Thursday, March 24, 2016

an old complaint from Kyle Gann on the cultural status of pop music advocacy, claiming underdog status for the financial powerhouse, a relatively short polemic on the puzzle of stylistic stratification.
Today, however, we have a complete turnaround. Classical new music is now a minority culture constantly on the defensive, though it is stereotypically perceived as looking down its nose at pop music. Pop music, meanwhile, is a vastly dominant culture, a multi-billion-dollar industry, yet its fans see it as a feisty underdog. In other words, Goliath is a rickety old man in a wheel chair, David is chief CEO of an omnipotent corporation, and David’s fans get terribly upset when Goliath steals a riff from him, or even imitates him in homage. David can kick Goliath out into the street any time he wants and everyone cheers, because he’s, like, Goliath, man, the bad guy! And so pop music has inspired many composers my age, and they’ve depicted it, written music about it, some with more fidelity, some with less, maybe altered some things for creative effect, maybe creatively misunderstood. But the pop fans have it both ways: they speak for the dominant culture, but also carry the righteous indignation of those who have been snubbed. Holding all 52 cards, they insist on absolute fidelity to their music, and anyone who doesn’t provide it will be cast into the dungeon without regret – because not only are they powerless, they’re the bad guys, so there is double reason not to care about them.

(I do wonder one thing about composers who so so strongly identify with pop music – why are they composers, and not pop musicians? If pop music is the real, the true, the authentic music, why didn’t they go make that? Why would anyone devote their life to writing their second-favorite kind of music? Do they secretly feel guilty for having abandoned pop? Do they fear that their classical training is a betrayal? And when some of us neglect to measure our lives against pop music, do they salve their consciences by projecting that abandonment and betrayal onto us? Just thinking out loud here.)

Of course in an era in which someone over at Yale could decide to say jazz isn't part of the Western canon to a degree that would let it be taught in the music department at Yale it's understandable why some might feel pop music is the underdog. 

Now last year I wrote about a book that question the viability of the concept of "authenticity" in music.  I half agreed with the proposal, but the author didn't have the nerve to propose that there's no such thing as an inauthentic style of music, he was aiming to propose there's no such thing as an "authentic" performance of any given work.  That's almost too obvious a point to have ever bothered with but polemics in the arts tend to be about authenticity defined by and arrived at by other means.

The thing is that a few centuries ago in what we now tend to call the Baroque era the notion that more than one prevailing style could exist and that you, as a practical musician, might well have to know more than one tradition and more than one style to make a decent living as a musician wasn't that hard to work out.  Instead of debating the merits of pop vs classical why don't we teach them both as co-equal traditions?  Surely that's what some people have already been doing.  The Baroque era had its own "traditional" and "modern" style.  Why the contemporary United States can't do the same seems mysterious.  The Baroque era had figured bass.  We've got chord charts and head tunes in jazz, right? 

In terms of economic might pop decimates jazz and classical alike but if there's a problem in our era that may afflict both jazz and classical music alike it could be that the academic approach to career musicianship has created an artificially great gulf between the scholastic and the popular styles.  It's not clear that that sort of gap has ever been so "big" as it seems to be in debates now.  Whether we look at the lives of Haydn or Villa-Lobos or Shostakovich we can observe some cases where vocational musicians who are nowadays known, if at all, for "classical" music were conversant in a variety of styles of their time and place.  Even old J. S. Bach had his way of synthesizing elements from German, French, Italian or English styles and forms. 

If we succumb to some ridiculous notions about authenticity then we might have people fretting about cultural appropriation.  Amalgamation and appropriation are in many respects the essence of art.  Was Ellington's band guilty of "cultural appropriation" when someone took up the funeral march theme from a Chopin piano sonata?  Only if by "guilty" we say the riff was used.  It's part of what makes "Black and Tan Fantasy" so fun.  Recycling and reinventing from existing material is what people do.  If the human race took seriously the idea that you shouldn't do something because everyone before you seems to have done it all before nobody would have sex, would they?  Yet babies keep being born.  It would appear some things in human life are worth doing even if countless other people have done this thing you've decided to do already.

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