Welcome to the second part of our look at what passes for journalism at Film Music Magazine.
Guest Editorial: Is Film Music Great?
John Graham, Film Music Magazine, September 8, 2010
Continuing from where we left off, Mr. Graham had just finished establishing that the academia has colluded to repress any acceptance of enjoyment as a measure of piece's greatness. Furthermore, he contends that great music comes not from within the soul of a composer, but from the impetus to please the person paying the bills.
He now continues pondering scorched earth trailing behind these maniacal academics.
Where Has the Insular Elite Left the Arts?
In shambles, I'm sure. It's really a miracle that there remains a culture that could still produce musical geniuses like Eminem and Lady Gaga.
So what is the result of the “insular elite” seizing the helm and steering the arts?
There's that word...elite. So much antipathy for elites, what with their medical and technical breakthroughs, contributions to building governments and societies and their endless philosophical and artistic contributions to culture.
For answer, I look to the marketplace.
Marketplace answer? It's done wonders for the economy, so I can only assume that it will do wonderfully in helping us to determine which music is truly great.
How busy are concert halls?
According to the League of American Symphonies, very busy.
How many poetry magazines are there today?
Good question. Just a quick search of the Google turned up Poetry (in publication since 1912), Conversation, Oxford Poetry, 32 Poems, The Gettysburg Review, Shit Creek Review, The American Poetry Review, Poetry London, Mezzo Cammin, Two Tone, Untide Press, and several others. But that's not as many as are dedicated to celebrity gossip, so I get your point.
How many people, even the educated, feel free to like or dislike a work of art or a piece of music without reference to whether it’s on some “approved” list?
You shouldn't speak ill of the Authority if you care for your safety. I had a friend once who hated Webern's Symphony, op. 21. They crab canoned him within an inch of his life. Really, I've said too much.
Are scalpers charging $400 a ticket to any symphonic concerts?
Well, since we're into conjecture, I assume anecdotal evidence should suffice as an answer to your question. I once saw Citizen Kane for free at a film festival, and I paid $100 a ticket to see Britney Spears when I was in college...(yeah, I saw Britney Spears...twice! She was Lady Gaga before Lady Gaga was Lady Gaga, and sometime after Madonna was Lady Gaga.)
Anyway, you're a film composer, has anyone scalped tickets, for any price, to a concert of your music?
By the way, what's your point? You do realize that it's sort of stupid to equate how much people pay for something with its intrinsic value, right?
Does one feel susceptible to being made a fool of if one expresses dislike of, or bewilderment with, a piece of art only to learn that, say, the V&A paid millions for it because it had been approved by critics as “groundbreaking?”
Depends, am I disliking the piece for good, well-founded reasons, and am I basing my opinion on 'just because'?
You do realize you're only a fool if you express dislike but don't have any reason to support your opinion, right?
Does the announcement of new works of the sort championed by academics excite anticipation or, instead, a desire to flee?
We are certainly getting far afield from the original question of "what makes music great", and even further from "is film music great".
But the desire to flee based on an announcement sounds dangerously close to prejudiced. You're not prejudiced, are you, John? You know pre-judging a work before you've heard it.
I think we know the answers to all these questions.
We do? How convenient that your singular set of experiences have provided all of us with answers to these questions.
Few people, even among the educated, anticipate with pleasure new music, poetry or art, and I place the blame squarely on the Academy’s failure in leadership.
And those few people really don't count. By all rights, we should marginalize and belittle them for their stupid and very wrong opinions.
How about a history lesson to help us understand how we got to this awful state of the arts?
The history of this debacle goes back at least 50 years.
For clarification's sake, the debacle we're discussing is that people write music you don't like, right?
Championing a combination of what, by around 1945 or 1950, had become a rigid and almost unassailable “canon” of Approved Old Guys, plus a more recent crop of dissertation-ready music, with its systems to analyze, structural rigour, and harmonic ideas rooted not in enjoyment but physics or some other realm of intellectual novelty, The Academy ground the fun and natural enjoyment out of new music so that by now we see the legacy in too many empty concert halls and a feverish urge, even among regular concert-goers, to hasten away from any music labeled “modern.”
