Interviewed by a teen

A high school student — who wants to be known here just as Spencer L. — asked if he could interview me. We did it by email. Here’s our Q&A. A good chance for me to be very succinct about things I believe:

1. How has music (specifically orchestra, ensemble, jazz as opposed to rock, rap, etc) affected you and your life?

I grew up listening to this music, so my first musical experiences were involved with it. It touched my heart, excited me, and made me want to learn all about it. [I was careless here. Apologies to Spencer. I meant that I grew up in a classical music household, listening to classical music. Jazz came later, thanks to a friend in high school. My parents were surprised — not happily, I think — when I started to like it.]

2. Do you believe there is a decline in interest in and appreciation for this kind of music?  Why?

Yes. Our culture has changed in many ways in the last 50 years, and classical music hasn’t kept up with the change. Our culture is more informal, more diverse, and more flexible. Classical music hasn’t changed in these ways.

3. Do you believe that the average teenager dislikes or disapproves of this music, etc?  Why?

I can’t say for sure, because I don’t talk to many teens about this. But I think most teens probably think the music has nothing to do with them.

4. Given the choice to listen to concert music or modern music (rap, etc), which would you choose?  Why?

Both! I couldn’t live without either. I don’t draw any line between types of music, and I’ll listen to whatever interests me at the moment.

5. How do you feel about rap, hip-hop, and the other forms of music that the teenage generation listens to? 

I like this music, on the whole. I used to be a pop music critic, and I wrote about hiphop. In fact, around 1990 people thought I was an authority on gangsta rap, especially Ice-T and NWA. I knew those people personally, and was especially friendly with Ice-T. I think he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

6. Do you feel that these forms of music are less sophisticated and require less skill to produce than concert music?

No. They’re sophisticated in different ways. The best pop musuicians, for instance, have a much deeper feel for rhythm than the best classical musicians.

7. Where do you think the future of music lies?

Diversity! The mixing of styles. Which has been happening for decades in pop music. It’s already begun to spread to classical music, if you look at what younger composers are writing.

8. How can we fight the decline in interest in these kinds of music.

Stop talking about classical music as if it was something special. Bring it into the real world, to coexist with every other kind of music.

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  1. David Cavlovic says

    “Stop talking about classical music as if it was something special. Bring it into the real world, to coexist with every other kind of music. ”

    When I was at the CBC I tried. Lord knows I tried. But those in their ivory towers (classical as well as pop) got in the way.

    Here I was, in the late 80’s, a twenty-something year-old P.A./Producer, working on Saturday Afternoon At The Opera. Some considered it a Godsend, NOT because it was me, but because I was young. Someone to speak postively about opera to young folk.

    What does the CBC do? They create a music/journalism show (quite good actually, scheduled at the same time as the opera show, on the AM Network, and call it…..

    Definitely Not The Opera.

    I gave up…..

    Entrenched attitudes are the death of all cultural endevours.

    It’s an endless battle. But getting better, though, I think.

    The CBC probably figured that opera lovers would still listen to the opera show, even if they made fun of opera (implicitly) on AM. And that the people who tuned into the AM show wouldn’t be listening to the opera. Bad thinking on their part, in the longer run, anyway. But probably understandable simply from a marketing point of view.

    I think attitudes are changing. I hope they are!

  2. Matthew Valenti says

    Greg and David,

    Classical music will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity; its appreciation and enjoyment will always be confined to a very narrow segment of the population. It will always be an “elite” entertainment because it is not of general appeal and, I believe, it takes a certain amount of mental effort to appreciate. This is why efforts to draw in “new” audiences by using the same marketing techniques as are used for pop culture are not only doomed to failure, but are fundamentally pernicious because they usually end up misrepresenting or trivializing the classical culture they intend to promote.

    I also think that genetic predisposition has a lot to do with it.

