for the past existed in both the folk revival and the Arts and Crafts movement. Arts and Crafts believed that one ought to commit entirely to the ideology of better design overall rather than simply owning one handmade object alongside many others that were machine made.
Like Arts and Crafts, jug bands often played a rebellious second fiddle to more “legitimate” forms of music. Jug bands are to jazz bands what Arts and Crafts are to Fine Art. The hierarchies intrinsic to each are curious to consider. Most often, the instruments made in online “how-to” instructional videos are compared to the “real” or “actual” instruments, creating a hierarchy of instrument-production. Similarly, on the scale of artistic production, Arts and Crafts sits lower than traditional Fine Art, despite its obvious tie to functionality. While a jug band may be considered a less “legitimate” form of music, existing at the bottom of America’s musical hierarchy because of its objective materiality, this perception may also have to do with racial inequality.
Economic struggles and social inequality came upon the participants of jug band music in the 1920’s and 1930’s. America privileged wealthy Caucasians, thus it is conceivable that jug band music was perceived as less legitimate when compared to other forms of music because of the race of its popular majority. Charlie and Joe McCoy were famous jug musicians, exemplifying the jazz and blues styles associated with “pre-war black music.” Despite their immense influence, they remained in poverty -Charlie had to beg for money in order to bury his brother.
On the overlying theme of authenticity, I wish to consider a jug band instrument by means of analyzing a washboard using a material culture methodology. Objects can exist as metaphors and means to understanding the past, like an artifact. To treat a washboard as an artifact and apply this notion of material culture to the jug band washboard, one can gather a number of readings. Firstly, the material itself is found in the home, and therefore is not an instrument by traditional music standards, requiring a special ingenuity to be used as such. Secondly, when one looks at a washboard used as a musical instrument in contemporary society, it carries with it the novelty of nostalgia, not only because of its popular use in the ‘20s and ‘30s but also because it acts as an object indexical of a time when many more activities, beyond washing clothes, were done by hand. Its manufacturing, however, was done industrially. Washing and drying machines have rendered washboards obsolete in contemporary society. Socially, the washboard indexes a time where an activity once considered in physical terms, now only exists as monetary. Washing and drying machines have rendered washboards obsolete in contemporary society. Economically, washboards were used because in music their accessibility, but today they are hard to come by and expensive, selling for anywhere between $40 to $124 on the handmade and vintage goods website, Etsy; both the social and economic value of this object has transformed over the past century.
While folklore is the study of the traditions of local communities, it would be hard to pinpoint the lore of the people who can make their own instruments in contemporary times. This lore, or knowledge, is today disseminated through a new locality -the internet. Countless “how to make your own instrument” videos from across the world arrive at ones fingertips just seconds after a search on YouTube. Strangers are capable of verbally and visibly showing one another how to assemble a homemade instrument. In 1974, folklorist Bruce Nickerson asked, ““Is There a Folk in the Factory?” Yes, he answered: “based on techniques informally passed down to them, factory workers construct tools and animal figures from scrap materials.” If factory skills can be considered lore in their own right, then one can look at the lore of those that engage in the discussion of creating instruments in forums over the internet as similar. Simon J. Bronner writes that, “Despite the commercialization and standardization of society, people still primarily rely on informal learning. People demand tradition. They still venerate the handmade, and they still depend on folklore for their sense of place, past and being.” The internet is indeed an informal place of meeting and a new interface for one to share knowledge. Given the dependence of much of the world on the internet today, one may consider the online community a new locality, which merits its own lore.
While one can find beautiful homemade acoustic beat boxes on Etsy, no other homemade, or non-professional instruments can be found there. Creators of DIY instruments do not seek commercial validation; they are concerned more with sharing their knowledge. On YouTube one can find individuals demonstrating how to make and play a tuna can guitar, a coffee can guitar, a homemade oboe with a straw, an oatmeal-tub bass, a washtub bass, a copy of Jack White’s homemade electric guitar (as seen in the film It Might Get Loud), and a carrot ocarina where a carrot is hollowed out and holes are added to provide air passages. While the actual materials presented have little monetary or aesthetic value, the value they carry is in the resourcefulness of their creator and in the novelty of having made it one’s self. These homemade instruments were created to function, not just to decorate. This sentiment of creating a design which functions rather than being overtly frivolous is also important to the Arts and Crafts movement. They believed that applying extra, non-functional décor was ridiculous –rather, it is an object’s simplicity and function that should be merited. The simplicity in finding a household object and a creative way to reuse it is also what DIY musicians merit.