Damn, that's one hell of a sentence you've got there, John. I was hesitant to interrupt such a beautiful, rambling mess. But ultimately, I think that's a pretty good summary of what the ignorant think happened in classical music over the past 50 years.
How is that good for music?
I guess it wouldn't be good for music. But you know, John, there's one aspect to this whole editorial-thing that you should be aware of -- just because you say it, doesn't make it so.
Generalized statements based on purely speculative evidence about music over the past 50 years doesn't make for a compelling argument. Well, unless you went to Arizona State.
However, if you were to have some examples to support your argument...do you, John, have any examples?
Hasn’t the same contempt toward popular work produced the same scorched earth seen in many of the arts? Serious poetry,...
Serious poetry is popular?
...to take one example, has been relegated to oblivion nearly everywhere in the West. Young people look for thoughtful art that can help them make sense of their crazy lives, and find it only at iTunes.
There's serious poetry on iTunes? And young people look for thoughtful art? Is Jersey Shore considered thoughtful art?
Meanwhile, academically-sponsored art itself seems engaged in extended seppuku, crabbed and tangled with explicit and implicit rules for art that surely throttle the natural creative impulse.
Seriously, you're going to need to give me an example. How is music produced in academic circles committing suicide? Just because you don't listen to it? Or is it financial suicide? Should they charge more for their music?
And furthermore, why do you care if academic composers have committed suicide? I thought your point was that great music doesn't come from academia, but from music-for-hire situations?
How likely is Great Art to appear from the hand of the average professor-composer suffering a full teaching load, with time to write at most a 20-40 minute piece in an entire academic year that he or she knows will be subjected to some kind of analytic scrutiny instead of just heard and liked, or not-liked?
I don't know...very likely? How about this John -- you can listen to the piece and just like it or not like it, and all those evil academics can analyze it to death. Then you can tell that composer your gut-based opinion, and if the composer survived the savage raping from the other academics, I'm sure he'll thank you.
Plus, how dare that professor have a full-time job and try to compose. What a fucking loser, needing healthcare and a steady paycheck. Not to mention the fact that they might actually enjoy teaching.
Should we add the criterion that great art is only created by those without families or other sources of income?
Real composers sell their music because it's awesome, and don't need outside work, right? I mean it's not like Mozart or Beethoven ever taught students. Pssh.
How likely is Great Art to appear from a composer-in-residence whose main obligation is to generate music that the faculty and / or the committee approving his re-appointment will prize?
How is composing music for a faculty or committee any different from writing music for a paying client? I'm assuming that he took this job because it paid him a salary, right? Is just that you object to any opinion that has a basis?
Fuck me, John. Did a composer with a pipe and tweed jacket kill your family when you were a child?
My guess is not too likely.
I'm glad you're guessing. Because, fuck, if you actually had any support for your claims, I'd suggest we torch every school of music around this country and end the madness.
I am not sure whether a film composer has or will overcome the shortcomings and pressure of the medium, and produce something so good that “they would not willingly let it die.”
Who is "they"?
It’s very early to be sure what, in 50 or 200 years, will still be admired. But I’d bet that commerce, over time,...
Fuck me, Nostradamus, but didn't you just get done telling us exactly what music won't be remembered?
...will beat the products funded by the “difficult and dense” school of composing or The Committee To Destroy All Arts Via Committee.
Who funds that committee?
But, nevermind. I'm with you, let's get rid of The Committee to Destroy All Arts Via Committee. They sound like an awful committee. Plus, they have a stupid name.
Ironically, the result of decades of strenuous efforts of critics seeking to guard us from low-brow music is that the overwhelming majority of new orchestral music is produced for media, rather than the concert hall. Of all orchestral music written in the last 20 years, what proportion was written for film and TV? 90 percent? 99?
