What does a word mean? From where does the meaning come? Is language innate, passed along genetically, and only nuance is given during learning phases--an incredible oversimplification of Chomsky, barely comparable to his thoughts. Meaning in words can be tricky, and that's why philosophers and scientists define their terms.
When we get into the meaning of music, things can be even stickier. There are many camps debating meaning in music, from ascribing a narrative (or looking for inner narratives) to purely formal approaches. I'm a sucker for a story, and in the past looked at the idea of storytelling in various mediums. I've talked about meaning in music in relation to politics, and that is an ongoing area of study and thought for me. I've even gone so far as to define and defend experimentalism, especially in the collegiate experience.
And now I find my fingers tapping the keyboard again in search of a definition.
A little less than 2 weeks ago, I posed a question on Facebook: what makes music (ir)relevant? The responses were of course varied, and from multiple people. Of course my friend Marek chimed in with "inasmuch as relevance implies pertinence, that question seems, like, incredibly relativistic." And that's the rub isn't it?
The word relevant keeps being used in connection to music. Groups should be performing music that is relevant to today's younger generation. This is often distilled down into triadically based, beat oriented, non-traditionally structured, but traditional in form pieces; music that relates to or is derived from popular genres, which often share these incredibly general and borderline meaningless aspects.
In this sense, the word relevant means "related to a known popular quantity." Or possibly "closely connected to something people already like." This seems to sprout from a definition from the 1960s when relevance became a buzzword--relevance at this point was related to ideas of social concern.
In education, we often see the world used in conjunction with choosing majors. The humanities are under attack as being irrelevant. The Daily Beast compiled a list of "useless" degrees, and the fine arts were up there in the #1 slot. This of course set of a slew of "Oh no they didn't!" type responses. There have been defenses for humanities degrees, ranging from a mother defending her daughter's work, to Brown University's President making an impassioned argument for the financial importance of humanity degrees.
Relevance in all these cases is tied directly to economics. Are humanities and fine arts (and music) degrees going the help students make lots of money?
So, what does Greg Sandow mean when he talks about relevance? It's been a head-scratcher for me. Most of the time it seems like he means "music that is related, in some fashion, to music that people already like." His latest post he praised a concert of Nico Muhly and Pekka Kuusisto for their originality and fresh approach. I was perplexed at first, because he addressed Muhly's music as being "relevant," the format as being "personal" and the performers not being "high priests." I'm still sitting here the next day confused.
Has Mr. Sandow never been to a new music concert outside of possibly the largest sanctioned halls? Has he never caught a concert by local NYC groups like Ensemble Signal, Talea, Ensemble Moto Perpetuo, Talujon, The Curiosity Cabinet, or any of the hundred other groups? He most certainly never caught my short-lived group, dfe, in concert when we played at the Yippie Museum in fall of '08 with a program about as varied as we could conceive (pulling from all three of his groups, plus an amazing rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle" by me on violin as we prepped another piece). I guess he hasn't noticed that the performers wear a wide assortment of clothing, performances happen at all sorts of spaces, and that, generally, contemporary chamber concerts have been exactly what he has described wanting them to be for...well...
I was more or less instructed on how to give these concerts when I started my Masters in '07. By that point, they were incredibly old news, with my professor, Doug Cohen, telling me he had done them in the '80s.
Ok, so where's the relevance. What makes this somewhat traditional structure so relevant. And yes, I mean traditional because as far as I can easily tell, dates back in the US at least to the 1960s with Phillip Glass' ensemble and the various loft concerts put on by Cage and Co...of course ignoring salon traditions, burlesque, and minstrelsy shows which did all the same things.
But back to relevance. What makes music relevant? What makes music, to follow a more Webster definition, "closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand?" In the discussion of what a relevant degree is, the "matter at hand" is purely economic. So, what is the matter at hand for music?
For Sandow, and many others, it is also economic. The matter at hand is "how do we sell more tickets to a younger generation." Therefore, any music that they perceive to not sell tickets is irrelevant. Which means exactly what Sandow says the matter isn't is exactly what the matter is--by relevancy he means familiarity.
What do I mean then? Sandow claims that it's not about familiarity, familiarity to a certain culture. By his estimation we should look at what the widest amount of people consume culturally, analyze the music, and program (or create) music using these ideas. I've already said in my post about experimentalism that this is backwords. By taking a stance of "this is what people like right now," we lose sight of what people may like the future. It's not to say we know what people like, but to write in a way that reflects only data received after the fact means we are perpetually writing behind. Think about that for a second...
Let's say we do a survey of a possible target audience--for me, that might mean 21-30 year olds, both genders, all races, living in the Indianapolis area. I'd like the data parsed by gender, race, economic standing, specific neighborhood, etc. I'm specifically looking at what music people like, what they feel is connected to their culture. I send out two thousand questionnaires, wait around six weeks, get back the questionnaires, and set forth to put in all the data and analyze it. It takes me roughly six to eight weeks to get all the data into the database (and formatted correctly with all the pertinent info in the right places), and then another six to eight weeks to sieve through all the information. All of a sudden, I'm sitting on a minimum of eighteen weeks of work before I can start to figure out programming, which after going through all the info would mean finding the musical terms in that music.
OR I can head over to the Billboard Experiment and use info from the top 100 as compiled from the 1960s through today and see the type of general data that so many critics drool over. If I use that, well...
I better be in 4/4, C major, around 120 bpm, four to four and a half minutes in length, and it wouldn't help if people already knew who I was...
Of course, this misses out on a ton of information. If I go back to my study, I'd quickly see how fragmented the mythical audience is. I would also start to see and hear similarities and differences between the music. The repetitive nature of a rap anthem versus the greater amount of variance in a large indie ensemble (like Polyphonic Spree). I'd see a wide variety of instruments, but also a regular uses of electronics, either to enhance the instruments or as purely electronic sounds.
I would see the world encapsulated into a small study.
And that's the problem, isn't it? If we take Marek's quip about relevancy to heart, there's truth. Relevancy is relational, it's always related as a "relevant to what." Sandow's arguments are mostly related to "relevant to selling tickets to a specific cross section of young adults that he has personal knowledge." Compare this to the wide variety of populations in the world, country, state, county, city, neighborhood where the arts are active.
I end by posing a few questions:
- How can music, or anything, that is unfamiliar, be (ir)relevant?
- Is relevancy in an abstract form of art (such as music) tied only to its formal properties? Is it the rhythm, instrumentation, time signatures, use of melody, form, and structure all that is tied to relevancy?
- To who and how is it relevant? Relevant to what? To selling tickets? To reaching people through a musical experience? Are these the same thing?
- Who are we really marketing these concerts to?
- Why are popular music live companies suffering difficulties, and what can we learn from those? Is just blanket emulation of traditional popular concert styles really going to save classical music?
- Is it actually a new and different idea? Groups like Classical Revolution and GroupMuse are great, but are they really ground-breaking? Do we have such a short memory to have forgotten that this was a major part of the 1960s art scene in NYC? Or that salon traditions existed in Europe for years, with a large amount of premieres happening in 2 piano versions done in people's houses?
- And, most importantly: What are we actually talking about?
So why not take a step back, and instead of just continuously pushing a set position, why don't we start looking for questions again? Rather than pushing talking points, why not look at the questions above, and instead of answering with the same tired talking points, why not do some research and take me to task on my ignorance. I admit ignorance to a great many things.
What other questions do we need to answer before moving forward? What other words are we just tossing about without ever considering their definition or usage?
How do we actual find answers rather than flash in the pan popular answers?
How do we actual find answers rather than flash in the pan popular answers?