Many of these homemade instruments are made from that which could be found in a recycling bin and a toolbox -most commonly seen are washtub basses, washboards, spoons, and jugs. In arguing for the design of a craft by a workman, David Pye writes that, “musical instruments ought to go on being made to traditional designs.” With this in mind, it is comprehensible that jug bands that have used washtub basses, washboards with spoons, and jugs have not ‘evolved’ to use new household items as the century has gone on. Granted that everyday household items have not altered too much in the last century (with the exception of those powered by electricity), this explains the continued appearance of these same materials in jug bands today.
Some examples of contemporary bands using jug band instruments include B.C’s Blackberry Wood, New Orleans’ Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, and Montreal’s Lake of Stew. The very essence of new jug bands lies in both the resourcefulness of the musicians who are creating their own instruments and the nostalgia for percussive and/or folk bands that flourished near the beginning of the twentieth century. This novelty and pride in creation allows the music of each band to identify with the goals of the Arts and Crafts movement in seeking a preferable alternative that they truly believe in. Looking at Montreal’s Lake of Stew beyond their music and the instruments employed, they are a DIY band because of how they represent themselves. Lake of Stew is signed to Montreal record label Dare To Care, which was created so that artists could be directly involved with the creative decision-making process. They claim “a strictly DIY work ethic” and say that they “could choose to release certain albums with the goal of making a lot of money; however, we are not prepared to put out music that doesn’t reflect who we are. To us, the important thing is not to sell a lot of records, but to release truly authentic music.” “Authentic” here is indexical of individuality and joy in labour, themes at the forefront of the Arts and Crafts movement. Lake of Stew’s album covers and concert posters are hand-drawn with images of their string instruments planted in the ground so as to situate themselves closely to their local environment. Lake of Stew is also promoted by a local booking and promotions company Indie Montreal, which was started by a 20-year-old university student who wished to be the one of a handful of promoters in Montreal willing to take smaller local and touring bands in for a show. Indie Montreal has allowed many bands to come to the city that might not have been able to otherwise. They are not about monetary gain. Rather, they are about forming bonds and relationships with musicians they believe in, and in turn supporting them. Lake of Stew truly lives out ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. A proponent of the Arts and Crafts does not just have a handmade grandfather clock alongside machine-made objects; they are committed to their ideology and their entire home reflects this “handmade” interest. Lake of Stew is certainly committed to creating and promoting their music with genuine heart and belief.
With a growing network of industrious musicians teaching one another how to make homemade instruments through the internet, and the persistent love and longing for a more authentic past indexed in music, we are sure to hear more music coming out of what we have stored in our kitchens. Creating a pleasing alternative to popular culture is a sentiment that runs deep in the DIY music of jug bands, reflected also in the Arts and Crafts movement. The fact that neither movement has been lucrative for its participants is a testament to the genuine heart of those who continue, without signs of stopping, to create, above all, what they love.
Bronner, Simon J. “Visible Truths: Material Culture Study in American Folkloristics.” In Material Culture: A Research Guide, 127-153. Topeka: University of Kansas, 1985.
Clark, Garth. “The Death of Crafts.” Crafts 216 (Jan/Feb 2009): 48-51.
Cox, Mabel. “The Arts and Crafts Exhibition.” Artist (October 1896): 9-40.
Dare To Care Records. “About.” http://www.daretocarerecords.com/en/faq/.
Denisoff, R. Serge and Jens Lund. ““The Folk Music Revival and the Counter Culture: Contributions and Contraditions.” The Journal of American Folklore 334 (1971): 394-405. http://0-www.jstor.org.mercury.concordia.ca/stable/539633.
Etsy. “Musical Wood Creations & Performance by AllNaturalAcoustics.” http://www.etsy.com/shop/AllNaturalAccoustics?page=2.
Etsy. “Washboard on Etsy – a global handmade marketplace”. http://www.etsy.com/search_results.php?search_query=washboard&search_type=handmade&shopname=KarenandRicksPlace.
Grassby, Richard. “Material Culture and Cultural History.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 35, no. 4 (2005): 591-603.
Nicklin, Keith. “Ibibio Musical Pot.” African Arts 7, no.1 (Autumn 1973): 50-92.
Pye, David. “The Nature of Art and Workmanship.” In The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson, 342-353. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010.
Spencer, Amy. “The Skiffle Legacy.” In DIY: The Rise of LO-FI Culture. London; New York: Marion Boyars 2005.
