Music, Music, Music!
By Patrick F. Cannon
Two articles in the online edition of the New York Times got me thinking about music. Rap and Hip Hop superstar Kanye West, who now prefers to be called Ye (as in Ye Gods?) was being upbraided for a couple of things – wearing a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt and for having made some antisemitic remarks. Ye, who has a very high opinion of himself, was also mentioned as being our eras equivalent of Mozart.
The other article was about the new movie Tar, which stars the always wonderful Cate Blanchette as a female symphony orchestra conductor who has risen to conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, considered by some to be the world’s greatest (although many just rank it as part of the “big three” with Vienna and, yes, Chicago). While generally praising the movie, the writer couldn’t resist pointing out that the protagonist also seemed to prefer the so-called “standard” reparatory (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) to “new” and experimental music.
Let me discuss this first. As it happens, most major orchestras have “composers in residence” programs which pay stipends to young serious-music composers. In most cases, they eventually produce works which are then featured during a concert. Over the years, I have heard some of these works, and a few have been pleasing. Most, however, have been annoying – unmelodic, discordant, and loud. It is said by some that this music is simply reflecting the ugliness that surrounds us in a chaotic world, as if these were qualities unique to our times.
Here’s a scoop. Mozart’s world was even uglier and more chaotic. He died tragically at 37, which was about the average life expectancy then. Abject poverty was more widespread. Europe had been almost continuously at war for 250 years, and would stay that way for another 25 after Mozart’s death. The gap between rich are poor was at least as wide as it is now, probably wider. Yet, with just a few exceptions, Mozart’s music – all 800 compositions! – is melodic, dramatic and, yes, beautiful. Listening to it, whether in a concert hall or in a recording, gives pleasure. Is it any wonder that concert goers prefer it to angst-filled contemporary music? (Much visual art also seems angst driven. A cartoon I saw recently showed a couple looking at a painting, which was a blank canvas with a single black dot at its center. The man comments: “Such anger.”)
Mozart was a real genius. He produced an astonishing number of works in his 37 years because that’s how he made his living. No work, no money. Today’s serious composers exist on grants and academic appointments. I would guess the only non-rock, rap and hip hop composers who make any money are those that compose music for the movies, television, video games and the Broadway stage. John Williams of “Star Wars” fame comes to mind, but I would guess Ye/Kanye tops him with an estimated net worth of $2 billion!
The audience for his kind of music – if that’s what it really is – is huge and growing. The audience for classical music is declining, if you consider it as a percentage of the total population. Major orchestras exist on philanthropy more than ticket sales (the cost of which are high and getting higher). I wonder how many people will actually pay to see Tar, which is receiving strong reviews, and has one of our greatest actors doing some of her best work. After all, large parts of it have her rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which, by the way, takes nearly 75 minutes to actually perform.
So I guess Kanye West is a kind of genius. Not perhaps a musical genius, but a genius in gauging the popular taste. He can fill stadiums with 50,000 screaming and jumping fans, most of whom will have never heard a note of Mozart’s music. And now they have courses in rap and hip hop in the same colleges and universities that once offered courses in classical music appreciation. Kanye even has an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which knows a good deal about pandering to contemporary taste. I leave you today with two quotes from Kanye’s “music.”
“I feel like I’m too busy making history to read it.”
“For me to say I wasn’t a genius would be lying to you and myself.”
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon