Friday, July 4, 2008

The not beautiful in music

As someone who generally studies the uglier aspect of making music (i.e. blatant urbanity, consumerism, international tensions, etc.), I feel it is time for me to answer the question that is on everyone's mind: how do I weigh the not beautiful in the music I study. (Disclaimer: in many ways, this post is a continuation of Phil's non-answer to a vague trend in the musicology blogosphere and AMS list.)

For the last few weeks I've been in São Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in South America and the 3rd largest city in all of the americas, to finish up the ethnographic portion of my dissertation research. This city is urban in a way that only few cities in the world can approach: the air quality is terrible, there is far more concrete and high walls than I ever imagined, and there is a vibrant cultural and intellectual community including a very exciting music scene. At the same time, São Paulo also has the occasional logistical disaster (read: metro stoppages, and yesterday DSL failed in the entire state) and constant fears of crime exacerbated by social class divisions (sequestrados or kidnappings are fairly common for the elite as are helicopter flights to avoid traffic jams). I provide the above summation to give you an idea of the stark urbanity that currently informs my perspective on beauty, or lack thereof.

São Paulo was not originally part of my dissertation. I had originally planned to focus on the music industry in Rio de Janeiro, a place that is much more frequently associated with beauty and tourism despite its alarmingly high crime rate. For many reasons, I opted to spend a fair amount of time here because the city is so important to Brazilian cultural output. My tiny ethnography is now officially multi-sited. Isn't that cool? But what this means is that I've been spending a lot of time talking to music industry professionals all around a city known for its intense work ethic. Rarely do we talk about such ideas as beauty. The closest I've come to direct references to the beautiful in music are concepts such as "risk," as in this label took a huge risk on releasing that artist's CD, "performance skill," and "quality." They generally don't talk about beauty. Even the musicians that I have interviewed don't mention beauty as an overriding concept. They will use words like "exciting" or "interesting" to describe music that they like, but not beauty, even if they are trying to stir my interest in a new artist.

Just yesterday I spoke with a very prominent and successful individual in São Paulo's music scene (in a stunning apartment overlooking Ave. Paulista). When the subject of James Blunt came up, I could not suppress my disdain for his music, and he concurred. Then he said something that struck me as surprisingly in line with a concept that has dogged many a scholar in popular music studies (and this blog) for quite some time : "there is a big difference between the music that I enjoy, and the music that I dislike but I know others will enjoy." Was he directly referencing beauty or ugliness in any way? No. But his comment reminded me that in a place like the music industry, there is rarely time to consider such questions as aesthetics. Preferences and públicos (the Portuguese word for audiences) are always at the forefront, though. I guess nothing forces out aesthetic relativity like the world of cultural commerce. I can't say I have anything to complain about on that matter.


Birdseed said...

Interesting debate - I'd love to catch up on whatever everyone else has written on the subject. Any tips?

KG said...

Ah, but see I'm not debating; I am just noting the absence of beauty in my own work. Is that really a debate? The larger "beauty in music" debate is on the AMS-list. I will edit the post to account for that reality. Sorry if I caused any confusion.

JillT said...

Your title seems to allude to Eduard Hanslick's 'The Beautiful in Music'. Hanslick is a raving autonomist who believes that music has no intrinsic power to communicate feelings (to do with program/absolute music). In later chapters he deals with 'beautiful in music'. “The course hitherto pursued in musical aesthetics has nearly always been hampered by the false assumption that the object was not so much to inquire into what is beautiful in music as to describe the feelings which music awakens.” The book is certainly worth a read at 100 odd pages.

I understand the secondary taste, wherein I might avoid JB's music at all costs yet not be surprised when others will hassle me at my record store job to order in every possible "special tour edition" of said artists albums...

Good luck with the research!

KG said...

The allusion was quite intentional. Thanks for the good wishes!