    As an aside: Theodore Adorno decried what Virgil Thomson called the “music appreciation racket” because he felt that it so often degenerated into a “name-that-tune” kind of superficiality that, among other things, ossified the concert repertoire into a limited canon of “accepted” masterpieces.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    “I also think that genetic predisposition has a lot to do with it.”

    I am a little disturbed by this statement, and its possible implications for speriority/inferiority it may imply. Maybe, as a Slav, I have a historical sensitivity to such statements…

  4. says

    Sometimes I question the notion that Classical music is (or always will be) an elite entertainment. i suppose if what we’re talking about is concert hall music, then maybe yes.

    But if what we’re referring to is a broader range of contexts then maybe not so much. Obviously Greg has pointed out that the “Alt-Classical” scenes can be pretty vibrant.

    There are also “Concert Hall” type events like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Pops Concerts, or interesting collaborations (like the San Francisco Orchestra Collaboration with Metallica) that seem to have some more measure of popularity.

    Then there are movies–though even there things are changing but more often that not orchestral film scores are heard by a huge audience if only because the movies are seen by a huge audience. Granted, with the rise of independent films and smaller budget films we’re seeing a lot of changes in how much of a budget can be allotted for the actual film score.

    But for the most part, even if “serious” classical musicians will disagree, a significant proportion of films scores is practically orchestral music and owes a huge debt to the Western Classical tradition.

    And it’s not just the US. The Bollywood industry has produced more films practically every year than both the US and European film industries combined, and a significant proportion of those scores, while using some indigenous instruments and music as well as styles, are very lush and huge orchestral film scores. The audience base for those films (while mostly confined to India, Southwest Asia and parts of the east coast of Africa) is already more than twice the size of the combined populations of Europe, and both North and South American. And it is only growing here in the states.

    I guess sometimes I think we’re making too much of the differences and missing some of those (admittedly marginal) aspects of the Western Art music tradition that are having some moderate and continued success.

    But going back to using similar marketing techniques in classical as in pop–yes! I really think that’s not going to work in the long run. Going back to that core “Concert Hall Symphony Music” context–it’s not going to help that at all. And all the Pops concerts, guest/collaborations with Ice-T and Metallica isn’t going to fundamentally change the nature of what those kinds of concert settings are.

    Hence my appeal to considering marginal aspects of the tradition that are moderately successful. I think this recent spate of Star Wars concerts that have been touring around the US is interesting. The music of video games concert the Louisville Orchestra recently did is interesting. It is showing some organizations are trying, but I think just piggybacking on the success of Pop music rather than the success of the tradition on the margins is probably the wrong way to go.

    Great interview, btw, Greg! it’s wonderful taht you were willing to do this for the student!

  5. Eric L says

    “I also think that genetic predisposition has a lot to do with it.”

    David, I’d take it even further. Statements like that are not just defeatist, but positively dangerous on so many levels.

  6. Matthew Valenti says

    David, Eric, Jon,

    On the “genetic predisposition” remark… I was simply pointing out that aesthetic sensitivity is not something that can be ‘nurtured’ by other people.

    Music, of all the arts, is the one that does not and should not require explanation or education. If it works at all it should talk directly to the inner listener, beneath the layers of pretension or persona.

    Also, music is not literature. You can’t compare the two experiences. A child doesn’t need to know anything to enjoy and appreciate music. I’m not talking about instant gratification, nor am I saying that the experience cannot be deepened or improved with time, but you do hear people criticising those who don’t “understand” certain strands of modern music where the suggestion is that they lack the intellectual capacity or taste (whatever that is) to appreciate it. The point I was trying to make was that music ultimately should be able to transcend education and intellect and culture in a way that literature, for instance, cannot (or cannot always).

