A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
The election is over. Plus ça change. Vermont has been isolated from the nation at large for most of its history. It was peripheral to the early days of the republic, briefly a nation itself. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and its young men were sacrificed in enormous numbers during the Civil War -- more than ten percent of its population, with the largest per capita losses. Then it slipped back into oblivion, returning to provide the dullest president, Calvin Coolidge. The Great Depression skipped a state that was already dirt poor. Its deeply cold winters dissuaded immigrants, and it was a brief playground for the new sport of skiing and the occasional long trip to see fall foliage. The interstate highways sliced into Vermont, bringing visitors and new residents following back-to-nature instincts and a pioneering environmental law in 1970. Its population has almost quadrupled since... 1800. Yes, it's cold. Occasionally it's the subject of NPR-ish features about country stores, and it popped up in the news briefly last night in sending to Washington the first socialist senator in U.S. history. Bernie's well-liked and marvelously grouchy. So that's it. He defeated a big-elbowed businessguy with ten million bucks to spend. Welcome to the Ornery Republic of Vermont.
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My struggle for the acceptance of "nonpop" has hardly been noticed, much less successful. And when one of my closest composer friends objects, I have to wonder how poorly the reasoning has been explained. So here is one more try. In reference to this commentary, she wrote:
And slightly revised, here is what I answered:
Let's first deal with our relative popularity. Please closely examine the pictures below. I was eleven and fourteen respectively. That's the almost-started-composing guy in that second picture. I wasn't unpopular, I was just plain a-popular. I was in a warp bubble of ick. Depth of unpopularity trauma? Try looking like that.
But here's where I've been trying to go with this nonpoppification. Once you analyze any term, it fails. Since it's political season, just try labeling folks with the meta-genres of liberal or conservative. The words will fail. The soaring vision of Humphrey liberal can be made to sound like a epithet, the sensibly proud conservatism of Goldwater can be transformed to malevolence.
To take one issue first, though: pop is different from popular, even if it had its linguistic origins there. Pop art was never popular, for example, but we know it when we see it. In music, pop conveniently has both a genre and meta-genre meaning already. As a genre, it's compared with jazz and country and bluegrass (etc.) but as a meta-genre it's contrasted with classical. Classical has that meta-genre meaning, but also a genre meaning and is compared with historical genres and also modern, avant-garde, new music (etc.), and social-class genrification such as art music and serious music. There are also the commercial/noncommercial meta-genres, but I dislike casting art itself in economic terms and refuse to accept them.
In trying to disentangle the meta-genre from the badness-baggage associated with the meta-genre called classical -- which eliminates huge swaths of music that isn't in the pop meta-genre anyway -- what's to do? I have already argued we could just call it green music or biggie music or hungry dinner music or anything arbitrary. But by contrasting what's the extant meta-genre with nonpop, it gives it a push toward an almost empty comix balloon.
I take as given that meta-genres can be a good thing, or if not good, at least a way of entering into conversation. There will always be an academic argument a-waiting, but my conversation is rarely with academics. It's with people who ask me, "so what kind of songs do you write?" The answer is "nonpop" (beat, looking for interest in their eyes, and if I find it) "orchestral, electronic, chamber -- you know, the music that used to be called classical." And the conversation starts. The associated but non-negative and unhyphenated precedents in fiction, conformist, partisan, profit, stop, fat, proliferation, issue, sectarian, trivial, violent, zero, aligned, dairy, etc., offer nonpop as a functioning metagenre option that encompasses all the areas that have no metagenre whatsoever (and they have been listed before, with detailed examples) and will, with nonpop no longer need the qualification of "the music that used to be called classical."
That's the analysis reviewed, and it can always be found flawed -- but less so than not having a functioning meta-genre at all (if you think a meta-genre is a good idea, that is -- argument recursive, recursive, recursive, recursive...).
Now take the parallel of classical. It doesn't mean classic, which applies to rock or big band or jazz or blues or country (etc.), and it doesn't mean classical as in the musical era of Mozart and Haydn. Aside from failing the analysis far worse than nonpop, it also carries the baggage which we know all too well: élitist tendencies, modernist associations, lack of familiarity. (The conversation with the above person stops when I say classical.) The same failure to pass analysis applies to noncommercial music, serious music, art music, concert music, etc. So ultimately the only thing classical has going for it is currency of use, and if I see any purpose in the promotion of this-music-whatever-it-is, then that purpose is damaged by using such a negative (social rather than grammatic) term as classical. Nonpop is positive, classical is negative. The latter needs replacement (argument recursive, recursive, recursive, recursive...).
Turn it on its head. Instead of it being ignored or rejected, assume for a moment that it is adopted by radio/video hosts, concert promoters, musicians and composers (in declining order of influence). How long does it take for it to lose its associative meaning and become a self-standing term? How long does any term take? Just look at how quickly coinages appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, and how they lose their birth meaning. And even look at old words (such as myriad, which came from the Greek for "ten thousand" and has bounced back and forth between noun and adjective for the past few centuries). That's the advantage of increased use of a term: except for poets searching for ghosts and ambiguities, it loses its formal history and initial associations very quickly. The difficulty of understanding the King James Bible is in part due to the lack of context for hundreds of its terms familiar to literate contemporaries of the British monarch.
In musical terms, look what's happened to the term electronic music. It no longer means what I learned for the first quarter-century of my musical life (and I resent it in some gut-level ways; how discouraging to lose a perfectly good word to progress, my grey-bearded self rails). In the past decade or so electronic music has become a pop genre. (At the very second I wrote this reply, the deejay on Resonance FM online said, "It's the category being rejected rather than the actual music." I missed the reference.)
Of course I cannot make anybody use nonpop. I wish I could talk a few influential people into doing so, whether it's Kyle Gann or Alex Ross or Frank Oteri, or composers themselves who cling to classical or find some evasion to avoid sounding too artsy. I have just enough confidence in and experience with the process of language shifts to know that a conscious effort by a few very well-placed, very public personalities can set a term on the public lips as if it had always existed. (The completely artificial invention "Ms." is a successful example; the gender-unspecific replacement for "his/her" failed -- remember it? It was "ter".)
One last point: nonpop is easy to say. Once it has been coaxed from the vocal cords a few times, it feels like the only term that's right.
As I have often said, I'm happy to use any term that meets the criteria of being largely baggage-free, is still related to the field of music, and encompasses the fifty-some composers on that list of nonpoppers-who-aren't-classical. But who has tried to meet this challenge rather than shruggingly let a situation continue that applies linguistically dysfunctional words to our work, if it applies any words at all? Words are essential for the conversation, and where we lack a functional meta-genre we are reduced to ruddy face and flail of arms.
I don't want to harangue this point, so there won't be a nonpop-promotional word until at least December. C'mon, make me!
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