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February 21, 2008

Media Culture and the Invisibility of New Music

For the past 20 years or so there has been much analysis amongst critics and historians in the arts regarding the relative importance of various artworks. This process seems to be driven by a need to set the record straight and to re-balance opinions that may have unjustly ignored good works and over-estimated the achievements of works that may have been considered if not masterpieces, then at least works that were deemed crucial to an understanding of where our culture is at today. This process has led to a scouring through various archives, the publishing of new monographs, new exhibitions, and new recordings of overlooked or misunderstood musical works.


Besides the desire on the part of academics to find treasures worthy of being exposed to a wider public there is still a sense of accounting for the after-shocks that have rung through Western culture over the past 150 years. With seemingly one new groundbreaking wave after another, almost every historic tradition was examined and overthrown and anyone who was in the more conservative camp at the time was largely discredited.

To some observers the question of how the critics and other professionals in the arts did not see the value of a given art movement at the time it emerged on the scene has been a most crucial point. Just what produced this oversight and what factors were at play in the culture to lead to this misunderstanding?


At the same time there is a sense that this kind of oversight must never happen again. The current eagerness to embrace the new and to make sure that new works of quality are never again overlooked, has made us believe that our culture, through the various forms of dissemination of ideas – books, magazines, electronic media etc. will ensure that important cultural artifacts will never again be ignored. From my vantage point however, this is exactly what has happened to what I will call serious concert music.


For the largest portion of the public, cultural information is imparted through the standard media in all its forms. TV, radio, film, newspapers and magazines are, to a large degree, the main ways the greater public gets some sense of what is available in our culture. Through the advertising and critical commentary within these outlets an individual can get some sense of the range of available cultural products. This all seems fine, at least on the surface - the attitude being: “well some things may not be investigated too much but at least there is an acknowledgement of them at some level in the media.”


The problem with our current media culture, as I see it, is that there is circularity to what it covers and except of the most sophisticated outlets, difficult, or what is perceived to be marginal art forms, are largely ignored. Therefore the connection of pop music, to movies, to personalities, to fashion, to advertising, to sports, to sales, forms a neat process that can be tapped into at various points to produce a sense that this is our culture and in fact is the most important part of our culture.


Obviously there are exceptions: good literature that takes time to absorb and consider still gets considerable attention, and within that art form the circuit of having the writer produce live readings across the country is probably the closest the publishing industry can come to creating the hero worship of a media star.


The current difficulty with contemporary music composition as practiced in the classical category is that there are almost no mechanisms left to insert these new works into the media culture that we currently have operating in Canada. As a result, the art form has become largely invisible. Practioners may get a grant to write a new work that will get one or two performances, but with little interest in the composer or the music on the part of the media the piece will often quietly vanish from public discourse.


In Canada, composers have relied on our public broadcaster, CBC, to help disseminate new musical works as well as to help in their creation. The recent changes at CBC however, appear to be engineered by several senior administrators whose plan to make CBC more popular in the most simple-minded definition of the term, is the new interpretation of how to fulfill its mandate. Clearly what has been happening for some time among the CBC executives is a sense of frustration that they can’t get the audience numbers that they feel they should have to be a big media player and a concern that without drastic changes they may lose what loyal viewers and listeners they still have without attracting younger people.


In radio in particular, after nibbling around the edges of these issues for some time they clearly decided to damn the torpedoes and go for a more popular format, “CBC lite” if you will. In spite of the outcry from many parts of cultural sector in Canada, it is clear that they have bought into this media circularity that sees value in making their radio programs sound more and more like their commercial cousins. 

For years senior producers who saw the value of contemporary music being heard alongside discussions of new literature, art and other similar forms were able to defend against the most drastic attempts to push this music to the periphery, but it clear now that they have been pushed aside by retirements or by restructuring.


Lately there have been several journalists who have written columns in some of the major North American newspapers about the radical shift they have seen in media between say 1950 and the present. In most cases this revelation has become most apparent after they had gone through old magazines or other media artifacts from the period and are shocked by the length of the analysis, the depth of concern and the awareness of works that would be largely ignored today. What Stravinsky, Hemingway or Edward Hopper may have observed is now replaced by what a certain rap star is wearing (after being arrested?) or the sincere concern some flavor-of-the-month actor shows to world poverty.


