I’d like to backtrack several weeks here and take a look at an issue that was raised but not completely resolved in an earlier post (and magnified in a number of insightful comments from Chris Becker): What’s the nature of the relationship between my generation of composers and popular music?
It’s said that medieval monks could, given the appropriate mnemonic aids, recall and perform hundreds of chants without difficulty. I’m confident that many of my contemporaries could do the same with recent vernacular music. One of my composer friends can nimbly and effortlessly recite Tupac verses; another is a walking encyclopedia of U2 riffs. The sector of my brain that was once occupied by the quadratic equation now holds MF Doom rhymes and Crowded House chord changes.
As I argued a few weeks ago, I think this capability is valuable, but it raises another question: Are my colleagues and I at a disadvantage because pop, rather than Western classical music, is the music in which we were socialized? In other words, wouldn’t it be better to know the Beethoven piano sonatas forwards and backwards than the second Weezer album? Were we listening to the wrong music in our formative years?
Those of us who are preparing for doctoral prelims in the next couple of years would probably agree that we were. I certainly wish I had familiarized myself with the standard rep rather than Gang Starr’s “Just to Get a Rep,” and not just for the prelims’ sake either. My respect for the “classical” literature is enormous, having heard and performed quite a bit of it, but my knowledge of it is peppered with holes—holes that are not only embarrassing but also potentially detrimental to my compositional awareness. More importantly, I wonder how years of pop have shaped my perception of music as a listener. Has my familiarity with the conventions of rock weakened my ability to make sense of large-scale formal shapes, for example? Why is it that even my favorite new music masterpieces don’t elicit an emotional reaction from me, but the right band playing the right song at the right time can reduce me to tears?
Obviously, the ideal solution is to know as much music of as many different styles as well as possible, and that’s what my fellow composers and I are trying to do. But no matter how well we know the Haydn London quartets or the Mozart-Da Ponte operas now, we can’t go back in time and make our preteen selves pick up the St. Matthew Passion instead of It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back at the record store.
Will the composers of my generation who listened exclusively to the great music of the past when they were growing up rise to the top of the field? I think they will. Are those of us who know Pinkerton better than Opus 110 irreparably hamstrung? My suspicion is that we are. The silver lining, however, is that our conscious and diligent efforts to overcome this handicap might result in a music at which the former group simply couldn’t arrive.
And, if not, there’s always an audience for Steve Miller Band covers and Gang of Four rip-offs.