Seriously, John, you and I are totally pals. But, come on, that's a pretty lame argument.
Did you know that over 99% of all the basketball played in this country doesn't happen in the NBA? Clearly, that means the best players aren't in the NBA, statistically speaking, of course.
I am willing to place my bets there, in music-for-hire, rather than any Milton Babbitt or Luciano Berio or other composer whose work is so dense and difficult that it requires an instruction manual, or “historical perspective,” or decades of study to appreciate.
But, John,you've been so incredibly open-minded and inclusive thus far, you're not really going to argue that music that is complex is lesser than simple music? Well, that might make you look like a judgmental asshole, and I don't want your powerful message to be lost.
So what's wrong with music that requires study or "historical perspective"?
Who has the time?
Oh, I get it, you're a busy guy. Well, I have the time. But what does that say about you...you're a composer and you don't have the time to listen to music? Possibly broaden your musical horizons? Or was your understanding of music perfectly formed when you were 12 or 14?
But now I'm being judgmental. I'm sure that you have a perfectly valid reason for thinking that complex music has nothing to offer you...
I listened at age 12 or 14...
Good, an anecdote from the early teen years...the most reasonable and thoughtful years of most people's lives.
...for the first time to Beethoven’s third symphony, and that was it – instant admiration, astonishment; powerful feelings of all sorts, with no study, no manual.
Good for you. You "just liked" it, therefore the piece is great. But...
I just had a thought, John. What if you hadn't liked the piece on the first listening, how many more chances would you have given the piece, or does it always have to be "instant admiration"? There was a chance that you would have decided that Beethoven's Third Symphony wasn't (gasp!) any good. And then what would we have done?
Or is it that no one could have not have liked that piece on first listening without, you know, being wrong?
And while that instant recognition of something you want to hear again is naturally not be the only criterion for greatness,...
I'm glad to hear that you recognize the highly subjective nature of your example...however, I sense a 'but' coming.
...the academics’ near-automatic rejection of such instant delight, to me, is a sure sign of a institution that has missed the forest for the trees.
Academics reject liking a piece upon first listening? You must know some really shitty academics. I mean, who rejects unquantifiable, bullshit emotions from tweens as a standard measure of the greatness of a piece of music? Fuck.
Popularity is Not Enough
Yes, we know, it also had to make money.
Lest a misunderstanding emerge,...
Yes, lest a misunderstanding emerge.
...I think it important to emphasize that I don’t equate popularity with artistic merit.
Just money, right? And that people have to "just like" it.
The one does not automatically grant the other.
Yes, but you've argued that someone has to like the piece. So, how many people must like a piece of music for it be considered great art? Or is it more a percentage thing?
Can a single person like a piece, and it still be great?
I know, I know, I'm taking your argument to the furthest extremes. I hate when I do that. But, in my defense, it's only because your argument is so completely without any merit whatsoever.
But, I am saying that it remains widely fashionable to assume that there can be no connection between the two, to dismiss in horror even the consideration of the artistic merits of anything that actually is popular.
So let me get this straight, you just said that popularity doesn't equate with artistic merit. But if someone else were to say that popularity doesn't contribute a work's artistic merit, they're wrong?
I'm wondering, if it does matter whether a piece is popular, what would it mean if a composer were to compose a piece of music specific not to be popular!?
Even worse, a healthy proportion of scholar-composers actively seek to offend or displease an audience, even trying to out-do each other in driving audiences up a wall.
And this is wrong, of course. How should we punish them?
I have seen reviews chortling about how some piece made members of the audience leave, and what a success that was.
Why is that you value one emotional response more than another? Should all paintings be of bunnies and pastorals? No photographs other than sunsets and couples grinning stupidly at Disneyland? Should every novel/movie have a happy ending?
Tell me, John, what my music should sound like so as not to offend people.
A New York Times piece by an active composer repeated the now taken-for-granted saw that, without offending someone, a piece couldn’t possibly have any artistic value or be considered daring and new.
