Saturday, September 20, 2014

Casting away artificial barriers: the meeting of art music and popular music

Many people have become unintended victims in classical music’s sacralization over the past century. This might seem like a sensationalist statement, but perhaps it’s one worth considering. Every time someone says about a piece of classical music, I wouldn’t understand that kind of music, that’s just too fancy for me, that person is a victim of sacralization. Every time someone says, you’re so lucky to have that kind of music in you, that person is a victim of sacralization. These people are victims in the sense that society’s ideas have convinced them at the outset that they are ill-equipped to understand classical music.

Audiences, however, are not the only members of society who have been convinced they are not good enough. Our own musicians and creators of music also suffer the consequences of this movement. For decades, mainstream popular music and classical art music have been rigidly separated by an invisible status barrier. Though people who write songs are indeed creators of music, they are not considered composers. Instead, they are stubbornly handed the label, “songwriter.” This term in and of itself carries no negative meaning; however, the social implications do. Someone who writes songs is not commonly thought to have the intellectual or spiritual worth of a composer. When popular music icon Paul McCartney decided to dabble in art music in the early 90s, his Liverpool Oratorio was met with cool critical reception. The Guardian (UK) suggested that the piece has "little awareness of the need for recurrent ideas that will bind the work into a whole." (Though I did go the Guardian’s website to search for more detailed information, use of their search engine only yielded articles on Paul McCartney back to 2001. This quote comes from a Wikipedia article.)

Lately, however, creators of music have been challenging societal barriers. One notable example is Richard Reed Parry of the Montreal-based indie band, Arcade Fire. His new album, Music for Heart and Breath, features meterless music whose tempo is determined by the beating hearts of the people performing it. Thus, his work could be classified as indeterminate music, a genre frequented by notable composer John Cage. Parry even convinced the Kronos quartet to record with him on this album, which was released in June of this year on Deutsche Grammaphon (whose website bears the phrase “Deutsche Grammaphon is classical music.”) For more details, please read Brad Wheeler’s recent article from The Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON, Canada).

Another artist creating self-described “classically informed pop music” is Longy’s own Damen Liebling. After years of hard work, Damen has released his first album, Tonic. The title track is a purely instrumental art music work, and the primary musical medium of the album is a nontraditional ensemble featuring vocals, a string quartet, drums, bass, and piano. Damen’s website can be found here, and downloading or free streaming of individual tracks from Tonic can be found here.

In the Wheeler article linked above, Parry is quoted as saying, most of the feedback I’ve received has been positive. It’s real music. It has a quality to it, and I think people respond genuinely to genuine music. I’m glad Parry listened to his intuition, and think he has a point. In my opinion, a large part of what makes music moving is its genuineness. There will always be creators of music who have studied their craft extensively and some who create on instinct. However, I think there’s no sense in allowing genuine music to be discounted because of its pedigree. Thankfully, it seems that there’s hope for future musicians who are interested in crossing boundaries.

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