Uncommon Ground

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

In an age of seemingly irreconcilable partisan politics, minutely-calibrated niche marketing, absurd academic specificity and gated subdivisions, the quest for common ground seems as fanciful as searching for El Dorado. Yet, at the same time, consensus building and forming a community is still the name of the game if you want anything to claim the attention of society at large.

We’ve heard that the “great man theory” is dead, but the way of thinking that it proscribes still informs everything from classical radio playlists to who gets to be on magazine covers. So much for a divide between elite and popular culture… For fear of being labeled a polemical ranter, I’ll still contend that on some level Mozart and the artist once again known as Prince are parallels. I say this not to denigrate or elevate either of these artists, but to point out that the majority of people who listen to both do not listen because either is necessarily a great artist but because both have name-brand recognition to the point where those who don’t get shut out.

The problem nowadays is that it’s very difficult for anyone to attain any kind of universal popularity since everything is so fragmented. We decry the majority of our populace and even many in the so-called serious music audience for not knowing the names of living American composers. Yet how many of us in the new music world know the names of all but the most prominent people in popular music? And what is popular music in the post top-40 market anyway? Is any of it really known much less appreciated by a majority of people? And if it’s not, why do we insist on calling it popular anyway? The word is as meaningless as classical…

I love Alvin Curran‘s music because I never know what it is going to sound like before I listen to it, and even once I’m listening, I can never predict where it will go. His all-inclusive muse feels like the healthier flipside of the myriad simultaneities of today’s styles, each of which walls in practitioners and audience alike. Curran’s music is post-minimal, it’s atonal, it’s neo-romantic, it’s electronic, it’s indeterminate, it’s free jazz, it’s hard bop, it’s pretty, it’s ugly, it’s all of these things and none of these things…

Ten years ago he wrote a manifesto in which he folds his broad inclusivity into a new common practice for music which made us question whether or not such a notion is tenable at this point in our history and what being part of such a common practice might imply for today’s composers. Can anything being promulgated as a common practice be all-inclusive or is the very notion in and of itself the product of exclusionary reasoning? What are your ideas?

We are at the dawn of another Presidential election year in the United States. These times always seem to be filled with discussions about who we are as a people and what the common ground is. But perhaps the uncommon ground is ultimately more telling in the long run. I for one would love to live in a society where everyone knew about and appreciated serialism, minimalism, jazz, rock, bluegrass, R&B, hip-hop and everything in between, not to mention all the varieties of music beyond our American borders. I still harbor the crazy idea that music can bring us all together, and that being open to the never ending variety of what music can be will make it easier for us to be respectful of the differences between us which are ultimately our strength.