Music Abuse

Prominent among the things I’ve learned as a life-long student of music is that the “cutting edge” of the art of music has grown dull. This hit me quite hard some time ago when I tuned into a campus radio station and heard a couple of double basses bowing the same note continuously, with no interruption and nothing to accompany it. I waited for something to happen, a change of note, a human voice, a change in loudness, a pause followed by something else, anything. I waited in vain, concluding that the sounds coming out of my refrigerator make more interesting “music.”

Minimalism in bed with nihilism? Cool.

Aimless non-music, whether in the background or the foreground, has been around for a long time. Music that dribbles, loops in circles, goes nowhere, fills the head with random tones, moving without direction, with no “goal” so to speak, has appeared regularly over the years. The Canon in D by Pachelbel (1653-1706) is an example of musical dribbling. When I played it for weddings, as requested, it made no difference where I started it or stopped it, for it was always the same, “start” to “finish.” Musical wallpaper, I used to call such music. The music of Erik Satie (1866-1925), daubing the ears with aural “paint,” is another example of music that does little more than splatter the ears with random tones -- making pleasant sounds, perhaps -- but what of it?

“I cannot call music that which consists of... shifting phrases which succeed each other without a break and never come to a close, that is to say, never give the ear the least chance to rest upon musical form,” wrote Tchaikovsky in 1877.

Using music to counteract silence or decorate a message is to lessen its value and that of its target. The music of many TV commercials, for instance, and the music of a lot of videos and documentaries is trivial and in fact intrusive. Silence in the background would improve many of these presentations by allowing the ear and the mind to focus on the subject matter. Information-dependent messages are not improved by flooding them with background audio. Music that is not itself the subject of a presentation or is not immediately relevant to the content is a form of interference that disqualifies it for inclusion in the same aural space. Pleasant as it may be, such extraneous music becomes a kind of distracting “noise in the room.” A “classic” example of such “noise in the room” is  that of movies that drench every scene with non-stop music, blurring the dialogue.

To my mind, this is a cheapening of music. Cheapness there will always be, hand in hand with a market for it. But is it in fact “cool” to treat music as junk? Filling the head with junk music -- like filling the stomach with “junk food” -- weakens any appreciation for quality in music.

My observation of the progress of contemporary music stretches back many decades. After about the middle of the last century I followed with intense curiosity the newest developments in music and waited  for what would follow the innovations in the first half of the 20th century -- from Sibelius to Stravinsky, from Jerome Kern to Duke Ellington, from acoustic to electronic, and the great many experiments in-between. Were these exciting changes pointing to a new realm of musical expression that would advance the art of composition? Would the expectations of young composers and their intended audiences live up to the promise implied in the musical experiments to date or would music meet a dead end, as with the Dada art of the 1920s: visual trash displayed in museums -- and now tonal rubbish presented as “music”?

While classical and popular music followed different tracks, the two moved along a similar path that presented a tonal adventure. Each such musical adventure (composition) was organized around a beginning, a middle, and an ending, the basic “plot” of time-oriented presentations -- commonly understood as an introduction, a development, a conclusion. In this regard, a musical composition is like “a story told without words.” It more or less pleases or satisfies when it succeeds in “speaking” to the heart and mind in ways that words do not: a one-on-one interface as it were with the very pulses of life. In stark contrast, the aimless music I have been referring to is more like a brain signal that is about to go flat and show a straight line on a monitor.

It was not uncommon, a century ago, to hear voices raised against the abuse of art, like that inflicted on music in our time. Composer Frederick Delius was one who sounded off  [“At the Crossroads,” 1922]:

The average man of the current day is so accustomed to having his mind made up for him by advertisements, posters and illuminated signs at every street corner, that he comes to believe implicitly anything he reads often enough... If this is the case with patent medicines, it is also the case with art, and we find that propaganda and advertisement carry all before them.

This is an age of anarchy in art; there is no authority, no standard, no sense of proportion. Anybody can do anything and call it “art” in the certain expectation of making a crowd of idiots stand and stare at him in gaping astonishment and admiration…

There must be a complete transvaluation of values. Art has been “serious” too long [the junk art critics say]; now let us play the fool, in season and out of season, let us deny everything, turn all our values upside down.

Getting right-side up again and moving past the dreary state of contemporary music involves skipping the use of music as an asset of propaganda and utilizing it -- regardless of calendar date -- as a means of expressing an artist’s sense of life in tones that move with the  rhythms of life.

Anthony J. DeBlasi studied music under Robert L. Sanders and Maurice Lieberman at Brooklyn College.

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