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Mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion can’t be a one-note samba

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Sam Richards is a mu­sic im­pro­viser, com­poser and writer.

Joe plays gui­tar in a metal band – av­er­agely well for a 20-year-old – and is en­rolled on a mu­sic de­gree course at a post-92 univer­sity whose most press­ing is­sue is its own sur­vival.

He didn’t have to au­di­tion and there was no real in­ter­view. He was told what to ex­pect, but he didn’t fully in­ter­nalise the mes­sage that he’d be bet­ter off if he could read mu­sic. Among his class­mates are more rock gui­tarists, along with a drum­mer or two. Few read mu­sic flu­ently but most can han­dle gui­tar tab­la­ture and chord charts. There are also a hand­ful of pi­anists and wind play­ers, some of whom got some­where in the grade ex­ams. And there are some singers, all of whom will of­fer num­bers from Les Misérables or The Phan­tom of the Opera for their recitals.

Joe and his friends know re­mark­ably lit­tle about their genre: the ori­gins of the blues, Robert John­son, 1940s rhythm and blues, race is­sues, post-war trad jazz and skif­fle, or 1960s counter-cul­ture. Cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als in the class have some fa­mil­iar­ity with clas­si­cal mu­sic, but cer­tainly not the mod­ernist, avant­garde or ex­per­i­men­tal stuff.

Joe’s tu­tors will all ad­mit to dis­sat­is­fac­tion with this sit­u­a­tion. Lack of se­lec­tiv­ity has a demo­cratic ring, but how do you deal with mu­si­cal il­lit­er­acy when teach­ing mu­sic the­ory, anal­y­sis or his­tory? Joe came to univer­sity to have time to prac­tise his gui­tar, play in bands, maybe learn a bit, and get a de­gree to help his em­ploy­ment prospects. Af­ter a few anal­y­sis ses­sions “not get­ting it” (for which he com­pen­sates by tex­ting his friends and gig­gling) he stays away. At least that frees the more ad­vanced stu­dents from hav­ing to sit around learn­ing to no­tate sim­ple chords.

The prob­lem is that the de­liv­ery and even the con­tent of the cour­ses these days are cen­trally in­formed by stu­dent feed­back, which goes straight to mid­dle man­age­ment. If some stu­dents say that there’s too much clas­si­cal mu­sic, mod­ules get chopped. Course­work is dumbed down. New mod­ules are frowned on (stu­dents walk away from the un­fa­mil­iar). Feed­back is nar­rowly pre­scribed, and en­tered on to tick sheets. The spec­tre of stu­dent com­plaint lurks at ev­ery cor­ner.

The hege­mony of pop­u­lar id­ioms on Joe’s course is pretty well com­plete. Its con­tent has not been so com­pro­mised that it is of no value. Good work hap­pens; there are al­ways ex­cel­lent stu­dents. Yet the gen­eral eas­ing off of real chal­lenge, and the con­se­quent flat­ten­ing out of mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, is no­tice­able.

Joe can get through with­out trou­bling his ears with a wide range of Western mu­sic, from Du­fay to John Coltrane, Machaut to Ligeti, oral bal­ladry to those more ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proaches that chal­lenge tech­nique; warp re­la­tion­ships be­tween com­posers, play­ers and au­di­ences; and probe the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal rel­e­vance and very na­ture of mu­sic.

Stu­dent fees and con­sumerism are not the only cause, how­ever. There’s a his­tory. Once, all mu­sic cour­ses were de­voted to the Euro­pean no­tated tra­di­tion. Other forms of mu­sic got a look-in only in so far as they in­flu­enced “le­git­i­mate” com­posers. From the 1970s, cri­tique of this state of af­fairs opened the door to jazz, folk and rock.

But in the wor­thy name of equal sonic rights, the down­grad­ing of the pre­vi­ously dom­i­nant tra­di­tion leaves it, in ef­fect, un­equal both at point of en­try (few can play it), and within the cur­ricu­lum.

This whole­sale em­brace of pop­ulism in pur­suit of higher recruitment and sat­is­fac­tion num­bers irons out mu­si­cal mi­nori­ties and marginalises any sense that mu­sic is a value in and for it­self. Gone is the idea that study can (and should) be dif­fi­cult at times, and cer­tainly not al­ways con­cerned with what is most im­me­di­ate. Gone is the pos­si­bil­ity of a mu­si­cal democ­racy based on a crit­i­cally in­formed pub­lic.

Let’s just agree that there is cul­tural and mu­si­cal anal­y­sis that can be ap­plied to, say, Nir­vana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit – its an­tecedents, its po­si­tion in the rock canon, the video, its lay­ers of mean­ing, its re­la­tion­ship to Gen­er­a­tion X, the styles of play­ing, the ar­range­ment, the af­fec­tive as­pects of the melody and pow­er­ful fills, the pro­duc­tion. How­ever, in terms of for­mal con­cep­tion and in­ter­nal mu­si­cal de­vel­op­ment, Teen Spirit’s sim­plic­ity is not com­pa­ra­ble to even a mod­est work by Mozart, Stock­hausen or Coltrane. It should still be stud­ied, but cer­tainly not to the ex­clu­sion of those ti­tans.

Of course, it could be ar­gued that all those tra­di­tional mu­si­cal lan­guages and skills (in­clud­ing the mod­ernist ones) be­long to the past and that new pro­grammes need de­sign­ing for today. Such pro­grammes, how­ever, can­not cred­i­bly con­fine them­selves en­tirely to an ahis­tor­i­cal fo­cus on mu­sic tech­nol­ogy and pop­u­lar mu­sic. They still need rigour and in­tel­lec­tual heft. I would be alarmed if Jac­ques At­tali’s 1977 book Noise: The Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy of Mu­sic was not on the read­ing list, for in­stance, or John Cage’s 1961 Si­lence, or any of the in­creas­ing num­ber of vol­umes about sonic art. Af­ter all, no mu­sic cries out for new ideas more than rock does – which rou­tinely mis­takes “at­ti­tude” for rad­i­cal­ism.

Mu­sic in higher education needs vi­sion. What do we want it to be? Who stud­ies it? Who funds it, who doesn’t – and why? Do we want a mu­sic course to be a com­mod­ity with de­fined hoops for the stu­dents to jump through, but with no crit­i­cal per­spec­tive on the sta­tus quo of mu­sic or the “mu­sic in­dus­try”?

Mu­sic is not merely an art of rep­e­ti­tion or im­i­ta­tion, driven by com­mer­cial im­per­a­tives. It is a vi­sion: a means of ex­pan­sion rather than con­trac­tion. A bet­ter recog­ni­tion of that would ad­dress what should be the cen­tral ques­tion of a gen­uine mu­si­cal education: given the plethora of mu­sic al­ready stream­ing into our ears, why do we need any more?

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