Yesterday I was looking at a website for the electronic music side of a university music department. (The name of the university does not, at the moment, matter.) This particular department has a strong focus on “art music.”
I’m pretty sure I know what they mean by that phrase. They specialize in highly abstract, experimental pieces. If you want to learn pop music production techniques, you’ll want to enroll in some other institution of higher learning.
Even so, “art music” is a peculiar and off-putting phrase. I’m reminded of a story. I’ve probably told this before, so bear with me if you already know the punch line. It’s a true story — I checked it once, many years ago, by phoning Chris Strachwitz, the head of Arhoolie Records and a tireless collector, promoter, and disseminator of recordings that would otherwise have been forgotten or never recorded at all.
At some point, probably in the late ’50s, a white ethno-musicologist was interviewing a delta blues guitarist named Big Bill Broonzy. The musicologist, whom we may imagine as wearing horn-rim glasses, having a flat-top haircut, and probably being employed by an Ivy League school, asked Broonzy, “Tell me, Mr. Broonzy — do you consider your delta blues a form of folk music?”
Broonzy, in the gentle manner of many an African-American who has found it necessary to outwit or deconstruct a bit of white racism, replied, “It’s all folk music. I never heard no horse play none of it.”
What he was saying, I’ve always felt, was that even European classical music is folk music. Beethoven is folk music. And once you think about it, this is obviously true. Different musical traditions have different styles, but they’re all folk music.
With that in mind, I’m going to insist that all music is art music. Every bit of it. From Thelonious Monk to Karlheinz Stockhausen, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa, from James P. Johnson to the Bee Gees, from John Philip Sousa to the Residents, it’s all art music. Today at the gym, while listening to Pandora streaming music on my headphones, I heard tracks by Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty, Miles Davis, and Weather Report. And every one of those tracks was painstakingly and meticulously conceived and executed by passionate, dedicated artists.
The notion of “art music,” it seems to me, springs from a period in the mid-20th century when the composers of classical music, especially those who found themselves making a living as college professors, had to wrestle with the depressing fact that audiences didn’t like their music. Many of them responded to this difficulty in a defensive way by deciding that what the audience liked didn’t matter, that what mattered was being true to some deeper or more profound inner vision. Audiences were “low-brow.” Their tastes were to be derided. Those who catered to audience tastes were producing schlock.
This defensiveness is certainly understandable psychologically, but as a basis for an entire aesthetic, it strikes me as a bit dodgy.
Composers who work in universities have been victimized, I think, by a related intellectual trend, one that goes back much further than the 1950s. Ever since Beethoven came along and took the classical musical world by storm, there has been a pervasive feeling that serious music (whatever we mean by that phrase) must advance. Each new generation of composers must move forward in relation to what has gone before.
The belief in the virtue of progress was, of course, very much in the air during the Industrial Revolution. In retrospect, progress has proven not to be all it was cracked up to be, but that’s a story for another time. As it affected composers, the belief that progress was a virtue had led, by the beginning of the 20th century, into a sort of impasse. There was nowhere left to go, or so it appeared. Schoenberg tried to dispense with tonal harmony entirely. And yet, during the same period, Rachmaninoff was defiantly writing tonal music that was far closer in spirit and sonority to Beethoven.
Today, Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are still played and loved in concert halls around the world. The works of Schoenberg and his disciples, not so much.
By the 1950s, the rococo variations on Schoenberg’s serialism and John Cage’s love affair with randomness had, between them, produced an environment in which the “serious” music being composed was just not enjoyable to listen to. There was still plenty of music around that people loved to hear, but very little of it was coming from the “serious” composers.
This situation started to change in the 1970s when minimalism gained a foothold. Why? For one thing, because quite a lot of minimalist music is tonal. Also, it employs repetition. When ideas are repeated, they transform slowly enough that audiences can figure out what’s going on.
All music rests on the tension between repetition and change. Too much repetition, and we get bored. Too much change, and we get confused.
It’s true that different audiences have different needs and expectations with respect to repetition and change. A knowledgeable jazz listener can spot immediately when the players are improvising on “Autumn Leaves,” even when the improvisation is very abstract. A listener who doesn’t know the jazz idiom or the jazz songbook will hear nothing but cacophony. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that composers of “serious” “art music” ought to be composing atonal algorithmic exegeses of “Autumn Leaves” (although that’s not a bad idea). You know your audience; you know what they’re hoping to hear. We should all be free to deal with audiences’ expectations in whatever way we feel is needful.
But I do feel an academic program that emphasizes “art music” may be doing students a disservice if it discourages or limits discussion of composers like Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jaco Pastorius, Jack Dangers, Richard Devine, Robert Rich, or a hundred other serious, passionate, dedicated artists who have used popular music styles in their work.
It’s all art. Every bit of it.
Of course, it’s not all good art. Sturgeon’s Law applies. Ninety percent of pop music is crap, because ninety percent of everything is crap. What makes a given piece of music crap, or lifts it above the crap, is a different topic, one that we can have endless debates about. There may not be any objective answers to that question. But I don’t think it helps the discussion to say that any given style of music doesn’t qualify as art.