The outpouring of comments (thanks, by the way) in response to last week’s column prompts me to address another pop music-related tangent: the use of vernacular materials in new concert music. This doesn’t actually have anything to do with graduate school, except insofar as it’s an issue that might happen to be of interest to graduate students like myself. I promise I’ll get back to an academically germane subject next week. Beer, maybe.
A former teacher of mine whose opinion I respect enormously once compared pop culture to a giant amoeba: It’s tempting to believe that we can sever a pseudopod or two for our own use, but the integrity of our music will ultimately be enveloped and digested by it. He was referring in part to the ideal of immanence, a goal easily compromised by appropriation from other styles or works, and implying, I think, his conviction (which I share) that a project based on the recontextualization and manipulation of preexisting elements rather than on the difficult but utterly necessary search for new elements is doomed to produce incestuous and shallow music.
Paradoxically, as U of I luminary Steve Taylor astutely pointed out last week, some of us have a much greater emotional investment in rock and roll or hip-hop or whatever than in even the most high-quality pieces of recent concert music. It would be phony of us, plain and simple, to ignore this investment. What to do?
Ian Moss’s “rocket fuel made of a football” analogy from last week is instructive. Charles Ives, a composer whose music I find tremendously moving, uses quotation masterfully enough to make us (some of us, anyway) forget Adorno. I haven’t heard the recent music of Paul Swartzel, a gifted young composer who I think just received an ASCAP Gould award, but his pieces of a few years ago present a compelling contrast between postwar-esque serialism and gangsta rap beats. I’d say that Ives has escaped the amoeba’s grasp, and Swartzel seems to be fending it off successfully as well.
Moreover, I would submit that some of the subtlest but most striking features of popular music—vocal delivery, instrumental timbre, and sense of ensemble, among others—could perhaps be woven into pieces of new music with a minimum of amoeba-baiting. One doesn’t have to use riffs and chord changes to admit the influence of popular music; Richard Barrett and James Dillon both have backgrounds in rock, I believe, and there are things in their pieces that could conceivably be ascribed to a no-longer-conscious affinity with it (if not to a critically aware and intellectually rigorous adaptation of microscopic rock phenomena). As I pontificated at the end of last week’s column, efforts to solve the problem of pop music infiltration in a way that’s both creatively fulfilling and creatively responsible may have the potential to produce unexpected results. It’s a gauntlet we’ve thrown down for ourselves, so we ought to pick it up.