Don't worry, your biased paraphrasing of their argument is more than fair. Please don't provide any context or actual quotation.
To me it is nonsense to link the two; and not merely harmless nonsense. Indeed, it has had the pernicious effect of driving ever more people away from new music.
And what do you care? I'm getting the feeling that you don't really care for, or have the time, for new music.
But you are entitled to your opinion. You may be very right on this point.
Of course one has to acknowledge that it’s possible to write something that upsets some people but that, nevertheless, has real artistic merit.
One does? Why should one acknowledge that? It's not like we're ever going to listen to any piece like that...we already know, without hearing the piece, that it sucks -- for many previously established reasons.
But it’s equally possible that such pieces are merely sophomoric, irritating bilge.
It's equally possible? Equal as in 50-50? I like those odds quite a bit. So, one out of every two pieces that seems to upset some people has artistic merit. If only pop and film music could have such a success rate.
So why do you have so much antipathy for this music? Seriously, what the fuck gives?
It may be that a great new work will offend, but offense doesn’t guarantee greatness.
Got it. Just like popularity doesn't guarantee greatness. So why are you ranting against this music and the people who write it?
Just because audience members storm out does not mean one has written “Le Sacre du Printemps.”
But, of course, academics think this, because they are so easily confused by audience members leaving during the performance that they cease to have any control of their own personal judgment or standards.
Yep, they go to every concert with a checklist in hand:
- Weird chords -- check
- Offensive sounds -- check
- Has interesting but clearly irrelevant "historical perspective" -- check
- Can only be understood with instructional manual (which is purposefully not given to non-academic audience members) -- check
- Audience members left in a huff -- check
- Great Music? -- Double check!
Has the Academic Tide Turned?
Clearly, film departments at universities...
Oh, yeah. This editorial was about whether film music is great art. I nearly forgot in the midst of all your unsubstantiated academic bashing.
...have grown in number and accreted a degree of respect.
So, universities aren't all bad. At least the parts that validate what you do for living. And not those snooty concert composers and their music that hates audiences.
And even a cursory glance at the titles of books and papers reveals that academics are directing meaningful energy at popular music. Serious work appears about Wagner and Copland, to be sure, but also about James Brown and Eminem.
Well, they are musical geniuses, too. But I'm confused. You were upset when these academics were writing books and papers about music you don't like, but now because it's about artists who you do like, you're commending them?
Should we boil down all academic pursuits to whether or not you agree with them? Based on the infallible nature of your arguments in this editorial, I say yes!
Even heavy metal music gets attention, along with practically every area of jazz, barbershop quartet, Stephen Sondheim’s musicals – unquestionably there is meaningful energy spent on popular works nowadays.
But Stephen Sondheim musicals are shitty. I thought the goal was for them to only write about musical geniuses. right?
Or are you saying that Sondheim is a musical genius? Fuck, if you're saying that, then I'm afraid I'm going to have to take back all the nice things I've said about you.
Even so, these papers and compositions seem written for and largely consumed by peers only.
Which means they shouldn't exist and the people who wrote them should probably just die.
In some cases, it is clear that they are stuck applying traditional yardsticks to validate the music they are examining, and that the pieces’ or composers’ quality is in those circumstances measured by the degree to which their music uses analyzable structures or techniques.
This would seem to be a great place for an example. But I watch Fox News too, conjecture is as close to fact as most Americans care about anyway. Carry on.
In other cases, the titles of these efforts appear to tangle the music with social or other non-musical issues. Phrases in a few titles such as, “the Musicological Skin Trade,” or “Charles Ives and Gender Ideology,” can’t help but make one wonder whether academic legitimacy, when writing about popular music, derives in those cases more from the music itself, or the reliably meaty arena of sociology.2
And your point? What if it does veer into sociology? If Ives' music is sexist does that make your music any less great?
Unless this is some sort of personal vendetta against higher learning in the arts, I'm wondering what your point is? Why do you want the approval of people you obviously despise?
