Friday, December 26, 2008

Notes from the underground

Notes from the underground

Philip Fried

These are old posts I thought I might bring back warts and all..

The problems facing presenters and educators of the classical music arts today are:

  1. A strong focus on popular music which creates a low level of music culture.

  2. The rise of the new "populist movements" (which will be covered in a later article).

  3. The scarcity of funds for the arts. The arts must pay their own way. Institutions, such as schools and arts presenters, need to attract students, therefore, they can't afford to alienate their clientele by being different or visionary. Our artistic leaders have decided to become followers of popular culture.

Value is the issue. The belief is facts are facts, holding to the idea that there is no difference between them, or that there can not be a set of facts that has more value than another. The entire concept of value has been disregarded. Discernment based on knowledge and artistic judgment is seen as reactionary. One important, and pernicious, idea of our times is that skill/technique and knowledge of one's art destroys creativity. We admire the child prodigy who's talent seems to appear as if by magic, not by the hard work and encouragement that it really takes. Most professional musicians were never prodigies.

Today we judge artists first, by their financial success and popularity, second, by their authority, and lastly, by their artistic knowledge. A large faction of the financially successful artists are unskilled, so it is impossible to judge them by any other criteria. Mass media reflects the foothold of these winners and sets the standard for acceptance.

The idea that knowledge destroys creativity also plays into the hands of the music and advertising industries who want to sell the cheapest product at the highest price. Money dictated that the symphony orchestra be replaced by a less expensive big band, which was replaced by an even less expensive rock band, which finally was replaced by the digital sampler. Today, a live concert only needs a computer and a technician. Every year the "new sound" gets cheaper to produce with more profit for the music companies. The classical record producers are also held to this profit margin. Popularity and marketing win out over edification and meaning. They no longer spend money on music education as in the past – e.g. The Victor Music Company and its education publications and recordings.

Today culture in America is advertisements, jingles, and commercial holidays. Pop music accompanies them all. Popular arts, music, film etc. must focus on literal representations of its ideas since they need to be obvious to be salable. This kind of art does not confront or challenge our imagination.

The popular entertainment business has real money and power. Institutions like, rather need, to associate with money and power, it is their only hope of survival today. These institutions must fight for funds and paying customers, they can't afford to challenge the prospective client's love of pop music. Even more unlikely is popular music's claim of intellectual content. The marketing of "New Music Seminars," which imply that knowing about the latest rock music product is learning. Look at any 50's teen magazine and you will see that teenagers were expected to know and own classical music as well as pop. Times have changed.

It is a well known fact that knowledge can set you free and improve your life, yet musically we are "dumbing down" our artistic horizons. Why is it that in this age of self interest we rob ourselves of the advantages of skill? Why do we feel that knowing who plays guitar faster is a sign of erudition? [this at least shows an interest in musicianship] We let commercial media control the limits of our knowledge through radio, TV, print, and now the Internet. We know that some ideas are more important than others. Our limited time on this planet requires artistic investigation and challenge Yet, more than ever to be labeled "cultured" is to be different, and to be out of touch with the real world.

I heard on the radio this week that the best selling, number one hit record on the classical charts was composed by a composer who does not read or write music. And, this recording in turn knocked off the previous number one classical hit of piano music performed by a pianist who can't play. I guess we should be thankful that there is a classical music chart and classical radio at all.

Where does one look to find alternatives to this nonsense? We can't always rely on others to solve this problem. Go to the museums, go to concerts, find out what is going on.. Take music lessons for yourself and your children from reliable teachers, attend lectures, and get involved in culture. Minnesota is far ahead of other states in arts support, take advantage of the richness of music in its many forms. Popular music is like simple geometry but there are many more shapes to explore. It is up to us, the music educators, to bring choice into our lives and those lives we touch in our teaching.

Philip Fried is a composer who teaches composition for adults and children at The Center for Performing Arts. Besides holding a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he is a certified K-12 music specialist in the St. Paul Schools.

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