Monday, January 21, 2008

Music honest and dishonest

THE QUESTION OF "dishonest music" is raised on the blog On An Overgrown Path

A lazy search took me to three sites. The first turned out to be addressing commercial entertainment music — that is, what used to be called pop — and here the phrase made some sense, applied as it was to the practice of lip-synching.

The second, Jonathan Newman's Composer's Notebook, has an arresting opening:
It's as good a term as any ("Truthfulness" works, too), and whatever we decide to call it, for me it is the most defining feature of a composer's work. A piece can have as much craft as humanely possible (Greetings to you Mr. Diamond! How are you, Sir?) but if the composer doesn't LOVE every note that he or she is writing down then it isn't worth diddly.
He ends by referring to Roger Sessions, and that brings me to my third webfind.

This turned out to be a paper by Michael R. Brown, Chair of the Division of Fine Arts at Indiana Wesleyan University. "The Musical Offering: a question of honesty" quotes "The renowned American composer, Roger Sessions, [who]once said that there was no good or bad music, only honest and dishonest music."

I didn't read Brown's paper too closely; it's a discussion of music now being used in various Christian churches, not a topic of great interest to me — though I was surprised to read that many of these churches are apparently using technology to fill out their acoustical worship:
Many evangelical churches have readily accepted the use of accompaniment tapes for music offerings. This use of "trax" allows the amateur to supposedly "sound just like" the commercially successful star of the moment. Indeed, the sales of the "trax" add to the commercial success of many of these stars or, at least, their record company. The pseudo-sophistication of attempting to sound like someone else, to sing with an unseen orchestra, to be bigger than life, can amount to hero worship and not the worship of God.

THERE'S A BLUR HERE between "dishonest" and "inauthentic," I think, but no matter; they amount to much the same thing in today's atmosphere of imprecision. The real question is what is authentic music, and Brown and Newman, from their various viewpoints, address that question.

I've always been impressed by a long and complicated passage in Peter Yates's book Twentieth Century Music (Pantheon Books, 1967):
A composer's idiom is his own manner of speaking as creative thinker, original as the sound of his own voice. His content is his esthetic consistency, saying what he has to say. A composer is not uniformly aware of the forces which make him what he is; they are a part of him. The consistency he must achieve ifhe is to become a composer, instead of[merely] a practitioner of his art, will be under his control exactly to the degree that he is able to direct his intuitive conditioning to its creative purpose .... The consistency, as it is achieved, matures within the composer as his content, what he has to say. The subject, not yet married to content, grows within the composer as an irritant, putting him to work; his manner of disposing of it will be his style for that work or that period .... Style follows content, the outward sign of the composer's growing inner consistency; the achieved consistency of the artist extrudes the idiomatic consistency of his style. Together they evolve. (pp. 40-41)

Consistency of style: as good an explanation of musical authenticity as we need, I think. Critics need to keep it in mind. Years ago one critic, a friend, called another friend's music "meretricious," not really thinking I believe of the meaning of the word. It's a useful word, and it goes right to the root of the question of honesty and dishonesty of intent; and there, I think, we can leave discussion of that curious phrase, "dishonest music."

1 comment:

John Whiting said...

You've put your finger on something that has bothered me much of late. Under the guise of a spurious "choice", everything in our society is taking away all the characteristics that differentiate one person from another. It's not just our food that is bought off the shelf; every aspect of our lives is supplied read-made by cultural factories.

One small example (and a metaphor), going back a dozen years: A friend who serviced the digital treatment devices of famous and near-famous pop musicians told me that most of the "user memories", in which a musician could vary the preset effects, were empty. All that complex technology, provided to allow a certain individuality of sound, was just an empty gesture, providing the mere illusion of personal "choice", i.e. an identifiable originality.