  7. a curious reader says

    john, why not allow the “pop” music to become an industry focus? the symphony didnt start out as the highlight of the night, it was a small aside that grew into being this gigantic center piece that we all fell in love with…i dont see why the community doesnt take film music as a serious form of classical entertainment.

    i saw Avatar a few weeks ago with some friends; two of them being non-classical people and they both told me that they loved the score. I asked that if a local group played it would they attend: both responded with an eager yes.

    the only thing i can see getting in the way is the studio effects being put in some film scores (see hans zimmer anything); but as a creative community shouldnt we be looking at how to make these sounds come to life without electronics…or, how to integrate the electronics into the hall?

    here’s a question: what if we brought back some of the elements of a silent film? film, with live players adding the music. Would like to see how an audience would respond.

  8. Eric L says


    Yes, music is an incredibility visceral art form, and a listener can certainly react positively to a piece of music in a genre s/he is not familiar with.

    With that said, one doesn’t come to music with a blank slate. All music–classical, pop etc. whatever comes with piles and piles of baggage. And in this sense, it’s very much analogous to literature. References to other music, in-jokes, allusions etc. can appear in music, just as it can in literature.

    I know for certain that my tastes in music have shifted and evolved as I listen to more and more music of different kinds. My respect and appreciation for some music has increased and my admiration, love and sense of excitement for other music has lessened and diminished. And I expect this to continue as long as I’m alive and listening to, making/creating and playing music.

    So I’m going to have to vehemently disagree with you that education has nothing to do with it. Do you seriously believe that learning how to play the violin won’t make someone experience a performance of a violin concerto differently?

  9. says

    to By a curious reader

    It’s not the pop music industry, per se, I’m really that concerned about. It’s more the idea that there’s this sharp line dividing this discussion I’m questioning–hence the comment “i suppose if what we’re talking about is concert hall music, then maybe yes.”

    See I think film scores are relatively popular–and for all intents and purposes, a significant proportion of those are fully orchestrated affairs. So there’s obviously some orchestral music that appeals to a relatively large audience–it’s the context here that matters in the end, right?

    Which is why I think the recent experiments with Symphony Orchestras playing Star Wars scores or Lord of the Rings scores with clips and snippets from the films to be interesting–and YES I would love to see more really adventurous filmakers leave the score out of the final cut (or at least have that as an option) so that the local symphony orchestras CAN actually perform the score to the movie.

    It’s worked well enough with Philip Glass, eh? And as for the electronic aspect–Bang on a Can took that leap with performing/recording that Eno work.

    I can totally envision a new age of film-making for Symphonic karaoke to parallel what happens in the bars on karaoke night!

  10. says

    to By a curious reader

    It’s not the pop music industry, per se, I’m really that concerned about. It’s more the idea that there’s this sharp line dividing this discussion I’m questioning–hence the comment “i suppose if what we’re talking about is concert hall music, then maybe yes.”

    See I think film scores are relatively popular–and for all intents and purposes, a significant proportion of those are fully orchestrated affairs. So there’s obviously some orchestral music that appeals to a relatively large audience–it’s the context here that matters in the end, right?

    Which is why I think the recent experiments with Symphony Orchestras playing Star Wars scores or Lord of the Rings scores with clips and snippets from the films to be interesting–and YES I would love to see more really adventurous filmakers leave the score out of the final cut (or at least have that as an option) so that the local symphony orchestras CAN actually perform the score to the movie.

    It’s worked well enough with Philip Glass, eh? And as for the electronic aspect–Bang on a Can took that leap with performing/recording that Eno work.

    I can totally envision a new age of film-making for Symphonic karaoke to parallel what happens in the bars on karaoke night!

  11. Richard says

    No. They’re sophisticated in different ways. The best pop musuicians, for instance, have a much deeper feel for rhythm than the best classical musicians.

    How about Nancarrow?

  12. says

    Richard–Nancarrow probably wouldn’t the best counter-example. Elliot Carter maybe?

    @Greg–that might be a bit contentious and an oversimplification. Sure, I’ll agree that maybe as a population, Western pop musicians can probably hold a regular simple pulse better than most classical musicians. On the other hand, classically trained musicians can–even in larger ensembles that pop musicians rarely have a chance to experience (e.g. Symphony Orhcestras) how to do subtle rhythmic nuances within relatively longer and “more complex” music (note the quotations).

