Magazine article Musical Times

Arbiters of Taste

Magazine article Musical Times

Arbiters of Taste

Article excerpt

Arbiters of taste Music: healing the rift Ivan Hewett Continuum (London, 2003); xi, iyipp; £14.99. ISBN ? 8264 59390.

Classical music unbuttoned: a complete guide to learning and loving classical music Fred Plotkin Aurum Press (London, 2003); xiii, 645pp; £12.99 PBK. ISBN 1 85410 953 7.

Classical music without jear: a guide for general audiences Marianne Williams Tobias Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2003); x, 195pp; $19.95 PBK. ISBN 0 253 21618 4.

What is good music?: suggestions to persons desiring to cultivate a taste in musical art WJ Henderson Kessinger Publishing (Whitefish, MT, 2004); xiii, 205pp; $20 PBK. ISBN 0 7661 8256 8.

WHAT IS MUSIC? Why is it important? These two questions, fundamental to musicology, are explored in these four books: a polemic by Ivan Hewett on the contemporary consumption of music, non-specialist introductions to classical music by Marianne Williams Tobias and Fred Plotkin, and a 19th-century investigation of what characterises good music by William James Henderson (1855-1937).

Central to Hewett's argument is his bold assertion that 'every musical utterance, of whatever kind, is a bid for transcendence'. Classical music is 'the paradigm musical experience', with world and pop musics merely 'rival claims to the musical realm' that 'are all to a degree parasitic on the classical realm'. This autonomous realm gradually emerged in the 18th and 191!! centuries, as critical judgements, made on the basis of good taste, gave way to an aesthetic of music predicated on truth and universality.

In telling contrast is Hewett's perception of the contemporary music scene, characterised by 'pop musicians, insouciantly roaming Africa with their mini-disc recorders', 'the mindset of world music, with its flattening, levelling ideology of universal welcome ' and classical music, which has mostly succeeded in holding the Other 'at a distance'. The latter 'attitude is', according to Hewett, 'in fact the normal one'. Indeed, classical music is understood to have a special relationship to outside forces: 'in most musical cultures, change is driven from without, by encounters with other cultures. But Western music has a peculiar inner dynamic: it grows constantly, both in its material means and its vocabulary'. Hewett then proceeds to pass judgement on a variety of the 20th-century composers, including Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Birtwistle, Norgård, Stockhausen, Cage, Holloway, Tavener, Pärt, Volans, and Nils Fetter Molvaer, whose 'Frozen', from his album NP^sub 3^, he regards as 'not merely a bad piece of music, but a pernicious one '.

But it is fusion music that is Hewett's particular bête noire, occupying 'that curious borderland between world and ambient music and lush film score where so much of the world's music seems to dwell' and to be resisted by Western classical music, whose strength comes from its 'rationality, democracy, [and] tradition'. Although modernists had to rebel against tradition in order to progress, recent composers have sought to restore it, thus strengthening classical music again. The overall aspiration is not a common musical culture, but a musical bilingualism, where we participate 'in our own local musical culture and this stupendous "musical realm" which anyone can enter'.

Hewett's argument is far from unproblematic. Firstly, he passes judgement on broad categories of music as if they are unified (such as pop, world and global), whereas they are inherently diverse. secondly, while recognising that music is formed in a cultural context, Hewett also seeks to hold a particular cultural formation, the 'musical realm', as universal. Thirdly, he substitutes what he believes music should be for what music is, and rather than accept the multiplicity of contemporary expressions seeks to limit them by allowing only some kinds of music to be called music. Fourthly, ideas about what music is, formed in response to it, are ascribed to 'the music': for example, 'its effort to keep itself distinct has finally relaxed' and 'its rationality, democracy, [and] tradition'. …

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