Swinging the Machine

“Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

feature 58-38Bandleader and crimefighter Swing Sisson encounters a critic in Feature Comics #58 (July 1942).

Deems Taylor—composer, critic, narrator of Fantasia, well-known classical music personality of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—didn’t much care for jazz, a dislike he took pains to present as airy unconcern. In his book The Well-Tempered Listener, Taylor examined the practice of “swinging the classics,” making jazz band versions of classical chestnuts. This sort of thing had apparently exercised enough indignation that the president of the Bach Society of New Jersey, Taylor reported, sent a letter to the FCC proposing penalties for radio stations that broadcast such numbers. Taylor gave that suggestion a sympathetic shrug:

If you’re going to suspend the license of a broadcasting station for permitting Bach to be played in swing time, what are you going to do to a station for permitting swing music to be played at all? (You might offer the owner of the station his choice of either listening to nothing but swing for, say, twelve hours, or else spending a month in jail.) You can’t legislate against bad taste.

Taylor’s solution was musical rope-a-dope, completely certain that the unaltered classical repertoire would win out. “I believe in letting people hear these swing monstrosities because I believe that it’s the best method of getting rid of them,” he concluded. “A real work of art is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is.”

Jazz has been taking it on the chin lately, prompted by some questionable bits of “satire” that seemed to give tacit permission for a lot of people to assert insecurity as vindication. Jazz is boring. It’s insular. Nobody really likes it. People only listen to it so other people will think they’re cool. And so forth. As someone whose purview is mainly classical and modernist music, I can only say: pull up a chair and have a drink, we’ve already got a tab going.

The only slice of this commentary worth engaging with was John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, mainly because it replaced the shallow context of a consumerist apologia with the rather more interesting context of a radical critique. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of the article was an assumption about score and performance that is a cousin of Taylor’s. Here’s the crucial passage:

A nadir of obliviousness was reached by the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson through the inclusion of the standard “Without a Song” in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are “Power to the People,” “In Pursuit of Blackness,” “If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “Black is the Color.” So it is more than a little disturbing, in this context, to encounter [in the lyrics of “Without a Song”] the vile Jim Crow racism of the second phrase: “A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song.”

As many have pointed out, there’s some slippery cause-and-effect in this paragraph. The album on which Henderson recorded “Without a Song”—1967’s The Kicker—actually predates the more politically centered albums Halle mentions by a couple of years. And Henderson probably knew the song from versions where the lyrics were changed (most notably Billy Eckstine’s suave 1945 recording) or not even there (as with Sonny Rollins’s version on his 1962 album The Bridge).

But the passage also argues a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. The implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics. The assumption is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent. To echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, no matter Henderson’s intention (or Eckstine’s, or Rollins’s), the performance can offset the lyrics, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.

* * *

Here’s an interesting thing. Take two weights, connect them with a string, then run the string over a pulley, like this—
You can intuitively guess what will happen: if both weights have the same mass, they’ll just hang there, but if one has more mass, it’ll pull the other through the pulley. This seems trivial, but it’s not, not entirely—which is why the Rev. George Atwood, a tutor at Cambridge’s Trinity College, invented this apparatus in the late 1700s, the better to teach principles of classical mechanics. Playing around with Atwood’s machine, students could measure and learn about rates of acceleration, string tension, inertial forces, and the like. One thing that you can determine with Atwood’s machine is that, in the case of unequal masses (and assuming the pulleys are frictionless), the acceleration on both weights is constant and uniform. In other words, if the masses are equal, the system is at equilibrium, but if the masses are unequal, it’s a runaway system, the weights flying through the pulley, ever faster, until they run out of string or vertical space.

