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The great twentieth century musical divide

Christian Michel holds talk-and-discussion evenings at his London home on the sixth and twentieth of each month. If you want know more about these events email him at cmichel@ cmichel.com. I am doing the talk at the next one, the first of 2008, on January 6th. My chosen subject will be: the history of music making in the twentieth century. I have just sent an email to Christian about my talk, from which he will concoct his email invite to all his regulars. I am still thinking about what I will finally say and would greatly appreciate input from the Samizdata commentariat on the subject. So here is my email to Christian:

An extraordinary interlude – an aberration, you might say – in the history of music is now drawing to a close.

The musical opportunities created by modern electronics, in the form of electronic recording, radio, and then later of actual electronically powered musical instruments, were responded to by the music profession in two profoundly contrasted ways.

The “classical” fraternity concentrated first on popularising – and then on recording in opulently perfect sound – their resplendent back catalogue.

“Pop” music has been just as profoundly shaped by electronics. Indeed, it is the creation of electronics.

The most fundamental effect of electronics on “pop” music has been that popular music (by which I mean the old folk traditions) has no longer been obliged to rely either on musical literacy skills, or, for those in whom such skills were lacking, memory. “Folk” music always teetered on the edge of oblivion, relying as much of it did on the human brain as its hard disc, so to speak. And folk musicians were forced to concentrate on remembering the old songs, having little brain space to create new ones (folk music before recording was rather like literature before printing. Written manuscripts were about as perishable as the people who created them, for they lasted about as long).

Recording, for folk/pop musicians changed everything. No longer did the lowest class of musician depend upon their own memories to keep their previous creations and inherited repertoire alive. They could compose at their instruments, and record it, confident that it would then survive, and they were thus liberated to get on with creating the next would-be hit. And pop musicians were as uninhibited in their use of new, electronic instruments as the classical fraternity were mostly stand-off-ish about them (I know: Boulez, Stockhausen etc. They’re worth a mention).

This is a complicated story. Technology takes time to develop and get cheap, and it’s still hurtling along of course. Electronic recording (and CDs) took nearly a century to get good enough to do justice to Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler and Wagner. At it took a similar time to get cheap enough for working class teenagers to play with it in bedrooms and garages.

The classical recording enterprise is now basically concluded. Oh, there are still occasional gems to be found in among the dross at the battle of the barrel. But, the great works are now recorded, and re-recording them again and again cannot count for as much now as making similar recordings did fifty years ago when classical fans were still hungry to hear their core repertoire. “Classical” musicians must now look to create new repertoire of a sort that can earn them a living, the inverted commas there being because a lot of them won’t really be “classical” musicians anymore and are becoming a lot more like pop musicians, from whom they have much to learn. The music profession will once more be a single (if huge and sprawling) entity, full of varieties of taste and of technique, but without that cavernous gulf that divided it during the twentieth century (in this respect it resembled and resembles politics. Discuss).

I could go on, and on the night I will, but I’ll end by briefly discussing my qualifications to do this talk. Well, first of all, I am a music fan, possessing an small-to-average sized pop CD collection and a gargantuan classical CD collection, having been a classical collector and listener all my now long life. I was a teenager during the sixties musical revolution. I have also been studying the history of the means of communication and information storage for as long as I can remember. I am no great shakes as a musician, although I did play the flute in my school orchestra, and I had a fabulous treble voice as a boy, which I used to sing in choirs of various kinds, at home around the piano and at school. But in the end, I’ll just have to hope that my audience finds my talk illuminating and enjoyable. For the truth is that they know most of the facts pretty much as well as I do. The question is, will I make more sense of those facts for my listeners? I’ll try.

14 comments to The great twentieth century musical divide

  • To my mind, the single most important fact about music in America over the past century is that, a century ago, the vast majority of experience with it was in participating. A hundred years ago in this country, to hear music almost always meant playing it: that was the principal experience.

    The fact that it hasn’t been that way for whole generations now is, to me, the first and most important fact and aspect of the “divide”.

  • The growth of ‘festivals’- be it Wagner in Bayreuth (did i spell that right?) or Live Aid(s), raves, Isle of Wights, Woodstocks etc.

    Sampling and Looping as the basis of the computer music revolution.

  • R. Richard Schweitzer

    In your (necessarily) brief post you seemed headed toward a dual classification plus the “delivery” system.

    However, at the end you touched on an essence –
    how the music is made (vocal, instrumental, group, solo, et seq.),

    Then there have been the changes in venue (where & format) and modes of distribution (direct, broadcasts, recording and combinations).

