Pop and the Blob Factor

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.

20 thoughts on “Pop and the Blob Factor

  1. ydandaman

    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.

    I completely disagree with this statement. Have you ever heard Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions or Fear of a Black Planet? How about Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys? What about DJ Spooky’s work? How about the entire genre of DJ/turntablism? What about many of John Cage’s works? Are you dismissing all of that as incestuous and shallow? I would call it some of the most exciting and truly “new” music the late 20th century has given us.

    All artists build on what came before, the only difference between finding “new elements” and “recontextualization” is your conscious awareness of what you are stealing.

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  2. Colin Holter

    I disagree. There’s a qualitative difference between, for example, what could be called the “intelligent corporality” project, spearheaded by such composers as Klaus Hubler and, more recently, Aaron Cassidy, and Terminator X’s use of samples. The former represents a pushing against what’s currently conceivable – not to mention performatively possible – and the latter, although quite original by the standards of the community in which it took hold, is essentially a “repurposed” application of a preexisting technique. Moreover, my knowledge of recent turntablism is admittedly limited, but my feeling is that Terminator X’s impact on previous musical developments has been less momentous than Hubler’s, for instance, over the same period.

    I would argue, however, that Cage’s contribution, practically a redefinition of music, represents the epitome of a striving against the boundaries of the conceivable – although, given the apparent effortlessness with which he seemed to do it, I guess one might call it a transcendence of the conceivable. It might be superficial to compare Imaginary Landscape No. 4 with “Don’t Believe the Hype.”

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  3. ydandaman

    I believe you are making an arbitrary distinction regarding what is “pushing aginst what’s conceivable”. Ives and Cage cut it, but not any music in the popular tradition. Usually I’d say to this that you’re applying the definitions to only music you like, but given your recent posts it would seem you’re applying it to the music you think you should like, rather than pop which you seem to regard as a guilty pleasure, even though you actually like it better.

    I follow and know as much “new music” as most anyone I know and I have never heard any of Hubler’s or Cassidy’s music. I’m sure it’s a grave ommission on my part, but I have to wonder how “influential” somebody can be when they are for all practical purposes as obscure as you or I are. Comparing that with the global recognition of a group like Public Enemy and the extreme influence they exerted on basically all hip-hop production (at least for a decade) and continuing to the turntablists today, seems laughable to me. But I guess they don’t count because it’s just ephemeral pop music, and all that matters is the “classical” tradition. – Dan VanHassel

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  4. davidcoll

    but I have to wonder how “influential” somebody can be when they are for all practical purposes as obscure as you or I are.

    this is a troubling comment. If you mean by influential that it has enough financial backing to affect that large an audience, then yeah, i agree. But then why would one be talking about Hubler or Cassidy anyway, or any other composer? Theres really no money in any of this- and thats a good thing. Get a hold of their music and listen, its that simple- well, better grab a score, too!

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  5. sgordon

    “solve the problem of pop music infiltration” – dude, it’s only a problem if you think it’s a problem, and even then, it’s only a problem for you.

    Me? I got no problem with it. I embrace it. Love it. I want to rub it all over my naked body and fall asleep in it’s sweaty embrace. I want to wake up to it’s morning breath and have dirty snooze-button sex with it. I want to parade it around in a skimpy outfit and show it off and make nerds jealous of how totally hot it is. I want it to nag me about how I said I would mop the kitchen floor and I didn’t, and then apologize to it and buy it flowers and make it a romantic candlelit dinner and cuddle up on the couch with a chick-flick that it wants to see but I could care less about, but I do it anyway and pretend to like it because maybe it’s still pissed at me about the whole mopping issue.

    Point is that pop culture is pretty f’n awesome, and I’m pretty happy it’s a big part of my life and art. I think without it I would totally suck and make really boring music.

    Of course if that were the case, with what would then be my limited scope and lack of knowledge, I might not realize how lame I was! I might have been doomed to a life of writing music that no one cared about except other people writing the same kind of music. Jesus Christ, I’d get laid even less.