    It’s all dependent on what we’re talking about when we say “rhythm.” For example–some studies have shown that both classically trained musicians and pop musicians have a difficult time dealing with irregular and complex rhythms that Bulgarians and Macedonians adults have no problem understanding (here’s an article about one of those studies).

    So much of everything we’re all discussing here depends on what we mean by specific ideas about what constitutes “music”, “audiences”, etc–and we’re all working with limited data and idiosyncratic understanding of terms to some extent.

    Amen to that.

    As for rhythmic sense, I agree that musicians in an orchestra can probably execute collective rhythmic nuance, of at least some kinds, better than pop musicians can. Pop musicians, as a rule, don’t execute rhythmic nuances together.

    But what I really meant was the sense of a groove. I know a case where quite a famous classical musician was recording with some non-classical types, and kept departing from the groove to make an expressive point. No problem there. A jazz soloist, for instance, might set up her own groove in a solo. But then could return to the groove everyone else was in when the solo was over. This is what the classical musician couldn’t do. The groove he returned to wasn’t the same as the tempo he’d started with. And he wasn’t at all aware of that.

    So back to collective execution of rhythmic nuances. What pop musicians can do, all the time, is maintain separate grooves within an overall groove (so to speak). So you might hear some very good band where the drummer pushes the beat, but the singer, with some wonderful kind of erotic languor, keeps falling behind it. Though they both know where the beat is, and can accommodate each other. This is something you won’t normally hear classical musicians do, and for the most part the music isn’t built for it.

  13. Janis says

    I’d say that popular musicians have more of a feel for rubato actually — when and how to go OFF rhythm. The classically-informed definitions of rubato I’ve heard are laughable. It’s strange to watch people turning themselves in knots trying to define something that consists of an inherent deviation from a set pattern in terms of a set pattern.

    Popular singers also generally have a much better feel for how to color their voices. Classical singers prize as close to uniformity of color (with small accepted deviations only), whereas popular singers change the color of their voices actively while singing, in a conscious manner — and pretty broadly.

    There’s also more structure “inside” notes in popular music than classical music, where again a uniformity of color and execution are prized. And like with rubato, it’s not a matter of mistakes — these are conscious choices made by players and singers as to “scooping” notes, wavering, sliding, ending with a minute drop by an octave on certain notes, putting a “rasp” in the voice, letting feedback take its course, etc.

    I might also disagree that classical musicians have less of a “feel” for rhythm … I guess I’m not sure what a “feel” is. Anyone who can play along with 100 other people all doing “Rite of Spring” has to be able to keep track of some pretty complex stuff on the fly. I like the piece, and I couldn’t do it.

    But they definitely have less of a feel for rubato, absolutely.

    I once asked a back-stand violinist in a top orchestra how his section stayed together in the complex rhythms of the Rite of Spring. He looked at me as if I was crazy. “We don’t stay together,” he said.

    To be fair, though, he was an older guy, and — without wanting to raise any suspicion of ageism on my part (I might be older than this violinist is) — it’s well known in the business that younger string players play, as a rule, better than the previous generation did. And they’re especially better at 20th century rhythmic complexities.

  14. Richard says

    I once asked a back-stand violinist in a top orchestra how his section stayed together in the complex rhythms of the Rite of Spring. He looked at me as if I was crazy. “We don’t stay together,” he said.

    I guess this is why I don’t write for orch. Small groups are a lot “lighter on their feet” and can really cook. I love grooves, but they’re usually things like 7 against 3, and personal experience has shown me that big ensembles are too flat footed and sloppy to handle it (and a lot of conductors can’t direct it). For me, at least, the future of “classical” music lies in chamber music.

  15. Janis says

    This dovetails with my own belief that classical music will be just fine. What’s going to go away is the belief that the chief way to experience it is to go see 110 anonymous people all under the thumb of one guy.

  16. says

    Now that I can agree with, Greg.

