In Conversation with Bernard Gendron
An interview with the author of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde
Molly Sheridan: Let’s talk a little bit about what drew you to this topic. What was so interesting to you about researching the worlds of popular culture and the avant-garde?
Bernard Gendron: For me it involved a certain recycling of my interests, because I used to write about the philosophy of science and the philosophy of technology. It was really that, aesthetically speaking, I’ve always liked popular music. I’ve always thought that at least some of it was aesthetically very good, but of course I was surrounded, being in a university, with lots of people who thought it was pretty low or good entertainment but for dancing, etc. So really it’s aesthetics that drove me onward. But the factor along with it that interested me a lot is how in the past century popular music, or at least certain kinds of popular music, really grew in respect or, I wouldn’t say prestige, but that more and more of it was taken seriously as music. I wanted to see how this happened, how something that was once simply seen as vulgar—a nice entertainment on the side even for the people who were more sophisticated—how it came to be regarded as itself a kind of art music. That’s really my main interest. You might call it the cultural triumph of popular music. The other thing that interested me—to my surprise because I’d always thought there’d been a lot of hostility between high culture and mass culture—but I was struck by the fact that since the mid-19th century, there have been recurrent engagements between high culture and popular music, very friendly engagements as in the case of the artistic cabarets of the late-19th century in Paris where on the same stage you had poets, you had paintings hung on the walls, and you had popular singers. So my book actually traces high moments in those interactions between so-called high and so-called low, but my objective is to see how the low in that process gradually acquired a certain kind of cultural status.
Molly Sheridan: What do you think was gained by those interactions?
Bernard Gendron: Well, I think popular music gained a lot. I don’t know how much high culture gained or lost. In these interactions there were advantages on both sides. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century in the so-called modernist period, generally the modernist painters of the later-19th century and the modernist poets had a very small audience. They were shut out from mainstream academic and high culture. And so they actually gained; they widened their audience in effect. Interchanges of popular music really replenished the high arts every once in awhile. I mean, the appropriation of jazz in the 1920s by people like [Darius] Milhaud clearly helped. It’s like you go shopping for materials to replenish your work. Popular culture has always been a source of materials. It could be popular music, it could be jazz, it could be rock, etc., so that was the case for high culture. For low culture it was simply a gain in, I guess I’ll use the term cultural capital, because popular culture always did well economically but people who are in the field also want a certain kind of prestige, a respect. It helps actually to acquire a certain prestige, like Bob Dylan had certain prestige that ultimately helped sales. It’s had to find someone who doesn’t want his or her work get a certain kind of aesthetic respect, so popular music in a way won because it not only continued of course to sell, but now it became an object of academic interest. Musicians, especially jazz musicians, could get positions in conservatories and the like. So when you get cultural prestige it’s a kind of power over and above economic power.
Molly Sheridan: Do you think anything was lost? I guess I’m really curious how you would answer someone who felt that this pulled the avant-garde culture down, corrupting it somehow.
Bernard Gendron: It was always a controversy amongst people in high culture, but the people most on the edge were always the ones more friendly to mass culture. That’s very interesting. If you look at the past century, those who were more mainstream musicians, artists, and so on, despised mass culture as well as did many of the critics. But the ones who where most adventurous oftentimes were really those who where most friendly toward mass culture even when they didn’t quite appropriate it. But it’s an interesting question. I mean, I think that in the sphere of music that’s a very relevant question because it appears to me that high culture music—and I mean particularly contemporary art music—has really seen its audience shrink. There’s no question about that. What happened was that what would have been a potential audience for this music, for those people it became very aesthetically fashionable to, say, like hip-hop. I mean this is among people who are university professors and the like. In other words, if you still accept the distinction between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, in the 1940s and ’50s you could identify highbrows in terms of the music they consumed. You can’t do that anymore.
Molly Sheridan: What do you think the role is now for contemporary art music, as you call it? You talk in your book about how the modern art world left the highbrow and became involved more with the New York punk scene and what came after. But the serious music side seems to be left at the highbrow end, left behind almost while the other arts moved on, or in a different direction at least.
Bernard Gendron: Yes, exactly. Well you had of course a lot of people like John Zorn and people like that who really operated on the boundaries, Glenn Branca in the early 1980s, Peter Gordon, you had people who have actually benefited from the association with popular music. You have Elliott Sharp. And these are people who are highly respected by rock musicians. Also, there is a two-way stream here because with the increasing popularity of electronic music there’s more and more a return to listening to some of the great pioneers—Stockhausen obviously and Feldman and people like that. I know a lot of people who have been traditionally completely caught up with popular music who are now turning to these people. I think there was a lot of innovation, especially with technology. Pop music has always been technologically oriented so they are very quick to pick up, for example the electric guitar and even the synthesizer in the 1970s. But the point is that many of these people now are learning from some of the great innovators of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. But it’s true that there certainly is an audience problem for art music, there’s just no question that there is that problem.
Molly Sheridan: On a cultural level, after looking all these different interactions, how they’ve inspired different people, what would you urge someone who is a composer in this contemporary classical world to do? Would you suggest they seek out certain arts or artists or explore certain trains of thought?
