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  The Recognition of the Composer Today (Part IV of X)  Bevillia at 19:58 on 29 November 2009

The Recognition of the Composer Today - Stephen Beville


We have entered an age where 'fame' and 'image' have usurped our recognition of musical genius. This would no doubt accord with the widespread confusion in our time between entertainment and art, the confusion between fame and genuine musical greatness. Indeed, this is evident from the choice of, and the weight given to contemporary personalities now commemorated in biographical dictionaries and encyclopaedias - entries that are often the result of fleeting fashion rather than any objective overview of history or the present. (In fact it is an increasing phenomenon whereby fame is accorded greater worth than artistic or intellectual acheivement).

The erratic and proportunate disparity in the length of some of the biographical profiles on the internet Wikipedia are only the most obvious examples of a general ignorance towards intellectual stature, either of the personality or their work. (This may result from the fact that most enlightened academics do not take Wikipedia very seriously, whilst fans of a popular persuasion have been let loose). But the 'academia' would be well advised to consider such encyclopaedias as seriously as possible for their potential, impending influence on the intellectual life of humanity. The length of Wikipedia profiles on musicians from the past 50 or so years seem to be based on the sole criteria of popular hysteria as objectively definitive. ( It was, after all, the same criteria that exalted Hitler above human reason). In other words, the social charisma, magnetism (and capacity for deception) of a personality now overrides any consideration of lasting contribution through the artistic standard or quality of their work. And this may explain why many of the entries are unenlightening, focusing on trivial and irrelevent details of their lives - hence the enmormous profiles for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and just about every other populist figure you care to imagine.

Music is an art like any other, and where would many of the great composers, painters and writers of history be if their importance was simply dependant upon how popular they were in their day? If an analogy may be made between the painter and the composer, imagine if the historical survival and acclaim of paintings were simply dependant upon popular appeal of the time in the sense of how many copies were sold. Would not such criteria seriously infringe the richness of both historical and contemporary art, not to mention the originality, integrity and freedom of the individual artist? Applied to music, this explains why concepts such as the musical 'charts' or the 'smash-hit' are with regard to musical quality, rather meaningless and anachronistic to real artistic merit or value.

One might say it is the great crime taking place before our very eyes (in any form of commercial media); the re-writing of musical history and the re-prioritising of musicians to suit the commercial agenda of the present - a present where the general public are musically uneducated. It is the crime of fashionism*, of suposedly 'educational' commercial media (what is that but a contradiction ?) bending to the whims of the lowest common denominator for their own financial and public survival. All channels of media are beginning to reflect this craze; in television, radio and magazines.

Think of such recent enterprises as the BBC's Fame Academy and Electric Proms, CH 4's Pop Stars, X Factor and the UK Music Hall of Fame - which are taken seriously by many young people today. The kind of music that blasts through CH 4 from morning till night seems to me a serious impediment to any cultural or civilizing improvement. (CH 4 is fast becoming the British equivalent of MTV). As I have mentioned, even Newsnight Review on BBC 2 (not to mention our main 'chat-shows' ) now, by and large, seems to have excluded any discussion of (contemporary) classical music. Then again, that's hardly surprising under the tenure of the otherwise capable Kirsty Wark; whose ghastly regulars would rather review the latest Britney Spears album or Gone with the Wind - The Musical than Luigi Nono - Fragments of Venice (a recent festival of the great Italian composer's music featured at the Southbank). If, on occasion, an exception is made, they usually appoint music-critics that support their anti-classical, anti-avant-garde agenda. Our average television chat-show hosts may prioritise an interview with a Justin Timberlake or a Jenifer Lopez in order to boost ratings; however, to the culturally and historically initiated (or at least to my mind), such hosts begin to reveal their ignorance and rather questionable artistic outlook.

