Academic journal article Intersections

The Present State of Unpopular Music1

Academic journal article Intersections

The Present State of Unpopular Music1

Article excerpt

In 1981, at the invitation of a journal in Australia, I produced a short essay called "Composing in the Eighties" (reprinted as Beckwith 1997b). Fifteen years later, at the 1997 CUMS meeting at Memorial University, I delivered what might be called an up-date, under the title "Accessibility, elitism, oblivion: options for the composer" (Beckwith 1997a). Recycling this piece at a couple of other universities, I headed it more simply "Composing in the Nineties." Now, a decade further on, I've put together yet more comments, for which a suitable name might be "De-composing in the Aughties."

The 1981 paper reviewed the designations applied to the sort of music I and my colleagues produce. Already then, but much more in the twenty-five years since, the musical repertoire was split into myriad distinct genres, among which "contemporary classical" appeared as a faint trace on the map. The nomenclature remains an issue, and the splitting has continued; on that, more comment shortly. The essay also dealt with the teaching of composition, and with particular difficulties of the contemporary composer's task such as the omnipresence of ambient sounds like Muzak that weaken listeners' alertness. In 1997, my focus was more on the compositional product, on music itself-especially our increased attention to formerly little-known works from the Eastern European bloc, and the pressure on younger composers to make their pieces "accessible" (smooth easy ramps rather than challenging staircases). In offering an analysis of one of the huge successes of the nineties, I noted that in the mid-nineties the Third Symphony of Henryk Gorecki had appeared on more Canadian orchestral programs than any symphonic work by a Canadian composer. Its predominance has waned, but the idiom of simplicity and spirituality continues strong, and this will be a topic for new observations in a moment.

Music is always changing. In the early seventies I was advising students to keep their definition of music open. In the sixties, bewildered parents had confronted the new pop music their children were enthusing over with the cry, "Whatever it is, it certainly isn't music." That same cry has resounded at crucial moments throughout musical history. But, like it or not, musical styles are always changing. From personal experience, as an example close to home, I would pinpoint a significant historical change in musical values from a particular event-a special members' meeting of SOCAN, held in Toronto on 9 January 1992.

SOCAN2 was a new organization, created scarcely two years earlier through the merger of two rival Canadian performing-rights societies, CAPAC and ProCan.3 The purpose of this meeting was to approve an election procedure for SOCAN. The plan, which after much debate received overwhelming acceptance, allowed for an eighteen-member board, nine of whom were to be "writers" (that is, composers or lyricists) and nine "publishers" (meaning producers not so much of sheet music as of recordings). Moreover, the writers were to be distinguished as either "classical" or "popular," and both categories would be guaranteed representation. The meeting decided on the term serious for the "classical" writers, leaving the "popular" writers with the negative characterization non-serious. Potential board members might be both serious and non-serious, but for election would be obliged to declare themselves one or the other. Of the nine writer members on the board, at least two but not more than four would be serious, and at least five non-serious. Of the nine publisher members, at least one would be serious; no maximum was suggested here, implying that all nine might be serious, but everyone familiar with the scene realized serious publishing and recording is such minor-league territory in Canada that that could not conceivably happen. Further provisions assured regional and linguistic balance in the election process.

Many serious composers attended the meeting. …

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