Archive for July, 2011

At times I feel torn between my enjoyment of music as entertainment, and my tendency in composing to see music as having the purpose of communicating something which is, in essence, serious. As a player in a wind band which focuses on fun music, I can enjoy the experience of performing light music and experiencing the audience reaction. I do though get more satisfaction from playing pieces, or arrangements, by art-music composers simply because they seem to me to be better written and to have greater depth.

Similarly, in organising the Herne Hill Festival, I have tried to combine this sense of enjoyment in a wide variety of types of music, with the presentation of ‘more serious’ music in a context which will bring it to a wider audience.

Attitudes towards music as entertainment have altered as the prevailing aesthetic has changed. In the Medieval and Renaissance eras music was sharply divided into secular and sacred music. Music in one style was written for the church, and was always ‘serious’ – though of course enjoyment can be drawn from it. Secular music was largely popular music, little written down.

Towards the end of the Renaissance period another type of patron – the rich and the growing capitalist class – began to demand secular art-music written to entertain them. There was a convergence of styles between sacred and this ‘aristocratic’ secular music, with the style of the secular music coming to predominate.

The Romantic era saw another shift in aesthetic and attitudes towards entertainment in music. The predominantly middle class audience came to performances to be moved and in order to leave feeling ‘improved’ in some way by the experience. Clearly, the music had to entertain in the sense in order to retain the attention of the audience, but the main purpose was to move and to educate – in the broadest sense of that term.

The twentieth century saw a continuation of this approach towards music among audiences, but a tendency among art-music composers to seek to experiment and innovate, carrying their audiences with them to varying degrees. The idea of entertainment as the prime purpose of music was confined to the various popular music genres. Some modern composers appeared to abandon the idea of entertaining their listeners even as a means to the end of retaining their attention.

The predominantly post-modern aesthetic of the recent past emphasised stylistic sampling and innovation for its own sake, each piece of music and each composer competing for attention in the market place. An element of narrative or wider significance in music tended to be downplayed in favour of this emphasis on novelty.

Art music had been a product competing in the market place, not only with other pieces of art music, but with every other product. It was often interesting, with fascinating new sounds presented. It is rarely important, in the sense of helping make sense of experience. In some ways it had become simply a form of entertainment without further significance, seeking to entertain through the presentation of something novel or curious.

Personally, I feel little motivation to write simply to entertain, whether through conventional means or through the presentation of the novel or curious. My music almost always arises from experience, direct or indirect, and attempts to make sense of that experience. It therefore has a sense of narrative which an audience should be capable of following.

Seeking to engage (entertain?) an audience through offering a process/structure/narrative in which they can engage, combined with a sense that something of relevance is being communicated. That offers me a way out of the impasse of a choice between light music which only entertains, and post-modern art music which offers novelties but little that matters.


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