Serious Music: Is it all in the ear of the listener?

This post will stray from my usual fair, but my friend Jim Stubblefield, who works in the music industry, shared this article with me. As someone who studied music in higher education the topic compels me, so I’ve given it some thought.

… songwriters and musicians regularly assert that music has been “devalued.” they’ve pointed at … music piracy and the futility of “competing with free.” […] Less obvious are a number of other forces and trends that have devalued music in a more pernicious way than the problems of hyper-supply and inter-industry jockeying.

Via “The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think”

The author of the quote above, Craig Havighurst, identifies a number of industry variables that exert negative influences on the prospects for serious music or musicians to thrive in the modern media climate, including the lack of full-length records, liner notes, or disc jockeys with selective agency. He also implicates the presentation of digital platforms, such as Apple’s iTunes, and anti-intellectualism for the dire state of the industry.

Nevertheless, I feel several other factors have exerted significant influence on the music industry over the past thirty years, iTunes notwithstanding.

1. The Decline of the Middle Class

People today don’t have time to sit down and consume a symphony or focus on an entire album. Inflation and technology have hastened American life. People are working longer hours and spending a larger portion of their disposable income on lifestyle necessities. Aside from the obvious financial constraints this entails, it also suppresses the number of peripheral entertainments to which a person can devote her cognitive bandwidth, of which art music makes enormous demands.

Another side effect of this phenomenon relates to the point Havighurst makes about music education. Parents with less disposable income have less to spend on instruments and lessons. Have you ever met a music geek who was satisfied with the school instrument? Neither have I.

2. The Internet Age

Dmitri Shostakovitch

Dmitri Shostakovitch and John Coltrane didn’t have to compete with Instagram and Twitter for people’s attention. Music is not the only form of entertainment anymore, so it has to make better use of the listener’s time.

(Before pointing fingers at the Internet for ruining society, remember people said similar things about radio and television. Yet, books somehow survived.)

The point is not that modern technology is bad, but rather, that the music industry needs to discover its niche in the new panoply of available media.

3. Music Snobbery

Havighurst points out anti-intellectualism’s influence on the public’s attitude toward.

Music has for decades been promoted and explained to us almost exclusively as a talisman of emotion. The overwhelming issue is how it makes you feel.

It’s a point that resonates with me. Few sentiments make me bristle like a whiff of anti-intellectualism.

However, he doesn’t mention the contempt with which “serious” musicians treated casual listeners twenty and thirty years ago. For the better part of the twentieth century, classical composers tinkered with theoretical tonalities and produced absurdities of composition as though they were running an arms race to produce work that bore little resemblance to something that could actually be enjoyed.

And attitudes in the jazz clubs mirrored the symphonic halls. In Miles Davis’s autobiography, he pointed out that jazz critics reserved praise for the least accessible examples of the art, a practice that, over time, alienated the casual listener. In the 1990s, college jazz departments lauded praise on albums such as Song X, a work by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman on which the musicians play haphazardly extemporized music simultaneously and call it “avant garde,” cacophony by the standards of most.

The music, like Libertarian politics, focused more on conforming to a set of philosophical ideals. By the time I got to music school, work that appealed to casual listeners was given short shrift by students aspiring to “serious” musicianship.

(Incidentally, rock ‘n’ roll is not immune. The indie rock scene is predicated on listeners who think it’s cool to like bands nobody else does.)

Over time the casual listener caught on that “serious” musicians focused more on demeaning him than ennobling him and passed on to greener soundscapes. Which brings me to my next point …

4. Post-Modernism

Disenchantment with musical dogmatism gets on swimmingly with post-modernism. “Screw those music elites at universities; my untrained musical ear is just as good as theirs,” or so it goes. Maybe art is subjective, one might think, like beauty, truth, facts, and now science (depending on the fish tanks to which one’s current flows).

The modern listener doesn’t have time to seek out quality art, much less sit around and ponder what makes one piece of music superior to another (philosophizing, particularly on abstract fields such as aesthetics, is a luxury for the rich and idle). So in lieu of a better paradigm, why not listen to the stuff that pushes the most pleasure centers the greatest amount of the time? Isn’t that why people listen to music anyway?

5. Film & video games might be just the thing

I’ve always felt the arts lose their way when they divorce themselves from context. When I say context, I’m not talking about the liner notes or album covers, but context as pragmatic function.

Music didn’t always exist solely for the expressive needs of the artist. J. S. Bach wrote to inspire religious devotion in his congregation; Mozart wrote symphonies to entertain aristocrats at parties and piano concerti to demonstrate the mechanical capabilities of that new keyboard instrument–the pianoforte. It’s not until Beethoven that we see the advent of art that serves only the creative impulse. The age of Romanticism exalted the human experience and the endeavors thus entailed.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven (1803) – Christian Horneman

Nevertheless, that’s where the trouble started. Ever since Beethoven, composers have pushed the harmonic limits to greater extremes. Music reached the tonal frontier at the beginning of the 20th century. Salome and Electra, operas by Richard Strauss, represent the zenith of chromatic harmony a composer can employ while still working within a tonal framework.

Strauss based his opera on the play by Oscar Wilde, here illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley

Then the sonic Lewis and Clarks reached the west coast of atonal music with the advent of the second Viennese school–Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. Schoenberg introduced a system of composition that applied scientific atonality to the art of composition–the twelve-tone technique. The sonic palette, like the American frontier, had reached the limit of possible expansion. Nevertheless, new composers, still wanting to contribute something new, pushed the sonic palette in directions it would (or should) not go. And, in fact, the world of composition had lost the non-expert listener somewhere back before Richard Strauss and Wagner set pens to hardly tonal scores.

Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, Op. 42 employs the composers famous 12-tone technique

So in a sense, film and game music provide a return to music’s humble beginnings as a complement to other endeavors. Furthermore, some of the best western-tradition music of the past century originated on sterling screens of silver. And while music aficionados turn their noses at the work of composers such as John Williams or James Horner, they have a harder time doing so at the work of Philip Glass, Leo Brouwer, or Toru Takemitsu–all serious composers who have written for film.

In Sum

Modern music focuses too much on feeling, but the “serious” musicians of universities intellectualized the art to the utter exclusion of emotion and the casual listener.

Art by its nature must make people feel something; otherwise, it’s just sonic information. Even atonal twelve-tone technique compositions can engender feelings in the listener. For instance, atonal music is often employed to great effect in horror films to engender disorientation in the audience. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima is a model of experimental classical music. It won’t break the top 40 list, but it does evoke its own palette of emotion.

However, quality art differs in its delivery. Whereas vernacular art bestows its pleasures effusively, like a snickers bar injecting a rush of sugar into the blood stream, serious art challenges its recipient to a deeper understanding that takes time to acquire–much the same as a nutritious meal releases its sugars only after the body works through the fiber to obtain a steady, but paced, release of substantive nourishment.

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