While You Were Art

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.

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5 Responses to While You Were Art

  1. While I agree that all music is art music, because I think that nothing kills art so effectively as creating the category of “A-rrrrr-t”, I think that your reasoning and explanation is way off.

    “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.”

    First of all, enormous audiences love the hell out of thorny “academic” music when it’s presented in a context that seems appropriate to them. Grok 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Sutter’s Island. And as some book on modern music (can’t remember which one) pointed out, the audience most familiar in a real way with 20th-century academic music is the audience of sci-fi and horror B-movies from the ’60s and early ’70s. Check the soundtrack from, say, The Ultimate Warrior with Yul Brynner, or try to imagine what the music of the original Planet of the Apes would have sounded like to a pre-War audience.

    It took a measly decade from the ’50s you mention to find “difficult” academic music integrated into popular culture. Considering the tiny number of “serious modern composers” compared to the teaming hordes of composers of other kinds of music… very impressive. A million pop bands only dream of having a pop hit like Ligeti did (and what a video spot!).

    If we were to gauge the integration of early ’80s “gothic” music from the days when listening to Dead Can Dance meant you had to be ready to run to escape a beating for being a “fag”, to Lisa Gerrard being lathered all over the wildly popular Gladiator, we could make the argument that it took as long or longer for that general cast of music to be integrated in large-scale popular culture than it took the most dissonant mid-century academic music to do so.

    Secondly, the notion that academic musicians deride popular tastes is highly suspect. Perhaps a few do, or did, but I don’t believe for a minute that that is the general case. Why? Because you can tell by listening to academic music that most of it is not made with love.

  2. You can tell that most academic music (that I’ve heard, which is a good deal) is made by people who don’t really like it “either”. In other words, the tastes of the composers are probably bear a disturbing resemblance to those tastes that would assumed of a general audience. I think that there is a silent pact to perpetuate the idea that “real” and attractive music belongs to large industries and commerce, not to schools and weirdos.

    It’s not a fact, as it keeps being disproven by some Ligeti, or Aphex Twin, or Bulgarian choir, and so on. Academics who really feel and love what they’re doing are rare exceptions, but they are the ones who succeed outside the ivory tower.

    But the idea that “feeling” music equates to “money” music is the way things are “supposed to be” in a consumerist world, so it will be maintained at any cost by many, even if means making a lifetime of music they loathe in their heart of hearts.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the comments! Film composers will shamelessly borrow whatever sets the mood. The fact that your citations from popular culture are for horror and sci-fi movies underscores rather than undercutting my point: Audiences find the sonorities of academic music weird or disturbing.

      After posting this little essay, last night I had a listen to a bunch of short pieces that were brought together in a SEAMUS collection. Without exception, they’re hideous. I suppose it’s possible, or even likely, that some of the younger composers wrote these pieces not because they wanted to, but in order to please a faculty adviser (one who presumably does love, or at least built his academic reputation on, that type of music) so that they can get a degree and thereby improve their chances of a career as a university professor, where they will in later years inflict the same intellectual and spiritual damage on their proteges.

      But if you don’t love it, why do it? Why not rebel? Are graduate students in composition sheep? How can you expect to excel as a composer if you don’t insist on doing what you love?

      I haven’t listened to much Ligeti, but my vague memory is that what I heard was bullshit. Stockhausen is bullshit. Cage is bullshit, except for the early prepared piano pieces. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern are mostly bullshit. An academic curriculum that enshrines these dead guys as icons can hardly be expected to produce anything resembling listenable music. When they start teaching Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul in grad school, we’ll know that the spiritual migraine that currently afflicts academe has passed.

  3. Heheh- I don’t find Zawinul listenable at all! I’d never expect to find him mentioned in the same breath as Corea and Hancock. But we can agree to disagree on that.

    2001:A Space Odyssey has scenes with music by Ligeti, quite “iconic” as they say.
    Sutter’s Island has a fantastic soundtrack, basically a DJ-ing of music by 20th Century academic composers. If I recall correctly, Lou Harrison has a piece in there.

    I don’t find horror and sci-fi and their associated feelings of darkness and wonder and so on any less, or more, important or valuable than any other genres and feelings. And associations and receptions continue to change. See my Dead Can Dance example above. A tiny subculture once subject to great mockery is now utterly mainstream, music, clothing, untrammeled schmaltz and all.

    So, I think it’s accurate to say that because thorny music has long ago found a place in popular culture, it therefore cannot be said that audiences hate it.

    Why would composers make music they don’t love? Because they’re performing a valuable service to society. It’s The Rules that attractive music belongs to large corporations with teams of scantily clad dancing women. If your art is good, you’re rich and famous, and if you’re not rich and famous, your art is bad. Listen to what music that doesn’t follow the rules of Pop sounds like! Dreadful, isn’t it?

    By now you’ve realized that this point is only half-serious. But I think it’s uncomfortably close to accurate when it comes to many of the fresh-outta-university composers I meet and work with, who do their noise gigs for grant money then go home and listen to Prodigy and Radiohead. At least it’s close enough to be very funny when I bring it up with the ones who are musically talented, and I can put it across without being a prick about it because let’s face it, I’ve done noise gigs for money, too.

    Here’s the the stickler, or stinker, for me. Let’s say we value “intellectual” music, compositional vigor, new ideas, and all that. Great! I certainly do. Once you have a certain amount of technical skill and knowledge, and you’re not a complete square, you realize that for the most part, what’s presented as intellectual and vigorous music isn’t that at all. Serial music isn’t some heavy math (trivial combinatorics, really). “Stochastic” and “coding” and all that might sound intimidating- until you do it yourself and you realize how much is pure fluff.

  4. Mike Zimmerman says:

    Recently we took grandkids to the San Diego Zoo. There was a huge graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide. For thousands of years until 1862 CO2 was approximately 280 ppm; by the year 2060 it will be about 560 ppm. At first this sounds like an alarming trend because the gas doubles.

    Let’s look at it this way: Let’s say a city of one million has a regrettable number of 280 homeless people. Two hundred years later, that number has grown to 560. Not pleasant for the homeless people, but manageable for the city.

    Now, exactly what happened in 1862 that kicked off the rise of CO2? From ancient times to the middle of the 19th century the world population hovered around one billion. Birth rates were high as were death rates. Pasteur discovered germs in the 1860’s and treatment of disease was off and running. CO2 will climb a hundred fold while population will climb a thousand fold to ten billion humans.

    There is a French quote: “We do not inherit the earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children.” CO2 might be a problem. Resources, water, food, power generation, and other human activities certainly seem like bigger problems. It seems pretty obvious that carbon dioxide is a result of the population and the requirements of sustaining that population.

    Pasteur and the medical community freed us from terrible and untimely death. That seems like a blessing. But unchecked birth rates will certainly be a curse, if it isn’t a curse already. I was a member of ZPG (Zero Population Growth) in the ’60’s. It was cursed by many then, as it is cursed by many now.

    Assuming a world population of one billion is optimal and possible given the CO2 and resources balance, just how will billions of people be eliminated? War? Famine? Disease? Something even worse? If we do nothing about population control and there are ten billion humans competing for life, can the resources be supplied? If resources are supplied, is that the kind of earth we want for our grandchildren?

    Most religions welcome children and shun birth control and abortion. China, so far as I know the only country to address population control, has had little success. Will it take a disaster to convince us that population control is necessary? What is a fair and acceptable way to control our numbers? mz

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