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.


Unknown said...

Seems to me if anyone has commented on this it might be Alex Ross whose knowledge base is so disparate. There used to be a saying in one of the faculty rooms in the old building (paraphrasing here) - entertainment gives us what we want, art gives us what we don't know we need.

Caleb Deupree said...

Literary critics have spent decades debating authorial intentionality refining their positions but in general finding it difficult to recover and often irrelevant. Should authorial intent be considered differently for music than for literature?

John Chittum said...

i have had the discussion of authorial intentionality with several writers lately, especially discussing how they are viewed differently. though, i remember when talking to a couple other composers, one said quite directly: "Composer's intent means nothing, especially in analysis. and listening is a form of analysis."

As i'm sitting here analyzing Stephen Hartke (seriously, his latest String Quartet. I'm doing a rhythmic/metric analysis) and having met him, i can tell you what he was THINKING of writing isn't how i'm analyzing it. Or more than likely how i hear it. in the end, the more abstract the medium, the less and less the intent can be known and therefore even taken into account.

I don't think there is a difference between pop/art music. if anything its a distinction made by academics and our want to categorize all things.

as for specific names, wow, it totally escapes me. There's a lot of discussing by Davies (whose first name just escaped me) regarding intention specifically in regards to is something "music" (namely in an article discussing 4'33") and a lot of people in the philosophy of music crowd (Peter Kivy comes to mind) seem to agree intention doesn't matter as far as the experience of the music. i'm sure formalists (like Eduard Hanslik) would disagree.

sorry my brain is friend and i can't remember names well. i've been analyzing a good chunk of the evening. maybe i'll remember more tomorrow

John Chittum said...

oh, and on the formalists, i was thinking from the viewpoint of artistic intent strictly by it's statement of "this is music" and therefore shall be judged in a purely abstract fashion. not from the idea of intent that "you should 'feel' this" because their answer would be that music does not make one feel anything, directly, at all.

David Wolfson said...

And let's not forget that "composer's intent" is truly a fiction; every performance is a new piece of music, and every audience members hears a different version of that.

mrG said...

here's another counter-example to "composer's intent": Kurt Colbain clearly had no higher intention with Smells Like Teen Spirit than to be an ass on record, but by his accidental choice of a 'goofy' chord progression, and then his intuitive highlighting of this progression through that almost monotonic melodic line, he discovered a totally new chord progression that took the world by storm. Kurt hadn't a clue why, he is quoted as saying he detested that song and the attention it received, but clearly if he had been the Genius Composer and had intended that 'cleverness', his next experiment would have captured even more acclaim.

As Joseph Schillinger noted, there is a difference between musical theory (a superset) and "the music that works" (a small subset) and while some of our theory does sometimes discover new sounds that work or improve existing works, it is as Einstein noted, that Nature is under no obligations whatsoever to adhere to our mathematics.

Peter said...

I think an important point to keep in mind is that a single piece of music can function as either pop or as art--or as both simultaneously--depending on the listener(s). Put another way, it is wrong to think of "pop" or "art" as describing the music; that predicate emerges at the level of interaction between music and listener (the statement "x piece of music is pop" has no truth value, but "the interaction of x piece of music and y listener at time t is pop" does).

so when you are talking about the cultural practices surrounding classical music ("a group experience, one based on mass silent devotion"), you are talking about the pop aspects of it. and when you say, "i've listened to rock music very carefully on my iPod, getting totally immersed in the experience of the music," you are talking about having an art music experience.

Hucbald said...

There is no clear delineation between popular styles and traditional practice, though people find it easier to treat any genera as a distinct entity.

Many of the early jazz guys, for example, had a classical background - I'm thinking of Scott Joplin - so there was cross-pollination there from the beginning (And Joseph Schillinger was wrong when he said jazz had a higher evolutionary velocity than traditional music: It evolved fast because the evolutionary result was borrowed from classical).

On the other end, how do you explain all of the Baroque dances in Bach's suites? Those are basically pop songs; dance music! But Bach elevated them to the realm of art.

I did a, "What would Bach be writing today?" thought experiment a while back, and it came out a contrapuntal jazz scherzo for a guitar sonata.

So, I just don't buy the individual versus group distinction between trad and pop music or the generalization about what music can and can not be art: Any genera can be art if the writer/composer is an artist within it.

Ray Luedeke said...

The idea of sitting in chairs and not moving or making a sound while a concert is going on is a hold over from the 19th Century, and mostly from Germany at that.
It's a pretty up-tight phenomenon that should be dumped. Perhaps then one wouldn't even need to consider group reaction or individual reaction. Either one works. Or maybe a bit of both. As to popular music and art music, these are just meaningless labels, just words. I prefer to think of popular music vs. unpopular music. For years I have written the latter.

RIch Randall said...

Check out what Bruno Nettl has to say about the difference between art and popular music.