The nation seems to be overrun by musically non-educated radio producers, and in this connection, one could cite BBC Radio 1 and 2. The cultural suffocation generally induced by music-as-muzak now permeates every corner of society. Hence the virtually insurmountable obstacles of rock-muzak pumped out of HMV and Virgin record retailers - no doubt to warn off any potential classical music enthusiasts.....In the new Oracle centre in my old home town of Reading, thanks to massive missmanagement, they have placed the HMV store adjacent to Waterstones bookshop allowing such muzak to waft in, producing a disturbing counter-cultural ethos. This seems to be reflected in the mentality and disposition of the staff; "no classical music pundits here please!". Perhaps such planning is to dictate our choice of literature (therefore less need to stock up on classical music books anyway).

Even in respected tabloids (following the commercial enterprise), the space given to the often musically illiterate pop-critic far outweighs that given to any commentators on contemporary classical music. (However, do many of these pop-fanatics really have the musical qualifications to review wordless music, contemporary or otherwise?) I speak of the folly that ensues when critical acclaim is applied uncritically to unacclaimable music; even in The Observer, The Independent, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian. ( Indeed, I have often wondered whether it is the general public who reflect the media or whether the media reflect the general public? I think it is actually both; each one mutually reflecting the other in what seems to be a vicious circle of cultural impoverishment). Newspaper editors (perhaps due to a lack of musical knowledge or education) presumably judge the reviews of their staff by their surface appeal rather than their innate truth or extent of musical understanding - a lack of which is often disguised behind a facade of verbose verbal virtuosity. As a result, literary merit often overides any musical insight - (just one of the ways in which language does not adequately serve the greatness of music). And as is so often the case, it is a matter of who you are rather than what you write; or rather, who you are perceived to be (what position you hold) and who your friends are. We could almost say, once you're famous, your opinions on any subject under the sun are considered 'valid' regardless of qualifications.

I am trying to imagine the average otherwise intelligent, middle-aged person in Britain. He will have a collection of pop-music from his youth and no-doubt some of the latest fashionable hits, and perhaps at most, a handful of classical music recordings - Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven ..... maybe some Chopin and Verdi. It is extremely doubtful he would posses any classical music post-1900 save for perhaps the soundtracks of his favourite movies. The danger is that the most important music post-1950 will all be considered within the pop-music traditions, and this is true in the sense of its recognition (hence the ridiculous affinities made by some television commentators between The Rolling Stones and Vivaldi). This leaves the contemporary composer who has absorbed classical music traditions and musical developments, to put it mildly, in 'Dire Straights'.

(* 'Fashionism', incidentally is the title of one of my compositions, scored for electric guitar, piano, percussion and electronics).

  Re: The Recognition of the Composer Today (Part IV of X)  MartinY at 08:55 on 30 November 2009

I would have much more to say about the differential status of modern music and modern art but I need to find some time to say something sensible. (Of course the main difference is that in art one can possess unique verifiable objects wheras with music there is nothing for patron to buy except for a dedication on a title page and nobody buys sheet music anymore anyway????.)

There was a hour long program on BBC TV last week whose thesis was more or less that all modern art is rubbish which is produced using little work and is a con to make money from gullible collectors. This program had a lot of baroque music in the background but modern music was not even mentioned. Clearly in the eyes of these particular pundits modern music is not even worth the trouble of ridiculing or perhaps they do not even remember / know that it exists.

  Re: The Recognition of the Composer Today (Part IV of X)  Bevillia at 13:58 on 01 December 2009

That's a good point, although I am comparing the reproduction (copies) of paintings from an earlier era with the commercial reproduction of recordings today. (And perhaps the second paragraph really belongs to the next part of the essay, just to make that very clear). For the recording now may be seen as a, if not unique then, a 'veritable object' (as in the CD/DVD etc...); hence the advent (myth?) of the definitive recording/interpretation.

At least in the pictorial arts, there is or has been such a thing as an 'original' that occupies a tangible space somewhere. With music, this 'original' becomes very ambiguous, for as you point out, an original manuscript (if there even is one?) is no longer necessarily the primary factor governing it's survival or recognition today. As I mentioned in Part II, the recognition of artists (and this would include painters) from earlier times was often dependant upon the social status, wealth and culture of their patrons, not the whims of the consumer general public.

  Re: The Recognition of the Composer Today (Part IV of X)  Bevillia at 14:46 on 01 December 2009

PS - sorry, I mean the third paragraph....