How To Be Culturally Relevant

Sharing ideas

Composers spend an awful lot of time worrying about whether or not what we do is culturally relevant. Many discussions start from the assumption that it’s not; the only question is how we’re going to make ourselves relevant before our art form shrivels away like a neglected houseplant.

Whenever I hear words like “relevant” or “important,” I always want to ask, “relevant or important to whom?” When that detail is left out, these words become codes or shorthands: “important” means “important to Serious Art People,” and “relevant” means “relevant to Real-World Audiences.” But “Real-World Audiences” is a code too, because the people who use the phrase seem to have a pretty narrow idea of who counts as real. Other musicians? Not real. Artists in other media? Not real. College students and faculty? Not real. People over 40? Not real. You can sell out a huge concert hall, but if everyone there falls into one or more of the above categories, you’ll still have people citing your show as evidence of classical music’s imminent demise. Because when people say “culturally relevant,” what they really mean is “relevant to young people with mainstream tastes.” And “mainstream tastes,” unfortunately, doesn’t include classical music.

No other form of experimental music-making holds itself to this kind of standard. Japanese noise artists, for example, don’t seem to worry about whether or not their enthusiastic but small audience is a “real-world” one, and I’ve never heard anyone say that in order for them to justify what they’re doing, they have to appeal to people who aren’t interested in what they’re doing. “Why should non-mainstream music reach out to wider audiences?” asked Masami Akita in a recent interview. “These days, everything is diversified and it’s OK to have many different non-mainstream musics for non-mainstream music lovers.”

I actually do think that outreach is important and valuable. And I think the audience for classical music, and new music in particular, could be larger than it currently is. But our habit of dismissing the audience we already have as “unreal” has made me pretty skeptical of “cultural relevance” as a concept.

And yet something happened recently that made me reconsider. I’d been listening to Weird Sister, the newest release from a post-punk band with the wonderful name of Joanna Gruesome, and at a certain point I noticed something odd. The album reminds me by turns of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Bikini Kill, My Bloody Valentine, Splendora—but nothing that’s happened since. It’s not that the band doesn’t have an original voice; it’s that they sound like a band with an original voice from 1993. I like them, but I can’t figure out how to plug them into the cultural landscape of 2013.

I don’t think it’s bad to make something that seems like it’s from another era. There’s room in the world for all kinds of art, and that includes retro art. But I also think that “how does this relate to other things from its own time?” is a more productive question for composers than “does this appeal to young people with mainstream tastes?” And those relationships can pop up in unexpected places. Sometimes, if you zoom out far enough, even the most seemingly hermetic avant-garde music sounds like it’s having a conversation with other styles and genres from the same era. Just look at Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, whose instrumentation—including alto flute, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, and bongos—wouldn’t be too out of place on a 1950s exotica or lounge album. I also remember listening to a 1973 recording of André Boucourechliev’s open-form composition Anarchipel and suddenly being struck by how much certain dense, skittering passages reminded me of Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness, released two years earlier. Were those connections intentional? Probably not—but there was something in the air.

Those are isolated examples, but sometimes a single idea will show up again and again, across multiple styles and media, in a particular period of time. For example: the collage boom of the 1960s, which showed up in avant-garde composition (Berio’s Sinfonia, Stockhausen’s Hymnen), in psychedelic rock (“Revolution 9,” early Frank Zappa albums), in Pop Art (Tom Wesselman, Robert Rauschenberg), in films both experimental (Jan Švankmajer’s “Historia Naturae, Suita”) and mainstream (the acid-trip scene in Easy Rider), and even in advertising (“The Paperwork Explosion,” an IBM promo by a young Jim Henson).

Another example, which doesn’t get talked about as often: all the art from the 1980s that depicts a world made inhuman by suburban sprawl and global technological networks. You see it in contemporary opera (Robert Ashley’s Improvement and eL/Aficionado), in New Wave (Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby), and in whatever you want to call Laurie Anderson’s Big Science (“take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank”). You also see it in the hyperreal domestic photographs of Tina Barney, the ultra-stylized suburbia of Bruce Charlesworth’s installations, and the Talking Heads’s film True Stories.

All the articles I’m writing for NewMusicBox this month deal with the issue of composers drawing on sources outside the perceived mainstream of “new music.” Last week, I took issue with one of the common arguments against it, but I didn’t say anything about why someone would want to do it in the first place. Different composers will give different answers, of course. But one possible reason is that when artists who work in different styles, in different media, and at different levels of mainstream exposure share ideas, they can create something larger than themselves—a complex tangle of interconnections that links their work together and gives it extra layers of meaning. And I’d like to think that if composers participated more often in these artistic conversations, they might not worry so much about being culturally irrelevant.

One final note: a few people were concerned that my previous article didn’t address the political and ethical issues that come up when different artistic cultures interact with each other—and I’m sure some of you were thinking the same thing as you read this one. No need to worry: that’s exactly what my next article is going to be about. See you in a week!

