Thursday, September 30, 2010

Musicspeak: Real art and popular art*


Commercial. Literary.

Designations of fiction: what do you think of them? What are you reactions to authors Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel protesting the labels given to their novels? No, seriously, without the snickering and the eye-rolling?

Publishing professionals talk about the sweet spot where commercial and literary intersect. Authors try to figure out where their work fits. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weine
r respond to the publicity surround Jonathan Frazen's new book.


This age-old dichotomy between art and popularity rears its head in many art forms. In music, the words "classical" and "pop" seem to do a decent job defining particular types of music. Yet doesn't it seem questionable to put Bach and Debussy in the same lot, and Iron Maiden and Lionel Ritchie in another? And where does jazz go? Straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz, fusion jazz?

Years ago, I heard a definition of art music that has made me think. It was given by the keynote speaker at a piano pedagogy conference. Speaking
to a ballroom full of conservatively dressed piano teachers, this pony-tailed, jean-clad, soft-spoken man described his journey of coming up with a way to think about art music. And this is his conclusion (my paraphrase):

Art music is music that requires knowledge and experience to appreciate.


That works really well for me; even if it may place Iron Maiden next to Bach. And this is not to say music outside this realm has no place. It just means that some music requires work and study to be understood and enjoyed fully.

I am still thinking about whether this definition works as well in fiction.
What do you think?

*Please don't shoot me for seemingly denigrating popular art. This is an attempt at speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. See that bulge on my left cheek?

12 comments:

Bish Denham said...

I don't know...I know very little about "classical" music, but I know I like listening to a great deal of it. (Stravinsky(?) gets on my nerves though.) I like a lot of jazz too, though some is just too frenetic. I don't care for music that makes me nervous and feel on edge. If I understand your question right I don't think I need to "know" about music to know what I like.

The same can be said of literature/books. If one has to have some kind of special knowledge to read a novel and understand it, well then, it's not a novel worth spending my time on, it's not meant for the masses. It then falls into what might be considered elitist territory, like Ulysses by Joyce. What's the point of struggling to read something so difficult?

Yat-Yee said...

It's not Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that bothers you, is it? Its debut performance caused a riot so you're not alone!

I agree with you: I don't need special knowledge to know what music I like. My experiences with studying lots of different music that I don't immediately like have shown me that sometimes, with more exposure to that particular type of music and a better understanding of the music/composer's intent, I have come to like quite a lot more music.

And I guess that may answer your question about why work so hard to understand something so difficult. I don't think that I'll tackle Ulysses in the near future, despite a close friend's gentle nudging, and I didn't need special knowledge to enjoy To Kill A Mockingbird or The Handmaids' Tale or Let The Great World Spin. But Shakespeare required some work, and I suspect there may lurk some thoughts and experiences behind War and Peace if I would take time and special effort to continue reading even when it seems too much for me.

aquafortis said...

This debate seems to be common to all the creative arts, doesn't it? It's particularly pernicious in visual art...as someone who went to school for "fine art," anyone calling your work "illustrational" was a dire insult. Anything smacking of applied art or popular arts was heavily criticized (unless, of course, you were "in" with the right people or could somehow frame the work as a comment or critique...). Even words like "cute" or "precious" become insulting in the fine art world.

But I think your definition has merit--in music, in particular, there is quite a lot of work by "musicians' musicians" that requires some knowledge even to appreciate, let alone the level of knowledge required to understand it. It's so true in fine art, too--context within the art historical canon can be critical. It can mean the difference in reaction between the "oohhh" of realization and "what the heck is that thing?" :)

lotusgirl said...

I like the way you put this. I think the parallels are there between writing and music.

Yat-Yee said...

a.q.: In fine art, I've definitely had many What-is-that? moments. But I have a friend who teaches me about it and I find his explanations really helpful. I still secretly think some artists try too hard to be different, to make a statement.

As for musicians' musicians, I have to say I do find a few of them only intellectually interesting. For example, I still don't like Elliott Carter music, or George Crumb's (even though I sat two seats away from the latter and had a nice chat with him once.)

Lotusgirl: I am glad you liked it.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Labels. I guess we're stuck with them. They do guide us into territory we want to travel, but they might also steer us away from something excellent that we didn't know we'd like.
Sometimes we should just go for it. Actually, Yat-Yee, I think you have a pretty eclectic reading list.

Beverly Lapp said...

I love your writing, Yat-Yee! I remember that conference -- I think it was John Steinmetz. I've had students read some of his writing to help get out of the real art/popular art dichotomy.

Bev

Jude said...

I think a balance between the two is the best--I mean, too much of anything can get annoying right? The way I see it, something that's too commercial might seem superficial and shallow, like something you'd tire of quickly; on the other hand, something that's too literary can seem snooty like they're trying too hard to write something with gravitas. Ah well, to each his own :)

Yat-Yee said...

Tricia: your comparison of labels to guides is spot on. As for my reading list, I try a little to balance things out but I don find that I like quite a variety of books.

Bev: Yes! It was John Steinmetz. I don't know why I have not thought to look up his other writings. Thanks!

Jude: I think what you've described is the goal of many writers. They end up on different points of the commercial-literary continuum and that's great because readers are all over the continuum as well.

aquafortis said...

Jude, I like the way you've summed it up...because, of course, no matter how literary you are, you still want people to read and enjoy it, right? :)

tanita davis said...

My two cents:

I guess that I'm just annoyed that we have labels that try to determine what is music vs. art music. I mean, really? And I've always been a little saddened that A.F. and other artists were taught not to see illustration as art. What the heck is it, then?

As a writer, may I just say that I haven't ever considered myself an artist. I just... write. Period. I think anything more is just pretension and hubris.

As for Sparks and Steel - they perhaps trying for a revisionist history in disassociating themselves with romance as an overarching genre. I could see that maybe ten years ago, deciding to say, "No, I'm historical fiction!" instead of being under the romance umbrella, but that there are clear subgenres in romance now - all the way from clichéd The Greek Millionaire's Kidnapped Child Bride to historical, paranormal, urban, etc. etc. -- it makes much less sense to just suddenly come out with this. I surmise that these statements were in the service of attracting new readers who are leery of the disdain and contempt and accusations of moral laxity romance readers get - and while I get that, I think it's dumb. The people who bought their books when they were just writing romances are spenders and it doesn't make sense to offend current fans for the ephemeral hope of new ones.

Domey Malasarn said...

This is a good discussion, and a good original post, Yat-Yee. When I first read your definition, it made a lot of sense to me. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel it just isn't sufficient--and perhaps nothing is sufficient enough. As was brought up, some works do better with knowledge and experience while other's don't require as much of it. Both can still be art. I've read one Sparks book and I was completely impressed by his sensitivity to the reader. He made me a better writer, and I'd say his writing had some literary elements. To define "literary" is still impossible for me beyond just a feeling in my heart, though.