After wrapping up Great Noise Ensemble’s 2009-10 concert season last Friday and wrapping up the academic year this week, my thoughts are a little rambling.  So, here are some nuggets I’ve been thinking about which, while not providing the basis for long essays, necessarily, I hope will generate some interesting discussion:

    In conversation with California based percussionist Chris Froh last week we both realized that the west coast, particularly the bay area, once the bastion of countercultural art music, where minimalism was born and where John Adams migrated in order to escape east coast modernism, has become the bastion of…east coast modernism.  Meanwhile, if you want to hear rock/jazz infused post-minimalist/totalist music, you go to…Princeton?  When did this switch happen and how?

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   I’ve had my theory students finish up their last semester of undergraduate theory by reading Evan Ziporyn’s 1991 article, “Who Listens if you Care?” (a copy of which can be found here: http://www.arts.rpi.edu/century/AC/Ziporyn%20Who%20Listens%20if%20You%20Care.pdf) and confronting the issues he raises (before the internet, no less!) about ownership, copyright, appropriation, multiculturalism, the mainstream vs. the “Other”  and the nature of success as a composer.  Is one a composer if one practices what Ziporyn calls “Marxist Music” (or what the composer John Oswald calls “Plunderphonics”)?  Should, as Ziporyn asks, simply “shut up and listen?”  (Well, sometimes, yes.)

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Oscar Bettison’s “O Death” (which Ensemble Klang recently recorded and have made available for sale or stream here: http://music.ensembleklang.com/album/o-death-oscar-bettison) may be the most viscerally stunning piece of music I’ve encountered in a long time.  I’m not usually drawn to music like this, but this piece’s power is undeniable (and I’m not just saying that because Oscar–full disclosure– is a colleague).

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   Why do we compose?  The most succesful composers among us (think Phil Glass and John Adams, although John Williams, whose audience is, ostensibly, much bigger, still could fit in this question) doesn’t reach the kind of audience that even a mildly succesful pop/rock/indie/world/non-classical act reaches, let alone someone like Lady Ga-ga.  Is it important to reach a wide audience, or is it just a matter of reaching somebody, ANYBODY, even if it’s only ourselves?

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   Scott Spiegelberg over at Musical Perceptions asks a very interesting question in reaction to a recent comment by composer Stephen Hartke on eighth blackbird’s blog regarding the differences in the pop vs. classical concert experiences (http://musicalperceptions.blogspot.com/2010/05/great-artpop-divide.html).  Is there a difference?  What do you guys think?

2 Responses to “Some Stray Thoughts”
  1. Terence O'Grady says:

    Talking about whether a musical experience is more solitary or communal in nature is always interesting of course, but it may be at the periphery of the main issues when it comes to the differences between listening to mainstream popular music and classical tradition music. Of course there will be cross-over genres—that’s hardly news—where the differentiation will be fuzzier, but if we’re talking about mainstream pop (Beyonce, hip hop and what’s left of the guitar-dominated rock and pop traditions), the differences have less to do with the composer’s intention per se and more to do with what actually gets into the piece of music in terms of subtlety and complexity. I realize that such a statement will immediately trigger a number of responses from people taking the position that pop can be just as subtle and complex as anything from the classical traditions (and some jazz is certainly a wild card in this respect). I myself have published various articles that that give some forms of popular music (mostly older styles, e.g., the Beatles) ample credit for sophistication within their own, very specific stylistic context. But the contexts associated with most popular music and classical tradition music are simply not the same. And the popular music audience is often very sensitive to context, immediately decoding music (often based on the “sound world” it creates) and making a judgment as to whether it’s something they’re interested in listening to as the “soundtrack to their life.” Of course the idea of what makes a suitable “soundtrack” often involves its suitability to social situations, so we’re right back to the idea of communal versus solitary experience. Nevertheless, the most important differences between these types of music may have less to do with how they are used than how they are constituted stylistically.

  2. Excellent points, Terrence, though I was initially confused by what you meant by, “the differences have less to do with the composer’s intention per se and more to do with what actually gets into the piece of music in terms of subtelty and complexity.” The pop format tends to be rather limited, seeing as it’s meant for very specific CONSUMPTION and often has built in obsolescence at its COMMERCIAL core (The Beatles certainly benefited from their commercial success, which allowed them to, later in their career, exploit the limitations of pop music conventions to create musically complex and expressive landscapes, which seemed to lead, by way of the “progressive” or “art” rock of the late 60s into the mid 70s, towards a kind of art tradition in popular music that clashed, and was ultimately destroyed, largely, by the needs of the marketplace and studio executives. Or, at least, that’s the story I’ve been told) and seems to primarily work in certain contexts. I’m not sure that the experience of a pop piece, however, is exclusive to pop music. “Classical” minimalism comes to mind as having a similar, communal listening aim at its core (or maybe it’s because I was just going over Robert Fink’s book, Repeating Ourselves, which explores the connection between minimalist music and the rise of modern advertising). It’s an interesting question, in any case, and one for which I, personally, don’t have an answer.

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