Monday, September 13, 2010

Some thoughts on musical divergence and schism

Hi all!

I am excited to join this fascinating online conversation! I really enjoyed our first class and I am looking forward to our discussions for the rest of the semester.

For my first post, I wanted to run an idea I have had for some time by the community and get your input. Several years ago, I was wondering about the issue that many of us have already brought up: why, in our modern times, does classical music suffer from a "stigma" of elitism and snobbery? In addition, it seems that many regard classical music as being boring, out of touch, and wholly irrelevant to our modern times? Though classical music has never been popular in my lifetime, it nevertheless seems that just a few generations before mine, classical music was certainly more popular and generally accepted than it is today. So, what happened?

My theory (which I admittedly have not seriously researched) is this: starting in the period following World War I, the arts gradually began to move away from focusing on aesthetics and public appeal. Some of the movements representing this shift are Dadaism (visual art), strict twelve-tone composition (music), and avant-garde poetry (literature). As the pendulum shifted away from creating aesthetically pleasing works, it swung towards an increased emphasis on the artist and, in particular, the medium or method used to create the art in question.

For example, Arnold Schoenberg is remembered less for his music than for his system of musical composition. Visual artists like Jackson Pollock are remembered for how they produced their works (i.e., paint splatters, or something like "Canvas, covered with layers of graphite mixed with fecal matter and human hair"). Writers like Kenneth Goldsmith who wrote Fidget (a recent work of poetry in which he wrote down every action he performed for 24 hours) are remembered for some innovation of composition, not for the writing itself. In each case, the work becomes almost irrelevant - what is important is the artist and his/her technical method of production.

By the 1950s and '60s, some aspects of these artistic movements had become nearly anti-public and openly confrontational with the audience. The public, alienated from the arts that used to fulfill their entertainment needs, sought something new to fill the void. In stark relief to art music (which unfortunately was considered the descendant of classical music and had, in my opinion, become quite elitist) true "pop" music was born: short, easily listenable tunes that made no attempt to challenge the audience in any way. Pop was created to be the ultimate definition of aesthetically pleasing art - a welcome relief for a public that had grown tired of being simultaneously both ignored and shocked.

I believe that this massive schism caused the most damage to the field of music, where two entirely separate, radicalized and fragmented super-genres came into being: on one hand the "ivory tower" of academic art music, and on the other, easily digestible and disposable commercial pop.

Of course, these are rather broad and sweeping generalizations. And like all generalizations, I'm sure parts of it are false. But I do think that there is something to this argument. At the very least, it is our responsibility as musicians to do all we can to heal the wounds that have been inflicted on music, and close the rifts that so widely divide classical music from all other genres.


ericakyree said...

Your points ring true to me. I would be interested in finding out exactly what CAUSED composers and performers to turn inward and become more intellectually innovative (for the sake of intellectualism and innovation rather than for the sake of aesthetics). What marked the shift? What was going on politically and socially at the time? Where did the trend begin? (With literature? Music? Visual art?) What role did WWI play in that worldwide shift from expressionism to the abstract?

Dave B. said...

I agree Erica. As I said, I haven't ever done any hard research to back up my points - it's based mostly just on knowledge I have absorbed from my studies of history over the years. If you have any leads or suggestions, please let me know!