17 thoughts on “How To Be Culturally Relevant

  1. Jamie Maule

    I think a lot of the reason that we have this issue of ‘relevance’ and appeal to the ‘mainstream’ audience is because 150 years ago (or even more recently) classical music *was* the ‘mainstream’. The classical music world was once very much like the pop world is today. Perhaps that it is no longer like this is the reason that some want to win back the mainstream audience that classical music once had.

    I agree that artistically speaking it is better not to have the constant worry of whether or not your music is going to be considered relevant, but equally I think that the scale upon which classical music (at least in the UK, where I’m from) currently operates is far larger than the scale of its following. The classical world has to justify the inevitable expense of running numerous professional ensembles (which, again in the UK, are often subsidised by the government – I’m not incredibly clued up on this but presumably this is, at least to some extent, because of their narrow range of appeal) and appealing to a wider, ‘mainstream’, audience, which would bring in more money, is probably the most obvious way to do this.

    Reply
    1. classical crush girl

      My opinion: Art is only as culturally relevant as the ones who create it. IMO, composers today are in touch with the world around them culturally. They use the same social media sites and drive the same cars and shop at the same grocery stores as those in non-creative professions. Cultural relevance is always inextricably tied to money, and I wish whoever keeps asking about “cultural relevance” would just be honest and just say “how can this generate more money (from consumers)?” Classical musicians and composers today make more than ever before in history. The old model was that if you were born into the right family or came form money you could build a career supported by aristocrats who liked you (enough to employ you). But most musicians had to get a “real” job because music didn’t pay enough. In truth it never paid enough, but that’s another article I suppose.

      When it comes to music creation, I hope artists won’t be driven by fear to make something that will be a boon. But then, it’s not them I’m worried about.

      Great article

      Reply
      1. thomas

        wow @classical crush girl
        “Cultural relevance is always inextricably tied to money” – really?
        just be honest and say “how can this generate more money (from consumers)?”

        Yeeech, I could not disagree more… money comes from doing great work (If you’re lucky) not the other way round…
        Unless you’re composing for commercials or overtly commercial work, I honestly think you have it completely backwards ie no good work comes from just ‘doing it for the money’ as you propose…

        Reply
        1. classical crush girl

          I think you misunderstand me. We actually agree. What you’re saying is precisely what I said. I do not believe good music comes from “just doing it for the money”. Hence my: “When it comes to music creation, I hope artists won’t be driven by fear to make something that will be a [financial] boon.”

          Not quite sure how you missed that, but it’s quite alright. =/

          Reply
  2. Philipp Blume, y'all

    Thanks for all these cultural references, many of which were unfamiliar to me.
    I wonder whether your objection is to the obsession with relevance or to the spurious or inadequately reflected definition of relevance. Frankly, I think it’s probably neither – more that you’re channeling your dislike of overly rigid categories motivated by self-defined status into this topic.
    For my part, I think people who (1) live in this world and (2) feel genuinely motivated by their own work and (3) do it to their own complete satisfaction will find their audience… there must be other people with similar concerns as that composer. “We are all of this earth” – the only trouble is how well we can sometimes delude ourselves into believing we’ve done all we can to make ourselves clear. So if relevance is finally dismissed for good as a red herring, I would be OK with that.
    I echo your sentiment that diversity of approaches and results is far more important (not to mention concrete and measurable) than relevance.

    Reply
  3. Liam Carey

    Culture is one of those words (like ‘art’) that so many people use and yet agree so little on what it actually means. If we mean culture as in society or ethnic group, then I think the idea that something can be relevant to an entire culture is too broad a remit, and one particularly that fails to see the diversity within those groups. But if we then use the word ‘culture’ to mean groups within groups (sub-cultures if you will), then I’m sure any work can find a receptive audience and be relevant, that is meaningful, to individuals or specific groups.

    Sorry to name drop here, but can I recommend Bruno Latour’s excellent book ‘Reassembling the Social’ for a very incisive look at how we often use terms like ‘culture’ and ‘society’ in a way that’s far too reductive, forgetting the fragmented and often transitory nature of these constructs.

    Reply
  4. Michael

    [But I also think that “how does this relate to other things from its own time?” is a more productive question for composers than “does this appeal to young people with mainstream tastes?”]

    Nice subtle thought. Two of the most extreme and riveting “songs” ever recorded come to mind, both from the mid-seventies: “The Torture Never Stops” by Frank Zappa, and Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” Perhaps the Zappa masterwork was a darkly satiric response to Summer’s effort, or it may be heard as a disturbing counterpoint of horrific proportions, perhaps even with world political overtones. Irrespective of how these “songs” are interpreted, it is their stunning musical substance and invention that demands our attention in the first place.

    Reply
  5. bgn

    Well, to be cynical about it, there are two and only two surefire ways these days for an artist in any medium to be culturally relevant and important:
    (a) be so overwhelmingly successful–and I mean Jay-Z successful, Lady Gaga successful–that people can’t help but pay attention to you;
    (b) be openly and didactically political, whether hard-left or hard-right; that way you get a substantial intellectual infrastructure behind you that will support you.

