Mediocre Music

The world is full of mediocre music. That’s not news.

Mediocre — to me that’s music with little substance, lots of “effects”, created by technology pros with little regard for the talent or lack thereof of those who are doing the singing. The “producers”  manufacture a “product” that will sell. Sometimes it does sell, and sell like crazy. Mediocre music can also be created by those who want to be profound, significant, important, different and who are impressed with themselves. They write music only for themselves. It might succeed as well. Either way, it doesn’t mean any of it is worth something.

The current crop of music in all styles but perhaps most particularly  on Broadway and in the opera house is full of music which is impossible to remember and which, sadly, is impossible to recognize as being from one composer or another. It is endemic in many other styles as well. For all the people who want to promote contemporary composers (which is a very important thing to do), we have few who stop to think — what is it about this music that is memorable? How is it easily distinctive, such that I immediately recognize the composer? What would make me want to hear this music over and over? The classical community, particularly, laments the long slow demise of audiences and “regrets” that it must rely upon the old tried and true pieces that audiences want to hear again and again. Why would that be?

I am a trained musician. I have sung present-moment modern music composed just for me and some of it was truly beautiful. I am fully aware of the conventions of both traditional harmonic structures and mid-20th century writing as well as post-modernist music that is not 12-tone in orientation but lacks a clear key-based harmonic structure. I have attended all kinds of performances here in New York over the decades by (living) composers both well-known and unknown but rarely, if ever, have I wanted to go out and purchase a recording of any of this music to listen to many times over just for the pleasure of it. I imagine that I am not alone. And, if I am not attracted to the music and I have a decent amount of background with which to appreciate it, how does it strike someone who encounters it for the first time with no background at all, someone who is perhaps curious about what the music is.  How many become fans?

This is prejudice I admit. I know. Guilty as charged. One person’s art is another one’s garbage. The argument has been around a long time.

Composers must write whatever it is they want, and who cares who likes it?

Composers must give the marketplace the next hot thing, the trending viral-going products just to be famous. Back and forth.

 Give the audience what it wants because no one really cares about the particulars of the composition anyway.

“Pandering to the masses”is looked down upon by cognoscenti  but it is hoi ploi that are responsible for filling most of the seats.

On and on.

The only way to create something that lasts for a long time is to reach people’s hearts. Trying to take in what your eyes behold while  standing in front of the “Pietá” in St. Peter’s in Rome simply takes your breath away. You do not need a degree in art to be in awe of what was done to a slab of white stone by a very young Michelangelo hundreds of years ago. Doing things that are “intellectually interesting” might be impressive and it may even be that mental stimulus is exciting, but our emotions are what go indelibly into our memory cells and most of us are not geared to respond to a series of random pitches at varying volume levels on some syllables or other unless they trigger a deeper, more profound reaction in our bodies as well. That they do not readily do this seems apparent, at least to some people — at least to me.

What makes us human, both plus and minus, is what we feel and how we react to those feelings. We respond to that which hits us most profoundly emotionally. No matter what you have to say about music, any style, if it doesn’t move you, you won’t care about it. So if you are a composer, don’t try to be impressive or important. Do not try to create something trendy or hot. Stop writing so the only person who “gets” what you do is you. Ask yourself, what is this going to do for the people who encounter my music? How will this move them, and how will it be that they cannot forget the experience when it happens? You might discover that it’s harder to avoid writing mediocre music than you think.

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