As a result, it is not clear whether such music is taken seriously, or is serving mainly as an as-yet-unexhausted topic for a paper or book to be read by other academics.
So sociology isn't to be taken seriously? Damn, is there anybody with a brain of whom you aren't skeptical?
I have been told that Jane Austen initially wrote primarily for her family and friends, in order to entertain and divert them. Whether apocryphal or not, that desire – to entertain and divert – needs to be rehabilitated from decades of condescension and contempt if we are going to reinvigorate the concert repertoire, attract an excited new audience to concert music, and restore a positive link between music as it is actually practiced and the halls of academe.
Way to claim something that you have yet to establish that no one disagrees with -- well, other than your fictional dastardly sociologist posing as a professor of music.
Who knows whether any particular composer in the popular sphere is producing works that anyone will value in 100 years?
What we can say, I think, is that most music which today we consider great, including that of Beethoven or Bach, was created for some fairly prosaic purpose – a church service, a feast day, an opera with a plot hastily hashed together, a concert on such and such a date.
To quote one of our readers, this is a "hot mess of something."
But let me try to follow, you wrote earlier that it didn't matter to you what the motivation was behind the composition of a piece of music. But, by proximity, you make the implication that music for commonplace occasions might make a piece valuable in 100 years. Am I close?
Of course, some commissions were spurred by coronations and other Great Occasions as well, but anyway, when the message came in, “we need some music” I assume it wasn’t “we need music that will Stand The Test Of Time,” but “we need music that The Guy Paying For It Will Like.”
And this makes a piece better? Are you just guessing that this is true? In any case, let me write back to you your own words:
It doesn’t matter to me...what the purpose of the writing is, whether it’s a lofty goal or, by contrast, a desire to impress a girlfriend / boyfriend, trying to make money, escaping a soul-destroying job alternative, rivalry with other composers / band-mates, seeking everlasting greatness, or sheer vanity.
So why would writing a piece for posterity or to please a patron matter? Can you see the contradiction?
It saddens me, both for composers and audiences, to picture the tortured, narrow channel into which composers seeking concert performances have been forced by critics and other cerebrals. Over many years, this has generated a catastrophic rupture between new music and audiences. We need to reset our criteria for selecting Important New Music so that it no longer seems explicitly to ignore anything likely to excite / interest / move / entertain or otherwise please an audience.
I think we're all with you on this. Why all these universities and music organizations explicitly ignore exciting and interesting music is beyond me.
With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the
galaxy arts world.
Or were you only speaking about music which you find interesting and exciting?
The scribbling tribe has for decades behaved as though determined to crush any compositional impulse that might be recognizable as something that might originally have motivated the production of composers like Bach or Beethoven. That should end.
Sure, what the hell. Consider it ended.
I hope that the symptoms in academia reflect a tide that has turned decisively, and that we will therefore eventually see an embrace by concert halls of music (and poetry and art) that audiences would enthusiastically pay to experience. Imagine what, say, James Newton Howard might produce for the concert hall if he were to receive the sponsorship of someone influential in that arena?
If James Newton Howard were to ever give any evidence that he could write good music, that would be a interesting experiment.
In the mean time, I believe film and game music, for good or ill, has replaced symphonies, opera and church music – the mainstays of former times. And, if one accepts that idea, I believe that if we are to see great music written in our own time, it will be in media where we find the bulk of it.
And by replaced you mean not replaced, right? Because, you know there still are symphonies, operas, and tons of churches with music every Sunday morning.
Since Mr. Graham didn't really bother to engage his original question of whether or not film music is great art, I shall also ignore it, other than to say, that there's no reason it can't be great. There is lots of wonderful music written for film, and I would have enjoyed a thoughtful discussion of how film music stands on its own against concert music. Too bad.