But if you take the two weights, run the string over two pulleys, and start the smaller weight swinging back and forth, like this—
—some unexpected things start to happen. The swinging weight, via centrifugal force—more pedantically, via the apparent force that results from interpreting a rotating reference frame as an inertial frame (somebody would have left a comment)—counteracts some of the gravitational pull on the larger mass. Which means that the Swinging Atwood’s Machine (as it was dubbed by Nicholas Tufillaro, the physicist who first started playing around with such systems back in the 1980s) can end up doing some very counterintuitive things. Even if the masses are unequal, the system can still reach an equilibrium, the smaller mass locking into periodic and sometimes seriously funky orbits:

TufillaroFig4(From Nicholas B. Tufillaro, Tyler A. Abbott, and David J. Griffiths, “Swinging Atwood’s Machine,” Am. J. Phys. 52 (10), October 1984)

To summarize: if you have two unequal masses that are inextricably bound to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the larger mass always dominates the system. The smaller can still counterbalance the larger. It just needs to swing.

* * *

LennysMahler6Leonard Bernstein’s score of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives.

It’s only a metaphor, of course. Then again, most writing and talking about music ends up, before too long, at metaphors. “Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality. In its most poetic sense, the metaphor is ecumenical. Those old “Mahler Grooves” bumper stickers could be at once a cheeky incongruity and a recognition that, in its own way, and in a good performance, Mahler could indeed groove, that the symphonies could swing in the grandest sense. But even in the term’s more technical sense—that calibration of the ratio between stressed and unstressed notes—“swing” hearkens all the way back to the old Baroque inégale: a variance, a perturbation, a dance of emphasis and de-emphasis that pulls the music forward.

All performance is a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis; it is, on one level, about choice. And, thanks to music’s singular strangeness—grammar and eloquence forever in search of content and meaning—that choice can extend far beyond technical choices on the part of the musicians. Take the case of classical music’s great Beleth, Richard Wagner, who embodied the human possibilities of greatness and ugliness to an exceptionally intense degree. Because his medium was music, performing and listening to Wagner’s work is an opportunity to choose the greatness over the ugliness. When Rollins and Henderson perform “Without a Song,” it is an opportunity to choose the charm and potential of the melody over the reflexive stereotyping of the lyrics. From an optimistic vantage, this ongoing process of choice might be thought of as practice, training players and audience to imagine a better world, the better to achieve it. A pessimist could point out (quite rightly) that such training is taking an awfully long time to translate into concrete change.

We live in a machine. Its gears are money and power. Inequality—greed, racism, misogyny, discrimination—remain institutionalized and persistent. The music this article has been talking about is, culturally speaking, on the margins, however luxurious; maybe to expect these musics, old or new, to alter the fabric of society, however incrementally, is excessively idealistic. (Confession: in that regard, I am an idealist.) But just in their performance, in jazz’s constant reinvention and classical’s constant re-creation, they mount a defense. In swinging, they swing the machine. They mitigate their lesser mass. They, perhaps, prevent the whole system from running away to a catastrophic end. Or, at least, they keep us from being pulled helplessly through the machine.
In a letter published in the February 1941 issue of the Music Educators Journal, a woman named Rosamond Tanner took Deems Taylor to task over his disdain for swing. On the contrary, Tanner insisted, swing versions of the classics were a great way to introduce children to the repertoire: “When the classics are expressed in a form that is understandable and typical of our present day trends and interests, then they are loved and understood, and their themes are not forgotten.” Actually, this is not really that far from Taylor’s position; the end goal is still to eventually encounter the classics in their original form. But Tanner at least emphasized experiencing the classics in performance as much as simply knowing them, instilling in a hypothetical listener the desire “to go to a concert because he knows that concert holds something personal for him—a bond of understanding between him and the music.”

A few years later, Rosamond Tanner, an Eastman-educated organist and a veteran provider of background music for New York City cocktail lounges, was hired for an unusual gig: she became the house organist for the 86th Street branch of the Manhattan Savings Bank, performing for a few hours every day from a balcony overlooking the banking floor. With most banks—including the other branches of the Manhattan Savings Bank—having already adopted piped-in Muzak, Tanner’s job was quirky enough to gain her a mention in “The Talk of the Town” section of the April 24, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. Tanner was hardly a subversive. She was pleased to report how many more accounts the branch had brought in since she had started playing. But give her credit: she could see the machine, and she could see the effect performance could have on it. “I’m a lot more than an entertainer,” she told the magazine. “I’m supposed most of all to offset all the cold-blooded marble and iron bars downstairs.”
*Homepage featured image courtesy Petras Gagilas via Flickr