Wednesday, October 5, 2011


I had some thoughts sparked by my starting to look at the aesthetics underlying Rolling Stone Magazine's list of greatest albums. Canonization is a metaphorical extension of the religious concept to culture and ends up with a list of the greatest figures or works in art and culture. How does canonization happen in the pop world? I have a pretty good idea of how it works in the classical world. But first, let me mention that the idea of canonization is much criticized in musicological circles. Here is an example. There is an ongoing discussion critiquing the enshrining of male composers and the apparent neglect of female composers. It seems as if there is still the acceptance of the notion of absolute quality in music, just disagreement as to where this quality is found. In the classical world, canonization is the slow recognition over time of the quality of a particular work or the work of a particular composer. The case of  J. S. Bach is typical. While admired during his lifetime, he was hardly the most famous or most performed composer. Over much of the 19th century his music slowly came to the fore as it won more and more admirers among other composers such as Mendelssohn, among performers and among audiences. Now, as witnessed by the very recent attempt to come up with the ten greatest composers by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times, we see Bach's name at the top of the list. So the frequent objection to a cultural canon, that of asking who exactly has the authority to decide such matters, turns out to be a weak criticism as the decision is a collective one, made over several generations. The canon is also, like scientific theories, constantly subject to revision. Composers may rise and fall. For my money Dmitri Shostakovich is very likely to push either Brahms or Bartok off Tommasini's list over the next couple of decades.

But how the heck does the canon become established in pop music? The awarding of prizes and certificates by institutions, such as the Grammy awards, is fraught with influence and non-aesthetic criteria. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to have a bit wider vision, however there are questions about the nomination process which is apparently controlled by a few individuals not themselves musicians. Some of the traditional mechanisms found in the classical world, such as the selection of particular works for performance by orchestras, chamber groups and soloists, seem almost irrelevant in the pop music world. The 'work' itself is the original recording and not a score that others perform. There are instances of musical groups performing a whole album that is considered 'classic', but in the larger scheme of things, these are not very significant. Some songs become canonical by being covered by numerous other artists, such as "Yesterday" which has had reportedly over 2,500 cover versions. Others, like some of the songs of early blues musician Robert Johnson, have had fewer, but more influential covers. The case of Robert Johnson is more analogous to the posthumous career of a classical composer.

We may be forced to look at record sales over long periods of time to get a sense of the importance of a particular popular musical group. If we look at the Wikipedia page on best-selling music artists we find tied at the top of the list the Beatles and Elvis Presley with perhaps a billion sales each. Since these numbers were racked up over a fifty to sixty year period that indeed tells us something. But not necessarily! The late quartets of Beethoven, now recognized to be some of the greatest music ever written, saw very few performances over the first hundred years of their existence. For example, one scholar has collected evidence that in the twenty-five years after Beethoven's death, his home town Vienna--a great musical center--only saw a total of seven performances of any of the late quartets. The Great Fugue was only performed fourteen times in all of Europe in the fifty years after his death. So record sales, analogous to performances, may only obscure the relative quality of musical artists in the pop world.

Now I don't have any answers to these questions except the bromide: only time will tell! But I thought it was worthwhile just musing about it. Let's end with a selection from #27 on Rolling Stone's list of the greatest albums of all time:

UPDATE: I seem to have left out any mention of the influence of historians and theorists on canon formation. I actually pay a fair amount of attention to them. For example, one indicator of the importance of the Beatles is the attention paid to them by music theorists. Walter Everett took two volumes to cover all the songs of the Beatles and, except for a predilection to Shenkerian analysis, they are very well done. The sheer number and quality of books on the Beatles is itself a strong indicator of their importance. As for historians, ones that specialize in popular music are still relatively few and the enormous growth in pop music in the last 50 years has yet to be fully understood.


Anonymous said...

Personal taste plays a big role, of course, so is it "wrong" to worship a composer most people consider "minor"? Probably not.

I tend to prefer music that is rich and complex for one simple reason. But before I get to it, I'll say that some music that does not appear to be complex is in fact very complex. To me much Delta blues is quite complex in ways, say, Pink Floyd is not.

But the reason I like music that is rich and complex is that I can't stand expiration dates. A big reason I've turned away from pop music is that most tunes have a quota: you listen to them perhaps 100 times (or play them if you're in a band, as I used to do) and then comes a time you just can't listen to it any more, because there is nothing new in it. Once you've completely assimilated music, strangely, it dies. So many famous pop tunes (including many of your favorite group) are dead for me, because it seems that everything they have to offer (which can be a lot) has already been offered.
But truly great music, like great literature, has no expiration date. I've listened to Bach's works infinitely more often than Bach himself. (No big feat actually. He listened to his works usually a couple of times.) And every time, literally every time, I find something new I hadn't heard before. Maybe that's because I am a poor listener. But if so I count this as a blessing because freshness and novelty and surprise is very important for a listener. On the other hand, even Mozart has tunes I can't listen to without squirming -- tunes that I loved! Lots of my love of jazz has to do with the richness of the music and this constant discovery that does not wear out with repetition.

But it's me. I am not saying everyone should be like that. If the 100th iteration of Hey Jude moves you as much as the first time, more power to you! I might even be a bit envious. There can be great beauty in simplicity.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm glad you mention personal taste as it has a relationship with canon formation. If I have an eccentric personal attraction to the music of the Incredible String Band this may be just that. But if a lot of people are attracted to their music and if that grows over several decades then we see the slow canonization of that repertoire. In other words, recognition of quality is personal taste become general taste.

Yes, rich and complex music is music that can be explored and enjoyed over and over again. But, as you point out, what music is truly rich and complex is not always obvious. There is a lot of music that pretends to be rich and complex that is merely noisy and pretentious. Similarly, there is very fine music that can seem rather simple.

As you say, there can be great beauty in simplicity. Have a listen to the first movement of Shostakovich's 15th String Quartet.