by Rainer Bürck
What is this talk about "academic music" (as opposed to popular music)? Isn't it just a bunch of cliches?
We live in an age where individual experiences, emotions and reflections of individual people are getting more and more standardized by industrial products. Many (most?) people's ideas of "music" are shaped by the cliches of popular music, forming a kind of filter which filters all the music they listen to. Therefore, of course, if certain music doesn't consist of these cliches, there is hardly anything left if one puts it through this filter, and so these people deprive this music of being "music".
In my eyes it would be absolute nonsense to state that "serious" contemporary music is "difficult" to understand and, for this reason, could only attract an academic audience. The problem some people have with this music is rather due to the fact that it lacks cliches they want to recognize.
Natasha* speaks about "academic" music which gives "the opportunity for a listener to emotionally and maybe even intellectually explore such concepts". She hits a very important point. Exploring - just like every real kind of experience - is a PROCESS, and it takes time. For me good and fascinating music is music to which I can listen many and many times without really "capturing" it, and I find music boring which is obvious when listening to it for a second (or even for the first) time.
Of course each kind of music has a different idea and intention and also a different function. It wouldn't be the right place to play a string quartet by Beethoven or a piano piece by Finnissy in a disco. It is a different kind of music which is required in this situation, and this is all right. And I find it great to listen to rock music when I feel like it. But in this case I am aware of the fact that this is just a particular kind of music, an "instant gratification music", as Natasha put it, and that there are different kinds of musical experience beyond that.
So I don't deprive this popular music of its existence. But I do object to those who claim 'pop musics' to be THE music. I do object to those who blame electroacoustic music of only appealing to small audiences. What is a small audience, what is a large audience? For the Rolling Stones maybe 10000 people would be a small audience, but for chamber music 500 people are sizeable. Why think in terms of quantity rather than quality? Is the market the only God we worship? Should we all listen and applaud to the same kind of standardized music? Should we all be happy to eliminate the little bits of individuality we still have?
I don't know which term would be appropriate for music which is opposed to 'pop musics'.'Art music'? I don't really like the term 'academic music', since it gives a wrong impression. Is it called 'academic' because the composers work at academic institutions (and therefore don't have to compose commercially-oriented music), or is it called 'acedemic' because these composers live in a safe little world, writing music according to certain boring academic rules which can be cliches, too? Is Beethoven's or Bach's music 'academic'? Thinking of Stockhausen in the fifties, I wouldn't call his music 'academic'. He was just trying to find a completely new musical language and a completely new aesthetic, which was absolutely opposed to every kind of music which had existed before. And this was quite a risk. He was frowned upon, almost spat upon by many people, but he created this music because he felt he HAD to create it. Later on, serial techniques became acedemic and 'ossified' to cliches. Many pseudo-revolutionary imitators used these techniques to write boring music without taking any risks any more.
Therefore 'serious' music (the term 'serious composer' always reminds me of the 'constant frown' type) is not necessarily synonymous with 'academic' music. Many colleagues working at academic institutions create interesting and exciting music which is far from boring academic rules and far from superficially structured music as well. And this music is very open-minded and risky.
What we need is VARIETY rather than standards. And, thank God, there are still people who have the desire to make individual (long term) experiences which don't coincide with (instant gratification) cliches and standards. And if they are a minority (which is sad enough), why blame them for that?
[Editor's note: Natasha Barrett is a composer based in London, England. She was prize winner at the Bourges Competition in 1998, and her piece is published on the "Cultures electroniques" Vol 11 double CD.]
© Rainer Bürck 1999