    Your former teacher with his amoeba nonsense reminds me of people who think gay marriages will magically turn everyone around them gay. You know, like, fifty years ago musical academics stressed and groaned about this “jazz” business that was distracting the young folks from their “serious” musical study. Whatever.

    Meanwhile somewhere in Huberland they’re conducting the “difficult but utterly necessary search for new elements” – umm, dude, I haven’t heard a single new element come out of musico-academia since, like – oh crap, it’s been a really long time. The 60s? The 50s? Probably earlier. Music academics have this bad habit of resisting new ideas. How long did it take for jazz to be accepted? Minimalism? Postmodernism? Puh-leeze. Popular culture eclipsed the classical tradition on the “new ideas” front a loooooooong time ago. Just saying it’s getting a bit dusty is all.

    The funniest part of all is the “incestuous” claim, though. I mean, really, isn’t that the pot calling the snow black? The music coming out of the modernist school – the Hubers and Cassidies and the Ferneyhoughs in between – has got to be the most myopic self-referential art to have ever graced the planet. Y’all are having one-eyed children while the rest of us are in an interracial orgy just outside your window.

    It’s odd – to me – that you promote Huber, Cassidy, et al as “pushing against what’s currently conceivable” – I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Not to sound snippy, but it makes me wonder if you just can’t conceive of much personally. What unconceivable conceptions have they conceivified? What I’ve heard of their work seems – honestly – old-fashioned. That’s not a quality call – I mean, bluegrass is old-fashioned (and associated with incest, too, come to think of it…) and I loooves me some good bluegrass.

    Seems to me you’re hoping to acquire the taste for music you doesn’t much care for by denigrating that which you do. Which makes, like, no sense to me, but to each their own – whatever keeps your motor runnin’, man. I suppose I was just taken aback – while it’s fairly common to come across high-falutin’ music people who hate on pop music / culture, this may be the first time I’ve seen someone do it who readily admits they actually prefer pop music. Beyond prefers, really, but has never even been emotionally moved, not even once, by the type work he’s now dedicating his life to the study of. Eek! Seems like that fella’s in for a rather unfulfilling ride.

    You don’t need to avoid things that, you know, make you happy. Start a rock band while you can. You’ll enjoy it more. If you don’t, man – in 10, 20 years you’ll be stewing in a pot of bitter swill, wondering if that tenure was really worth it.

    Oh, I’m so optimistic…

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  6. stevetaylor

    I like the pseudopod analogy a lot – it reminds me of ca. 1960 “third stream” music, in which composers tried to integrate jazz into orchestral, “serious” music. As soon as the jazz combo came in, the orchestral protoplasm seemed to be instantly absorbed by the jazz blob; it never worked vice versa.

    Now the boundaries are down, and I can think of all sorts of examples where classical and jazz, rock, hip hop etc. all make new amalgams – everything from Ligeti (both Gyorgy and Lukas) to Bang on a Can to Bjork to Dave Douglas.

    But I still think it’s a good thing that some composers, including Colin if he feels like it, compose in an iconoclastic style. I’ll bet that Colin was using loaded words like “incestuous” to get lots of comments (it worked). At worst, people writing high modernist, avant-garde, complex music, or whatever, aren’t hurting others (with the possible exception of their students one could argue…) And at best, they’re adding something qualitatively new to music, which all the rest of us can steal and postmodernize to our heart’s content. After all, if nobody ever came up with new sounds, we’d all be competing over the rights to Tiptoe through the Tulips

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  7. ydandaman

    Seriously, who is this Hubler? There are no CDs of his on Amazon, no CDs of his in the music libraries near me, no website, never been performed on any of the many new music concerts I attend. I don’t think it’s my fault I haven’t heard of him…

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  8. Colin Holter

    Yeah, I was talking about Hübler. I left out the umlaut. Sorry, Klaus, if you’re reading this. (He’s not.)

