What do Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, The Beatles, and Lady Gaga all have in common? They are all musicians, obviously. But also, popularity. Mozart was able to make a living as a freelancing musician in a time when other successful musicians had salaried positions.[i] Liszt had fame as a concert pianist, which was heightened by well-known affairs with elite women all over Europe.[ii] After the debut of Strauss’s opera Salome, “the crowd roared its approval,” it was staged in 25 different cities, and Peter Rosegger, poet and author, remarked “Vox populi, vox Dei—or the voice of the people is the voice of God” according to Alma Mahler.[iii] The Beatles had fans ranging from hormone-driven women to fellow musicians admiring their craft. Lady Gaga has had three number one selling albums with a total of about 28 million purchased and an additional 140 million singles sold worldwide.[iv]
How has the popular music shifted from complex works of art to “art pop”? Although there are many reputable hypotheses to this question, one of the key points regarding this change is the changing of society and technology that occurred in the middle of the 20th century.
Electronic music was developing in the classical music circles of Paris, Cologne and America. The Theremin was invented in 1924—originally popular for performing classical repertoire and later was found in music by the Beach Boys and the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey; the Spharophon developed in 1927; the Dynaphone was invented in 1927-8; the Ondes Martenot in 1928—most often associated with the composer Olivier Messiaen, but more recently has been heard in songs by Radiohead and Daft Punk and in soundtracks including Ghostbusters and Hugo; and the Trautonium was invented in 1930.[v] These new instruments were meant to incorporate the sounds of the industrial age into music of the time. Composers were trying to develop music that was connected to their changing times, to mimic the machine age. What began as a search for new timbres and sounds, turned into a new way of producing music.
Electronic music was not only capable of producing new sounds, but it also suited extremely complex and analytical composition. The serialist composers of the 1950s pulled electronic music away from the everyday life sounds heard by everyday life people towards highly intellectual musicians. Because electronic instruments did not restrain composers to write with less difficulty and precision as live musicians playing acoustic instruments did, the gap evolved to a new level. Composers no longer needed performers. In fact, they no longer sought an audience either. Milton Babbitt saw it as a relief, that total serialism (his composition style) was not practical for human performance. In an article entitled “The Composer as Specialist” headlined “Who Cares if You Listen?” by High Fidelity magazine, he writes, “I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total resolute and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By doing so, the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.”[vi]
Although there were many other things happening at this time that led to the gap between studied art music composers and general listeners, this was a pinnacle moment of separation. Since then some have succeeded in overlapping art with popularity, such as Philip Glass, but our current musical society has not reconciled. There is a new age of musician wanting to mend the animosity between art musicians and the general public. They have approached the issue in many ways, from orchestras playing movie scores to audience involvement. But, without literacy and appreciation, the struggle will only continue.
by Anna Brake
Find out more in Music Trends of the 21st Century: Technology Influencing Culture, available on amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Music-Trends-21st-Century-Influencing-ebook/dp/B013W0FEXC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1442073879&sr=8-1&keywords=music+trends+of+the+21st+century
[i] Peter Burkholder, Dounald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 7th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 551.
[ii] Burkholder, A History of Western Music, 626.
[iii] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 9-10.
[iv] “Lady Gaga To Receive First-Ever Contemporary Icon Award,” Songwriters Hall of Fame. April 23, 2015. Retrieved September 12, 2015. http://www.songhall.org/news/entry/lady_gaga_to_receive_first_ever_contemporary_icon_award
[v] Peter Manning, Electronic and Computer Music 4th ed. (New York: Oxford Press, 2013), Kindle edition, loc 203.
[vi] Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen?,” High Fidelity, 8:2 February 1958, 126.