Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is Music Useless?

In the discourse over music and sustainability, one of the important questions is "What is music for?" This question is related to the larger question, "What is music," but the ethnomusicologist's answer to that one, "Music is humanly organized sound," isn't controversial. What is controversial concerns the purposes of music, for many defenders of the arts believe in "art for art's sake," which is to say that arts have no instrumental purpose, no usefulness, beyond the aesthetic pleasure a person experiences when understanding and appreciating great art. And so the job of the artist is to create, of the art critic and historian to evaluate and help interpret, and of the consumer or receiver to gain pleasure. Some say the experience of great art is ennobling, that it raises one's spirit to undertand and appreciate the masterful achievement of great art in terms of its wondrous structure or its meaning (or both). The result is the arts appreciation industry, with everything from concerts and recordings and museum displays and architectural monuments, historic preservation, and college courses that teach appreciation, discrimination, and taste, leading to patronage.

Of course, the art for art's sake argument concerns only the "fine" arts. Popular and folk arts are thought to be sullied by purpose: the popular arts are commodified, the purpose is to sell objects to consumers; the folk arts have "functions" such as community bonding, and so forth. But this is not regarded as great art. Popular and folk music are granted, in this view, usefulness; but the high arts are somehow pure in their intentionality, freed from external purpose to be themselves alone.

As an ethnomusicologist, I am willing to let the apologists for the so-called fine arts make their arguments, even though I think they are weak. But I want to stop them when they take classical music as their only case in point. Throughout the world, music is purposeful in ritual; it opens a channel to and mediates with the divine world: it communicates from the human to the divine, whether a Christian hymn of praise or a Kaluli weeping song about birds. Any song is a powerful marriage of semantic meaning (through its words) with complementary sounds that take on the meaning of the words. True, some classical music is "absolute," free from words and the human voice, made only on musical instruments, and without apparent use except as an aesthetic experience. Yet much classical music involves this marriage of words and melody. Bach would have been puzzled to hear a philosopher praise his music as useless. While it is true that his fugues and suites are examples of absolute music, his cantatas and masses are not: they are vocal, purposeful, and semantically meaningful. In fact, for most of classical music's history, vocal music was dominant. Thus the circular argument that is sometimes advanced in defense of absolute music, that it is a fine art and therefore not subject to the purposes and functions that compromise the pure aesthetic experience of popular or folk music, does not even hold for all classical music. Some music, then, may appear useless; but most is meant to be useful. Is it all worth sustaining?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Familar Institutions

The festschrift piece is done. Looking at a couple of musical revivals--old-time Appalachian string band music, and New England contradance music--and the institutions these revivalist musicians and dancers created to sustain them, without external support and beyond merely getting together to make music and dance, I realized that they rely on the familiar, such as the school, the newsletter, the internet (not familiar to all) and the summer music camp to pass it along. That's not surprising, as these white collar folks are capable bureaucratic managers and these familiar institutions can be run by them without much difficulty and with the kind of cameraderie that keeps the community going, so long as there's enough money to keep them going. At the same time, they build in alternatives to middle-class schooling more in keeping with the traditional cultures as they have experienced them; for instance, musical instruction tends to be by ear and imitation, rather than the method book and note reading of childhood piano or violin lessons.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Musical cultures without heritage managers

In the midst, now, of writing a short invited essay to appear in a festchrift for-- well, I'd mention the name of the ethnomusicologist except that there's a chance someone might see it and tip the person off. This one takes up the subject of communities that manage their own musical cultures without external patronage and arts management. These turn out chiefly to be musical revivalists. And the managers are middle-aged, upper middle-class. Usually they strummed a guitar or banjo earlier in life and now that their careers are over or nearly so, they are looking for meaning in other kinds of activities, musical and social. To these revivials they bring their managerial skills, some quite formidable, along with other middle-class attributes--such as the collector mentality, which may result in the accumulation of musical instruments instead of art work or antiques.