I had a heated conversation of the “desert island” variety with a fellow student a few days ago. We weren’t discussing what scores and recordings we’d bring with us if we were stranded in the South Pacific. I had asked her to envision a situation in which a group of people—ten or fifteen, say—were marooned hundreds of miles from civilization, and she was the only musician among them. How would she justify her existence on the island to a dozen folks who might possess practical skills of the sort that she doesn’t have?
This is a difficult question for all musicians, but it’s particularly problematic for composers of new music. It’s one thing if Jimmy Page and his Les Paul wash up on the island, for instance, but what if they find Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf on the beach? The sunburned guy with the spear still wants to hear “Stairway.” Claus-Steffen is delicious. Many of us would be no better off.
This brings me to a point about curricula. I and many of my colleagues feel very strongly that the composition of challenging concert music is a matter of civic responsibility. My hypothetical desert island is an extreme example, admittedly, but I wonder if it isn’t also a matter of civic responsibility (or at least a matter of craft) that we familiarize ourselves with the vernacular music of our time. If we profess to be musicians, shouldn’t we be able to play “Hey Ya” (or, for the sad people on the island, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”)? It’s not like we don’t have the technique.
Why aren’t there required classes in popular music literacy? The obvious reason is that there’s a qualitative difference between art music and pop music, and academic composition programs tend to come down on the art music side (with good reason). However, is it acceptable that I could graduate with a doctorate in music and be completely unfamiliar with the music that all the non-musicians around me care about (even if it doesn’t seem worthwhile)? I don’t think so. My friends in biochemistry know everything about biochem that I know, and a lot more to boot. On the other hand, those biochemists are much more well-acquainted with certain types of music than I am, and even if I don’t give a damn about Tool and Econoline Crush, it looks bad.
To return to our earlier example, I’d rather hear Mahnkopf’s music than Page’s in a concert hall any day of the week, but I’m in a tiny minority. Back on the island, what do I do with the castaways who prefer Page? Maybe I’m way out of line here—if so, please call me out—but I just can’t help thinking that a little mandatory instruction in vernacular new music might pay off.