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?