Yesterday I wrote about an oboe concerto composed by Christian Bach. In 2013, a centuries-old instrumental piece for oboe and strings without so much as a pungent note let alone any salacious lyrics probably won’t offend anyone. Some contemporary listeners will probably find Bach’s bright, plush, relentlessly consonant music incredibly boring. Yet there it is, still out there on CD and on YouTube. In light of all the buzz surrounding the MTV Video Music Awards, music that doesn’t offend anyone may seem more shocking than anything else.
As someone who listens almost exclusively to classical and jazz, I really try to avoid sounding like a snob. Both genres are associated with elitism, and not without reason. Mozart lovers and Coltrane devotees alike love to point out that “their music” has stood the test of time. I’ve tried to avoid that argument not just out of modesty, but because ultimately it cannot be proven: no one knows for certain what music will last or for how long. I’m just lucky to still be able to hear Bach’s oboe concerto.
Most of this blog is devoted to “pop” side of jazz and classical, the music that wasn’t intended to be great art but was meant to delight, shock, titillate and above all entertain people. Show me a piece of music by Mozart, Armstrong, Beiderbecke or Haydn, and I’ll show you a work meant for audiences rather than musicologists. Hopefully, open ears and the passage of time also allow us appreciate the lesser-known, allegedly more “commercial” pop of yestercentury.
Yet the bottom line is that none of these musicians set out to make anything “timeless.” Their work was looked at as an ephemeral product in their lifetimes (how else to explain Bach’s manuscripts being used to wrap meat? That’s Johann Sebastian Bach, Christian’s father i.e. THE Bach, by the way). So applying the same criticism to contemporary music must be mere hubris. At least, that’s what I have always tried to keep telling myself.
My willpower took a huge blow this week watching the MTV awards show. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding one particular performance, but the entire event is known for surrounding music with elaborate, often racy spectacles. Popular music has always included spectacle, from the gran divertissements featuring elaborate sets and dances in French opera, to the parade of loud, repetitive “killer-dillers” that big bandleaders like Benny Goodman used to dread playing to demanding audiences. Yet between the layers of fancy lighting and unimaginatively crafted sexual innuendo at this year’s awards show, this classical and jazz listener had to ask if anyone would one day remember the music.
I can’t evaluate if any of these performers make good music or even music I might enjoy. I simply haven’t listened to enough of it. They certainly know how to get attention. Yet once the fancy suits no longer fit and the tongues are wagging as a sign of dementia rather than seduction, will anyone be listening to this music? Will it make anyone forget their bus stop because they’re so involved with the sound of it on headphones? Is anyone going to be sticking up for it on musical grounds, despite the by-then hopelessly dated images associated with it? I really don’t know. It just might do all those things and more. Those thoughts are fairly objective compared to the next level of my shameful descent into snobbery.
It occurred to me that other than music, there is no other art form whose practitioners attach so much to their work which has nothing to do with the work itself. There are no pop sculptors or pop ballerinas. No one really cares who Michael Chabon is dating, and people pay more attention to Jasper Johns’ actual paintings than the frame they come in. The actors in a particular film may get a lot of attention for their extracurricular activities, but ultimately fans can point to an actual performance by the actor that they enjoy.
How many viewers watching the VMAs can point to an artist’s particular vocal inflection? Not to the words themselves, which may express an idea the listener finds fun or important, but the way the artist sings the lyrics? How many notice what kind of band is onstage, or if there’s a band at all? How many hear a good bass line or just a beautiful note? If you listen to music as music, rather than the expression of a trend or the soundtrack to a spectacle, in other words if you really care about music and only music, then the proof is what’s on your speakers rather than your screen.
I told you I was giving into the temptations of snobbery. Nor I am proud of it.
No one is certain when, why or for whom Christian Bach wrote his oboe concerto. Somehow that lack of context suits it. Without any stories about a hasty commission or Bach’s personal foibles attached to the notes, the piece gets to exist as music. Music is all I’m really interested in.