    Being able to push and fall back into a groove is a very different kind of skill than being able to execute rhythmic nuances together as an ensemble (and I guess that’s also what Janis is referring to as well). Which is a totally different kind of rhythmic skill than being able to easily recognize shifts from complex to simple rhythms as in the study I mentioned and a different thing than being able to follow 80 90 or 100 beat rhythmic cycles like the Tunisian musicians you mentioned in an earlier post.

    The question, or issue, ultimately is what Janis brings up–is it really a skill with enough value that we need to keep supporting (or advocate for support) big ponderous organizations like Symphonies and Opera orchestras?

    And Richard–I see your point there. While an orchestra’s skill set works fine (arguably) for the war horses–what’s that mean for contemporary composers who want to stretch the rhythmic vocabulary of the symphonic repertoire–especially with polyrythms? Why bother if the organization isn’t willing to adapt to the demands, tastes, styles of a composer that has little reason to want to re-work old musical territory, eh?

    Janis–as for variety of color–personally I don’t feel like e.g. pop singers necessarily have a wider palette than classically trained singers. Granted, maybe within the context of an evenings performance a pop singer will use the full range of his or her palette but there are [subtle] nuances and stylistic differences that a number of classically trained singers can do that have nothing or little to do with uniformity of color over the range of a singer’s performance repertoire.

    Sure, many of those vocalists tend to “specialize” as it were, but it’s not a whole lot different than in the pop music field there–I can’t even count the hundreds of bands I’ve shared bills with (at various levels) who have vocalists who can only sing in/with one extremely narrow range (everything from death metal to country to rock to folk) while having worked with some classically trained vocalists than shift back and forth from sprechstimme to bel canto to coloratura to recitativo to whatever.

    That’s not to mention vocalists who are able to do a number of 20th/21st century extended vocal techniques that most pop singers could never imagine doing. There are exceptions–though more often than not those vocalists are already doing experimental music in the pop/rock world (e.g. Mike Patton, Yamatsuka Eye, Diamanda Galas).

    If we’re talking about world vocal styles, that’s a different matter altogether–most pop and vocalists and classically trained vocalists don’t have the first idea of how to reproduce the huge palette of vocal techniques, styles, and nuances available to the voice when we take it all into account–which just puts both pop musicians and classically trained musicians in the same myopic boat.

    Thanks as always, Jon.

    In my Juilliard class yesterday, I played “Life Is Hard,” from Dylan’s last non-Xmas album, “Together Through Life.” I think there’s more variety in just the first few phrases of his singing — more tones of voice — than you’ll find in most full classical lieder recitals.

    That doesn’t mean his music is “better” than lieder. It means that there are some things that classical music doesn’t do. And your reaction, Jon, makes me see that I should be more careful when I say that pop has more vocal variety. I could say “all pop music, taken together,” so you don’t think I mean Mariah Carey. But if I narrowed my focus to blues or jazz, I think my point would be very clear.

  17. Steve Soderberg says

    I think Greg has hit two nails on the head in responses.

    First, there are significant differences in the “collective execution of rhythmic nuances” between experienced pop musicians and experienced orchestra musicians; and this is due to the difference in what the two musics are “built for” (and vive la difference).

    Second, there is a generational difference in performers’ ability to handle complexity — especially rhythmic complexity. I’m nearly the same age as Greg so I too don’t feel I can be charged with ageism. So as not to leave Greg alone out on the old-guy limb, I’ll join him there: it’s performers of my generation and older that are often being left in the dust by the technique of the most recent generations (or, at least, have to work harder to keep up). The proof by demonstration is easy: just look up the story of the premiere of the Carter 3rd String Quartet in 1971 & compare to all the younger quartets today that, in *relative* terms, can eat this piece for breakfast. [The Stravinsky Rite is a less obvious example, it’s not as difficult as you might think if you just don’t look at the conductor :-)]

