Posted tagged ‘music’

Turning music into pulp

July 28, 2011

I really love music. Truly. I swear. Yet these days when I hear music, and almost any music, I often want to scream. Music is everywhere, coming from loudspeakers in the department store, in the hotel lobby, in the restaurant, on the street, in airplanes, in lifts (elevators). And you cannot hope to go to any kind of more upmarket reception without finding a string quartet, or harpist, or someone with an acoustic guitar.

What is wrong with this? What is wrong is that this is not music for anyone’s enjoyment. Nobody stops to listen. It is pure background noise. The composer and the performer are not celebrated, they are humiliated. The harpist plays, but has no hope of being heard above the noise of conversation. The PA system belts out a song by some 1970s band but if you asked a passer-by whether they had even noticed it was being played, the answer would probably be no.

Music needs to be appreciated, enjoyed, understood, celebrated. Instead it is destroyed. So let us have it where it is listened to, and for heaven’s sake turn it off where it is just there to cover up the silence – the silence we appear to fear so much.

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So what is art?

December 10, 2008

Some time during the early 1980s, when I was a young lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, a Dublin gallery put on an exhibition of paintings by the well known artist, Jo Baer. If I recall correctly, all or most of the paintings on display were what looked like empty canvases. There was a frame, and a canvas, and that was pretty much it. An example of the genre would be her painting ‘Korean’, which can be seen on this photo. Those who had come with me to see the exhibition were divided as to whether we were seeing great art or no art at all.

Of course the question what constitutes art is not a new one. Tolstoy addressed it in a book devoted to the subject which was published in the later 19th century; in it he suggests in essence that art is a form of communication, in which the artist transmits the emotion of his or her work to the viewers or audience. This could be described as ‘mutual subjectivity’, in which the artist connects some emotion or concept with the audience, a shared aesthetic appreciation.

The difficulty in assessing the nature and value of art has been compounded by the gradual withering away of agreed form in art, music and literature, so that painters could produce entirely abstract work, or poets produce poetry without meter or rhyme, or composers produce music outside previously accepted tonal conventions, to critical acclaim. This produced a significant impediment for those who liked to assess art in terms of its observing conventions as to form. If you are (like me) old enough to remember it, a whole episode of the comedy radio programme Hancock’s Haf-Hour was devoted to this, with Hancock and his friends and some guests debating what was poetry and what was simply rubbish, with Hancock himself producing this ‘poem’ (‘The Ashtray‘):

Steel rods of reason through my head!
Salmon jumping, where jump I?
Camels on fire – and spotted clouds
Striped horses prance the meadow wild
And rush on to drink at life’s fountains deep.
Life is cream I am puce…
Ching, Chang, Cholla!

Well, let me not be a Philistine. Art is not adherence to convention. Modern art, poetry, literature and music have contributed much to civilisation. But on the other hand, is something to be accepted as art because the author says it is – is it something entirely subjective in the mind of the creator? Or, as distinct from formal convention, is it social convention?

Nobody actually needs to answer that question. It may indeed be a good thing for artists to push the boundaries, even the boundaries of gullibility. If (as urban legend has it) the left-over lunch tray of a gallery security guard was once accidentally auctioned off as a work of art and sold for a large sum of money, so what? If someone is enjoying that even now, then was it not art? I confess that I am more traditional than that, and have some regard for the traditional forms; but can be impressed and sometimes amused by art that does not conform, even where I think that it is pulling my leg.

As for Jo Baer, she has argued for a ‘minimalist future‘. She may be just the artist for these uncertain times.

This blog’s hit parade

December 7, 2008

This blog has been coming to you, on a more or less daily basis, for six months now. My approach to it is that I am willing to spend 10 minutes each day on it, and on the whole I keep to that; it would not be sensible for me to become a full-time blogger, I have other things to do. But even with those limitations, it has (so far) been a hugely positive experience, and I have in particular welcomes the feedback I have received, and the comments that readers have made.

I am not too focused on the statistics, but today I have, out of curiosity, looked more closely at which posts have received the most attention. And this has revealed an interesting pattern. The posts which have had by far the greatest number of readers are ‘Has Karl Marx left the university?‘ and ‘Personal pursuits‘. In fact, all those posts which have looked at issues of political philosophy and ideology have been widely read, as have those that have focused on the arts and literature. Given my own liking for the band A Fine Frenzy, I am also pleased that all posts that contain references to them immediately pick up a strong readership. The other topic that is always popular is consumer electronics and technology – any post that mentions various desirable gadgets gets numerous hits.

Blogging has become a global phenomenon, but for most bloggers (including this one) it is not a mass medium. And just as I firmly believe that while everyone may have a book in them on the whole it is good that not all of these are published, so I suspect that bloggers should avoid the temptation to believe that what we want to say in public always deserves to be put out there. It was stated a while ago on another site that this blog is ‘unbelievable drivel’ – and that’s quite possibly a reasonable judgement.

I may look at the possibility of developing this blog a little, perhaps inviting other bloggers to join as additional authors to provide some variety of content and style, and maybe some diversity of opinion.

Talking about my generation

November 2, 2008

The other day I was sitting in a room with a group of young people, whose ages probably ranged from about 18 to 24. The discussion moved to music, and I was amazed when I was told about their favourite bands and musicians: they included Queen, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and of course the Beatles – in fact, every other name mentioned was around when I was their age. For a minute I thought about this: these musical acts were all 40 years old or so; and back in 1968, I certainly wouldn’t even have known the name (never mind the music) of someone who had been singing in 1928. How is it that the music of my generation has refused to die and is still being heard by young people today?

