Monday, March 5, 2018

Devaluing Music

Via the blog On an Overgrown Path, I stumbled across a pretty good article on the multiple issues facing music today. The Devaluation of Music: It's Worse Than You Think.
When I hear songwriters of radio hits decry their tiny checks from Spotify, I think of today’s jazz prodigies who won’t have a shot at even a fraction of the old guard’s popular success. They can’t even imagine working in a music environment that might lead them to household name status of the Miles Davis or John Coltrane variety. They are struggling against forces at the very nexus of commerce, culture and education that have conspired to make music less meaningful to the public at large. Here are some of the most problematic issues musicians are facing in the industry’s current landscape. (My emphasis)
The writer, Craig Havighurst, sees seven ways in which the culture is devaluing music. One is the loss of context. In a streaming environment the music has almost no associated information other than artist/song title/album. Even in popular music this is a serious deficiency, but for classical music it is deadly. Another realm in which music is devalued is that of the media. Havighurst points out:
In the 1960s, when I was born, mainstream print publications took the arts seriously, covering and promoting exceptional contemporary talents across all styles of music. Thus did Thelonious Monk wind up on the cover of TIME magazine, for example. When I began covering music for a chain newspaper around 2000, stories were prioritized by the prior name recognition of the subject. Art/discovery stories were subordinate to celebrity news at a systemic level. Industry metrics (chart position and concert ticket sales) became a staple of music “news.” In the age of measured clicks the always-on focus grouping has institutionalized the echo chamber of pop music, stultifying and discouraging meaningful engagement with art music. (My emphasis)
Another problem is the conflation of music with all other forms of entertainment:
A little noticed but corrosive quirk of the digital age is the way our interfaces conflate music with all other media and entertainment choices. iTunes started it by taking software ostensibly for collecting and playing music and morphing it into a platform for TV, film, podcasts, games, apps and so on.
Yet another is the trend towards anti-intellectualism:
Music has for decades been promoted and explained to us almost exclusively as a talisman of emotion. The overwhelming issue is how it makes you feel. Whereas the art music of the West transcended because of its dazzling dance of emotion and intellect. Art music relates to mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. And as such topics have been belittled in the general press or cable television, our collective ability to relate to music through a humanities lens has atrophied. Those of us who had music explained and demonstrated to us as a game for the brain as well as the heart had it really lucky. Why so many are satisfied to engage with music at only the level of feeling is a vast, impoverishing mystery.
Yes, that hits home. I suspect that if you mentioned to most people that music has aspects other than the immediacy of emotion, they would be astonished to hear it. Havighurst also mentions some consequences of the migration of some of the textures of classical music into game soundtracks:
How does a young person steeped in the faux-Shostakovich rumbling of a war game soundtrack hear real Shostakovich and think it’s any big deal? This is rarely remarked on, but I believe that thousands of cumulative impressions of background music assigned to “romance” and “grief” and “heroism” have laid down layers of scar tissue on our ability to feel something when tonal symphonic music is made or written in the 21st century.
I have noted a similar problem in the characteristic rhythmic rigidity of much pop music. I suspect it leads to an inability to even hear the subtleties of phrasing that are common in classical music. The writer's final point is about the impoverishment of music in the educational systems. That would follow, really, as the educational system's primary purpose is to instill the basic values and beliefs of the surrounding culture. As the culture devalues music, so would the educational system.

Of course the basic problem of value when it comes to music, or any of the fine arts, is that while there are certainly economic factors in play, the fundamental values are humanistic and aesthetic, not economic. And we seem to be rather inept at measuring anything other than economic values these days! Which reminds me, I need to get back to my series of posts on aesthetics.

In the meantime, let's have a musical envoi with real aesthetic value. Here is a piece written for an audience likely smaller than the number of performers, the Symphony no. 55 in E flat major by Joseph Haydn, written around 1774. The second movement is one of his more interesting sets of variations with contrasts between staccato ones and legato ones.


5 comments:

Christopher Culver said...

"How does a young person steeped in the faux-Shostakovich rumbling of a war game soundtrack hear real Shostakovich and think it’s any big deal? This is rarely
remarked on, but I believe that thousands of cumulative impressions of background music assigned to “romance” and “grief” and “heroism” have laid down layers
of scar tissue on our ability to feel something when tonal symphonic music is made or written in the 21st century."

This reminds me of something that Brian Ferneyhough pointed out in an interview: in Bach’s music, a sung text about pain or grief is often accompanied by a chromatic descending figure. That meant something in Bach’s time, it would have really shook listeners. However, over the decades this became such a commonplace that for later generations of classical listeners, it was simply a stylistic marker without much especial meaning to it. So, even art music can weaken the impact of earlier art music, it’s not just pop music or mediocre soundtracks that do that. The HIP movement may resurrect the instruments, the tuning, and the tempos of Baroque-era music, but it’s hard to resurrect the actual listener expectations of the time!

Bryan Townsend said...

Absolutely! One thing I think I have said a couple of times is that the one thing missing from historically accurate performances of, say, seventeenth century music, is seventeenth century listeners. But on the other hand, some of those very intense Bach passages still sound pretty intense!

Marc said...

"Whereas the art music of the West transcended because of its dazzling dance of emotion and intellect. Art music relates to mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. And as such topics have been belittled in the general press or cable television, our collective ability to relate to music through a humanities lens has atrophied."

He can't bring himself to mention religion, can he? Perhaps it didn't even cross his mind.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, yes, that is a huge omission.

Will Wilkin said...

Yes Marc, I tend to I love sacred music the MOST.