Friday, August 13, 2010

What is music for?

In recent weeks, Ethan has been reading Derrick Jensen's Endgame (at my recommendation, he says) and has been sharing salient passages with the rest of us. In mid-July, he posted an excerpt from Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization, which included this passage:
...if we dig beneath [the] second, smiling mask of civilization--the belief that civilization's visual or musical arts, for example, are more developed than those of noncivilized peoples--we find a mirror image of civilization's other face, that of power. For example, it wouldn't be the whole truth to say that visual and musical arts have simply grown or become more highly advanced under this system; it's more true that they have long ago succumbed to the same division of labor that characterizes this culture's economics and politics. Where among traditional indigenous people--the "uncivilized"--songs are sung by everyone...within civilization songs are written and performed by experts, those with "talent," those whose lives are devoted to the production of these arts... I'm not certain I'd characterize the conversion of human beings from participants in the ongoing creation of communal arts to more passive consumers of artistic products manufactured by distant experts...as a good thing.
There is much about Jensen's books that appeals to me, though I've been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of the inevitability of civilization in general, capitalism in particular. And I've been doing some reading that has deeply complicated my thinking on these matters, which I hope to write about relatively soon.

Anyway, Ethan posted this passage from Jensen about music and the arts just two days after Marcello Carlin posted what I think is one of his finest entries at his excellent Then Play Long blog (in which, recall, he has taken it upon himself to review every album to reach the top of the charts in the UK) and which I immediately connected with the Jensen. The post was about, of all things, Top of the Pops, Volume 18—as anonymous an album as one could hope to hear, it would seem, and one that I would not expect to want to read about. The Top of the Pops albums were not simply collections of hits, but rather generic re-recordings of hits by generally no-name or aspiring session musicians and the like. From the point of view of those of us who follow or have followed music closely, such a collection sounds utterly dreary and is likely anathema to our way of thinking. But they were hugely popular in Britain. And Carlin has some fascinating things to say about that. He writes:
Looking at the remarkable success of these records begs some key questions, not the least of which is: what, and who, is music for? Remember that in the days before the vinyl record took hold of the market – and some considerable way into those same days – the song, not the performer, was predominant, the thing which attracted us. Even when the singles chart commenced at the end of 1952, record sales were very much a minority; sheet music was dominant, a harking back to the time when every family’s parlour bore a piano, when a family would learn to play the piano, sing these songs in their own homes, or in the pub. Delving into the early days of the singles chart, the commonest phenomenon is that of several competing versions of the same song; everyone had their individual preferences, but the song was the common/unifying factor.

People like Elvis and the Beatles detoured us. We grew to think that now the artist was the thing which mattered, the song secondary, the growth of individualism, the decline of familial and societal bonds (even if few artists did more than Elvis or the Beatles to unite the disparate strands of their multiple followings). And we decided that we had to take music seriously, to pin it down and analyse it, connect it to what else was occurring in the world, anybody’s and everybody’s world.

But the non-specialist consumer continued to confound these ambitions, and in various important ways still does. What we have to bear most importantly in mind – and this is common sense rather than revolutionary theory – is that most of us aren’t that bothered about music. Oh, we love it, couldn’t really do without it – what do these forty million people who never listen to music do with, or to, themselves? – but, as Tim Rice pointed out long ago (his introductory note to the 1981 edition of the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles, to be exact), the sheep get separated from the goats at around the age of eighteen – most people then relegate music to the background of their lives, but a small number of obsessives remain spellbound by music, feel the need to go even deeper into music, to keep up with new developments, to retrace histories.

But we continue to sing songs and like songs, be momentarily transported by songs, and it’s that residue which provides the main bloodstream in which music is actually able to live and survive. To connect all of this back to things like the Top Of The Pops series, a song catches the ear of a potential record buyer, and they like the song – it’s catchy, stays in their mind, they unconsciously whistle it while making breakfast – but they’re not particularly concerned about the backstory of either the song or the singer, unless the latter is a major figure; and even then they’ll allow some slack.
I've provided an overly long quotation here because he says a few different things here, and I like how he moves through the ideas. But the things that stuck out at me are the importance of the song over the performer and the links back to when music was played by more people rather than being left to the experts. I thought of songs we all know, and songs I sing to my daughter. And I thought again about the tension between individuality and community, about what has been lost in our rush ahead, and whether it's possible to regain anything of it, when we've re-made the world and re-conceived of it as a place in which individuals move, on their own, independent, always striving, we are told, for independence. . .

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11 Comments:

Blogger Jim H. said...

