Would the Composer Be Lost On Survivor Island?

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.

4 thoughts on “Would the Composer Be Lost On Survivor Island?

  1. Chris Becker

    Great man – I met him this year at a music and technology conference. He gave a great comprehensive key note address and surprisingly made some similar points about contemporary recording that Pat Metheny did earlier in the day. There’s a book coming out (if it’s not already out) about Les Paul and his life that finally gets down on paper so much history that is fundamental to music – not just recording, but music period.

    I’m sorry you feel a need to pit him against another musician to make your point. This might just be you working out your own issues rather than addressing something that actually exisits outside the realm of the university.

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    Thanks for the diagnosis, but I wasn’t making reference to Les Paul’s music – except to say in a general way that, if anything, we in academia should probably know more about it! My comparison of Page and Mahnkopf was just an illustration, although I stand unapologetically behind the preference I expressed.

    I would also point out that to address things “that actually exist outside the realm of university” is not my job; in fact, my job is specifically to address things that do exist within the realm of the university. Thanks for your response, though, and keep reading (unless you don’t care about things which exist within the realm of the university, which is absolutely your prerogative).

    I have another blog where I work out my own issues. This one is strictly professional.

    Reply
  3. DJA

    See, Chris, your comment is an excellent example of the problem Colin was talking about.

    Jimmy Page played a Les Paul model. Les Paul the actual person was not mentioned in the post.

    Reply
  4. Chris Becker

    Jimmy and his Les Paul = music for cannibals…got it. And I didn’t realize Colin was a student writing about student life in a university setting. My bad.

    I’m surprised there isn’t a professor at Colin’s university who isn’t a Jimmy Page fan…I don’t get the feeling that Colin is putting forth a legitimate question so much as using the issue to reiterate his own personal musical preferences – preferences which will (we hope) continue to be shaped and developed long after he leaves the university setting. Even if his concern about expanding the listening palette of his fellow students is genuine, the tone he uses when needlessly contrasting so-called popular music with the music he prefers (civic minded composition?) comes across to me as needlessly condescending (not that my post wasn’t equally so – but there it is – I’ll own it…)

    So is my issue Colin’s personal tastes? If that’s the case, then why not let it be (let it be)?

    Or is the larger question Colin is hoping to articulate is why are some types of music (not just so-called “pop music” which Colin really doesn’t define) taught in the classroom and some not?

    Again, I apologize for my confusion.

    Reply

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