Mark It Up and Sell It On

Recently on these pages it was suggested that if indeed stylistic distinctions between pop music and everything else are becoming less meaningful, then NewMusicBox ought to just throw in the towel and broker a Rolling Stone buyout. Hmm. What if, by some miraculous twist of fate, modern composition actually went mainstream? We’re talking chart-topping record sales, airplay, videos on MTV, viral YouTube spoofs, composers in rehab, the whole nine yards. What would we musical outcasts do? Create a new incarnation of unpopular music to fetishize?

Personally, I’m a true believer in the notion that stylistic distinctions are becoming less pervasive in the minds of music creators—and yes, it’s a good thing. I think I’m a more well-rounded person and maybe a better musical citizen given the fact that my iPod has a huge selection of contemporary and classical music wedged alongside pop crooners such as Joanna Newsome, Peaches, Goldfrapp, Lil Mama, Deerhoof, M.I.A., Caribou, even Alex & A.J.—to name only a few. Music can be exciting in so many different ways, and I’m happy to have 80 gigs in my portable kitchen sink available anytime I’m ready to indulge.

Despite a widespread belief in the classical music world, pop music isn’t unintelligent. Sure, some pop is dumb, some is self-aware and ironically dumb—just like contemporary classical music. Music can be many things to many people, a placebo to set the mood or something to absorb more cerebrally. No matter how we choose to listen, it doesn’t make sense to shut something out because it does or doesn’t resonate with the zeitgeist—which, in fact, is always changing. But the fact remains that our musical evolution seems to move at a glacial pace, so I’m not expecting to see a platinum selling Milton Babbitt album anytime soon. But on the other hand, music consumers aren’t so complacent or ignorant as to never make that happen—and who knows, that might be Jann Wenner phoning in a bid for the Box right now.

12 thoughts on “Mark It Up and Sell It On

  1. kenfasano

    Mark It Up and Sell It On
    Maybe Britney Spears could perform “Pierrot Lunaire”; or American Idol could have John Cage night (Aria with Fontana Mix); or someone might be inspired to write a rap song with Elliott Carter metrical modulations; or Paris Hilton could perform Partch’s “The Bewitched”; or Yoko Ono could make a dance mix of Stockhausen’s “Two Couples” from “Freitag aus Licht” (the ring modulator would help). Or maybe I’ll just put on some Glass and not worry about it.

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  2. William Osborne

    One approach to this question about aesthetic distinctions might be to examine the ironic dichotomies between elite education and aesthetic egalitarianism. To start, on might read Malcolm Gladwell’s interesting article “Getting In: The social logic of Ivy League admissions” (The New Yorker, Oct. 10, 2005.) It touches on numerous social theories surrounding elitism and egalitarianism. You can read it here.

    http://www.ivygateblog.com/blog/2007/10/
    on_killing_the_ivy_league_an_ivygate_recap_and_exclusive_interview.html

    The Ivy League plays an enormous role in creating and defining new “classical” music in the USA, so the concepts of elitism in these schools are worth examining, especially in relation to the egalitarian philosophies of postmodernism. How can these elite music schools, many of which favor postmodern philosophy, de-center aesthetic authority and move it toward more egalitarian standards centered in popular culture? In short, how do you resolve the inherent conflict between academic elitism and aesthetic egalitarianism?

    Is postmodern philosophy in elite musical academia like saying we’ll find the next great rock star among a group of Elvis impersonators at Andover? Or are great rock and pop stars usually individuals with strong roots among the common people who form mass markets? Are the best rock artists more likely to come from Princeton, or from some place like Cal State Fullerton? Or even more likely, not from a university at all?

    If most successful “classical” composers started coming from places like Fullerton, wouldn’t elite academia quickly abandon postmodern philosophy because it would represent a genuine loss of power and status? Isn’t it the actual purpose of academic postmodernism is to affect egalitarianism, and not to really create it? What is postmodern art without its irony of affectation, its dislocation of style?

    Many modernists used elements of jazz in “Third Stream” music, but they never abandoned an ethos that classical music was still relatively distinct – even elite. It was the perceived difference between jazz and classical, including concepts of status, that gave Third Stream music its meaning. See Igor and Lenny get down and low.

    Postmodernism is different. It asserts that the distinctions between low and high culture are largely meaningless. So how do we define the goal of university music departments, especially in elite schools? Are they to produce rock-and-roll Ph.D.s that will appeal to the masses? Might we term this postmodernism’s “Elvis-from-Andover syndrome?

    Or if synthesis is the goal, how is this done, when the beginning premise is that the distinctions between genres are illegitimate? To put it metaphorically, how do you create a good salad dressing if you fail to recognize the meaningful differences between oil and vinegar?

    Classical music has always been a bastard. There was never any sense in claiming it had some sort of purity. But if we refuse to see its distinctions, do we paint ourselves into a philosophic and aesthetic corner?

