Music as art

Again & again, I use the label "art music" casually, whether as juxtaposed with "popular music" or so as to place a remark more firmly in perspective. However, such usage omits an answer to the most basic question: What is art music? Well, maybe it begs that question and maybe it does not, as I will first offer the postmodern idea that art music is the music under discussion by people using the term art music. In that sense, we do know what we mean, at least most of the time. The idea can easily start to break down when discussing non-Western traditions, and in many ways the idea of "music as art" is a peculiar one. It implies a distance between oneself and the music under discussion, a detached indifference as opposed to a practical involvement. My own intention with the term has not been to make such an implication, although I have been aware of it, but to attempt to circumscribe the orientation of one tradition with respect to another. It is, of course, a fact that writing these discussions is indeed a detached indifference rather than a practical involvement. This is not music-making, this is talking about music, with only some hope that the feedback can be worthwhile.

The label "art music" indicates, as much as anything, that the present sort of auxiliary discussion exists. Although the label itself is essentially a postmodern one, especially when one considers that much of the discussion is about other discussion, the existence of various speculative or theoretical writings has a long history in Western music. This is a primary rationale for considering much of the surviving medieval music as contiguous with an art music tradition, rather than as a folk music. However, the latter is a statement one does continue to see, stated without support; rather, it is one of those bald assertions which saturates many people's impressions of the music for no reason other than that it pleases them to believe it. Of course the label "art music" has only come into frequent use because of the rise of popular music, and basically the resulting marginalization of art music. In an earlier article on the subject, I discussed both my personal reaction to popular music as well as something of the effect the phenomenon may have had on art music. I want to reaffirm the conjecture at the end, namely that the increasing divergence of classical styles today is driven at least partly by the dominance of a more monolithic popular music. The power relationships, such as they are, have been entirely rearranged. This is not to suggest that popular music is now in command of "modern classical music" as was the case in reverse prior to our century, and especially prior to the existence of mass electronic media, but that the two share an uneasy equality. Popular music certainly earns more money, the basis of power in today's society, but it also depends on art music for much of its underpinning. The latter retains some prestige of its own, even among people who may never listen to it.

It is certainly true that popular music, at least in the "megahits" which top the charts, is sometimes devoid of originality, getting its harmonic forms from classical music or even other pieces of popular music. Indeed, popular culture has taken on such a life since the advent of television that popular music has its own traditions and separate continuity. The tradition of alienating one's elders, as circumscribed earlier, is only one of them, albeit the one with the fastest churn (i.e. easy money). While popular music rarely strays far from the song form, art music is the arena in which new or abstract genres are aggressively pursued. It has even become difficult to write "art songs" today, clearly a relatively recent development in deference to popular music, some of whose songs are becoming classics in their own right. Jazz as a genre is essentially falling apart on this distinction, as I see it, with some facets moving fully into "popular music" and much of it becoming more closely connected to art music. The latter has been especially true as Europeans have become involved and as connections with other world traditions are explored. Art music has also incorporated improvisation in increasingly sophisticated ways, although it should be noted that improvisation was always an important aspect of a classical performer's training, if one less often presented in public. The idea of "classical" music as non-improvisatory, especially in America the home of jazz, has combined with confusion produced by the specific musical era designated by the term to downplay the significance of that label in favor of the broader "art music." This is a label, however, which is rarely understood outside of the group of people who use it, and so one is left with the also-misunderstood & convoluted "contemporary classical music" label all too often in general discussion.

While we can go on to use "art music" as a more general label to designate the complex of historical & cultural influences which can impinge on contemporary composition, the term continues to have a nonpractical implication. It masks the activity of music-making, and dovetails far too nicely into the passive consumerism of a recording-based culture. One also loses the religious background of many of the historical developments, as the aesthetic position subsumes other philosophical priorities. Indeed, aesthetics even brings a primacy for the visual arts, a connection with at best a tenuous history in medieval theory. Painting has taken a blow to its practicality with the advent of photography, and so as an abstract art has been left to grapple with issues similar to those besetting music, helping to draw the two together under the aesthetic label. The issue of relevance raises itself here, and unfortunately the "art music" label can serve to isolate practical music from its purpose. The mere introduction of aesthetic terminology brings philosophy into the picture, and there is simply no way in which philosophy can be relevant aside from the sense of a general web of connections. Correspondingly, it requires an increasing amount of verbiage to describe both what occurs in a piece of contemporary art music as well as the perspective from which it can be understood. It is essentially this complicated perspective, as mediated by scholarship, which defines art music today. Yet, it is in many ways a postmodern misdirection which obscures the practical impact of real music-making, and is certainly a Western conceit, even if the term is applicable to music elsewhere.

What can be done about this situation? It must be the subject of future discussion.

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Todd M. McComb