Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ramblings on the "Dumbing" of Music

Most of my recent blog postings have been concert reviews (and there are several more of them coming) so I think I’ll post at least one here about various musical ramblings…

MINOR TRAGEDY: A major classical station recently sent me the results of a survey. According to them, their listeners would like to hear “less contemporary, and less opera”. Odd, since they play very little of either (they also play very little early music). I might add that nobody I know was included in the survey. This limiting of "classical" to a narrower definition would appear to be more of the general dumbing down of music on the radio (“classical music by request” on KUOW in the 1980’s played at least half contemporary) – though in this case it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: of course nobody would want to hear something that they don’t understand because they haven’t heard much of it to begin with.

MAJOR TRAVESTY: Last month I received several panicked e-mails that something should be done because a major Seattle jazz club had booked Kenny G. Again, part of the dumbing down of music – it reminds me that about a month ago I saw a Lawrence Welk CD in the classical section of a public library. (That would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad). The e-mails suggested a noisy free-jazz jam outside of the door of the jazz club, demanding equal rights for adventurous music. Right on! However, of course there’s no reason to stop people from listening to Kenny G if they want to. There should just be some kind of notice that muzak isn’t jazz. (In the 1970’s a lot of people seemed to think that muzak was classical; I don’t know how that one got started either, but at least it seems to be disappearing now.)

MODAL PARADIGM SHIFT: Restricting classical music to its narrow definition and including elevator music as jazz are examples of the dumbing of music. It would seem, though, that people (particularly younger people) aren’t buying it. The following story is only a minor incident, but it illustrates my point. The last two weeks I had the experience of substitute teaching for a junior high orchestra. Contrary to stereotypes about junior highschoolers, their minds are open to different kinds of music and they don’t all suffer from Bieber Fever. One student said that his favorite composer was George Crumb, and then he proceeded to conduct the rest of the group in a spontaneous performance of Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales” (with the Seattle Symphony’s recording of the same playing on the stereo at the same time to thicken out the sound and provide the whale parts). We didn’t have a score, of course; he shouted the instructions as they were playing and skipped the conventionally melodic parts. Judging from the students’ reactions, they didn’t think that this aleatory playing was weird at all; in fact they seemed to have a blast. There were only two dissenters: one who snickered throughout at the fact that nobody else seemed to get that the music was a joke, and one who argued that John Cage’s method of composition was the same as fraud (I had brought up Cage—and Terry Riley’s “In C” – later, in explaining that Hovhaness’ piece wasn’t an isolated bit of musical eccentricity).

So, what of it? Does this represent some kind of shift in musical ideas? When I was in junior high, anything that didn’t sound exactly like Led Zeppelin was suspect; yet here are kids enjoying something completely different from the current pop (and they like Zeppelin too, in itself a paradigm shift – when I was that age, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to my parents’ music…!). In a game of music trivia, they also correctly identified music as diverse as Bach, Miles Davis, the Andrews Sisters, and a gamelan (as well as current pop tunes). This may be the beginnings of revenge against being “stupidified” by the mass media, at least in the field of music. Now, what about other fields…?

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