Whiteis, David. “The Real McCoys: A tribute to prewar bluesmen Joe and Charlie McCoy will help buy headstones for their unmarked south-side graves.” Chicago Reader, September 30, 2010. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/joe-and-charlie-mccoy-southside-graves-chicago-blues/Content?oid=2492002.
Young, Natasha. “Indie Montreal meets Project Noise.” The Link, September 28, 2010.
YouTube. “Coffee Can Guitar.” Uploaded by jerving November 22, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sOCEdqkf3k.
YouTube. “How to Build a washtub bass pt. 1 – materials.” Uploaded by mrgreenjeans April 24, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq_OvpmV6I8.
YouTube. “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make a Bass Using Fishing Line.” Uploaded by expertvillage November 14, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNocydOEwjw.
YouTube. “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make Homemade Oboes with Straws.” Uploaded by expertvillage November 14, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V_hWBRZKuk.
YouTube. “I built a Jack White guitar in 10 minutes.” Uploaded by dave1234u June 24, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xNYyQQIGUQ.
YouTube. “Introduction of handmade vegetable musical instruments.” Uploaded by heita3 May 8, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5aUz9cDaCY.
YouTube. “Jack White makes a guitar (Scene from It Might Get Loud).” Uploaded by GorWo4ek December 14, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCFXeChXfcI.
YouTube. “Tuna Can Guitar.” Uploaded by BillyDOOM23 August 26, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3dH_37XTUI.
1 Keith Nicklin, “Ibibio Musical Pot,” in African Arts 7, no.1 (Autumn 1973): 4.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Amy Spencer, “The Skiffle Legacy,” in DIY: The Rise of LO-FI Culture (London; New York: Marion Boyars, 2005), 189.
5 Garth Clark, “The Death of Crafts,” Crafts 216 (Jan/Feb 2009): 48-51.
6 Simon J. Bronner, “Visible Truths: Material Culture Study in American Folkloristics,” in Material Culture: A Research Guide (Topeka: University of Kansas, 1985), 127.
7 R. Serge Denisoff and Jens Lund, “The Folk Music Revival and the Counter Culture: Contributions and Contraditions,” The Journal of American Folklore 334 (1971): 395.
8 Bronner, 133.
9 Denisoff and Lund, 396.
10 David Whiteis, “The Real McCoys: A Tribute to prewar bluesmen Joe and Charlie McCoy will help buy headstones for their unmarked south-side graves,” Chicago Reader, September 30, 2010, http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/joe-and-charlie-mccoy-southside-graves-chicago-blues/Content?oid=2492002.
11 Richard Grassby, “Material Culture and Cultural History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34, no. 4 (2005): 591.
12 “Washboard on Etsy – a global handmade marketplace,” Etsy, http://www.etsy.com/search_results.php?search_query=washboard&search_type=handmade&shopname=KarenandRicksPlace.
13 Bronner, 136.
14 Bronner, 145.
15 “Musical Wood Creations & Performance by AllNaturalAcoustics,” Etsy, http://www.etsy.com/shop/AllNaturalAccoustics?page=2.
15 “Tuna Can Guitar,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3dH_37XTUI.
16 “Coffee Can Guitar” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sOCEdqkf3k.
17 “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make Homemade Oboes with Straws,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V_hWBRZKuk.
18 “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make a Bass Using Fishing Line,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNocydOEwjw.
19 “How to Build a washtub bass pt. 1-materials,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq_OvpmV6I8.
20 “I built a Jack White guitar in 10 minutes.” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xNYyQQIGUQ.
21“Jack White makes a guitar (Scene from It Might Get Loud),” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCFXeChXfcI.
22 “Introduction of handmade vegetable musical instruments,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5aUz9cDaCY.
23 Mabel Cox, “The Arts and Crafts Exhibition,” Artist (October 1896):16.
24 David Pye, “The Nature of Art and Workmanship,” in The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson, 342-353. Berg Publishers: 2010, 352.
25 Dare To Care Records, “About.” http://www.daretocarerecords.com/daretocarerecords.php?section=faq&langue=en
26 Dare To Care Records, “About, ” http://www.daretocarerecords.com/en/faq/.
27 Natasha Young, “Indie Montreal meets Project Noise,” The Link, September 28, 2010.
28 Mabel Cox, 15.
We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series
What was music criticism in 2014? Or, more precisely, what was “critical” about it? How exactly is offering a critique different from, say, regurgitating a press release or clicking “like” on Facebook? In other words, just how critical is contemporary music criticism, and why, in the end, does it matter?
