Music's Disharmony with Culture: Part I.
I don’t like the term “composer” to describe the kind of artistic work I do. Rather, I’m a musical theorist with a mission. That mission is to address the ever-deepening and widening discrepancy between the worlds of music and consumer technology, and the horrific results that come about today when attempting to join those worlds together. These are some haphazardly-organized thoughts on this immense topic.
The personal computer and subsequent technology are as pervasive as music itself - if not moreso - in the Western world. It is only natural that they would become involved with the music-making process, and now in 2019, we routinely see at the top of the billboard charts, as well as the subversive avant-garde, music created entirely out of synthesized and sampled sound materials, organized and mixed together thanks to the aid of user-friendly software and affordable Chinese-manufactured consumer hardware.
Contrasting with pre-PC history leads to stunning observations. Before the proliferation of the PC, 20th century popular music-making was an intriguing artistic process, shrouded in mystique, and presenting itself as somewhat of a mystery. How did Pink Floyd make those bleepity-bloops on Dark Side of the Moon? What’s making that flute play for seven minutes straight on that Brian Eno record? What are all those knobs and wires for? Nobody knew, but nobody cared because the musical results were pleasing to listeners. Like garbage men and Wall Street day-traders alike, music-making was a specialized process that people were simultaneously accustomed to and satisfied with, allowing the creative process to flow somewhat freely and uninhibited. We know what it looks like when garbage men and day traders are working, but we really don’t know at a nuanced level what these individuals are doing whilst at work. Music was precisely the same way, for a long time.
Music was effort - music took immense skill - music was a life-long dedication. Three statements, to which any non-educated 19th century American would have surely agreed. And yet so many chose to immerse themselves in this world, to the point where they could competently play an instrument, making it look easy. When music and culture are in relatively harmony, this is the perspective by which the bystander sees things. There exist a seemingly unending list of examples of this effect throughout history. The Baka peoples of Africa over two thousand years ago revelled in a society in which music was not just a critical cultural heritage, but a propulsion of cultural ritual necessary for the entire group’s survival. It is often proposed that these peoples are the origin point from which all music has disseminated and evolved over the past two thousand years. Nazi Germany used music to coerce social order - notable examples including Beethoven; during Beethoven’s own time in that same region in the 18th century, his music was used to maintain the dominance of the Catholic church. Despite the highly negative cultural conditions surrounding both periods of time in this part of Europe, music was in harmony with culture, and the works that have come out of these periods both have had enormous, long-lasting historical impact.
Today’s world finds itself in many new kinds of perilous situations, and new social and cultural challenges that were previously unimaginable in scope, scale, and severity. And yet, our music remains in absolute disharmony with the needs of these times.
Examples of those disharmonies to come in Part II.