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Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Music, Politics, and the Search for Meaning

As a politically active composer (I'm sure the FBI has a hefty letter file by now), I'm proud to be among the ranks of concerned composer/citizens who voice opinions about the often laudable, sometimes reprehensible actions of governments--both ours and others. And while I don't focus much on political issues in my music, it's bound to crop up occasionally. Artists, as well as politicians, have a rhetoric, and most feel at least some obligation to use it. (Now, if only we could only use our powers for good...)

But it does make me wonder--Many art music composers, myself included, have complained of art music being marginalized, that we're losing ground with an audience. There is reason for this, but it's not entirely the dumbing down of arts and educational programs. Hell, Plato and Socrates complained of that. The number of people seeking meaning (whatever "meaning" means) in their arts and their lives is actually greater than ever before.

So with so many kinds of interesting music and arts in this country, isn't it weird that NPR and others who bankrolled the research were surprised that people actually have more than a single taste in music? And is it any surprise, that so much "new" music in academia, say between 1945 and 1980 or so, with it's abstraction and sentimentality of despair to the exclusion of so much else, became marginalized?

But even with a diveristy of tastes and styles, I would suggest that there are common factors in keeping an audience: Meaning. Substance. Something new to say. Something worth hearing twice. Something that touches the human condition.

if "meaning" is absent, then no matter how beautifully crafted, simple or complex, powerful or beautiful on the surface a work may be, if an original voice and a sense of communication is absent, then the audience drops away. If there is nothing new being said, no element of the human experience touched, the audience drops away. If it's all about color or craft, then the audience drops away. It's not to say a new or radical piece may not have a rocky beginning. But over decades and eras, if there is no audience, then to ask a famous question the other way, "Who cares if we compose?"

It's an interdisciplinary age, both in politics and arts, as well as between artistic disciplines. We must learn to understand "those people" who are not like us. And I suspect art music composers had best learn to think outside of our narrow world of harmony and rhythm and into the world of context, drama, narrative, language, politics, meaning, substance, and so on if we want to get new, young listeners in the door, and sell more than ten CDs a year.

(Hmmmmm, makes me wonder....)

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