Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Century XX - XXI

Yet again, I responded to a question posed in an online forum, and stuck the response here. The original question posed was from someone who had just attended a concert featuring Boulez, Messiaen and Lutosławski, and found that he couldn't talk to his friends about it.

My experience with Difficult Century XX Music began when I was about 15 or so (fyi - that’s almost three decades back) when I suddenly found myself laboring under the likely misimpression that it was the “coolest” possible thing to seek out the most challenging music I could find and see if I was up to it or whether I could stretch my ears around it over time. All I remember having to begin with, really, was a 1979 Frank Zappa interview in which he referenced Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Varese and Conlon Nancarrow. Not bad to be going on with, though. Years later, the intellectual-exercise-for-its-own-sake aspect has faded, to be supplanted by a notion of “beauty” something like the very unsentimental way art critic Dave Hickey has used the term: as a challenge to other agendas. Good music is good music, and it usually sounds good, too, no matter how challenging it is. To that end, what I’m enjoying about Century XXI is how the XX musics have already begun to differentiate themselves. I suspect it won’t be long before having Boulez, Messiaen and Lutosławski on the same program will engender cognitive dissonance. They don’t strike me as being all that similar, now. As a listener, I find Boulez’s doctrinaire serialism an awful lot like taking a beating to join the Crips, and frankly I don’t doubt that was how Boulez intended much of his music to function. I appreciate his “Pli Selon Pli” plenty when I listen hard, but only then and no more than that. On the other hand, I find much of Messiaen’s music to be beautiful without qualification. “Quartet for the End of Time” is like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for me – obvious in its appeal only because its means and its rigor give its unequivocal pleasures a special gravity. I’m also very fond of “From the Canyon to the Stars” and “Vingt Regards.” It’s like harder wood giving a hotter flame, when you get it going. It can also make all the earlier "classical” music that we think we understand sound even better, because what it cost its creators is made more apparent by our understanding of what it costs our contemporaries.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Is the World Music Market?

Someone just posed this question on an on-line forum, so I'm double-dipping and putting my response here, too:

I'm not so sure it's a demographic so much as a sub-cultural inclination. The intrinsic problem with the "World Music" category is that it means music from wherever you're not. Not only does it jumble soukous together with clog dancing, qawwali, and gamelan (although we're okay with that), but also from a where-the-consumer-is-at marketing standpoint the designation turns the whole confused kaboodle into field recordings. That's a deceptively difficult threshold for people with dollars to cross. People who view "World Music" as a discrete category may dabble a bit on totems like Buena Vista Social Club (good album though it is), but unless they're well versed in a reasonably broad range of traditions on their own home turf, they're not likely to become real "consumers" of World Music, as such, because beyond distinguishing "World Music" from the familiar (read: "popular" music), they'll be ill-disposed to distinguish the various alien forms from among themselves. Nothing makes you want to buy Congolese music in quantity, for example, more than hearing enough of it to understand just how much of it there is and how radically different its practitioners are from each other. Then, what sounds like pop music in Kinshasa has more than a shot at sounding like pop music elsewhere, because you'll start hearing stuff from within the foreign context that you don't like as well as do like and you'll have some idea why. If people in the US heard soukous all the time, it would sound like pop music here, but they don't, they won't, and wishing won't make it otherwise, so it doesn't. By definition, therefore, I'd say the World Music demographic couldn't be a World Music audience only -- it would have to comprise people disposed to listen to (and buy) anything and everything. Maybe because they just can't help it, or something.