Monday, November 19, 2007

Not So Guilty Pleasures

This post brought to you by Rebecca M. over at Musically Miscellaneous Mayhem.

Phil and Kariann have offered astute and engaging ideas about this business of "guilty pleasures" and their place in musicology. I will try to offer something fresh and original as a musicologist who specializes in music that is considered by many to be a true guilty pleasure (witness the confessional Facebook group: "I listen to sacred choral/organ music...AND I LIKE IT!").

At my first meeting of the Society for American Music (mmph years ago), I remember a certain musicologist imploring at the business meeting: "Don't do pop music because it is trendy, do it because it is what you love." (That's a paraphrase, actually.). This statement was greeted with defensive grumbles and nasty whispers as if he had insinuated that pop music scholars were just in it for the trendiness aspect.

That's not it at all, but clearly he exposed some people sitting in that room. I am not a pop music scholar, but his comment made me think about the music that I love. Even though "choral music" can include Haydn's Die Schöpfung, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, not to mention of a whole slew of medieval and Renaissance masterpieces, it also includes a plethora of short, two to three page cream puffs written for various church choirs and other choral ensembles. It is true that there is often little intellectual mileage to be found in Joe Smith's arrangement of Amazing Grace or Jane Brown's 16 measure introit written for the shoestring choir at St. Anne's-By-The-Lake.* Much of this is Gebrauchsmusik and the composers of said music couldn't care less what musicologists think of it (and rightfully so). Unfortunately, because the label "choral music" includes ALL of this, it often gets excluded from the list of acceptable areas for academic discourse. Medieval and Renaissance choral works get sheltered by the historical musicology crowd and the love for the old. Choral works of Bach, Mozart, and Haydn are extolled as works of Bach, Mozart and Haydn. Most of the choral music of the Romantic period is seen as an example of Romantic ideologies of excess (Berlioz, Verdi) or those occasional studies in harmonic adventure.

That brings us to my area of specialty: twentieth-century American sacred music. Truth be told, it is actually "twentieth and twenty-first- century," but when I tried the label "contemporary" I opened up a door I couldn't shut quickly enough. Rushing toward me came numerous requests to review "O Taste and See" for guitar and folk singer, or CDs by Jars of Clay, or questions about preferences for Amy Grant vs. Rebecca St. James. I could say "modern," but that also opens up its own can of worms. A rose is clearly not a rose when it comes to academic labels.

Not only do I specialize in such a loaded and quixotic category of music, I wrote my dissertation on the impact of the Second Vatican Council on the American Concert Mass. Sexy? No. Misunderstood? Yes. See the following dialogue:

Prof. X: Ah! So you do folk masses.
RM: No. I'm looking at traditional Latin Masses (or Latin-inspired masses) written for the concert hall as responses to Vatican II.
Prof: X: Oh. That's interesting. What composers? Any I might have heard of?
RM: Leonard Bernstein (a Jew), Paul Creston (a very eclectic Catholic) and Lou Harrison (a Buddhist)
Prof. X: (Stunned silence).

Which brings me to my point. We as musicologists need to define to what extent musicology involves musical advocacy. I thought it was important to show that there existed a strong aesthetic reaction to the post-Vatican II liturgical mass, by mainstream composers lying outside of the Church and its particular interests. Do I love sacred choral music? Yes. Do I feel at all guilty about it? No. Would I have been able to spend mmpph years working on a dissertation if I didn't love it? Absolutely not.

I don't think we should have to negotiate personal taste and intellectual duty to any degree that we might find ourselves writing about music for which we care little (either about the music itself or its historical context). Anyone who has ever taught music appreciation will tell you that half the trick is one's own enthusiasm for the music. What kind of artifice are we encouraging if we relegate entire categories of music to the musicological trash-heap? If I write about music, whether it be Steve Reich's Different Trains, Hildegard's Ordo Virtutum, or the Clash's album London Calling (to pull a few examples from the recent AMS conference), I had better believe that there's something there worth writing about and worth sharing with the community at large. That is both our personal duty and our intellectual duty. And while I'm not advocating a "Who Cares if you Listen?" approach to musicology, I am proposing that our own love for the music be enough, and the work we do will speak for itself.

Not everything we love as music listeners will have musicological value, and it is important to recognize that. (How we determine that value is worthy of a fresh round of blog posts.) However, as academicians, we should be defining academe, not the other way around. And in regard to this endeavor, I suggest that the sky be the limit. Let us welcome guilty pleasures and intellectual constructs alike, so that we can be true to what brought us here in the first place, rather than be enslaved to a limited canon.

-Rebecca M.

*Author's note: These names are meant to be generic. I apologize if they represent real people, pieces and places.


Sammee said...

It's interesting to me that sacred choral music by composers such as Bernstein, Lou Harrison, and Paul Creston would be marginalized as cream-puff works or works not worthy of intellectual consideration. I would never consider them as such, but then, I would not find it odd to pursue an analysis of the Clash's London Calling. I guess it depends on the musicologist and their allegiances.

Sammee said...

Musical advocacy is important, esp. as we rid ourselves of musical pretension. Or maybe I am just too well-placed in the cultural product crowd (I am still a young scholar, after all).