Richard Powers On Divisions In Music

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“Music doesn’t mean things. It is things.” – Richard Powers

In a recent interview on Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, novelist Richard Powers spoke about his new music-saturated novel, Orfeo. Powers makes a probing–and somewhat problematic–observation about the source of what he calls “the real division in music.” What he’s referring to, I think, is the reason why some people have a fascination with some types of music and loathing for others. Here is Powers:

“The real division in music is not highbrow-lowbrow. The real division, it seems to me, is music that appeals instantly through sonority and a reduction in complexity and using repetition as a way of creating the propulsion and the hook and the forward motion. Versus music that’s developmental and needs to change the way narrative changes. And that requires memory to know how far that theme is traveling.”

On the one hand, Powers’ observation is probing because it gets at one of the signal differences between classical and popular musics. Classical music–much of it anyway–is often built on elaborate and extended chord progressions. As we listen to a symphony, the sequence of chords lead us, metaphorically speaking, on a journey that could be likened to a narrative. Popular music–much of it anyway–is often built on a much shorter sequence of chords. (Some popular music today just hovers with presence around a single chord.) When we listen to say, Beyoncé’s latest, we listen for the groove, the sound, a voice, or maybe a repeating chorus that’s so catchy. True, speaking of “classical” and “popular” like this is painting with broad strokes, but in general these differences between the different idioms have been, and remain, quite real.

On the other hand, Powers’ observation is problematic because it hints at a judgement leveled at all those musics that don’t adhere to the classical idiom’s narrative mold. Look again at some of his language. He speaks of a music that “appeals instantly through sonority,” involves a “reduction of complexity,” and uses repetition to create propulsion, hook and forward motion–as if these are bad things! But they’re good things, are they not?

In fact, even a cursory glance through late 20th- and early 21st-century music reveals that developments in the sonorities of timbre (think electronic music), the reduction of complexity (think minimalist art), and the propulsion and forward motion of repetition (think African American popular musics) have been paramount to music’s ongoing story. In other words, they’ve been very good things! Some of this development has been inspired, in one way or another, by electronic music technologies such as the synthesizer, the drum machine, software sequencers, and other interfaces. That’s also a good thing.

Which brings us back to Powers’ point about how music that appeals instantly through its sonics and its rhythmics doesn’t require memory the way music that harmonically unfolds over time does. He’s probably right. But then again, maybe our perception about what is good and interesting music is itself shifting. If music, as the musicologist David Burrows suggests, is a virtual model of our experience in the world (“the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models”), maybe our go-to musics tell us something about our changing capacities to pay attention to, engage with, and remember with music.

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