Here's an interesting trend I'm seeing: my 14 yo just spent his 5th year at a week long summer camp where he was matched up with others of similar talent level and learned to play 4-5 rock songs as a band. Rock camps are like those pre-celeb days when families played sheet music. The kids pick the songs themselves, listen to the songs, download the tabs (where available_, and try to play. Many are quite talented—tho' not yet to the point of adding their own style (like Sun Kil Moon to Modest Mouse, say). The counselors are generally professional musicians and music teachers and instrument and sound techs.

His isn't the only 'Rock School' type camp.

August 14, 2010 3:35 PM  
Blogger Ethan said...

I've often thought that there was significant vested interest at work when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote "The Singer Not the Song."

This is interesting stuff--and hah, I wish I'd read it before I just wrote my post about seeing ESG last night, because I probably could have organized my thoughts better. Thanks too for pointing me to the Then Play Long blog, looks fascinating!

August 15, 2010 5:22 PM  
Blogger waggish said...

I went to the bar down the street the other night and saw a jazz show. I knew two of the players, but I'm a nerd like that. Sounded pretty good to me. My friends involved in the bluegrass and rockabilly scenes here also seem to enjoy themselves. Doesn't seem as bad as folks make it out to be.

August 17, 2010 11:28 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks, waggish. That sounds great. Though I have to admit I don't really understand what you're driving at. Are you countering what I'm saying?

August 17, 2010 8:44 PM  
Blogger Marcello Carlin said...

Many thanks for the kind comments, Richard; my conclusion can be found in this sequel.

August 18, 2010 11:57 AM  
Blogger waggish said...

Yes, I think so. From my vantage, things are better than they were 10 or 20 years ago. It's easier for creative individuals to find one another and to share/publish work without going through mass media channels. Now more than ever before, I know more people who create and publish art in their spare time, and the sense of community is far greater than it was in the 90s or the early part of the last decade.

"It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!"

August 18, 2010 12:40 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Actually, I think you're right. I wasn't trying to imply otherwise, though I can see how my post could have been read in that way. In fact, in many areas, not just music, people have been trying to remake communities, or build new ones. But the focus on the individual remains dominant in our society. I think the trends you see in music, and I've noticed elsewhere, are positive movements against (or at least complications of) that paradigm.

August 18, 2010 12:51 PM  
Blogger waggish said...

I recently heard neocon Donald Kagan ranting against individualism and holding up the glory of Athens as a glorious alternative, so I was wondering what sort of communities you were thinking of.

Being somewhat fond of rights-based individualism (and suspicious of hegemonic communities--i.e., all of them: dealing with the groupthink of massed hardcore punks was unbearable for me), I wasn't sure what you meant by what had been lost. I never really bought Hegel's critique of the radical individualism of the French Revolution either....

August 18, 2010 1:13 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Well, I hear what you're saying. I'm trying to explore that tension, between the individual and collective action. I feel we've gone so far in one direction, that we need to recapture (or remake) collective forms of living. If only for our own survival. I'd say don't want to say much more in a comment, since this is only one post on this theme, so I'll leave it there.

August 18, 2010 8:08 PM  
Blogger ASP said...

You know, this is why I like, despite its frequent lack of quality, the fact that fan fiction exists (and slash fiction -- not my kind of porn, but I love the idea that people are making their own porn in cooperation with other people who like to produce and consume that kind of porn).

Although I understand people who feel that fan fiction impinges on their copyright, I cannot but love the fact that readers are appropriating the stories, retelling them, and refashioning them to suit their own desires, experiences and preferences. It's what existed in the oral traditions, where stories were told by numerous storytellers and passed on from one to another, at the same time remodelled based on the feedback from the listeners, so that they reflected the experiences, aspirations and fantasies of entire communities, not just individual storytellers.

I mean, I know that popular stories told by individuals also reflect to some degree the fantasies and experiences of the audience, otherwise they wouldn't be appealing, but I still love the idea that the readers are actively participating in reshaping the stories and not just reading them. Because every act of reading is an appropriation of the story, every individual interpretation identifies something that speaks to that particular individual, and I like the fact that readers are, in a way, speaking back. Kind of.

So I see in fan fiction a sort of reclamation of communal creation and performance of art, I think it can be considered a way of trying to regain some of that communal living, even though these communities may be virtual ones and gathered around one specific idea... I don't know, does that make sense?

August 21, 2010 1:24 PM  
Blogger waggish said...

It's an interesting subject actually, since fan fiction started long before the internet, in the late 60s and early 70s, mostly around Star Trek, mostly by women. One of the first moves was to make Spock gay. The line between fans and writers in science-fiction has always been thinner than in other genres, so it's somewhat fitting that the internet would boost fan fiction interest and production.

August 21, 2010 7:13 PM  

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