One of the things about American music that I find fascinating is how effectively the American Culture Machine has eradicated the connection to human experience beyond the adolescent’s frustration with changing hormone levels. While not completely successful (as any of us who engage in a musical living know), the effort has managed to make musical morons out of the majority of Americans who listen to music. While this is no revelation to those involved in making music on a daily basis, the ramifications of this practice can be detrimental to the act of making music.
My post last week generated a comment that I feel the need to examine further because it goes to the idea of whether or not a work of art is temporally sustainable despite “shifts in ou[r] perception to existing artworks” that might render them irrelevant to a naturally evolving culture. The commenter’s argument rested on the predicate that art is “generative,” which is a pretty broad term that insinuates a degree of randomness regarding the creation (generative art) and perception (by different audiences and/or through the critical reception) of an artwork. I believe that the commenter was regarding the latter (perception) as key to a work’s relevance as acceptable art and agree wholeheartedly that an audience’s “experience of the art is to some degree a creation” of it. However, I don’t agree with the commenter’s suggestion that the bottom line is that “artwork,” or rather individual works of art, “cannot ‘survive’.”
The theme of building (or rebuilding) audiences for certain musical genres by their practitioners and aficionados is not, in my mind, one of trying to reverse a chemical process; just as art is not science (which is not politics or business). True, there are certain scientific methods, especially mathematical formulae, which can be used for the generation of art, and there are examples (most famously Albert Einstein) of scientists who play music to inspire analytical thinking, but this does not place physics and poetry in the same sphere. The arts and sciences can enhance one another, but cannot substitute for one another. There has been a pernicious fallacy that music sets up moods and can be used for the control of the masses, a tenet that equates the arts with government and/or religion. Again, the arts can enhance the methods used to shape the thinking and actions of groups of people, but cannot be equated as a method for doing so. Our binary of “major = happy” and “minor = sad” only works in a cultural context where the listener has been trained, as most Americans have been, since childhood. This is an aspect of American culture that remains in force (and enforced) and works that follow that dictum will survive as long as the paradigm does. It is a distinctly Eurocentric paradigm and is only a part of the overall American musical experience, but an important one to the American Cultural Machine, which is not an artistic, but rather a business institution. And art and business are not part of the same discipline.
The problem with American improvised music(s) is that they counter the Eurocentricity of the American Culture Machine. Even jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, genres that were identified and labeled by the music industry, are not examples of Eurocentric music or musicianship. What made jazz popular in Europe was the difference between its performance techniques, formal organizations, and sonic textures and those of European art music. In America, it was the dance steps that were associated with the non-Eurocentric cultures that produced the music. People didn’t Lindy or foxtrot to Sousa marches, but they did to James Reese Europe. This bespeaks a dissatisfaction with some of the Eurocentric aspects of the American Culture Machine (and the European Culture Machine as well). So-called “proper” Eurocentric American culture had (and still has) the need to disassociate itself from a highbrow bourgeoisie, which was well-educated in the arts. As the development of jazz (and later rock ‘n’ roll, funk, soul, etc.) offered musical experiences even more disconnected from the Eurocentric ones that represented the elite behind the American Cultural Machine, audiences flocked to these popular forms and their messages of discontent with bourgeois society. Jazz was closely associated with the Socialist Party up until WWII, when Glenn Miller made it the music of the American military, which marked the beginning of its decline as a popular music. It was in the 1970s, when rock, funk, soul, etc. were popular (and being countered by the cultural machine with disco) that music education in public schools began its descent into virtual non-existence. Now there are music programs in public schools, especially inner-city schools, that are little more than sing-alongs to popular tunes. The actual nuts-and-bolts of music making don’t enter the picture. It should be a point of shame that so many of America’s public schools don’t have musical instruments, since playing musical instruments helps students learn and function in the world.
With this in mind, the job of building an audience for a given music might become one of shaping the music into something more palatable to an audience that knows little of or about it, while educating that same audience to its distinct and vital elements; a kind of “watering down” of art in deference to America’s cultural machine. Another is to associate one’s music with forms and elements of non-Eurocentric musics, since American audiences prefer listening to them. I’d like to know of other ways that we think might foster better listening in America.