Of Genres and Canons

If you divide music into “Classical” and “Pop”, but don’t make any distinction between “Pop” from “Rock”, a record like King Crimson’s “Red” gives a divide-by-zero error.

It’s one of the high points  of the progressive rock movement, an ambitious and powerful collection of music far removed from simple top-40 pop songs. Yet it’s performed by a rock band with electric guitar as the main instrument rather than a symphony orchestra.

If you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know all that. But this post isn’t really about Red, but about the wider divide between “high” and “low” art, and whether such a divide is still meaningful, or even if it ever was.

It reminds me a bit of my old school music teacher, Mr Macey. He was an old-school traditionalist for whom only orchestral music in the Western classical tradition qualified as real music. Anything played on electric instruments was ephemeral nonsense. I suspect he genuinely believed rock’n'roll was a passing fad and none of it would pass the test of time.

He was wrong, of course, but back in the mid-1970s it was still possible for someone to hold that position without looking like a ridiculous old reactionary. Much of what we now consider as the rock canon was either less than a decade old, or had yet to be written. The fact we’re still listening to some of that music forty years on shows that it has stood the test of time rather better than the so-called “squeaky hinge” work that some classical composers were writing at the same time. But it’s also notable that the way rock fans dismiss music made from samples and computer-generated rhythms sounds a lot like the arguments used against rock by my old music teacher.

The whole high art vs. low art thing is really about social class. In past centuries, “classical” was the music of the rich, and “folk” was the music of the poor, and the former was put on a pedestal at the expense of the latter because the people with the money wrote the histories. The rise of the middle classes and the development of amplified electric music disrupted that hierarchy, but old prejudices die hard.

I wonder how the music of the past fifty years will be regarded in a hundred years time? What will pass the test of time, and will today’s genres of classical, folk, jazz or rock still make any sense to listeners who encounter the music in a completely different cultural context?

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3 Responses to Of Genres and Canons

  1. The easy answer is that the only way to find out is to wait, but I suspect the stuff that will outlast everything else is the stuff that makes emotional connections with its listeners across time.

    Bach’s music has a joy and a serenity that exists above and beyond any notions about music theory. Howlin’ Wolf’s raw roar says everything his own lyrics do, and then some. David Bowie’s “‘Heroes’”‘s own notes soar above and beyond the fact that it was recorded, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. The chords at the heart of Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”‘ speak to the heart as directly and transparently now as they did when they were first captured by a three-track recorder. All the episodes of “CSI” and bad car commercials in the world can’t make The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” or “Eminence Front” any the less spine-tingling for me.

    They don’t need footnotes, explanation, or even context; in the words of E.M.Forster, they only connect.

  2. Synthetase says:

    It’s interesting that a lot of prog rock histories talk about the movement as kind of lifting rock and roll out of vacuous pop and making putting it onto a pedestal with ‘real’ culture. The comparison with symphonic music is often drawn. Then, take Crowded House, a pop rock band from NZ who wrote a bunch of great 3-4 minute pop songs, using mostly simple chords that just work. I can get a similar emotional tug from listening to Better Be Home Soon as Beethoven.

  3. Michael says:

    In truth only the next generation or two can decide what music will join the long term cannon of tunes from our time which will last.

    I’d like to nominate one or two though.
    Lots of the film music by John Williams is going to make the grade.
    Star Wars simply doesn’t work with out the Republic theme against the Imperial theme.
    Hedwig’s Theme is another which defines Harry Potter.

    I suspect film scores will be the equivalent of opera for our era, rather than broadway musicals. Certain tunes by Andrew Lloyd Webber will survive, though not all!

    “House of the Rising Sun” is one I hope will catch on, mostly because it is the best tune I can think of to the words of “There is a Green Hill”.

    The saxophone riff of “Baker Street” gives that tune staying power, and likewise “Smoke on the Water”,”Vienna”, and “The Boxer” simply persist.

    I sort of expected “Hi Ho Silver Lining” to make the grade, but it seems to be flagging.
    How many tunes by The Beatles are known by the youth of today?
    Of Clif Richard’s many hits, I think “Summer Holiday” will survive because it fits that niche, but the rest just are not getting the air time to survive.

    “Can’t stop the cavalry” is another which will return every Christmas, along with other seasonal specials which don’t really deserve to.

    Oh, and to drag Mr. Macey back in, I will never forget his initial response to encountering a discussion by Sixth Formers on the merits of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, his puzzlement at the name of the composer, and then his dismissal of it when he learned the original performers.