16 November 2017

The Individualisation of Music

In the beginning (or thereabouts) music was believed to be the sole property of the gods.  The ancient Greeks and Chinese believed in the Harmony of the Spheres, a music created by the movement of celestial bodies.  They understood it to be inaudible to man and, therefore, audible only to the gods. 

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With the evolution of human thought, that “inaudible” music was rendered audible by artificial means – the invention of instruments and the formalised art of singing.  The church, being that element of human existence closest to God, took possession of this music, and established a system of notation which allowed it to be disseminated among those who were able to read it.  It was now the exclusive property of religious leaders and priests – the only people educated in the ways of musical notation – as well as those ordained by them to practice the art of music.

With the Reformation in the early 16th century, the new Protestant churches were defined almost as much by their music as their religious beliefs, while around a century later and with the growing concept of statehood above and beyond religious affiliation, music became associated with royalty. The 18th century saw wealthy families and courts using music as an outward symbol of wealth, ordering their servant musicians to produce on demand music to satisfy their needs as a unified group.  That all changed with the outbreak of war in 1914.  The established political order disintegrated.  Great emperors, kings, tsars and rulers were seen as fallible, God was seen as impotent, and religion and aristocratic lineage were seen as irrelevant. 

What has happened to music, so long associated with gods, sacred rites, the church and the ruling elite, has been one of the most intriguing and enduring legacies of the First World War.

Stylistically, we know it became irredemably fragmented.  The comfortable – if dubious and misleading – categorisation of music into stylistic periods could no longer hold sway.  A promotional leaflet sent to me to be edited a few days ago spoke of a performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto as “a must for lovers of contemporary music”.  When I suggested that this was wrong, I was given the line that music fell into the categories of Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern/Contemporary, so Gershwin was clearly a contemporary composer.  Similarly we see people struggling in vain to box up the huge diversity of music since the First World War with such pointless labels as Modern, Post-Modern, Twentieth-Century, all of which are as meaningless as they are demeaning to the music itself.  The fact is, there is no common, blanket stylistic feature which links music written since 1918; and while I would argue that this is also the case with all music ever written, I can see certain elements which might lead some people to think that there is some superficial and vague connection between composers living in previous eras. 

However, if we are still scrabbling around in the dark trying to fulfil our sterile desire to categorise music written since 1918, the passage of time has allowed us to look back and see one very definite change which has unified music since then.  And that is its dissemination.  Not so much the way it has been disseminated – although the advent of recording and broadcast, evolving with alarming rapidity in that 100 year period – as to whom it is disseminated.  (Although I readily agree that the two are inseparably linked.)

Once fit only for the gods, then fit only for the church, then fit only for the god-like rulers of nations, and then fit only for a tiny elite distinguished by accident of birth, music is now the possession of everyone.  Each of us is, in effect, our own god, our own church, our own ruler and our own master.  Suddenly music, once accessible only to a tiny minority, is accessible to everyone regardless of faith, social status, wealth, race or education, and that has had a profound effect on what music actually is.

There was a time when music served a purpose.  Once people started to write music, rather than simply acknowledge its existence as a natural phenomenon, the church led the way in defining music and its function. Composers wrote to glorify a god or satisfy specific patrons.  The church no longer leads.  Where once society followed and obeyed church rulings, church now follows and obeys society’s demands.  That is why issues such as gay marriage, abortion, social equality have become so divisive, with those who hark back to the days when the church’s teachings held sway finding it impossible to accept the contrary will of society.  So it is with music.  Our church music is, by and large, a feeble, wishy washy and witless imitation of what is popular in society at large, and if churches commission new music, it remains firmly within the walls of the specific church which commissioned it, and rarely ventures out into the wider public domain.  For many, the church and its music are an irrelevance, a peripheral element to society.

Our rulers are no longer rich, wealthy, god-fearing men born to their roles, but clumsy, thoughtless and often ill-educated politicians who see ruling as a career choice rather than an ordained state.  They have neither the interest in nor the knowledge of music, and generally leave it well alone, happy to bend to the will of society when it comes to selecting music for state occasions.  Hence the cheap and nasty Canadian manufactured songs which adorn the Singapore National Day Parades and the Revolutionary songs from Catholic France which get the Malaysians so stirred with national pride every August.

So with neither our religious nor our temporal leaders showing leadership in music, it is left to each of us individually to do with it as we wish.  In this, the technological revolution which has allowed us free and easy access to music whenever we want and wherever we are, has only helped us take possession of a once exclusive and elusive art form.  And with that has come a complete change in attitudes and understanding.

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Ask anyone to define music, and they will instead offer their emotional response to it.   The quality or value of a piece of music is determined, not by others, but by each of us individually.  If we like it, it’s good; if we don’t it’s bad.  There are as many different musical tastes and preferences as there are people on the planet, and no one musical work can ever stand out as exceptional, because we now engage with music as individuals not as members of society.  There can never be another St Matthew Passion or Beethoven Ninth Symphony simply because we do not share music en masse nor do we accept the validity of somebody else’s view above our own.  Generations of music students have been taught that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are great composers.  Who is there now to teach the next generation who our next great composers are?  The best we can hope is that a YouTube video will go viral – and as nobody stomachs YouTube videos of more than a few minutes’ duration, the hope of something really great emerging through that channel is a forlorn one.

With this individualisation of music, we have a fundamental change in what music is.  No longer can it serve a function or inspire us collectively.  Instead, each piece is accepted only on its own terms by an individual.  Writing music for a common body – the church, the nation – is no longer relevant.  The days of great composers and great music are over; in its place comes music for personal gratification and stimulation. 

I am not sure that one is better than the other, but like music, we will all have our individual views on this.


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