Friday 25 March 2016

has it come to this?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the relevance of "Western Art Music".  We know that orchestras are having huge problems selling tickets, we know that classical music sales seem to be waning, we know that audiences are growing bored and disinterested.  There is some implication that pop music, on the other hand, is going wild, becoming more and more successful with each passing day.

I disagree.  Consider how pop music is used.  When I was young, a new Beatles album was a thing to be anticipated.  When the album came out, we would listen to it repeatedly.  I remember hearing Abby Road about 15 times when it was fresh.  Most importantly, it was listened to live, not through earphones, which were quite rare (and expensive.)  The fidelity was as good as the stereo you could afford.  You could jump up and down and dance around the room to the music, singing along with it, if you wanted to do so.

Where has pop music gone now?  First of all, it has become, plain and simple, a commodity.  No one-- absolutely no one-- can pretend that contemporary pop song writers are on the level of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc.  What are people buying?  They are buying a pre-packaged product off the shelf, one that will deliver no surprises, but which will give them exactly what they expect.  It's just like buying toilet paper.  The music is bland, folks.  Let's admit it.  It all sounds the same (within each genre.)  There are no great melodists out there.  The risk-takers are all gone (now that Bowie is gone.)

More importantly, where is pop music used?  Clubs, where it is not the central focus any more.  During the disco era, the clubs existed for the music.  People went to the clubs to dance and socialize using the music as a common ground.  Gradually, drugs crept in, and gradually, the experience of dancing to the music in a club became going to a club as an event that involved, among other things, some music.  Club-going is not a musical thing anymore.

And the other significant use of music is even worse:  portable players.  20 years ago, portable players were fairly large and fairly rare.  The miniaturization of these players into pods and phones has made them ubiquitous.  But it has done something much more insidious:  it has driven users into their own solipsistic world.  I remember very well having a Sony Walkman in the 80s, walking down Bay Street, listening to the Security album by Peter Gabriel.  It remains, to this day, one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had.  Hearing the Ghanese and Native American drumming, to the exclusion of all other sound, while walking through the Bay Street office towers, was beyond surreal.  I never did it again.

Every single younger person does this now routinely.  We live in an autistic world, where we cut ourselves off from everything around us.  We plug those phone ear buds in, crank up the 4/4 @ m.m.108 and withdraw.  Everything about our world is withdrawn.  People don't talk to each other anymore, they text.  The horror of the original Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie Pulse is coming true:  our souls are retreating into our electronic devices.  Is this really music, or is it a drug?  Or something worse?

I used to think that beer was Soma.  Now I believe that contemporary pop music is Soma.

Western Art Music concert music, especially orchestral concert music, is not comfortable the way Soma is.  Contemporary music is even less comfortable.  I repeat:  dissonance/consonance, tonality/atonality, these are not problems anymore; unfamiliarity is the enemy, and that goes for even the most accessible music.  Pop music, now that it has become homogenized, is a comfortable product, entirely predictable, without any nasty creative touches to upset people.

Or maybe I'm just getting old.