07 November 2010

Me, Myself, and The Music I Want To Hear

Kyle Gann is a really smart guy and a fine musician, but he can say the darndest things when issues of accessibility are raised. He has this to say about composers who write for themselves:

"I write for myself" is one of those self-defeating clich├ęs that academia acculturates young composers into, like "The music should speak for itself!" I can't imagine that any young artist starts out thinking that his work need only bring pleasure to himself.

(click here to read the entire post)

Actually, I was saying those things as a teen, before I even knew that you could major in music in college. I guess they should have given me my doctorate right then and there. Gann would like to skewer everyone who ever uttered such things by tracing their origins to an easily discredited source, but there are sources and then there are authentic reactions to social dynamics. In my case, I simply got tired of being asked what I was trying to depict in my music, which in all but the rarest of cases is nothing in particular. There's nothing to explain; I'd have to make something up, and that wouldn't be very honest of me. Besides, I hate listening to composers talk about these things, whether they're being honest or not. That's not why I go to concerts, and I didn't learn that from any institution, but rather discovered it about myself through trial and error.

I'm also not really sure how Gann gets from "I write for myself" to "I write to bring pleasure ONLY to myself and no one else can have any." Writing for oneself is nothing more than a methodology; it doesn't forbid the work from appealing to others, even if it decreases the odds somewhat. Gann seems to see a negligible semantic variation as a righteous line in the sand, assailing the saying "I write for myself" while granting that he "write[s] music that [he] want[s] to hear." He also writes that,

...I am disappointed if my music is playing and a passerby, any passerby, doesn't stop to ask, with a twinkle of curiosity, "What is THAT?"

...and thus we are introduced to the ultimate red herring in any discussion of accessibility, the universal piece of music. Gann of course goes on to hedge his bets, saying of writing for oneself that, "It's a defense to be used against having failed to engage the interest of others, which happens to us all now and then." (my italics) Actually, it happens to all of us, all the time. Much as we would all like to have created such a thing, there is not and cannot be a work which accomplishes what Gann is describing. If he wishes to explore this slippery slope, that's his prerogative, and he does no harm to the rest of us by doing so. This earlier passage takes the cake, though, and makes it hard to take him seriously:

...there are musics that I myself dearly love, like those of Phill Niblock and Stefan Wolpe, that I would never write, because they are esoteric enough to seem predestined for only a narrow specialist appeal, even though it's wide enough to include me.

How fortunate for Gann, then, that composers like Niblock and Wolpe ignored such ridiculous moralizing and created the music that they did; otherwise, his and many others' musical lives would be less rich. I'm baffled that someone as astute as Gann would strike such a pose, maintaining an abiding interest in much music of narrow appeal while seemingly expressing contempt for those who might dare to create it.

Most commentators who set musical accessibility and self-gratification in opposition the way Gann does in his missive do so in order to defend their own low-brow pandering. Clearly he is not of this ilk, concluding his entry with a characteristic call for prioritizing artistry over careerism; rather, it's as if he thinks he's staking out the moral high ground, allying accessibility with altruism and esotericism with nihilism. He's even willing to locate some of his favorite music, music he "dearly love[s]," on the wrong side of the tracks to accomplish this. The outcome is baffling on the surface, and the logic is not infallible either.

I would argue that the desire for mass appeal is more harmful than helpful to the cause of making sure everyone has something nice to listen to. The ranges of style and presentation which facilitate the kind of broad accessibility Gann advocates are severely limited compared to the diversity of work that might come from a community of just a few dozen composers. By definition, the work of artists who prioritize accessibility above all else inevitably converges, whereas the work of those who are least moved by external forces ("write for themselves" if you insist) inevitably diverges.

The desire to appeal doesn't mediate each individual artist's work in a direction unique to that artist, but rather mediates all such artists' work in many of the same directions, resulting in a greater level of conformity that threatens to exclude listeners who desire something outside of this mainstream. While each individual composer in such an environment can say that they are serving more listeners than if they simply wrote for themselves, as a group they are serving fewer. It's like volunteering to help build a fourth skateboard park in a wealthy suburb while one poor kid in the inner city goes without a reading tutor; it serves more people, but makes less of a difference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I Enjoyed the honesty of your blog.

It's kind of like why do what is right. Too which the core reason I have found to do what is right is because it pleases me to do so. It resonates within my relationship with God and within my own soul to do so. I'm not being selfish, but self aware.

Yes I highly desire fellowship with those outside of my relationship with God and myself, but if I make those relationships a priority over that my testing and being true to what produces the Fruit of the Spirit within me, I fail in producing anything of real value. So too with music.

I don't want to hear imitation music created from the soul of someone trying to please the tastes of someone else, but that which is true from the hart, and that comes from within. And like a tree musicians/Composers need to allow themselves to grow into their music as opposed to trying to become someone else.

In His Grace,