Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts on finishing HTR

I finally finished HTR and I must say it's been quite a journey. I have a long list of new words to learn in the back of my book, as well as many new composers to study. Many of Hewett's points resonated with me, yet I feel strangely dissatisfied.

Overall, something about this book really bothered me, but I'm having trouble figuring out what it is. I have been brain-storming and came up with a list of troubling issues (in no particular order):

1. When I first picked up this book, I thought that Hewett would be discussing "healing the rift" between art music and popular music. Yet, I was surprised that he is really only concerned with merging modernist music (as he calls it) back into the traditional "classical" tradition. This is strange to me, because I automatically consider modernist music to be part of the larger Western art music tradition, though not necessarily representative of the sole path to the future. To me, a much larger and more serious problem is that there is such a divide today between art music and popular music, to the point where it can't be "cool" to listen to classical music. Furthermore, many people have difficulty understanding how someone could like both popular music and classical music equally. Hewett does discuss popular music, though he seems to constantly dismiss it as much as possible.

2. Formulaic writing. Many passages in the book read as follows: make point, list composers and pieces that demonstrate point, throw in some obscure vocabulary, repeat. Obviously, Hewett has to list some specific pieces to back up his points, but I felt like there were moments when he was listing composers and/or using vocabulary for no other purpose than to show how well-read and intelligent he is. I am fully prepared to admit my being wrong about this - just my impression.

3. A bias towards the ideal of pure music and a real hatred of "expressivity." Let's face it - it's hard (if not impossible) to write music without thinking of something. Personally, I don't believe in pure music but Hewett most obviously does. ("We always have a distant, oblique relation with a piece of classical music, if it's good." (262); "...it is only when people discover how to listen that music can be freed from its subservience to words..." (264)). In particular, you can feel his hatred for film music or anything written to support a text (see pp. 245, 248). Really? What about opera? What about rap and hip-hop, for that matter? Of course, lines have to be drawn, but implying that "expressivity" is bad is simply not a solid enough criterion for determining the value of a work.

4. Uncharitable interpretation of others' writings. You can find a particular example of this on pp. 250-251 where Hewett quotes Robin Holloway. Hewett accuses Holloway of believing that musical development exists independent of history. Yet, the included quote does not seem to say that. My interpretation is that Holloway is simply saying that there is not always only one path forward, though in retrospect it can seem that way. Things could have gone differently - that's it. Yet, Hewett really tears into Holloway on this relatively innocuous statement.

5. The accusation that popular music (and pretty much all other musics other than Western art music) lack "craft." "...what's missing [in popular music] is the element of syntax, the craft, that gives the dialectic something to work on. So all we're left with is authenticity...an attitude all too easily struck by the untalented." That's a pretty broad and bold statement to make about a field that, size-wise, easily dwarfs art music. Is there a lot of junk in pop music? Absolutely. Is there no craft at all? Well...

I feel juvenile and perhaps a bit uncultured listing negative points, but it does feel cathartic to get it down in print. Do any of you feel the same way about these issues? I should say that there are many things I liked about Hewett's book. He has a good mix of serious tone and humor, and he has some really great moments where he tackles complex issues in a frank, objective and conversational style. He is totally correct about the multiplicity of influences we have today, and his discussions of authenticity and the development of modernist music in the 20th century were fascinating. Nevertheless, I find it hard to like the book given some of the large flaws and biases I encountered.

Sorry for the long post!

1 comment:

ericakyree said...

You make some good points, Dave. Like you, I left this reading experience feeling slightly unsettled without quite knowing why. I agree with Hewett that classical music has something unique to offer that perhaps no other musical genre can, but I'm taken aback by his suggestion that we stop "breaking down barriers." I also think that #3 on your list of complaints merits further discussion. In a course that I took at the University of Sussex entitled "Music and Narrative," we spent an entire semester charting the transformation of 19th-century opera into 20th-century film scoring. In the eyes of my professor, at least, the two musical forms are very closely connected.