Out of all the reviews, features, comments, blogposts, tweets, and discussion boards — all the endless, interminable text — that comprised the collective conversation about music in 2014, two moments stood out to us as especially symptomatic of where things currently stand on these questions. The first almost certainly passed you by, trivial, a non-issue in the vast data-sea of music discourse, but no less telling for it. The second you may have noticed, because for a few brief weeks in March, it was everywhere.
It’s with these two moments that we want to begin. From there, we’ll move on, in the final part of the essay, to consider how they might speak to one of 2014’s most talked about phenomenons: the dramatic rise of London-based label PC Music.
In February, Nicholas Szczepanik released his ninth solo album on Desire Path Recordings. The album’s gently pulsing drone struck a chord, so to speak, and received extremely favorable reviews. As it turned out, though, both the record’s title — Not Knowing — and its cover art — a found photograph of an unknown little girl and the even more unknown shadow of the photographer — proved strangely prophetic.
Most reviewers mentioned the influence of French composer Éliane Radigue, to whom the piece is dedicated. Most found it moving: “romantic,”“intense,”“entrancing,”“haunting” (TMT), “a mesmerizing and beautifully formed accomplishment.” Most paid their respects to the piece’s expressive and structural center, the period between the 12- and 29-minute marks when an orchestral theme slowly emerges through the drone. Over at A Closer Listen: “once the melody enters, everything else is soon abandoned, leaving you to sink deeply into a state of complete calm.” As Dusted put it: “the music opens like a flower, offers up just the briefest vision of something personal and momentous, and then closes again.”
And yet only one of the 20 reviews listed on Desire Path’s website noticed that this orchestral sample was taken from British composer Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations: that it is in fact the 9th variation’s famous “Nimrod” theme.
Our aim here, as should become clearer below, is by no means to condemn these reviews: our ultimate call is to open up avenues for criticism, not shut them down. Each of these reviews makes its own interesting arguments about the album and was able to do so with or without a reference to Elgar. But no review can say everything, and what we want to do here is look a bit closer at what is not said.
2014 was a big year for Owen Pallett. In January, he was nominated for an Oscar for his work with Win Butler on the score of Her. In May, he released his fourth solo album, In Conflict. And in the intervening period, he somehow found the time to pen a series of pieces for Slate in which he applied “music theory” — by which he meant the kind of harmonic analysis taught in a conventional Western “classical” music education — to a series of recent pop smashes: Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Why did [“Teenage Dream”] go to No. 1? Let’s start by talking about the ingenuity of the harmonic content. This song is all about suspension — not in the voice-leading 4-3 sense, but in the emotional sense, which listeners often associate with “exhilaration,” being on the road, being on a roller coaster, travel. This sense of suspension is created simply, by denying the listener any I chords. There is not a single I chord in the song. Laymen, the I chord (“one chord”) is the chord that the key is in. For example, a song is in G but there are no G-chords. Other examples of this, in hit singles: Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You;” almost-examples include Earth Wind and Fire’s “In September” which has an I chord but only passing and in inversion; same with Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”
The series quickly went viral, picking up some 40,000 Facebook “likes” between them. Most of the majorsitesbloggedabout it. Pitchfork made a podcast.
As impressive as Pallett’s analysis was, however, it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it, that — despite appearances — these pieces weren’t being presented as a form of music criticism worth celebrating.
Image from “Ecstatic Melodic Copulation,” Pallett’s analysis of “Get Lucky”
Each of the articles was laden with apologies: “My bet is that it’ll be boring, but I’m going to do my best not to bore you!” And sure enough, by June, Pallett was claiming in an interview with Wondering Sound that “the Slate pieces were meant to be an absurd reflection on what music writing would be like if the writers were preoccupied with music theory. They weren’t meant to be ironic or sarcastic but lovingly absurd.”
Rather than defending the use of music theory in music criticism, Pallett was in fact disavowing it. Interviewer: “You’re obviously a highly trained musician yourself but how important do you think theory is to know for a… critic? Pallett: “My whole point with those pieces is that it’s not necessary for critics to know it.” Interviewer: “What do you want from music criticism, if not music theory?” Pallett: “I want a description, a human response to what is happening.”
What can these two examples tell us about the state of music criticism in the present moment? What do they have in common, despite their differences? And to what extent are these commonalities representative of broader trends in the current critical landscape?