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  9. sgordon

    Would you accept the argument that it builds character?

    Uh… no.

    Do you want to be a composer or a priest?

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  10. amc654

    It’s worth pointing out, as well, that Klaus K. Huebler’s relative fame/influence was dramatically impeded in the late 80s when he suffered a severe stroke. That he spent his 30s relearning basic motor functions made, say, composing rather a substantial challenge. This doesn’t change the fact that his exploration of the physical and performative possibilities of various instruments (most notably strings, but also some incredibly important works for winds and brass) have been hugely influential for a wide range of composers across the planet (of a variety of aesthetic stripes).

    I was pleased to see recently that he has returned to composing (in many cases, it appears he is revising andor completing works from the just before the stroke), and Breitkopf & Haertel is still publishing them.

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  11. danbecker

    “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.”

    Most folks have been addressing the popular music side of this question, but I wanted to go back to that crucial quote form Colin’s original post, which ydandaman responded to way back on Thursday.

    In a later post Colin seems to give away the Adorno-influenced origins of this quote, but maybe he’d argue that point. In any case, I think the above quote is ridiculous and dangerous and flies against so much great music from the past that it really doesn’t deserve all this ‘ink’. It’s my own opinion, (and of course I’m not alone here), that “recontextualization and manipulation of preexisting elements” has always been where much of the action is. Again, perhaps I’m naive and the following list is already presumed as ‘a given’ by all who have been posting here. But if the above quote were taken as true, then we’d have to label the following music (from the ‘canon’) as “incestuous and shallow” music:

    – All of Bach’s Cantatas (some of the best “recontextualization” that anyone could shake a stick at.)

    – Almost all of Stravinsky (his whole output is really “music about music”)

    – Schoenberg – (Have you ever heard his “spin” on a Handel concerto grosso?) And on a more abstract level, isn’t writng a 12-tone piece in the form of a Baroque Dance Suite a type of “recontextualization”. It’s a great argument, (especially with a pitcher of beer), to assert that Schoenberg was as neo-classic in the 1920s as Stravinsky.)

    – George Crumb

    – Luciano Berio

    – Charles Ives (the only one so far mentioned favorably by Colin)

    – Frederic Rzewski

    – Lukas Foss

    That’s just a tiny list. Go backwards from Bach and of course the whole story is about “recontextualization and manipulation of preexisting elements”. Look around this century and the list goes on and on.

    I just don’t get that quote. And I honestly think, in an educational environment, it’s downright irresponsible. Watch out!

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  12. randy

    I just wanted to chime in to say that Hübler’s music had a huge impact on my own work and thoughts. You owe it to yourself to check it out, ydandaman.

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  13. marknowakowski

    It sounds like you’re all fighting over the right to chose between two musical realities:

    1.) Write self indulgent music and be able to justify why “nobody cares if you listen”
    –or–
    2.) Sell as many records as possible and dwell smuggly in your cultural “pop” superiority.

    Meanwhile Colin jumps out with a key question that only one person responds to:
    “can it build character?”

    I think these forums are proof that music philosophy needs to be taught as early as the undergraduate years. After all, why ARE we writing the music that we’re writing? Self indulgence? Community service? A sense of historical responsibility? A way to get babes? Or, (gasp), to “build character?” What really IS new anymore? Pop is just as guilty for lacking in innovation (as well as repeating itself) as academic music. Just because you scracth a record or come up with a few new types of timbral elements, doesn’t make you revolutionary. Academically, just because you reject everything (Cage?), doesn’t make you a revolutionary either.
    Which begs a question: must we be so concerned with being revolutionaries? Aside from our “short attention span culture”, the main reason people aren’t connecting with new music is that we’re more concerned about sounding different then writing deep, honest music capable of making a personal connection.
    For me, Gorecki’s third symphony rests as a prime example: revolutionary, yet still able to sell.
    And as far as the pop realm goes: has anyone out there heard of “Opeth?”

