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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

77. Contemporary Voices, Part IV – Artistry and the Popular Genres

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My fourth and final entry in the series CONTEMPORARY VOICES addresses popular music since the 1970s, specifically the new artistry which has arisen among some musicians working in the popular genres. Artistry is a difficult topic to discuss, for most fans of popular music would probably defend the artistic merits of their own favorite bands. It is not to discount their claims that I write my article, however, simply to reflect on popular music in which I find artistry as someone who has invested so much in classical music over the years. Artistry is something which avoids immediate gratification, something which instead seeks long-term satisfaction. It can enrich our lives and challenge us in a way that a three-minute pop song often cannot. It calls us to reflect on it repeatedly and to identify with it on multiple levels, not only marvel at its sleek surface. This demands something more of its creators as well as its audiences—a patience perhaps on our part. This can be accomplished through the simplest of materials, and certainly we have seen the reverse when puffy intellectuals write so-called art music which is impenetrably dense in its construction. True artistry then is a middle-ground between empty simplicity and empty complexity. It has little to do with belonging to the classical tradition or the popular world, although certainly it is easier to assume artistry of contemporary composers working in classical music based on the heritage and longevity of their discipline.

A history of contemporary popular music, like that of contemporary classical music, finds 1975 as a dividing line. This year marked a major paradigm shift in American politics, and the urgency of the popular music of the 1960s and early 1970s—the rebellious years of the Vietnam War—seemed to evaporate just as the Modernist adventure in classical music did at approximately this same time (see Part I). Some popular musicians kept moving forward while others retreated and succumbed to commercial demands. Suddenly there was a split in popular music—the commercial mainstream and those musicians who desired more. Sometimes those of this latter group have aligned themselves with classical music, but often they have not. Often they have sought to integrate into their own popular idioms the SYMPHONIC SCOPE of classical music by which I mean its long-form, developmental procedures. There is something much more artistic about a popular musician who seeks to echo this symphonic nature than one who simply writes popular music for orchestra or another instrument associated with classical music like the piano, for example. That has also been a trend, particularly since the 1990s, but my article seeks to highlight the former approach in which artistry arises from popular music itself and is not only imposed on it from the outside—again by commercial prospects to do something more “elevated.”

There are several facets to this new artistry in popular music since the 1970s; mostly they are identified by the collaborations of particular musicians. One is the continued expansion of heavy metal. The uncharted sonic realms of Led Zeppelin is an early example, but more recently the composers Glenn Branca and Georges Lentz have shown just what can be done with an electric guitar or its timbres attached to other instruments. Electronic music, now mostly the domain of popular musicians, has taken inspiration from Karlheinz Stockhausen and its first innovators in the classical world. The krautrock band Kraftwerk has accomplished this in live performance whereas Brian Eno and Aphex Twin have done this in their studios through so-called AMBIENT MUSIC. Finally the prestige which jazz restored to IMPROVISATION has inspired musicians within and beyond the jazz community toward deeper artistry. This was true of bebop, free jazz, and bluegrass before 1975, but now can also be said of world music and many other idioms which resemble chamber music but cannot be called classical. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble, banjoist Béla Fleck, guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Keith Jarrett, and saxophonist John Zorn all aspire to this exploratory music for soloists and small ensembles.

These three broad categories are some of the new directions in the popular genres which I discuss in this article. To some they might not even seem all that popular, for their artists are not the big names—a Michael Jackson or Beyoncé who we more readily associate with recent popular music. Still the important distinction between them and composers in the classical tradition is that their root idioms are popular. Their origins are jazz, rock, folk, and other idioms that conventionally lie outside of Western art music. Yet seeing what these musicians have accomplished, they deserve to be called artists as much as anyone else does. Our whole notion of art music, moreover, must be reevaluated and divorced from a simple distinction between “classical” and “popular.”

This article is still under construction! Check back soon for specific recommendations by Led Zeppelin, Herbie Hancock, Glenn Branca, Georges Lentz, Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, deadmau5, the Silk Road Ensemble, Wynton Marsalis, Béla Fleck, and Pat Metheny.


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