Rocking the Art Music Boat

Art music, popular music, “degenerate music,” experimental programming, collaboration across disciplines, contemporary media, aesthetics, musical meaning for a contemporary audience, pluralism, violent art. This list encapsulates some of the topics that have recently come to occupy a significant region of this blogger’s mind, and so, with help from a few friends and colleagues, I will offer some questions and thoughts for the consideration of any who happen to traverse this peculiar piece of cyber-terrain.

First, the “art-music” dilemma:

My question is this. In the twenty-first century musical climate of pluralism and blurring of boundaries between musical styles, is there a need, or even an adequacy, in the term “art-music” as distinguished from popular or folk music?

Perhaps there are certain examples which we are able to clearly classify according to our three very general categories. Art music has gained a reputation for complexity and a dependence on notation, while popular music is said to attract mass audiences due to its accessibility, the latter being a euphemism for simplicity. The use of notation is not nearly as codified in popular music as it is in art music. Following this line of thinking, folk music would be the least complex and usually orally transmitted, therefore the least associated with a tradition of notation. From this perspective, the music of Milton Babbitt, for instance, is most definitely art music because of its complexity and careful preservation through notation. The Beatles we may safely list under popular music, since they appealed to a mass audience and cared little for and knew little of working with notation, oral tradition being the name of the game. But what about such repertoire as the many choral works written by Shostakovich specifically for and because of a certain (rather warm) political climate he found himself in, or the numerous film scores composed by him and other composers known as writers of serious art music? What about Berberian’s “Stripsody” or Moondog’s…anything? What about jazz today? And how do we even begin to distinguish the differences between our three categories in the world of electronic music? Is popular electronic music simply music with an obvious beat, heard in a club setting while electronic art music is rhythmically ambiguous and experienced within university labs and small contemporary music concert series? What about the times in which this is not the case?

I think it’s fairly easy to see that such distinctions, even if valid sometime in our bygones, are obsolete in our current culture of near-global musical multiplicity. However, what is more disturbing than the irrelevance of the term “art-music” is its implicit value judgment, a harkening back to a top-down, aristocratic, museum-like, and dated set of values. Is it not the case that if whatever is understood under the term “art-music” is art, then all music outside of it is not art? By that token, popular music is not art, and neither is folk-music. Neither is me banging on a can. But if you combine me with a few other people, who will perhaps bang on other things and who perhaps have, like me, spent a few years in music academia, and if you put us on a respected stage and label us with something respectable – in other words, if you nail an everyday object onto the wall of a museum – we will have suddenly transformed into high art! Voila – the metamorphosis is quite remarkable, as are all of the hermeneutical implications with which my skilled banging on a can will suddenly be bursting.

There is bad “art-music” and there is bad popular music; there is great art music and there is great popular music. From my current perspective, both sides can stand to benefit from one another in the spheres of musicianship skills, programming, and audience relations.

The question of what exactly is art or what exactly is music, which I snarkily broached above, is impossible to dissect with a satisfactory result, and may be irrelevant. However, it is also interesting—a notion on which irrelevance hardly has any bearing. And so I will chip away at it, slowly and sans endgame.

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