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The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Relevance 

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Wow. Luke on amazing form. Gonna have to sit down and read this one properly. I've always liked the idea of artworks as contributions to an encyclopaedia, but I've never really thought much beyond that - for me it's just been a conveniently postmodern, non-committal excuse for justifying the presence of whatever I want to justify. But Luke does do some of that thinking-through for me. Cheers!

I hadn't seen the ILM thread referred to (must admit that I find reading ILM a bit like searching through the proverbial haystack), but I did recently get questioned by a colleague because I advocated 'relevance' as an essential part of music criticism and promotion. If, as I argued at the time, people no longer find contemporary classical music 'relevant', then it will slowly disappear from the cultural radar. But the reason it has become irrelevant to people is less because the music is of inferior quality to that written previously - which it clearly isn't - but because of a dislocation between what composers are working on, and what listeners consider relevant to their lives. Luke writes the following:

"Another reason for rejection [from the encyclopaedia] is insufficient contemporaneity. If the contributor has failed to take into account those changes in public morality and conduct, beliefs, ambitions, fears and so on and so forth, which impact directly on the subject under discussion, then his contribution may well be deemed inadequate. Additionally if the contribution seems dramatically out of step with the conditions of the lives of its audience it may well be deemed an irrelevance. So Motown does its thing all through the 60s but then 1971 comes round and Marvin and Stevie know it's time to switch things up. Same way it became obvious that the 2step bubble was about to burst, too many people's lives had gotten too frightening for the music not to reflect that. Same thing with Modernism."

The bit I've highlighted in italics seems to me the most important - and clearly true - statement here. Very often, time works to correct occasions when questions have relevancy get in the way of questions of musical value - Luke uses Coltrane as an example, and I'd say that here is a time when the balance has been more-or-less adjusted. But more often that balance is never corrected, and the initial terms of the critical debate - which were founded on in-the-heat-of-the-moment judgements of relevancy etc. - become the definitive statement on an artist or body of work. In a subject close to my heart, this has, I believe been the case with the so-called 'Polish school' of composition that emerged in the late 1950s - people like Penderecki, Górecki, Lutoslawski, Szalonek, Baird and so on. Very quickly, generalised critical judgements were made about a nation's new music - most of these judgements were enveloped in an aura of Cold War Euro-orientalism, suspicon, and condescension - and more than forty years later these opinions still stick, by and large. For a few years at the turn of the '60s this music was tauted as the future. Now almost no one listens to it. It seems to me impossible to look at a phenomenon such as this without introducing the issue of relevance (relevance as perhaps hoped for by the composers, relevance as certainly sought by the critics).

Luke's post has still more of interest (and controversy) in it, but I think this will do me for now...!


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