Sunday, October 21, 2007

Recordings: museums of music

While visiting the St. Louis Art Museum yesterday, I was struck by the thought that contemporary music has finally "made it," as far as the record (literally, I suppose) goes, into a realm where it is as accessible as visual art. Pieces of 20th century art that are a part of a museum's permanent collection can be visited again and again. For example, a 15 or 20-year-old sculpture in the St. Louis Museum that is made mostly of broken glass moved from an inner gallery to the museum's foyer, but it is still the same. Its material hasn't changed. Its "meaning" (according to the artist) hasn't changed. But I have changed and grown since the first time, and even the last time I saw it (along with all the other works in the permanent collection). Whether I like it or not, that sculpture is a part of my life.

It is the same with recordings, particularly recordings of music written in our own time. Now that we all have so much current music accessible to us on recordings, those recordings become the unchanging "sculptures" that measure who we are. Various styles of 20th-century music vie for position in what will eventually be called "posterity." As we hear more and more recordings of music by the many lesser-known composers of the 20th century who went about their business without trying to be radical, we realize that atonality, serialism, electronic, and chance music could be thought of simply as experiments in musical organization that composers used (and still use) as mediums for expression. Performers, just like performers of music from previous centuries, use contemporary compositions as vehicles for their own self expression.

Some music written using these techniques is genuine and engaging, and some of it, like what we sometimes see when one visual artist dabbles in a technique foreign to his or her customary style or medium, can sound out of place or downright phony. Also, people with little musical talent, like visual artists with little artistic talent, can have easy access to the materials necessary to create something that can pass for music (because it operates in an aural medium) and make a big sound (with amplification) or a big impact. This wasn't something "available" in the days before recording technology.

Still, like a visit to a museum, listening at various intervals of our lives to recordings of contemporary music helps us to measure our growth as listeners and recognize our limits, likes, and dislikes in a way that no other inhabitants of any previous century, who were not musicians themselves, have had the chance to do. Because of this always-accessible "aural museum," contemporary music is finally attaining an equal status to that of contemporary art.

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