Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Great Art/Pop Divide

Finally catching up on some blogs the other day, I was reading 8bb's blog and came across an interesting idea in the comments, written by composer Stephen Hartke. Stephen writes,
And, guys, I’m sorry, but the art music experience is not the same as the pop music experience. Art music is about a one-on-one communication between the creator of the music via the performers to individual members of the audience. (Stravinsky said that he didn’t care about the audience, but that he did care about the individual souls that made up the audience.) Pop music is much more about a group dynamic — and I don’t say this as a criticism but rather as an acknowledgment of a fundamental aesthetic and cultural reality — in which the continuous and active participation of the audience is an intrinsic element of the art form itself.

This is an interesting definition of the difference between art music and popular music that I hadn't really considered before. I can see where he is coming from, with our desire to have absolute silence during an artistic performance so we can be totally immersed in the music. But that itself seems to be a group experience, one based on mass silent devotion rather than mass dancing or mass singing. Just as people gathered in silent prayer at a church, temple or mosque are a very different experience than praying alone, the idea of listening silently in an audience is not the same as sitting alone in front of the stereo or with earbuds in. Our behavior is different when we are in a group, thus any musical work will affect people differently in a live group situation rather than a recorded individual setting.

I've listened to rock music very carefully on my iPod, getting totally immersed in the experience of the music rather than in any audience participation (including my own physical reactions). I've sung along to classical music, and danced madly to opera. I've been distracted by the music enough to forget to clap at the end of an improvised solo at a jazz concert, and felt the strong desire to whoop and clap at the end of an inner movement of an orchestra concert.

Looking at Stephen's definitions more carefully, I think he is suggesting the intent of the composer rather than the actual behavior of the listener. When a composer is creating an artistic work, s/he is intending the listener to react on an individual basis. When a composer creates a popular work, s/he intends the listeners to react in a group way. With that definition, we can find some symphonic works that would be labeled as popular, and some rock songs that would be labeled as art, thus providing some informative worth. This creates some interesting questions, like how the original intention of a composer might be superseded by shifts in cultural behavior. Waltzes that were originally intended to be group dances are now performed in the concert hall. Concert works are mashed-up at raves. Does the current state of cultural behavior redefine the pop/art aspect of the work, or is it still dependent fully on the composer's original intention? If we cannot find any direct evidence of the composer's original intention, what indirect evidence is considered most reasonable?

Does anyone know of any musicological work in this area? It seems likely that someone has already addressed this issue.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

SatPod: May

Happy May Day, everyone!

1. "But Who May Abide" from the Messiah by George Friedrich Handel, performed by Samuel Ramey and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra led by Andrew Davis.

2. "First of May" by Jonathan Coulton on Best. Concert. Ever.

3. "May It Be" by Enya on the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack.

4. "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry.

5. Mayn Yingele by Frederic Rzewski on Rzewski Plays Rzewski.

6. "Now is the Month of Maying" by Thomas Morley, performed by the King's Singers on Madrigal History Tour.

7. "Sheep May Safely Graze" by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Rolf Smedvig and Michael Murray.

8. "You May Be Right" by Billy Joel on Glass Houses.