A friend of mine, who is about three years older than I am, has a theory that our generation has dominated the world for much of our lives. We introduced the Beatles, and with them, not just new kinds of music, but whole new ways of thinking. We started wearing longer hair, God help us we started on drugs, we pushed politics to the left and later to the right, we brought in new shops and supermarkets; and whatever we did, those both older than us and younger than us followed our lead.

It’s a beguiling theory, but probably not true. But then again, we do seem to have remained cool (or something that allows us to think we are cool) for longer and more persistently than any other generation. Others who came after us never quite managed it in the same way.

But then again, we’re growing older, and the generation that brought you the Beatles is about to start drawing pensions. And will we still be thought leaders then? I don’t know. But I do believe that we will be leaving things to those who follow in somewhat better shape than we found them, by and large. And while the Who, in that iconic song of my generation – My Generation – asked of the old establishment ‘Why don’t you just fff…fade away?’, I think that it may just about be possible that we’ll still be rebellious enough while holding on to our zimmer frames to ask that of those coming behind us, should they cease to show respect.

The enduring attraction of vinyl

September 19, 2008

Nostalgia is not on the whole my thing, but there’s no other way of classifying this: I have just taken delivery of my first vinyl ‘record’ since, I think, 1985. Every album I have bought since then has been on CD. The first CD I bought – if my memory is correct – was Parallel Lines by Blondie, and I believe also that this is the only album I had (until now) both in vinyl and CD versions. I was so captivated then by the clear, crackle-less sound in the digital product that I went straight over to that format. And in the 20+ years since then I have bought a very large number of albums in all genres; until iTunes and the iPod opened up a new platform, but that’s another story.

As readers of this blog will know, I am a fan of the music of the band A Fine Frenzy, and of Alison Sudol’s (their singer) beautifully lyrical and haunting songs. So when I saw on Amazon that there is a vinyl version of the band’s album, One Cell in the Sea, I decided to add that to my collection, and so I have my first real ‘record’ in years. This in turn has taken me back to my vinyl collection, now very dusty and neglected but still there: about 280 albums, at a quick count, and goodness knows how many singles. And I’ve been putting them on my old hi-fi gramophone,and it’s just great. How wonderful to hear the crackles again after all these years – but also, maybe I do think that the sound itself is just that little bit clearer and crisper than CD; or maybe that’s wishful thinking.

But it seems I am not alone. There have been articles in the media – such as this one – that vinyl sales are soaring and even eclipsing CD sales. I don’t really know how this will work in the digital age, but to me it’s a very comforting thought. Some good things, in the end, don’t go away.

Musical matters

July 9, 2008

This post in the blog is an unashamed commercial for two groups of musicians that I particularly admire…

The first is the National Chamber Choir of Ireland. The Choir originally was one of the performing groups of Irish national Broadcaster Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE). When RTE decided to review that relationship, the Choir became independent and, from 1995, has been the choir in residence of my university, DCU. Since then it has had three famous artistic directors: Colin Mawby, Celso Antunes, and (since earlier this year) Paul Hillier. During that time also the NCC has benefited from the dedication of its founding CEO, Karina Lundstrom, and more recently the current CEO Eilbhin Gleeson. It has worked with prominent conductors and musicians from around the world, and has toured widely – with a repertoire that covers the choral classics as well as some striking contemporary music. Choral music does not always have mass appeal, but the NCC is spectacular and is well worth a listen – there are several recorded albums.

The second is perhaps in a different genre, but maybe not so different as one might first think. I have already mentioned that I am a fan of the alternative Indie band, A Fine Frenzy. The band plays the music of California-based singer-songwriter Alison Sudol. She has produced some wonderful songs, and her debut album One Cell in the Sea has enjoyed some very enthusiastic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her influences are extraordinarily eclectic, ranging from classical music through folk and some British bands. Her lyrics are influenced by classical literature and modern poetry. This is music that is well worth a listen.

Personal pursuits

June 18, 2008

I have no reason to think that this would interest anyone very much, but I don’t spend all my time being a university President, and I do have other passions. The three main non-professional interests in my life are literature, music and photography.

From an early age I developed a liking for Victorian fiction, in part because I believe that it was an era that gave us most of the best writing in English. Authors like Dickens not only perfected the genre of the novel, but also addressed the major social, ethical, cultural and political issues of the day in a way that influenced both fashions and passions right up to today. Apart from Dickens, I love Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope – the latter in my view a very underrated author. But I also like much contemporary fiction – I may do another blog entry on that shortly.

I am not really an artist in my own right, but if I were to make a claim for that at all, I would base it on my modest photography, which you can see here. If my work has any merit at all, it does at least create some business, as I have bought too much expensive photographic equipment.

However, it is music that more than anything else lets me be reflective and take a step back from daily pressures and concerns. I like all musical genres, more or less without exception – though clearly not all music is good.  I listen to a good deal of classical music, again mainly from the 19th century (but also from earlier and later periods). I listen to quite a lot of rock music – including (at random) AC/DC, Aerosmith, Queen, Whitesnake. I probably get most from alternative, indie music, and would recommend in particular the stunningly good A Fine Frenzy.