    Reply
    1. classical crush girl

      @bgn. You’re right. And that statement is both true and false at the same time.

      It’s true because artists like Jay-Z and Lady Gaga are popular in part for their over-the top fashion and lyrics that are sometimes polarizing (gay rights/marriage, drug use, and/or political affiliations), but this definition of “cultural relevance” is what’s talked about on news outlets.

      Outside the newsrooms, lay persons seldom care. They just like Lady Gaga’s music. They also know how to delineate the man Sean Carter from the personality Jay-Z. And at the end of the day, they just want Gaga’s “Applause” or Jay-Z’s “Black Album” and to go on with their lives.

      I met an author once who said it perfectly when she told me of her budding writing career. When she didn’t know what to write about, she started writing about what she did know, and as a stay-at-home mother of two in northern New England that’s what she wrote about. And who is a young urbanite to question if that’s “culturally relevant”? Of course it is. Her life experience is part of American culture.

      Composers I know write about what they know and what fascinates them, and regardless of whether or not what they make turns coin, it’s culturally relevant. Most discussions about “cultural relevance” gauge this by how many people are paying for the art or how many eyes are watching, and that’s pathetic.

      The fastest growing subset of musicians are independent artists and I love that the music made by them can not be grouped or classified (despite the efforts of some to make “indie music” a musical genre). The influences are from far flung places and create a complex creative ecosystem. And ALL of it is culturally relevant. I love it.

      Reply
  6. Kathleen Supove

    Great to see you writing here, Alex! Randy (Woolf, composer, my husband) and I always talk about how devoted our audience is—so devoted that they actually become composers themselves!!! It’s a little backwards, but colleagues in the community—some full time “professionals”, some not, and everything in between—are another group that often gets discounted. Don’t they count, too?

    Reply
  7. Phil Fried

    I don’t know about relevance but I do know that classical music has lost much of its social necessity. Even 60 years ago amateur music making was widespread through community choirs and bands etc. Some of these still exist but now the American social world revolves around dancing and listening to popular music.

    You cannot believe for even for a second that the competition between classical and popular music for “audience” was a fair fight. The deck was stacked with money and advertising for the pop music folks. This has nothing to do with the style or the quality of music but everything to do with marketing. The idea lately proposed in these pages that if we throw some composers under the bus and redefine the Beatles as classical music we can become relevant is false. Being more inclusive is something else again.

    The fact is that K-12 music education programs are being cut the connections to classical music become even more tenuous as they become unfamiliar with the repertoire.

    So we have a choice to accept this situation or try to change it.

    Reply
  8. Jack Decker

    The most useful advice I’ve ever been given by someone I’ve never interacted with is “create that which—without you—would have never been created” (to which I add: “and prioritize the creation of that which is most idiosyncratic to you”). I can’t remember who said this, but I think it was a famous film director. Anyway, save for the omniscience it implies, I’ve found this a useful motto in sidestepping the whole question of relevance, as following the prescription is likely to imply one of two things: (1) reacting to the world around you in your own unique way or (2) taking an historical path that no one has yet taken. The former is a recipe for creating relevant art, and the latter is precisely the sort of retro art that is most interesting and worth creating.

    Reply
  9. Ethan

    But one possible reason is that when artists who work in different styles, in different media, and at different levels of mainstream exposure share ideas, they can create something larger than themselves—a complex tangle of interconnections that links their work together and gives it extra layers of meaning.

    This reminded me a lot of Elliot’s Tradition and the Individual talent, especially:

    No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. [...] The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

    This is both exactly what you’re saying, and the exact opposite! He’s more speaking of this grand network of tradition across time rather than relations between contemporaneous things (which he dismisses as “currents in the sand”).

    Reply
  10. Michael

    Expressings by themselves cannot exemplify the law of being: only poesis–the creator’s act of replicating in symbolic form the structures of life–pervades being sufficiently to intuit and embody its law. Poesis not only reproduces the content of life (its daily phenomena) but finds a manner (inspired, vatic) for that content, and in the means of its medium–here, the literal characters of its language–embodies the structural laws that shape being to our understanding. – Helen Vendler
    http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/helen-vendler-lecture

    Reply
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  12. Michael

    “Sometimes, if you zoom out far enough, even the most seemingly hermetic avant-garde music sounds like it’s having a conversation with other styles and genres from the same era.”

    Interesting point: Regarding music on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most famous and discussed works of the past one hundred years, West Side Story, reference is always made to rather vague “jazz” influences. Lee Konitz once casually mentioned to me that Leonard Bernstein told him the song “Cool” was inspired by the alto saxophonist’s music, including the thrilling instrumental and contrapuntal passages that are a highlight of the entire score. Reflecting upon this, I came to the realization that it is primarily the jazz of Lee Konitz that informs West Side Story, and for a deeper understanding of that work, one will do well to explore Lee’s recordings of the late forties through the fifties leading up to West Side Story. In addition, Bernstein and Aaron Copland were known to visit the music studio of Lennie Tristano, Lee’s teacher. (For more detail about this subject, click on “Michael” above.)

    Reply
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