Monday, April 23, 2012

Oh, the humanity!

I found this post through Corey Dargel's tweet.  Corey appreciates the "intense and insightful review" of his concert.  I was intrigued, but also confounded by a bold statement made by George Grella that
"Pop music may be affirm­ing, but it is exceed­ingly rare that it is truly human­ist, that it is sym­pa­thetic towards the things that it is not, and that the world of pop music — musi­cians, crit­ics and fans — is barely aware that any other music exists attests to this. Embrac­ing human­ist val­ues means embrac­ing human­ity, and that, beyond all abstract tech­ni­cal achieve­ment, is what clas­si­cal music does, and has done, and what pop music has yet to develop as a fun­da­men­tal value."  
I think it is wrong, and yet brilliant.  Pop fans are just as blinkered as classical fans.  Pop musicians tend to be less musically educated than classical musicians, but only when considering beginners.  Those pop musicians who have survived their sophomore albums without receding to obscurity have demonstrated a broader awareness of the artistic world, equal to that of their counterparts in the classical world.  Paul Simon embraces South African music.  Dave Matthews loves Vivaldi.  Even Justin Bieber has an awareness of jazz as a counterpart to his knowledge of hip hop and pop.  And for every popular musician who is unaware of the existence of classical music, there is an opposing classical musician who believes popular music is not worthy of acknowledgment. 

Going beyond the claims of awareness of the other, popular music attempts to express the human condition just as much as classical music.  Some popular music can be very monothematic about human emotions, focusing on love and/or lust, injustice or depression.  But Baroque music had its own Doctrine of the Affections to limit content.  The musicological concept of Gebrauchmusik could slander some of Hindemith's music, Bach's dance suites, and "The Twist" equally for the goal of community-building action rather than emotional contrasts.  And yet these songs are meant to join humanity together, helping people from different backgrounds to unite in a larger sense of culture.  Is that not humanitarian?

I think George's post is brilliant for addressing the need of music to be humanistic.  I completely agree that the best artworks contain contradictions, nuance, and heart.  Beauty formed from contrasts of the ugly and the pleasant, this is what both represents us and teaches us how to be better humans.  I have experienced these challenges in classical music, in popular music, in jazz music, in world music.  I have also found these elements of humanism in the "high" and "low" forms of painting, literature, film, theater, and dance.  It is wonderful to see a passionate reminder of why the arts are so important, especially as I get ready to argue against cuts to the arts in our local school board meeting tonight.


George Grella said...

I'm glad anyone reads what I write so thank you. I don't disagree with you, but I think we're talking about two related, but different things. It boils down to history and perspective, First, classical music has had hundreds of years to develop as an abstract art form, while pop most hasn't. Also, pop music is in large part a product of mass consumer culture, the commodification of thoughts and feelings packaged as lifestyles and subcultures. There's no cognate to that in classical music.

Second, I am at the tail end of the first generation of classical composers and musicians who grew up both surrounded by and making some money within pop music. I can even stretch this argument back to Mahler and Ives, who shoved pop music they both loved and hated into their pieces. The last couple generations of classical musicians have a deep context of pop music. Not even the likes of Paul Simon, Dave Matthews or Justin Beiber can compare. Meanwhile, read writing about "Music" most places and that writing can't even imagine something exists outside of pop music. Take a look at the Slate 2011 music roundup as a perfect example.

The result is humanist music on the one hand and not that on the other (you conflate humanism and humanitarianism, which are not the same). I can wrack my brains to think of where I can hear the complex juxtaposition of thoughts and feelings in the same moment of time you get in Ives and Mahler, and Rzeski and Dargel, in pop music, even stuff I love. Some songs when lyrics emphasized literacy and allusiveness, some Elvis Costello, some Dylan. What else? I'm not sure. It's because one form is about that juxtaposition (because it's abstract) and the other is about selling one idea. Gross generalizations, to be sure, but I don't have hundreds of pages with which to work them out.


Scott said...

George, thanks for the comment! Can you explain what you mean by "abstract art form?" My understanding of abstract art is non-representational. In music this usually translates to a lack of extra-musical influence in the form of lyrics or program. But I have a feeling you mean something else.

How would you differentiate Ives appropriating marches with Sting appropriating Prokofiev? Or all of the prog-rock experiments with symphonism?

I certainly grew up listening to all forms of music, playing in jazz, blues, and rock bands as well as orchestras and chamber ensembles, like many of my contemporaries. And nowadays it is normal for my students to include popular music on their recitals, showing much more openness to the canon than when I was a student. But I see many of these students also going into popular music instead of classical music. Are they classical musicians playing at pop, or popular musicians with a classical education?

Let's see, humanism focuses on ethics and justice, human values. Humanitarianism is a specific ethic of sympathy. So yes, I was guilty of conflating, and yet an example of humanitarianism in art is also an example of humanism, in that it exhibits one type of humanism.

Here is one example of complex contradictions, from a song that I just analyzed, "Typical Situations" by Dave Matthews: The verse sounds preachy and then with a light-hearted chorus. The subverting melodic line I mention in the post is purposefully arriving on dissonances, aural examples of nonconformity that contradict the lyrics. I say the song is nihilistic, but it doesn't take that as a pessimistic call to give up. Instead, there is a suggestion that this nihilism should lead us to a carpe diem philosophy. Is that not complex? On the same album, which I would argue as a unified work, like a song-cycle, there is a song about the horrors of drugs (Rhyme and Reason) and a song about how great drugs are (Jimi Thing). And yet each song contradicts itself. Rhyme and Reason ends with the user seeing heaven during his fix. Jimi Thing has implications of corruption within the melody and harmony, especially the G natural (a significant pitch throughout the album).

El Johno said...

Again, this blog has my mind wracking. I wrote a long response, but it was "too long" according to Google. So, instead, i just want to ask a question- what makes classical "humanistic" and popular music not? And when/where is the dividing line? are madgrials just old popular music? what of estampies? what of William Byrd's virginal music, or Muzio Clementi's Sonatinas? what of Beatles "Revolution" or "Helter Skelter?" Or Peter Gabriel? ok, that was more than "a question." I apologize

i think generalizations along arbitrary categorical lines are dangerous. As is reading this blog while i've been drinking, after a party of mostly Jazz musicians discussing the finer philosophical points of the current jazz scene, and "how the hell do we make it in music these days anyway?!?"

Scott said...

John, I agree with you. The distinction is too simple. And philosophy should only be discussed after drinking.