    But, most of all the motivations in the music making

  • Salif

    To my mind, the single most important fact about music in America over the past century is that, a century ago, the vast majority of experience with it was in participating.

    I don’t see that’s really an “American” phenomenon, Billy, but a global one. Technology has changed music everywhere and forever, even here in Senegal. And that’s very damn interesting I think.

  • “I don’t see that’s really an ‘American’ phenomenon, Billy, but a global one.”

    I do believe it is, but I didn’t address that because I am not so closely aware of the condition anywhere else.

  • RAB

    The origin of the Hit Parade for guageing the popularity of music, was of course, for the sales of sheet music.
    Many more people could play an instrument in my parents time even, than can now.
    The record player made the need to learn how to play an instrument, to enjoy good music in your home, almost redundant.
    So those who could play music (even badly) became Stars and Record companies very rich.
    Computers have given the ability to play and make your own music easy, and cheap to distribute yourself.
    Live performance is what everyone wants now.
    The wheel has turned full circle.

  • Ian B

    I don’t have anything to add, just posting to say this was a thought provoking read and thank you.

  • Very good comment by RAB.

    Brian, you have started to articulate a discussion that I have long wanted to see but did not know how to start. I will be interested to see how you develop it over time. DD

  • R. Richard Schweitzer

    One other point occurs and that is the effect of changes in (a) the initial (original)exposures to the “organization of sounds” that comprise what is accepted as “music” [Mom singing in the Kitchen; Sis at the piano] and (b) the ongoing aural experiences available [backgound in visual presentations; “On Hold” on ‘phones]

  • Ken

    Bill Beck. What of us that can’t play-carry a beat in a bucket and can’t find a key when it’s given to us?

  • Ken: I don’t know. I might like to see some data, but my own experience is that people who are really like that are also fairly rare. Almost anyone can be trained past it to at least some degree.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian, I thoroughly look forward to hearing your talk, I’ll be there.

    I must admit that my musical tastes have been “all over the place” outside any of the usual categories for years: I like blues, R&B, soul, fusion, most jazz, some heavy rock, classical (the biggies like Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Handel, Mendelsohn, Chopin, the various Russkies, Elgar), a bit of Reggae, punk (yes!)……

    My hit list: drekkie mid-70s crooners, rap, “jungle”; “house”; grunge, atonal music, chanting church music (sorry dad), thrash metal, anything by Coldplay.

  • My father has pointed out that the rigid rather snobbish divide between ‘serious’ classical music and ‘crassly commercial’ popular music is very much an Anglo-American thing, and has never really been the case on the continent, where opera is seen as popular entertainment.

  • Paul Marks

    It did not use to be an Anglo-American thing either.

    My father’s generation (adult before World War II) did not see serious music as an upper class thing – and the Marks family was as poor as dirt. Free public concerts were always packed – even if it was just a local group of people playing.

    Nor was it a Jewish thing.

    Frank Johnson (late of the Daily Telegraph) was fond of making the point that, for example, it was perfectly normal for working class people to listen to opera (if only via recordings) before World War II. Careful examination of who was buying the records proved his argument.

    In the United States it was not all rag time, jazz and country either. A lot of “classical” music was also bought – or heard by people playing it themselves (for example by people playing the piano at a local church).

    Most people had regular experience of serious music.

    Also country music did not divide generations they listened or played together (just as with the folk music that R.V. Williams and Bell had such interest in Britain). Country music (or at least some forms of it) still does not divide the generations – indeed these forms of American folk music (which grow out of British and Irish folk music) have moved from their stongholds in the South and West into the North East (yes Country music stations in New England – and people playing and singing themselves also).

    Rag time and Jazz did divide the generations a bit – but they tended to unite overtime.

    Big band music did not divide the generations at all. Glen Miller and so on were liked just as much as Susa’s (spelling alert) marching bands had been – and local people played music in the same style.

    It was only in the 1950’s with the rise “pop” and “rock” that the generations became enemies and it become fashionable for people to say that “classical” music was “upper class” and, therefore, somehow wrong.

    This has not changed over time.

    There is still something absurd about men dressing up as “Teddy Boys” (please no connections to President T. Roosevelt, it is a myth) with thick crape shoes and strange hair.

    The fashions of the interwar years or before may look old fashioned – but they do not look absurd, or (as regards men at least) as a way only young men would dress.

    Music and clothing as a sign of “youth revolt” is a post World War II thing.

    As is the “teenager” in general.

    Before that one was a boy and then one was a man – there was no “in between” stage.