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

    Reply
  3. rtanaka

    My experiences at CalArts I have to say was a pretty good one. It’s a very expensive private school, so it does have a largely number of people who come from very wealthy backgrounds but the environment itself is a good mis-mash of divergent styles. Although the composition department has a very strong modernist leaning, the school itself is very supportive of jazz, world (probably one of the best programs in the nation), and popular forms of art. I enrolled there in order to do interdisciplinary studies and work on my improvisations and I got what I wanted out of it. I think my perspective now is much more broadened compared to when I was just writing and listening to academic music back at UIUC.

    Basically the school is extremely “free” in structure. It gets a lot of complaints from the students because of its lack of organization at times, but because they have a strong ant-censorship policy, as an artist you can pretty much do whatever you want there. This means being exposed to a lot of poorly thought out projects (some of which I’m guilty of myself) but it’s a place to experiment and try things that wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated in most university and conservatory environments.

    Most of the classical musicians there improvise on some level, which really took me off guard because my experience has been that most performers working within that medium would never touch the stuff. There are lots of performers there who compose and visa versa, and also involve themselves in other projects like scoring for film, animation, dance, etc. Instead of taking composition lessons, my last semester there I spent with a professor trying to get feedback on my formal writing ability, which was a tremendous help. It’s probably closest to what you’d call a postmodern environment, if there exists such a thing.

    In order to make it professionally you at least need a solid grounding in fundamental musical skills but the school itself doesn’t do much to emphasize the importance of these things, so it also has its own sets of problems. One professor talked about the school in this way: “the good thing about CalArts is that it gives you a lot of freedom, but the bad thing about CalArts is that it gives you a lot of freedom.”

    While I would recommend the school to self-motivated students, the “anything goes” atmosphere probably wouldn’t be helpful for everyone…I think that I got the most out of it as a master’s student because my undergraduate studies gave me the fundamentals needed in order to survive through the process. CalArts really is an anomaly compared to every school that I’ve seen…is it worth replicating in other places? Hard to say — I found out that I tend to work much better in environments with less structure, but some people tend to thrive better in more formal settings and I think that’s fine. I know a lot of people who dropped out the program because they couldn’t stand the way things were done there.

    It’s an expensive ride so it’s not to be done on a whim, but in any case, it’s somewhere where you’re given the time where you can find yourself. Some people found that they don’t actually want to be doing music, which can be a difficult thing, but better to find out sooner than later, I think.

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  4. marknowakowski

    I am beyond amused that my comment sparked an entire article by Randy. I’m also disturbed by the undertone of the article itself.

    I agree that (some/most) of pop-music is not “dumb.” I agree that –as composers– we should strive to have a wide collection of music to draw upon or just enjoy. I also agree that genre-crossing and cross-fertilization is both inevitable and good for the music.

    That being said, I’m very glad my world and the world of the Black Eyed Peas are separate ones.

    Very glad. Excessively so.

    Nor do I feel that such a perspective makes one an elitist. Nor does it have anything to do with Ivy-league pretensions.

    Lastly, the very existence of newmusicbox shows a separation. Oddly enough, we work in a separation (or in the case of the writers, BECAUSE of the separation), yet act offended when it is suggested that the separation is a good thing. I’m perplexed by such a perspective.

    Do you trust new music to Rolling Stone Magazine? Is said magazine qualified to cover new music? Are the perspectives required to understand, enjoy, and review/discuss new-music the same as those carried by the average Rolling-Stone writer? Or in relation to Colin’s article: can Bono or Billy Corgan act as efficient University Composition professors any more than John Corigliano make a splash in the punk-music scene?

    These questions carry complex and varied answers that fall well beyond the well-worn (and more than slightly self-conscious) perspective of the “enlightened and open-minded lister” with a “highly-varied ipod track-listing” as presented in this article. Nor does such a perspective actually deal with the question(s) at hand.

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  5. rtanaka

    That being said, I’m very glad my world and the world of the Black Eyed Peas are separate ones.

    Nor do I feel that such a perspective makes one an elitist. Nor does it have anything to do with Ivy-league pretensions.

    Could you perhaps explain what sorts of positive developments arise out of separatism? The term has a negative connotation for good reasons — it’s implies political factionalization and economic inequality, both of which are major contributors to problems that exist within any given society.

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  6. marknowakowski

    Ryan Tanaka writes: Could you perhaps explain what sorts of positive developments arise out of separatism?
    Musically speaking? Too many to list in one short comment.