Other journalists, while bemoaning the lack of space for discussing serious culture within their newspapers or magazines, have pretty much resigned themselves to the situation and write accordingly. Like the CBC executives, the message from the upper levels of management has been that sophisticated culture does not sell the product and like a self-fulfilling prophecy the level of discourse about deeper more complex issues withers away.

This phenomenon of a kind collective ignorance is also evident in the science field, where the crises of climate change, dwindling fossil fuels and their intersection with the geo-political situation is largely driven by splashy headlines and little attempt at in-depth research and explanation.


In any case, the situation in the new music field is particularly problematic since the production of live performances in most cases requires highly trained musicians who have an understanding of the art form and its traditions as well as a willingness to break with the past and an understanding of why that is important. The conservatories and university music programs produce many talented musicians who may have the skills to perform at a high level, but the question is whether they have the desire to really get involved with the new music world, particularly when their efforts may go largely ignored except by a relatively small circle of professionals.


Across Canada the arts councils support a host of new music organizations whose mandate is to present new works to the public. Though their audiences may be relatively small, their support is defended as a necessity in keeping grassroots music making alive while potentially feeding the system of getting the music out to a large audience in the future. This sounds like a great premise, but this is where the disconnect seems to begin.


For years the Canada Council was torn by lobbying on several fronts: the symphony orchestras across the country who wanted the financial support but wanted no interference in what they programmed, the composers who wanted more Canadian content to be part of the offerings, and the pop musicians who claimed unfair treatment by the funding agencies for their music. Some orchestras were enlightened enough to try to introduce new works on a regular basis but many claimed that this push to perform more new music just alienated traditional audiences, driving them out of the concert hall.


The introduction of the new music festival format by the Winnipeg Symphony brought a new energy and commitment to new music and seemed to indicate that there was a thirst for new interesting works. Audiences were quite large and the media coverage was considerable. Suddenly it seemed that what composers thought about and the new works they were producing seemed to matter.  This initiative spawned a number of similar events in other parts of Canada, but now after 15 years this enthusiasm seems to have waned. Many orchestras more or less went back to their regular programming initiatives, and the journalist went back to covering rock bands.


The 2008 poster for the Winnipeg Symphony orchestra’s New Music Festival more or less says it all. The black, imposing field is dotted with names that no one involved in composing would connect with new composition. Guy Maddin, Isabella Rossellini, Sara Slean etc. are now the headliners while in the lower corner is a tiny reference to R. Murray Schafer and Michael Colgrass and their 75th anniversaries. So now even the flagship festival for new music in Canada has bailed out of promoting the most famous names in Canadian music, acknowledging in effect that Schafer, Colgrass, Hatzis, Bell etc. have virtually no name recognition in contemporary culture.


Years ago when I was involved at the local level in the debate about how to support new music in the Winnipeg community, I was adamant that we get the art form out of the university, out in to the street so to speak and mix it up with the other art forms. While I still believe that is an imperative, I have also concluded that we are living in a peculiar dark age where these experiments in new music are largely ignored. Too difficult, weird, out of touch are the terms that have been used for years by the music industry and continue to be used today.


While there are many young people who are inclined to be more interested in new experiments in sound, their background is largely in rock music, the only musical form that has received wide media coverage over the past 35 years As a consequence, they are often interested in music that somehow intersects with that approach. Electronics, drums are standard fare, whereas an oboe playing a long soulful melody is generally an unlikely candidate to be included in that mix. 


Without sounding a note of alarm I have come to the conclusion that we need the universities like never before when it comes to supporting composers and their works.  With the public discourse swamped by media culture relying on ever-smaller sound bites or once-over-lightly articles, it is clear to me that deeper thinking has to have some place where what is being produced is appreciated, discussed and preserved for the future.


For all the reasons that I have noted, the art form has been pushed underground and while it is certainly not a good situation, there are now, with the growth an accessibility of new technology, alternatives to the mainstream. It is easier than ever before to produce a CD of one’s music, while Internet downloads and web sites where the music can be promoted are creating viable alternatives to mainstream media culture. It is still too soon to guess what this growth of new technologies will produce in the hands of individual composers, but it does offer a ray of hope that the invisibility of the art form within media culture can be overcome.


Filed under: New music