So, we're back to the question of who gets to judge the music -- the critics and academics, or the unindoctrinated masses? Well, in my experience, I've never understood this dichotomy. This is a false choice. Both are free to pass judgment in any way they want. Critics and academics like to use knowledge, history, theory, circumstantial and direct evidence (musical and extra-musical) to form a complete picture of a piece of music. And by contrast, there are people like John who like to use their gut. Both are effective methods, except when it comes to wanting to know more than whether someone liked a piece.
John Graham's big mistake here, besides not consulting an editor, is that he starts with the question of whether film music is great, and then never bothers to engage that question meaningfully. Instead, he chooses to take the position that it is great (or at least that it most likely is), and the only reason most people don't realize this is due to the institutional dismissal of all music-for-hire. Mr. Graham relies on ad hominem attacks against academia, and a series of logical fallacies to support this position, not once providing any support for his (unstated) thesis that film music is great (or should be thought so by academics). He appeals to emotion, to popularity, and to spite -- all of which are classic errors in reasoning.
Of course, as is most often the case, his opinions are easily ignored since he offers nothing more than unsubstantiated attacks. However, the harm is that this sort of ill-conceived, childish argument perpetuates a commonplace misunderstanding of music. A misconception that music owes something to us. That when we don't like a piece of music, it has done us wrong, and the composers have lost their way. While everyone is always free to like or not like any piece of music, that music has no obligations to you. Music doesn't have to make you happy, please you, provide you with emotional catharsis, or look or sound like anything. In fact, it doesn't even have to try and be popular. Rather than investigate why all these critics and academics may advocate for a certain composer or piece, Mr. Graham assumes that he already knows everything, and therefore all the critics and academics must be wrong. It's this sort of ego that will always keep ears closed, and music a stagnant, historical object.
However, that's obviously not the way Mr. Graham sees it. He accuses academics of having the egotistical view of music by ignoring pure enjoyment. There's essentially no response to that sort claim since his argument is based on a alternate view of reality. He doesn't understand the mission of academia, nor the difference between subjective and objective thought.
Furthermore, such points of view only serve to reemphasize the stereotypes that new music is something to be feared, and that academics have no relation to the outside world. Mr. Graham's suggestion that great music should provide "instant admiration" is a childish notion. A notion that only serves to show that he can't speak intelligently about music.
As Milton Babbit wrote, "he also will offer reasons for his 'I didn't like it' - in the form of assertions that the work in question is 'inexpressive,' 'undramatic,' 'lacking in poetry,' etc., etc., tapping that store of vacuous equivalents hallowed by time for: 'I don't like it, and I cannot or will not state why.'"
Classical music, by its nature, is a sophisticated form, which doesn't lend itself to "instant admiration" -- although, it certainly might. Like some things in this world, it may take a second or third listening to fully appreciate the artistry in a piece of music.
With regard to academics, well...fuck. I'm not sure what to tell a person who objects to studying an art form. Mr. Graham basic assertion that professors reject the relative "enjoyment" given a piece of music is both bullshit, and sort of true (although, not in the way he suggests). Music professors also love music (at least many do). But like with any serious, academic discussion, one's opinions and emotions are not qualitative measures. Even though Beethoven symphonies all easily surpass the required 33.7 Enjoyment Units (EUs) to be acknowledged as great music, it's just not an aspect of Beethoven symphonies that interest academics.
With just a small amount of training, the spectrum of music opens up, and as a result some ubiquitous forms of music can become increasingly plain and uninteresting. They offer no surprises nor originality, and sometimes as a result are rather boring. However, there is music out there that is full of depth and complexity which can be appealing....new music. Despite Mr. Graham's insinuation that academia forces this music upon these students and professors, it's actually a pretty natural and easy to understand phenomenon.
However, I am not arguing that more complex music is superior to less complicated music. It's not. Neither one is good nor bad based on the virtue of its relative complexity. To borrow from Ecclesiastes and pop psychology, there is a time and place for all types of music. So pardon us if we don't feel the need to capitulate our standards to your shallow vision of what music is, and should be.