The Musical Gap

Art Vs. Pop

At some point in the not-too-distant-past, the chasm between art music and popular music became so pronounced as to be insurmountable. It is possible that the rise of the modern music industry (mid-late 1700s, industrial-era England) roughtly corresponds to the beginning of this divergence. Early sheet music intended for the home market wasn't always discernible from music intended for other purposes, but the profit motive was always nearby, necessitating a certain level of accessibility and playability.

As professional, independent musicians, orchestras, and conservatories began to flourish around the 1900s (give or take a few decades), the gap between pop/folk and artistic styles became more pronounced. "Serious" music's advanced tonal palettes, novel forms, and virtuosic styles were creating a specialized class of music that evolved somewhat independently of commercial considerations. In addition to a body of largely unmarketable work, an academic culture (holding a viewpoint that some might consider elitist) continued to push the boundaries of what constituted art music.

In the mean time, popular culture was accelerating in a different direction, as audio recodings, dance bands, race records, jump bands, electric blues, and early rock and roll began to capture the American public's attention (and pocketbooks). As we've seen, the characteristics of this burgeoning movement were in many ways a rejection of the often difficult and eclectic styles being promulgated in academe and certain concert halls.

A Milestone

The distance between these divergent paths was highlighted in 1958 in a famous article (High Fidelity magazine), titled "Who cares if you listen?" The author was one Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), famous composer and theorist.

If you're unfamiliar with Babbitt's work, I suggest you head over to youtube and discover some for yourself (start with this String Quartet: I rather like this piece, and find it interesting and beautiful. You may find it challenging and difficult to understand. Remember, though, you aren't his audience. In his 1958 article, he suggests that such difficult music is intended for trained specialists. You can read the entire article here, and I'll summarize and comment on some relevant passages.

Composition has become such a specialized discipline, that it is no longer reasonable to expect that the art be 'accessible' to the commoner:

Like all communication, this music presupposes a suitably equipped receptor. I am aware that "tradition" has it that the lay listener, by virtue of some undefined, transcendental faculty, always is able to arrive at a musical judgment absolute in its wisdom if not always permanent in its validity. regret my inability to accord this declaration of faith the respect due its advanced age.

Believe it or not, a great deal of care and skill goes into composing a string quartet in the manner of Babbitt. Is it intelligible to the public-at-large? Quite likely not. Can a trained professional musician hear and understand a logic that might elude the understanding of amateur? Quite likely! In this sense, Babbitt is correct in suggesting that there may indeed be levels of specialization with respect to musical comprehension.

He goes on to suggest the opinion of the untrained isn't necessarily relevant (this might account for cries of 'elitism'):

It often has been remarked that only in politics and the "arts" does the layman regard himself as an expert, * *with the right to have his opinion heard. In the realm of politics he knows that this right, in the form of a vote, is guaranteed by fiat. Comparably, in the realm of public music, the concertgoer is secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated "I didn't like it" from further scrutiny. Imagine, if you can, a layman chancing upon a lecture on "Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms." At the conclusion, he announces: "I didn't like it," Social conventions being what they are in such circles, someone might dare inquire: "Why not?" Under duress, our layman discloses precise reasons for his failure to enjoy himself; he found the hall chilly, the lecturer's voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner.

Why is it that everyone seems to have an opinion on music? That's a very interesting question. Wouldn't the amateur complaining about Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms feel a bit sheepish in his ignorance? Why would the same person not feel equally foolish holding the same opinion in a concert hall?

What We Can Learn, What We Can Do

I would not suggest introducing a jaggedy atonal string quartet into our worship services, nor am I suggesting that public opinion is valueless. I would agree, though, that as listeners it is not unreasonable to expect that we can (and should) grow in our understanding. In the same way a sophisticated moviegoer can watch a film and identify different actors, directors, set designers, and screenwriters, a sophisticated listener can comprehend musical styles, phrases, gestures, development techniques, and textures.

(In the interest of filling seats, many schools are resorting to "music technology" and "contemporary worship" programs that attract large numbers of youth. Sure, there are still serious art music programs out there, but I would expect one could draw parallels between beleagured college music departments and the behaviors of certain churches)

I believe there is an education gap that can certainly be closed. If through education, we can create a class of people "in the know" with respect to certain difficult styles of music, it's reasonable to believe that a bit of education could do wonders for enhancing the experience our parishoners. Remember that a large proportion of our church's musical heritage (including many of the works of the greats like Luther, Bach, Buxtehude, Hassler, Schutz, Walater...) was not written for the consumption of highly trained listeners!

In doing so, the Church would enjoy a laity who appreciates and understands its theological and musical treasures, and moreover, it would be (once again) acting as the custodian of our great artistic heritage.