Like everyone else I know, I’m tempted to spend the entire day today in front of a TV set. It’s election day in the United States and despite music being the number one focus of my life, I’m obsessed. For a music nut, this year’s race is chock full of counterpoint and how it all winds up resolving is more suspense-laden than the most cleverly plotted deceptive cadence. But, once again, actual music has won out: I’m not in front of a TV. I’m in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute attending a variety of workshops all day. (I just snuck away from lunch to write this.) But I won’t write about the Institute since we already have Ted Hearne and Justin Merritt providing NewMusicBox with daily updates. Instead I’ll try to find a way to grapple with this historic moment.
Despite the inevitable polarization of partisanship, today’s election is one of the last examples of something that everyone seems to care deeply about: a true mainstream event that cuts across race, gender/orientation, faith (or lack thereof), and regional lines—both geographic (West, Northeast, etc.) and type of community (urban, suburban, rural). This is a quality (without the partisanship) that certain kinds of music once claimed to have in our society.
In the era of the Top 40 Hit Parade, pop music claimed to be the sound of what the majority of Americans wanted to hear. But the pay-for-play revelations of the payola scandals exposed how popularity could be manufactured and manipulated. And the splintering of genres, with its complementary economy of niche marketing, has forever buried the myth of a monolithic popular culture.
Classical music often still perpetuates a similar myth—the notion that there could be timeless masterpieces that everyone should hear and can learn to appreciate and love. The promulgation of specific works to fit such a universal rubric—which suspiciously originate from a very narrow geographic area and time period—has made it difficult for any piece of music which is created here and now to compete for attention and to be treated with the same seriousness and respect. But as classical music has become even more marginalized in recent years, the one-time household composers have lost their dominance.
However, the erosion of a shared musical tradition (even if it was mostly just a perception) could prove to be ultimately divisive. As exciting as the democratization of both popular music and classical music may be for all of the rest of us out there who are so eager to have our voices heard, I’m somewhat troubled that we’re moving toward a time when most people have never heard of, say, The Andrew Sisters, John Denver, and Felix Mendelssohn. I’d much prefer to live in a world where they are all respected and revered and where people are particularly open to hear something because they haven’t heard it before.
If we are to remain a cohesive and amiable society, we need some common ground to keep us together. And music, which is abstract by its very nature, might very well be the only neutral communication medium. Sure, there have been claims that serialism, with its mandated abolition of hierarchies, is a form of communism, and that minimalism and many forms of rock music, with their insistent repetition and frequent use of extreme volume, suggests fascism’s cult of personality. And some would argue that creating any music which requires following a conductor for an effective realization perpetuates autocratic paradigms, or contrapositively that free improvisation and indeterminate music only lead to anarchy. However, the personal politics of the adherents to these various styles do not neatly correspond to these sonic metaphors. A composer can only effectively make a political statement through language which is ultimately extramusical. Strip away the verbal elements (lyrics, program notes, titles) and there is no red or blue music.
Whatever the result is today, the winner will hopefully find a way to unite and not divide. The lessons of listening will be very important for everyone to heed, and music is what teaches that lesson most effectively. I would like to humbly suggest that music of all varieties could and should have a significant role in this healing process.