    The term has a negative connotation for good reasons — it’s implies political factionalization and economic inequality,
    Whoa there — I’m just talking about music here. We might as wel theorize on how Stockhausen caused Colorado’s recent world-series collapse.
    both of which are major contributors to problems that exist within any given society.
    –and are problems that will continue to exist within any society, regardless of how it is structured. Or does Boulez lead to economic inequality? ;)

    Rather than blow my top here, I will suggest you read Labyrinth of time : five addresses for the end of the millennium by Krzysztof Penderecki. Here we have a revolutionary composer, coming from a personal experience of triumph over a highly oppressive political and economic system, beautifully defending the relevancy and necessity of such “separation.” His words are stronger than mine. In fact, you could say that he is intellectually in a place “seperated” from most of the rest of us.

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  7. marknowakowski

    Ryan Tanaka writes: Could you perhaps explain what sorts of positive developments arise out of separatism?

    Musically speaking? Too many to list in one short comment.

    The term has a negative connotation for good reasons — it’s implies political factionalization and economic inequality,

    Whoa there — I’m just talking about music here. We might as wel theorize on how Stockhausen caused Colorado’s recent world-series collapse.

    both of which are major contributors to problems that exist within any given society.

    –and are problems that will continue to exist within any society, regardless of how it is structured. Or does Boulez lead to economic inequality? ;)

    Rather than blow my top here, I will suggest you read Labyrinth of time : five addresses for the end of the millennium by Krzysztof Penderecki. Here we have a revolutionary composer, coming from a personal experience of triumph over a highly oppressive political and economic system, beautifully defending the relevancy and necessity of such “separation.” His words are stronger than mine. In fact, you could say that he is intellectually in a place “seperated” from most of the rest of us.

    Reply
  8. rtanaka

    I would rather hear it in your own words, Mark. “Too many to list” and “go read a book” does not consist of an argument. You made the extraordinary claim that separatism is a good thing, and I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s waiting for a justification as to why.

    Everything I can think of points into negative directions — economically, socially, politically, culturally — with separatism usually preceding violent revolutions and internal strife. I have almost the entirety of human history as my evidence. At times maybe it is inevitable, but you said that it has positive outcomes, which I find hard to believe.

    I’m not sure exactly how you manage to say that Stockhausen is “separate from the rest of us” while at the same time claiming that there isn’t some elitist thing going on here. Unless maybe you’re claiming that maybe he “separated” himself from the rest of us since losing his grip on reality some time during the 70s. I’d buy into that, anyway.

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  9. marknowakowski

    I drafted a lengthy response, realized I was wasting my time, and decided instead to go with this:

    I suggest Penderecki’s book for numerous reasons, mostly because he discusses the issue at a befitting length and in stunning clarity. Penderecki points out that the attempted dismantling of the “elite class” is a great evil for any society desiring advancement.

    The fact is, we are having an elitist conversation over a technological medium created by elitists. Without educational separation, none of this would be possible. Somebody has to do the plumbing, and somebody else has to wire-up the internet.

    I can complain about the “elitist knowledge” of the car-mechanic who is clearly overcharging me. His abuse of the system, however, does not mean that the system is bad. It is simply open to abuse, as is any social system.

    It may be true that separation is both unavoidable outside of a big-brother type forced equality, nor is social advance possible without it, especially in an ever segmented society of specialists. History demonstrates this, therefore the burden of proof falls on you, the harbringer of anti-establishment doubt. (I am thankful for your doubt, however, as it is such behavior that keeps the necessary system honest.) Still, I hope you realize the complexity of the topic, which moves well beyond “all separation is bad” line of thought.

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  10. rtanaka

    Thanks for your words. Well at least I got you to admit to your elitism — at least the discussion is honest now. It was largely your self contradiction earlier that was bugging me.

    You’re largely echoing arguments thrown by Babbitt’s “Composer as a Specialist” argument made nearly 50 years ago. It does make a lot of sense in its own way, until you realize that since music has no empirical result like the sciences does, there’s no particular advantage in keeping things insulated. The humanities thrives on a diversity of ideas, and this what separates it from the sciences and mechanics. The argument is way out of date at this point in time, and I don’t really know too many people (even in academia) who would tow that line anymore.

    Assuming that you’re writing for anybody other than yourself, that is.

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  11. marknowakowski

    I did no such thing — I admitted our elitism.

    Nor am I advocating a strict separatism in the arts — I’m simply saying that we’re comparing apples and oranges, which grow in different kinds of environments for a good reason. Once again, this in no way precludes elitism.

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  12. rtanaka

    It seems that, due to our differing backgrounds, we have a fundamental difference in outlook in terms of what purpose we think music serves. You see it as a series of tasks, techniques or a product similar to the skills of a mechanic, while I see it as a social process that becomes a representation of some aspect of society. In the former, “elitism” would merely imply a form of specialized task, no big deal, you say. In the latter, however, it would imply a form of social elitism, which I tend to interpret as.

    This is an ongoing topic between modernism and postmodernism so it’s not likely going to be resolved here. Either way, you obviously know my preference for the latter. Lot of the stuff we’ve talked about is pretty moot anyway. It’s not like we have the power to control social trends.

    Reply

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