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  14. small

    Maybe I’m naive but I never really thought the idea of music was to come up with “new elements”. I was under the impression that music was a form of self expression that could convey how one sees the world around them or imagines it could be. “New elements” conjures up this image of composers in white lab coats inventing something to cure cancer. It won’t. No matter how much they would like to think it will. (disclaimer: not a knock on music therapy). New elements should be a part of someone’s music because they feel it better fulfills the needs of the music they choose to make.

    Is tribal music from some remote African village less viable because it doesn’t promote “new elements” or is it raised to the highest levels because it is hidden in its own special place away from the amoeba. I think its just music and that’s that. If those people find that it is fulfilling, then its served its purpose. If you hear it and find it fulfilling, even better.

    I hope whatever Colin is striving for, be it character building or new elements or even recognition (that part of the thread disgusts me, that a composers influence should confer some higher status) more power to him but I don’t think this comes at sacrificing something you love that connects with you because your professor has a “theory”. Do it because you feel its the right thing for you to do. Sorry this sounds way too touchy-feely on second read.

    One other thing running through my brain after reading some of the posts is this double standard: influence of pop = bad, influence of new “it boy/girl” modern composer = good, music with wider influence good, unless its pop (in turn, making it the amoeba), bad. Am I just going crazy?

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  15. pgblu

    This thread is probably not very hot anymore, but I think it’s ok to still post, since if no one reads it my post will still continue to exist.

    [Eschewing 'pop influences' in your music doesn't mean you're giving up pop music ("what you love") entirely. Get real. To eschew is not to repress. And you know it.]

    If no one listens to my music it will also continue to exist. I write it because I write what interests me. I hope you do as well. If my composition contains ‘pop influences’, though that is unlikely, then I have to assess these on a case-by-case basis. If these pop influences are used as mere ‘quotation’ to make my music appear more hip for lack of inherent substance, I have to think seriously of the consequences. Anyone who carefully and critically listens to the result will think me a schmo.

    [Some music doesn't withstand careful and critical listening. That doesn't condemn it, it just means that isn't really art or anything. At least according to my definition of art. And I don't mean art and non-art as value judgements to impinge upon anyone's fragile self-esteem.]

    The problem with pop is not that it’s dirty or sinful or whatever, but that pop material is a lot more than just notes, rhythms, a bass line, and lyrics. It is also elusive stuff like articulation, instrumentation, balance, recording technique –stuff that’s hard to co-opt, but is crucial to making it what it is… and let me tell you, there is nothing worse than, e.g., a cha-cha transcribed for string quartet (Apologies to Turtle Island, Ethel, and Kronos lovers). It sounds like a very very earnest joke. If I want to hear cha-cha music, I will listen to a cha-cha band. If I include cha-cha into my wind band piece, there has to be a reason other than that I just can’t get enough cha-cha. “I can’t get enough cha-cha” is not an aesthetic position.

    “Cha-cha, when transcribed for string quartet, loses something very specific, and that loss is devastating to both the cha-cha and the string quartet repertoire” is an aesthetic position. It can be explored compositionally, by differentiating articulation, phrasing, etc., as well as orchestration and harmony, in an engaging way, i.e., working with the TOOLS OF COMPOSITION rather than with the flimsy tools of social commentary that are continuously creeping into our toolbox and are so compositionally inarticulate.

    There is a real barrier between the two aforementioned genres (SQ and ChCh). A good piece of music does not attempt to fuse them, but tries to describe the shape, size, and texture of that barrier as eloquently as possible. That’s very speculative, but I tell you, THAT is postmodernism’s entire expressive potential right there.

    Now someone just has to do it. I won’t go near it, I’m too busy being a modernist. My advice though is: Be careful, it’s a $&@*&% mine field. Good luck, you pomo crusaders.

    Reply

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