    There has been some discussion here & on other blogs lamenting the lack of improvisation in classical music & whether it’s even possible to get an entire “classical orchestra” to “improvise.” I think Greg will back me up on this, that you just have to go back to an earlier generation again that may be due for rediscovery after it was buried a bit by minimalism. We’re used to giving too much credit to the “Darmstadt school” on a few issues that should be shared IMHO; there was a kindred movement that I associate mostly with Earle Brown (& company) that was interested in developing notation for improvisation. Brown called his “open form” & others have dubbed it “frame notation.” Too much to go into here, but the Earle Brown web site is fun to visit & you’ll soon get the idea:

    Brown was part of the Cage circle, but had very different ideas both technically and philosophically (IMO). Brown came from a jazz background. This circle (which included performance art as well — this ain’t new either, guys) had its own publication, Source, which gives examples of a lot of the music & notational experiments, but it’s now defunct & old issues go for $750-$1,000 a pop.

    There are still composers who successfully use frame notation in one form or another (e.g., Elliott Schwartz); and there are others around who have tried it but abandoned it for practical reasons (it takes a lot of expensive rehearsal time teaching “structured improvisation” to those who have never done any improvising at all.) For a glimpse of this world as its developing right now, go to:

    The point here may come as a surprise to some: it’s just not accurate, looking wistfully back to the baroque/classical or with lust over to the pop & jazz worlds, to lament that “classical music” doesn’t/can’t do improv — the means, updated in the 50’s-70’s, are there to be used by any composer — including those in pop & jazz.

    Very good points, Steve. There really is a history here that many people have forgotten. Earle Brown was once more or less thought of as part of a triumvirate, with Cage and Feldman. They remain prominent, he’s comparatively forgotten. (Lovely man, too. I knew him a bit.) And yes, he was the one who eagerly fostered improvisation, and tried to find ways to create pieces around it. (Cage, of course, has many pieces in which what the musicians play isn’t precisely specified, but that’s not the same thing as improvising, somehow. Cage wanted the results to be more impersonal.)

    And there are many other examples. Stockhausen’s “Auf dem sieben tagen,” for instance, pieces (very much with a ’60s vibe) in which the scores are simple verbal statements, which then are supposed to evoke something that the musicians turn into music.

    Or so many pieces I heard when I was writing about the downtown New York music scene in the early 1980s. Very common, there, to find improvising. Sometimes people would do it in groups, sometimes with a score of some kind. I remember one piece in which the musicians were given a map the composer, Malcolm Goldstein, had drawn of the books near his home in Vermont. And Goldstein himself was a master improviser. He’d stand before an audience with his violin, and follow where his musical instincts lead him, listening so hard to every sound he made, and using all the sounds the violin can make, not just purely intoned musical notes.

    So many others did similar things.

    I do think when we deal with mainstream classical musicians, improvisationm won’t be their strong suit. I talked about that, by chance, with my Juilliard students yesterday. We were looking at differences between classical music and other kinds of music. I suggested that improvisation was one of those differences. While it’s not unknown in classical music, especially in past centuries, it’s not something most classical musicians now feel comfortable with. I said to the students that I didn’t want to make assumptions about them, but that it wouldn’t surprise me if the thought of getting up before an audience and improvising might scare some of them. I got a lot of nods of agreement.

  18. Janis says

    Jon, I think we just disagree on that one. :-) Pop and rock singers will color their voices consciously in response to the lyrics or the emotional push they want to put behind a certain section of the music in a way that I’ve never heard a single opera singer do, with the exception of possibly Callas.

    This is on top of the ways in which they put structure into the notes themselves; each individual note is much less “atomic” and uniform in pop and rock music with scoops and run-ups and tweaks at the end that would cause a classical singer to apologize.

    And if you line up a typical sampler of different pop and rock voices, you’ll get a vast number of techniques from creaking and grunting to the standard rock “screamer” voice that isn’t a scream at all but is a very tuneful, skilled way of singing (witness Lou Gramm, a really good voice, and Joe Elliot, who I like as a singer a great deal but who sure isn’t known as a virtuoso). Pop and rock also pretty much owned the falsetto in toto until very, very, very recently with the Baroque revival.

