New music composers face the age-old question: do they write for themselves or for mass appeal?

The age-old question of whether musicians should be writing for themselves or for their audiences has no easy answer. Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

In the following discussion, three academics explore whether it is the duty of the artist to lend to music’s survival by creating mass appeal. This is a recurring question in contemporary music review, both locally and abroad, and has been the subject of two recent monographs. David Stubbs’ Fear of Music looks at the avant-garde in music, and Alex Ross’ All the Rest is Noise explores the 20th Century in music.

While the present discussion does not aim to resolve the debate, it may give some insight into the dilemma faced by artists as they grapple with the sometimes conflicting goals of acceptance by their peers and appeal to the public.

Lance Phillip: the duty of the artist

Two key questions stand out:

  • Is it the function of organisations to merely provide a platform for performances of compositions of very diverse styles?

  • Is it the moral and artistic duty of composers themselves to ensure the survival of the craft by making music appeal to a wider audience, by means foul or fair?

Is there anything wrong with explicitly stated musical agendas? Or should new music – contemporary music that pushes the boundaries – be left untainted, competing with the canon, to say nothing of the myriad of traditional and popular musics that hold the attention of our audiences before all else?

These positions all have spokespersons that unashamedly profess their virtues. But perhaps new music suffers from perceived elitism because of the continued reticence to define, defend or at least explicate in stronger terms the fantastical, seductive and subjective qualities of much of the music played during the New Music Indaba 2015 in South Africa.

The sheer passion, energy, and magnetism of the various compositions on offer, played so marvellously, contrast markedly with the cold and occasionally resigned view outside the concert hall that it is somehow not proper that “new music” should dazzle and charm as well as impress intellectually.

Even though, thankfully, the quality of the music itself rose above this, it seems that Theodor Adorno’s old Schoenberg-Stravinsky debate is still alive and well.

Douglas Scott: innovation and novelty is not enough

One way to answer these questions is to go back to Milton Babbitt’s famously outrageous (and somewhat misquoted) statement:

Who cares if they listen?

Babbitt was rejecting the notion that the academic study of music should necessarily be accessible. If we don’t judge neurosurgeons or physicists on the basis of their popular appeal, why shouldn’t we judge serious art by the artistic merit alone?

Yet herein lies the problem. A neurosurgeon’s work can be tested against alternative treatments, and the physicist’s against a null hypothesis. What is the composer to be tested against if not the raw appeal of their work? There are the counter-examples of the mathematician and the philosopher. Their works are principally judged by their peers with often only the faintest nod to practical, real world applications.

In the case of pure and applied mathematics, though, the practical and intellectual often collide. Similarly, works such as Ravel’s Bolero and Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals are good examples of the same in music. These “fun” works by “serious” composers nevertheless became the works they are known for by the public at large, much to the horror of the composers.

Popular music, meanwhile, is often suffused with catchy tunes by great masters. At the same time, popular bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Beatles sometimes engaged in rather extreme experiments.

In order to escape the dilemma, then, composers must compose in such a way as to present new and fresh ideas to excite their colleagues - but in a way that is nevertheless palatable enough to excite emotion other than only bewilderment. Innovation and novelty are not enough. Experiments can also be beautiful.

And what then of the audience? Would it be acceptable for a connoisseur to accept boxed wine and a cheap cheeseburger at a fancy dinner? Audiences must be taught to recognise that there is absolutely such a thing as bad music, every bit as much as there is bad food and bad novels.

There is increasing empirical support for the notion of healthy music in this purely sanitary sense, specifically through increased activation of neural pathways in music that lends itself to perceptual processing. More research is necessary though, as always.

Matildie Thom Wium: the connection between taste and morality

I agree with Douglas that some accommodation must take place, but I find I regard the introduction of the concept of ‘bad music as a vice’ with some scepticism. This idea seems to imply a connection between taste and morality.

Roger Scruton is a noted proponent of such a connection, writing in his The Aesthetics of Music that “by displaying my tastes, I display my soul”, and he has written a straightforward defence of elitism – an important issue to explore as far as new music is concerned, and one that clearly underlies the present debate.

I also agree with Lance that a targeted educational approach is needed for events such as the new musical festival recently held in South Africa. This could go some way to mitigating the esoteric perceptions that create distance between new music and its potential audiences.

My view is that it is fundamentally unethical to regard tastes that require expensive education to cultivate as more virtuous than cheap ones. They may, however, be more rewarding than cheap ones, and therefore it is imperative that education and dissemination of new music, next to its celebration and advancement, should continue to be central foci of the events such as the Indaba.