I agree that placing art and entertainment in opposition to one another can lead to a false either/or dichotomy. And I share Zweibach’s interest in those performers who are leading the way to reinvent the classical concert experience. They are fighting the Good Fight, and I wish them well!
I believe that some kinds of music are inherently more complex than others. It seems to me that a musical work that unfolds over the course of half an hour or more makes demands on a listener’s attentiveness that a three-minute pop song doesn’t.
Some people are drawn to complex music. (Perhaps they are naturally inclined in this way – although this taste can also be cultivated through musical education.) They want more complexity than can be found in an outpouring of top-40 hits intentionally designed to appeal to as many people as possible. They tend to seek out and enjoy kinds of music that most others shun and find “difficult.” There have probably always been such people, and there probably always will be.
Those who enjoy complex music often find much to admire in the Western classical canon. Counterpoint, thematic development, large-scale harmonic structures and other devices make this music both intricate and elaborate. But classical music certainly isn’t unique in its claims to complexity. The same can be said for much jazz, or various kinds of world music, for example.
However, where fans of Western classical music (and other complex musics) unwittingly get themselves into trouble is when they contend that their favourite music is better than music that’s not as challenging. In saying this, as they sometimes do, they are merely trumping up their own personal tastes as objective truths.
In fact, such value judgements are so deeply ingrained in the language we use to talk about music that it’s hard to discuss the issue without inadvertently appealing to them. As soon as you call one kind of music “high” and another kind “low,” you have implicitly invoked a hierarchy of value.
Yet it does not follow that something complex is necessarily better than something simple. Consider the following two equations:
One is simple enough for a child to grasp. The other is substantially more complex, and much harder to understand. Yet they are both equally true – and neither is in any way “better” than the other. To suggest such a thing is nonsensical.
And so it is with music, in my opinion. In our rush to break down barriers and declare “it’s all music” (which it is, as I’ve said myself), we should be careful not to leap to the assumption that all musics possess the same characteristics. All musics are not created equal, as far as complexity goes.
© Colin Eatock 2013