Popular Music versus Western Art Music in the Halls of Academe

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ May 30th, 2011. Filed under: Pop Music Studies.

What if a younger Britney Spears had enrolled in a traditional music conservatory or university School of Music?

That is the premise of the movie Brave New Girl (2004), based on the book A Mother’s Gift, co-written and produced by Britney Spears and her mother. Of course, it’s a teen flick, and in some ways entirely predictable, but look at the movie (again) with the eyes of a sociomusicologist or even an ethnomusicologist and see, perhaps for the first time, the clash of values. For example, who is the most reviled character in the movie? The teacher of music theory, portrayed as a humourless disciplinarian, is by extension, a reflection of  music theory itself, or so say the film-makers. The final outcome of the movie is most revealing, where pop music emerges victorious in the war to win the hearts and minds of even the music professors at the school. Interestingly, the movie was filmed on the campus of the University of Toronto, just a stone’s-throw away from the Faculty of Music and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

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A similar movie, called Raise Your Voice, with Hilary Duff in the lead role, was also released in 2004. However, Hilary’s persona sets out to perfect her ability as a pop songer during a summer camp, unlike Lindsey Haun’s character in BNG, who attempts to cross over to the world of classical music in a bid to become “legitimate”. In both movies, Western Art Music (WAM) comes across as a necessary grind on the road to attaining vocal technique and musical knowledge, whereas the performance of popular music is seen as liberating, more in tune with the tempestuous emotions of a teen-ager.

Something entirely opposite to the tweenie flicks mentioned above, but with the same subversive message, is The Visitor, where the protagonist confronts the regimen of traditional piano lessons, taught in the dry, hushed atmosphere of disciplined and emotional restraint. Soon afterwards, he abandons his piano lessons for the boisterous passion of hand drumming in a community-driven drum circle. Whereas the piano lessons only served to deepen his profound sadness about the recent death of his wife, the latter releases him from the grips of grief.

What is debated in the background of these movies and perhaps even in the mind of society in general, is the privileged position of WAM as emotional catharsis and intellectual superiority. Audiences had already turned their back on modernist WAM long ago. In academia, the process of de-privileging “classical music” began in the Seventies with the introduction of jazz studies. Even within the confines of Western European Art Music scholars, one finds controversy about the restrictive attention given to certain music eras and compositions, resulting in the decanonization of the classical music literature. This introspection is not unique. English Literature, that bastion of first year Arts programs, is experiencing the same painful process, with Allan Bloom and Neil Postman fighting valiant rear-guard action to defend their canon (or, is it our canon?).

Is it right for modern classical music musicians to sacrifice instruction in their standard repertoire in favour of music from a fringe genre? One less Chopin; one added Colin McPhee transcription of gamelan music. One less Handel flute sonata; one added transcription of a Chinese ti-tze prelude.

When I think of this topic, I’m always reminded of the complete lack of accompanied, or rather collaborative, music-making in the final ARCT (Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto) exam in piano. In order to accommodate a new category of piano examination, piano accompaniment, and all the social skills it requires, one of the categories of solo literature would have to be cut. I doubt that pianists are ready to make the sacrifice, although almost all the other examined instruments and voice use accompanied music from the very beginning of their studies. They would not shed a single tear of sympathy for the pianists.

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