    So both in terms of what individual singers can do and what the aggregate of singers can do … you just find less uniformity within the singer’s rep and less uniformity among singers.

  19. says


    i think we’re probably more in agreement than is apparent (though re: the variety in classically trained vocalists, it seems we do genuinely disagree). And Greg nailed it down with his response. It’s the context of one performance where we’ll either see or not see the totality of variety of any particular performer.

    Alot of that has to do with what we’ve all been talking about–most classical music just isn’t designed to do certain things–like showcasing the variety of techniques and styles a classically trained singer can do. And more recital programs (not to mention Operas) focus far more on music that generally complements each other. not to many classical musicians in general will program a wildly eclectic recital for various reasons.

    Pop music (more nowadays than in, say, Sinatra’s time) is primarily written and performed by the musician and as you’ve said is generally more personal and direct in ways that classical music generally isn’t. Which also gives that sense of ownership and agency you’ve been talking about and therefore much more willingness to have some freedom with the music.

    Ultimately, while I disagree that pop vocalists (or as Greg said it could be put “all pop music, taken together”) has more vocal variety than “all classical music, taken together” — in any one performative situation, people will often see more variety in vocal styles in a number of pop perforamnces than in classical vocal performances.

    There are always exceptions.

    I’ve been listening to Stovokor which is a death metal band that purportedly sings in Klingon (my world music group is preparing to perform at a Sci-Fi convention so we’ve been looking for “geek music” in fictional langauges to sing) but you would be hard pressed to tell if they are or not. The vocals are little different than the hundred of other death metal groups in existence (I’m not ashamed to admit that I was as much a metal head in high school as I was a cellist).

    On the other hand there are composer/vocalists like Joan La Barbara–I had the opportunity to perform one of her pieces, “Stripsody” about a decade or more ago. it’s a work dsigned to mimic radio show programs so the score was a combination of pictures/cartoons/lines and words–all meant to showcase the incomprehensibly wide variety of vocal techniques that she can do (and that radio vocal sound effects people did and still do). In a way, this is one of those personal pieces like the pop music I talked about above–she had a sense of ownership with it which gave her some measure of agency. But it’s so entrenched in that academic experimental tradition that it doesn’t matter too much that here is a piece that allows for tons of improvisation and tons of vocal variety and tons of ownership of the music–all things we’re talking about being elements of the popularity of pop music as opposed to the declining popularity of classical. It’s just not designed to be that kind of work (though i think it’s a really delightful piece to perform and the audience seemed to get a kick out of it).

    This goes back to what Steve and Greg are discussing above (and something I’ve been emphasizing too)–there are plenty of marginal aspects of classical music that do many of the things we’re all criticizing the big institutions like Symphony Orchestras of not doing–it’s just easier to reference the prototypical ensembles and organizations as representative of the whole of the field.

    @Steve & Greg

    Thanks so much for bringing up that particular segment of classical music history. And especially to Greg for countering the opposition to the Brown/Cage ‘improvisation’ with the Darmstadt school by mentioning Stockhausen’s Auf dem sieben tagen. So much of my own performance art activities and performances had more to do with the fluxus events scores and those kinds of works like the Stockhausen text scores.

    I’m remembering a short talk I gave to an Art Criticism class shortly after I had attended the “Performance Art, Culture and Pedagogy” symposium in ’96. It was basically a discussion of fluxus and the improvisational nature of their event (text) scores. I focused on the idea implicit in the scores of doing simple everyday actions and how by bringing those into a performative context it essentially obliterates the whole division we have between what constitutes art and what constitutes everyday life–or basically that those works gives everyone permission to be an artist. One of the students got very emotional about the issue and as we were discussing her disagreement with those types of performances she adamantly (and with a very visible amount of discomfort–so i didn’t press the discussion any more) said “I’m just not an artist” (she planned on going into Arts administration and Museum studies).

