Tag Archives: Art Music

Is Anything Frivolous?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

From the critic’s perspective, the world of music consists of three parts: art, folk, and popular. This distinction is sometimes shortened to “serious” (art music) and “popular” (popular and folk). Precisely what makes some music “artistic” and other music something else is not always well defined, but minimum requirements usually include the use of written notation and sophisticated structural and theoretical considerations. The borders are blurred in some technical forms of jazz, and reinforced when classical composers adorn folk tunes with orchestral arrangements (as Aaron Copland did), or when pop musicians conspicuously quote classical repertoire in their songs (as Frank Zappa did). These combinations are appealing largely because they represent an almost taboo juxtaposition.

However, the aesthetic divide between serious and popular is not simply a question of musical attributes. It concerns the values ascribed to the respective music. Sociomusicologist Simon Frith sums up the underlying assumption: “Serious music matters because it transcends social forces; popular music is aesthetically worthless because it is determined by them.” In other words, art music stands apart from our basic human needs, thereby attaining sacredness, whereas popular music reflects everyday life, thus reaffirming mundaneness. The book from which Frith’s comment derives declares his position on the issue: Taking Popular Music Seriously.

An even stronger defense is found in Johan Huizinga’s classic tome, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, published in 1950. Huizinga sees play as simultaneously superfluous and necessary. Superfluous because it is irrational and entails a stepping out of “real life,” and necessary because it gives meaning to human existence.

Huizinga does not distinguish between types of play—games, sports, arts, entertainment—nor between its forms—professional, amateur, individual, group. He avoids equating “only pretend” with frivolity, noting that players can engage in the activity with utmost sincerity and determination. Most provocatively, he characterizes religious ceremonies as obligatory play. Like a game of soccer or hide-and-seek, a sacred ritual is a temporary and repeatable departure from ordinary life that operates according to its own guidelines. This is not meant to belittle religious rites, but rather to emphasize the potential for seriousness in all play.

Music, as a type of play, resides outside of normal time and space. It abides by its own logic, and the enjoyment of it makes it a human need. The labels “serious” and “popular” have little bearing on the experience itself, which can be taken lightly or seriously. As Huizinga reminds us, “The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Gestalt Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The division of labor between composer and performer, while central to Western art music, is foreign to much of the world. This does not owe to a lack of performers. Every human society, ancient and modern, has its musicians. What tends to be absent is the separate role of creator. Not only is it common for music to arise from an anonymous or semi-anonymous folk process, but musicians are also given to improvisation. Melodic lines and tonal archetypes (modes) are treated as canvases for spontaneously conjured embellishments and departures—or what pianist David Dolan calls “walking freely on firm ground.” It is only with the proliferation of notation that the composer and performer become truly distinct entities. The composer sets ideas on paper, and the performer meticulously renders those ideas into sound. The goal of “correct” performance replaces real-time interpretation.

Part of what differentiates improvisational and semi-improvisational folk music from Western art music is its gestalt approach, wherein a musical motive is conceived as a whole, rather than as a sum of individual notes. Thinking nothing of notes, the musician permits different tones and tone sequences to replace each other, so long as the motive retains its basic character. It is similar to an artist setting pieces of glass or stone within a framework, and is sometimes called the “mosaic technique.” This contrasts with Western notated music, which, by its very nature, is built from individual notes that are unalterably fixed on staff paper.

This distinction is best illustrated by example. Musicologist Michal Smoira-Cohn recalls when a Bedouin musician visited a class at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The musician played a “marvelously concentrated and highly inspired piece” on a one-stringed bowed instrument. When he finished, the professor explained some details of the performance and asked the musician to play the same piece again. Bewildered, the Bedouin proceeded to play a new improvisation, which resembled the first but was not identical. Smoira-Cohn relates: “The experience illuminated for me the true significance of the art of performance. I realized that the supposedly primitive Bedouin knew better than all of us the real value of music.”

This “real value” is part and parcel of oral societies, where improvisation is a fixture of story, dance, song, and instrument playing. Each performance is a re-creation involving identifiable elements that are manipulated, arranged, and supplemented in new and unreplicable ways. Compare this with the non-spontaneity expected of classical musicians, who work tirelessly to actualize a composer’s vision. Their performance may add a subtle interpretation, but the fear of wrong notes results in general sterility, and solidifies the separation of composer and performer.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Always Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The designation “art music” has come under fire in recent years. As a synonym for “legitimate music,” “serious music” and other labels rife with elitism, the term generally refers to notated music composed with advanced structural frameworks and theoretical tools. It is regarded as distinct from “lesser” types of music, which are commonly heaped into two overcrowded categories: folk and popular. Many contemporary scholars and performers refrain from applying these distinctions, and those who do tend to be critical of the old assumptions they carry.

The objections center on two main issues. First is the notion that only Western classical music (in the various ways that descriptor is used) is sophisticated enough to qualify as “art.” There are numerous examples from rock, jazz, soul and other sources that display a level of complexity exceeding that of the usual fare. Second is the belief that technical refinement and difficultness are prerequisites for artistry. This view ignores the dignity intrinsic to all kinds of music—no matter how simplistic from an analytical standpoint—and creates an artificial hierarchy in which complicated means superior.

To these criticisms can be added a third. If we take “art” to mean works of human skill and imagination that express beauty and emotional power, then no music should be considered artless. Whatever guise it takes or genre it fills, music is designed with and directed toward aesthetic sensibilities. In this basic way, it is inaccurate (and disingenuous) to identify certain music as artistic and other types as something else. Doing so reveals more about one’s biases than it does about the music itself.

Part of the problem is that when it comes to music, art is understood in terms of style and substance rather than attraction and effect. For those set on distinguishing art music from the rest, things like intricacy, instrumentation and theoretical considerations are the deciding factors. However, none of this makes the music automatically more beautiful or emotionally potent than a simple folk tune or popular hit. In fact, the opposite is often the case. It is as though the parts comprising music—harmonic progressions, tonal variety, colorations, etc.—are of greater significance than how listeners respond. By these standards, the most artful music is the most advanced with respect to performance demands, occurrences of modulation, number of notes and the like. And it is almost a plus if the music has limited audience appeal—a sign that it is artistic in the most elitist sense of the word.

This is not meant to suggest that all music is of equal quality or that classification serves no purpose. There are objective measurements by which musical creations can be judged and categorized, especially when examining structure, range, meter and other compositional elements. The point here is that music, in all its incalculable manifestations, has the potential to move listeners in profound ways, regardless of the box it fits or doesn’t fit into. From a results-based view of art, in which art is something that happens when a person is touched aesthetically, virtually no music can escape the label.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.