Bernard Gendron: Well, I happen to be a fan myself of contemporary art music. I think that the music field now is so fragmented. I mean there’s an uncertainty, an ennui even, in the pop music field. It’s as if now you have—and this is where I agree with John Seabrooks who wrote Nobrow. He tried to claim that there’s no real hierarchy anymore, it’s just a flattened plain with different niche markets. There is some truth to that. Today, it’s not as if you have a dominant popular culture with a dominate music style. Pop music is completely fragmented now and full of uncertainty so I would just recommend that people keep experimenting in the music that they’re comfortable with because it’s true that now you don’t have the clear hierarchy of high and low, now you have simply a number of niche markets. The work being done by people trained in composition and so on is really exciting work. I would never suggest, for example, that people appropriate other existing musical forms. In a way that’s dated. The thrill is gone as far as cutting across the boundaries like that. I’m not a sociologist so I can’t predict where so-called high cultural music will go but it’s certainly a vital force even though the audience is smaller.
Molly Sheridan: I’m always curious when someone does this amount of research, looking at what some of the surprise discoveries were or if there were changes in your own philosophies that you didn’t even expect. Obviously you started out with a certain idea…
Bernard Gendron: Yes, I started out with a certain idea and I think pretty much I got what I expected. Maybe it’s because I imposed my own template. I mean I discovered a lot of small interesting things. The big surprise to me was to find out how long ago the interchanges between high and low culture existed. If you look at the history of this country in particular there was always a great deal of antipathy at the high cultural level towards mass culture. American music was not as firmly established as say European music that had all the prestige. And here also mass culture was so powerful. So if you look at the history of early jazz, for example, there was much more animosity towards early jazz in this country than there was in Europe. But what surprised me most is that so many people used to talk about modernism, for example, as if it was a period where high and low were altogether hostile to each other and they sometimes described postmodernism as a period where they became really, really friendly. What really struck me is how early the interchanges between high and low began to take place and how early European high culture in particular was friendly toward and took from the popular cultural forms of the day. You can see this in impressionism. I’m not saying something that will bowl people over, but really from the very beginning of what we would call modernism—which in France I would date that around the mid-19th century—there was an interchange from the get go. I think it varies from country to country. In France I would peg myself to literature more than music, say with Baudelaire, indeed where there is no longer any kind of eternal beauty, but beauty’s always shifting and we have to live with these constant shifts in aesthetic criteria. Musically, I guess it would be with Debussy towards later part of the 19th century.
Molly Sheridan: Yes, I thought that was interesting how there are different time frames for the different arts even if they are influenced by what might be a similar movement. That can vary wildly.
Bernard Gendron: Yes, exactly.
Molly Sheridan: So, you’ve finished this book and you are about to go on sabbatical, but any plans for your next project floating around yet?
Bernard Gendron: Well, I have a couple little projects. I think it’s very tempting for an author to, you know, you have this sort of yawning chasm that emerges at the end of a book and you say what am I to do next. So I’ve tried to simply focus on some smaller topics, but I’m very interested in the history of what you might call cultural capital, a term that was introduced by Bourdieu, a kind of capital that you accrue that has more to do with your cultural prestige than with the money you’re getting. I’m working on a project I’m facetiously calling Why Jazz Lost to Rock ‘n’ Roll, talking about how by the 1980s and ’90s, it was much more hip to like various kinds of rock music than to like jazz. Jazz has prestige, right? It’s at Lincoln Center, but it lacks other kinds of cultural capital. It’s not a hip music. So I may not answer the why question, but more how jazz lost…let’s call it the hip audience. I really focus on the ’60s, particularly when college students, who had been a large part of the constituency for jazz, began to turn toward rock music. So I’m going to study the crisis of jazz in the ’60s primarily but I’m going to look backward and forward, because jazz in the ’60s is really exciting. It was going through an economic crisis and you have the jazz avant-garde who where really going off the deep end. And then at the same time you had the rapprochement of jazz and rock, which was to lead to jazz-rock fusion, emblematized by Miles Davis‘s Bitches Brew album, so you have all these forces at work. Another topic that interests me, although it’s a little more long term, is the circulation of African popular music in North America. In the early ’80s, there was actually an audience and all sorts of African acts where coming to this country and this is what ultimately led to what we call the world music market that’s now of course pretty well established. So that’s another phenomenon that interests me quite a bit.
Molly Sheridan: So even though you are a professor of philosophy it seems that music is your passion?
Bernard Gendron: Philosophy’s a field that allows you to sort of recycle yourself. But I tell my philosophy colleagues that what I’m really interested in is aesthetics, and I’m interested in the sort of values that are in place. So if I’m looking at why jazz lost to rock ‘n’ roll, I’m interested in how aesthetic values have shifted so that for the people we might call the elite purchasers, certain kinds of music acquired greater status than jazz. So I’m very historical about aesthetics. I don’t believe that there are these eternal aesthetics. I think at these given times there are dominant aesthetics and at certain times there are some major transformations. They’re not necessarily convinced when I tell them this, but that’s what I tell them.