    Sometimes it doesn’t matter that we give people permission to be creative or to improvise–some people are terrified by the prospect!

  20. Janis says


    Neat about your talk on the division of what constitutes art and what constitutes daily life. I’ve always-always-always said that about handcrafts like quilting and knitting. They are art, and are a very democratic form of it since anyone can own and create it, and indeed the worse off you are, the more you need some of them.

    Quilts are art pieces now, but back in the day, they were a way for people to stay warm who were poor enough that they had no choice but to save scraps to do it. People who had no disposable income to buy a painting that would accomplish nothing more than to hang on the wall could nonetheless own, create, and use great works of art … as long as they were also useful in some way. Where there is no room for art that serves no practical function, practical items become art.

    The belief we have that art == impractical by definition is a form of class contempt. It ensures that the working class and poor people have nothing of “art” in their lives since anything they have must be useful and hence isn’t art. Useful items that are nonetheless artistic don’t count (especially if one of the poor or working class created them). It’s aesthetic imperialism.

  21. says

    “Without popularity information displayed, participants changed their ratings on 11.6 percent of the trials,” the researchers report. “With popularity shown, they changed their ratings 21.9 percent of the time.”

    Outstanding and ingenious study for the ! I suspect I would probably show an inverse relation to preference by being shown a popularity ranking! 😛

    “Our results suggest that a principal mechanism whereby popularity ratings affect consumer choice is through the anxiety generated by the mismatch between one’s own preferences and the others’. This mismatch anxiety motivates people to switch their choices in the direction of the consensus.”

    Not surprising. The evolutionary basis of music would have had to increase fitness for members of an ingroup. Which is the perennial question we’re all exploring here with regards to the waning or rising popularity of various kinds of musics. And alot of that depends on whom individuals consider to be members of their peers as much as anything else.

    Interestingly my world music group also plays a good number of relatively big pop hits from various periods (“Crazy Train”, “Stayin’ Alive”, “Smoke on the Water”) but we’ve learned that no matter how big a Western pop hit is to certain audiences, they will get lukewarm response from many ethnic audiences. Arab-Americans respond far better to our repertoire of Arabic hits (“Zay El Hawa”, “Zeina”, “Lamma Bada Yatathana”) for example.

    We’ve come across one exception–seems like the more net savvy college students of this generation are as likely to respond to non Euro-American hits than the Western pop hits that we do, and in some cases respond even better to the non Western pop. It’s always very interesting to see a whole group of college students doing the Daler Mehndi dance when he’s not an artist that’s actually even toured the US but now that the younger generation aren’t limited to the standard pop fare of this or European countries it’s no wonder that tastes are changing as rapidly as the demographic is.

    The latter raises the question of what’s going to be “pop music” in this country when the minority population outpaces the majority population in the US along with the demand for their own non-Euro-American pop music.

    Yes to all of this, especially your last sentence. But note (as I noted in a previous comment) that only 22% of the kids in the study changed their ratings because the music was popular. Which means that 78% didn’t! Very healthy, I think.

  22. says


    That’s been one of the interesting trends lately–seeing the rise of crafts into “art status” (kinda the opposite of what classical music is trying to do). Sure, that has all the baggage of class contempt and as often as not this new “emerging” art form has as many artsy-artsy types involved as not, but seeing a traveling quilt exhibition, or reading some of the new knitting art magazines or even being able to turn the pages of a scrapbook with a supplied pair of white dust free gloves–all of this just emphasizes a completely different side of creative activity that’s been there for millenia but hasn’t been associated with art because of prior associations–namely two of them: 1) being craft and therefore an everyday activity with utility 2) being an activity done by women.

    So much of the history of crafts and the contempt that past high art cultures look at the form had to do with those associations and I think that the rising power of women in this century has forced the high art culture to serious question its assumptions and recognize these forms in ways that the Classical music culture hasn’t (or is barely starting to do) with it’s pop music cultures.