Monday, February 08, 2010

on music

I've been listening to Concert FM a lot lately - it is the only radio station in NZ that plays classical music (as well as jazz, folk, world music or other forms that don't get played on other radio stations). They sometimes have interviews with people which are often quite interesting, because they pick people who normally would be completely ignored by mainstream media.

However, there was an interview the other day that completely bugged me and here is the general gist of it. I WILL be dumbing it down and probably misrepresenting the complexities of this guy's ideas, but this is how it appeared to me.

They were interviewing an academic who has written a book about the future of music and the problems music faces today. He thinks that "Music", as it stands, is constrained by really limiting rules of, oh, harmony and rhythm, which exclude people who don't fit into those rules and which exclude other forms of audio material which should really be seen as Music too.

The idea of Music as limited by rhythm was forced upon the world by Pythagoras and we've all been playing along ever since, as if it were ordained that Music should incorporate timing. This is nothing less than - and I quote - "METAPHYSICAL FASCISM".

Folk music is more likely to step outside the box than "classical" or high class music, whereas all the bad smart people at universities or conservatories around the world have been grinding under their thumb the development of Music into a more inclusive art form.

Just in case my feelings about this are not yet clear: What utter crap.

Firstly, it's completely typical of an academic like this to "speak for" the lower classes, or for more earthy forms of music such as folk. I suspect that if you go and speak to the people he's claiming to speak for, or tried to play them the type of audio he would like to see classed as music, they would cover their ears in disgust, run away, and go back to enjoying their rhythmic, harmonic music.

Secondly, it's completely typical of an academic like this to use big words like "dialectic" or "metaphysical fascism" in the hope that this will awe critics into submission.

Thirdly, although he may claim music is too limiting and there are too many rules, he is simply creating a new structure into which he thinks people should fit. In fact, the rules of music are continually being bent by good musicians and composers. They are an exciting box within which to work, in my opinion, just like the form of the sonnet which Shakespeare worked within, but fiddled with. This academic seems to be suggesting that all rules are bad, all boundaries are bad, and all boxes must be broken. It sounds okay, it sounds romantic, but it is not actually reflective of reality, and it seems like he completely ignores the amazing variety which harmonic and rhythmic music has produced over even the last hundred years, let alone all time.

Fourthly, unfortunately for this academic, as much as he may theorise, people listen to music that pleases them. There is something about rhythm and something about harmony that is not simply an idea; it clicks with something inside us and once we've got it, we can't give it up. I'm not saying that everybody likes the same harmonies or rhythms, which is clearly untrue. And there is an element of truth in the idea that we like what we've been conditioned to like. BUT! Music in all its forms will endure, whatever he has to say about it, because people like it. There is no secret governing body out there forcing everybody to listen to the music they approve of. Instead, he seems to be setting himself up as some authority on what people should do - and he is doomed to failure.

What do you think? Will we all be dancing to the sound of discordant harmonies and beatless music in fifty years? Am I just reactionary?

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