What we want to suggest is that both examples work according to a similar logic — silently assumed in the critical reception of the Szczepanik, but made explicit by Pallett — and that this logic is both critically unsatisfying and extremely persistent, a regular counterpart to the retro-historicism we explored in the first essay in this series.
The logic comprises two related steps. First, a certain lack of engagement on the critic’s part — a kind of not knowing — in both cases of a relatively objective, structural feature of the piece of music in question. Second, the celebration of this not knowing in favor of a more personal, evocative, “human response” in its place.
So with the Szczepanik, rather than confront the possible meaning or significance of the artist’s choice of sample (whether or not they know exactly what is being sampled) and address how that might impact our understanding of and relationship with the work, we get a flurry of adjectives. The music is “romantic,” “mesmerizing,” “intense,” and the unknown orchestral sample is an opening onto something “personal and momentous.”
This is precisely the kind of critical engagement Pallett is calling for. For Pallett, music is something that happens to you, and the role of the critic is to convey what happens, to “describe” this deeply subjective, ostensibly “human” experience. Knowledge is for artists, Pallett is saying. What matters for listeners are feelings.
Knowledge is for artists, Pallett is saying. What matters for listeners are feelings.
To be clear, we’re not suggesting that Szczenapik’s reviewers ought to have recognized the Elgar sample or that either “music theory” or what Adorno would have called a “structural” knowledge of a work are integral to the critical process. This is not an argument for the emancipatory potential of a classical music education.
At the same time, however, we do think that the tendency to celebrate a personal and sentimental knowledge of contemporary music as a way of refusing other forms of engagement is a real problem. And to the extent that it is bound up with a form of anti-elitism associated with the debunking of the distinction between “high” and “low” art, on the one hand, and the de-professionalization of music criticism, on the other, it’s a tendency that at least needs interrogating.
In other words, music criticism may not need a classical education, but musical works really do have a certain objectivity or materiality to them, and that’s often worth knowing. Not all knowledge is elitist. In fact, we’d like to suggest that it’s precisely the critic’s responsibility to know, even if (and because) that knowledge has certain necessary limits.
Let’s look again at Szczepanik.
The Enigma Variations were first performed in 1899 in London. To accompany and frame the performance, Elgar had provided an unusual note in the program explaining his choice of title. Each of the piece’s 14 variations, he explained, comprised a musical “sketch” of one of his friends. And tying together each of these variations was a single theme — the so-called “enigma” — which, rather than being simply “played,” was merely hinted at in each part of the work. Indeed, the composer was adamant that this theme should remain hidden: heard, perhaps, but nevertheless withheld in a certain way, mysterious, enigmatic. “The Enigma I will not explain,” he wrote. “So the principal Theme never appears […] the chief character is never on the stage.”1
Elgar’s intentional staging of the secret of the Enigma has provoked decades of speculation by listeners and scholars. “Solutions” have included encoded references to popular songs (“Auld Lang Syne,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “God Save the Queen’); to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven; to a verse from Corinthians; and even to the mathematical constant pi. During his lifetime, Elgar refused to divulge the answer, so we may never know. And perhaps, in the end, that is the point. If Elgar’s Enigma Variations teaches us anything, it’s that musical knowledge can never be complete, that every attempt to know must also confront its limits in another field of not knowing.
All this is there in Szczepanik’s Not Knowing, the title of which now seems that much more apposite and deliberate. It’s as if, by quoting Elgar, Szczepanik is attempting to invoke all this history, to draw on the Enigma Variations’s rhetorical weight, its accrued meaning, and its conceptual problematic at the same time as he, like Elgar, refuses explicitly to name them.
In this respect, it matters too that Szczepanik chose the “Nimrod” theme specifically. Not Knowing was dedicated to the French composer Éliane Radigue and, in particular, to her 2000 composition “L’ile re-sonante,” which, Szczepanik wrote on his Bandcamp page, helped him “get through a necessarily rough patch of what we tend to call life.”
If the theme is struggle, then “Nimrod” is perfect for it. Originally written for Augustus Jaegar, a particularly close friend of Elgar’s and his publisher at Novello & Co, the theme is often played these days on its own at funerals and memorial services, and since 1930, it’s been played at the National Ceremony for Remembrance Day in Britain, which commemorates the end of the First World War. To contemporary ears, in other words, “Nimrod” sounds like mourning and memorialization. It is about loss and the fallibility of memory, even in the face of the absolute demand not to forget.
We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series