Taste: a dangerous area for the unwary…

My book was never intended to become a philosophical work. Nevertheless, I believed it to be important to establish a common ground regarding objectivity because I was aware that ideas about music and art are often hopelessly subjective.

Here’s a quote from the part of the book dealing with ‘Composition’, where the detailed studies of the preceding chapters are finally brought together.

Individuals often protest ‘I know what I like!’ To what extent is this point of view valid as a form of objective appraisal? If an individual regards anything he produces as being automatically of artistic merit, simply because he created it, then all schools of art and music, together with the whole idea of development and improvement, become redundant. As we develop, our sensibilities become sharper and more discriminating, with the result that we obtain more pleasure from what we like than an individual with a less highly developed awareness. (It is quite common for an arranger, having analyzed and transcribed a piece of music, to find that he has developed a greater appreciation of its appeal.)

Even this belief is a hazardous one to hold. Since the purpose of art is to provide pleasure, then are we necessarily better than our neighbours simply because they require a constant stream of trivial sensations as opposed to our predilection for a more substantial diet, both methods providing a similar amount of pleasure? Philosophers, and oppressive regimes, have striven over the centuries to devise a basis for the appraisal of art based on morally or socially acceptable values. All of these attempts have failed and if we condemn on moral grounds many of our great artists would have their finest work reduced to ashes on the political bonfire.

Of all the musical styles that have emerged over the centuries, the most extraordinary development occurred in the USA at the turn of the last century with the birth of Jazz. Its black-African roots grew in a mixture of European-style harmonies spiced with the more angular, percussive rhythms influenced by Spanish colonialism, played on redundant military band instruments from the Civil War.

Superficially, it was just another example of folk music and eventually became the popular music of its day. But there were important differences. Jazz musicians made no attempt to create something consciously designed to have selective appeal. The musicians were involved purely in self-expression, although they were aware of the factors governing their own successes and those of their ‘competitors’ across the street and so, it might be argued, were commercially-minded, up to a point, at least. Their sometimes extended, improvised solos produced a charged, kinetic form that existed in time and space, virtually without programmatic references, although the music is not abstract. Its melody/harmony relationships can be formalized without too much difficulty.

Another remarkable characteristic was the way musicians pushed progress, firstly by extending the capabilities of their instruments to achieve undreamed of levels of virtuosity and then by using harmonies and orchestral styles that had never been attempted. These innovations broke many of the ‘rules’ and those committing these sins never paused to consider whether or not they were doing anything wrong and wouldn’t have cared anyway! Previously, folk music had been content to be just that. It wasn’t long before ‘serious’ composers began to take notice and incorporate jazz influences into their work, a sure testimony to the artistic validity of the vulgar upstart.

Of course, they weren’t really breaking rules. What music educators referred to as ‘rules’ comprised a catalogue of the habits and preferences of established composers, a tendency that prevailed until quite recently. It’s incorrect to say that certain rules apply to certain styles. Any worthwhile rule would apply to music past, present and future. My own approach in the book is to help readers understand the rules behind the rules. When composers truly understand musical resource – when they speak the language – they can shake themselves free from unhelpful constraints and compose by working with the very forces that shape music. The only criterion that matters is the existence, or otherwise, of a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose. You need to know what you’re trying to do and to know how to do it!

Viewers of popular TV shows designed to showcase the talents of the ‘boy and girl next door’ (and to make millions for the men behind them) will be familiar with the formulated styles that have arisen. Many years ago an argument raged in the readers’ letters columns of a popular music publication regarding whether or not radio DJ’s were creating trends or merely following them by reflecting popular taste. I’ve no doubt money changed hands on occasion – if things can happen they generally do. But the main issue here is the matter of ’taste’, especially where the general public is involved.

It’s fair to mention that popular music, too, has added to the range of musical possibilities, especially with the emancipation of the rhythm section. Flirtations such as jazz-rock and the virtually seamless bond between jazz and Latin American styles bear witness to this.

So what’s the problem?

Here’s a quote from one of my earlier blogs:

Jazz is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself from the outside looking in, with bluesy riffs and raunchy ensembles all too often taking the place of the truly innovative work of the best writers of the past. Many contemporary arrangements for the big band sound as if they were all written by the same computer. In many cases, the music is reduced to becoming a fashion statement for the clientèle of bistros and cafés.

In other words, it’s easy to play and easy to listen to.

To be fair, the majority of jazz orchestras are staffed by players who can’t earn a living purely by joining the band. They don’t always have time to master the unfamiliar to the extent that the level of facility of execution does not mar the experience of the listener. Some music has to be played perfectly to work at all.

Nevertheless, a listener’s imagery is permanently locked into life after dark in the big city, with the odd TV cop-car chase thrown in.

In my opinion, great art succeeds because it is bravely different. Having said that, ploughing a straight furrow requires tenacity. Poor Stravinsky experienced a mass exodus of angry audiences when his works were first performed!

Returning to my comments, above, regarding the emergence of jazz, it is therefore particularly disappointing to witness so many jazz artists and writers descending into predictability. But there are exceptions. A friend and colleague of mine recently introduced me to the Paris Jazz Big Band, an organization I was not even aware of, as I buried myself in my own concerns. This band manages to achieve startlingly original music without losing its hardcore approach. The standard of playing is also something that will astonish anyone seeking this band out, if they haven’t already done so.

Of course, since I don’t rely purely on music sales to earn a living, it’s easier for me to say all this. Or, perhaps it’s the other way around; because I don’t always compose the kind of music others like listening to, I’ve never had the chance. The biggest money earners for me were orchestrations for broadcasting and musical shows.

A perfect example of the power of advertising and the media to shape public taste occurred a few years ago. I had spent almost three days at a meeting of the American Auto Club. The organizers were so keen they refused admission to European and Japanese cars. Having been surrounded by the American-built product for so long it came as a profound shock when I drove out on to the main road to begin the journey home. The sight of so many blob-shaped, slant-eyed vehicles was an affront to the senses and yet these cars are still in great demand, despite the fact that many of them are intensely, almost deliberately, UGLY. Few vehicles present more practical design constraints than the design of modern fighter aircraft and yet the rich variety of forms reveals there is still scope for producing things of beauty.

Similarly, when an audience is exposed to an unfamiliar style of music, it will need time to adjust and time, in this context, comprises the duration of a live performance. It’s unlikely anyone will purchase and absorb anything that doesn’t immediately grab them. There are simply too many other priorities in life.

‘The King is in the altogether…’


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