Music’s Fordism

I was reminded yesterday of how much I like Andrew Ford‘s writing on music. To my shame the only book of his that I own is Composer to Composer, which I picked up secondhand somewhere, some years ago. Among many notable things in its pages, I rate it for including one of the first interviews with Liza Lim (of whom I had no previous knowledge), and one of the last with John Cage. As an undergraduate it was a source of amazement to find so many composers who were not only alive, but who I simply hadn’t heard of. Malcolm Crowthers contributed many excellent photos, and there’s a great one of Ferneyhough looming on page 147.

Both In Defence of Classical Music  and the collection Undue Noise are currently out of print, which is a crying shame: Ford’s writing elsewhere on the state and purpose of contemporary classical music is lucid, acute and invigorating, and I expect both these books could do with a wider readership.

Anyway, yesterday’s reminder came in the shape of an article titled simply ‘Why we need music‘. There’s already an excess of writing worrying over the demise of an artistic tradition that has survived the plagues, wars and social turmoil of seven centuries. (Honest truth: I was rearranging some of my music books earlier this week, and while doing so created a small section marked ‘handwringing’.) But Ford’s short essay is one of the least wishy-washy responses yet. It is written – I presume – at least in part to answer the current Australian government’s cuts to arts funding, in particular the possibility that the Australian National University in Canberra may lose its School of Music. But its argument is of wider purpose:

The arts in general are how we explain ourselves to each other and to future generations. Music is a unique and fundamental element of this, because being non-verbal, non-pictorial and, to all intents and purposes, non-representational, it is the most abstract of our arts. This is its chief glory. But when it comes to people who like to weigh and measure things, and talk about efficiencies and outcomes, it is also a weakness.

Because it is not possible to translate music into words (we can only, like Samuel Beckett, try to “fail better” in this regard), it follows that it is hard to say what music is for. Even the Harvard linguist Steven Pinker doesn’t seem to get it: he listens to music and experiences “auditory cheesecake.” Taken at this level, music will seem trivial, a soundtrack we can turn up or ignore at will, giving it the thumbs up or thumbs down according to how it makes us feel.

Well music is more than that. Some of history’s greatest minds have expressed themselves sonically. Hildegard of Bingen and J.S. Bach, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, Bartók and Thelonious Monk: these people didn’t just serve up pleasing sounds for our amusement, they thought in music and thought deeply.

While we’re at it, here’s another choice cut from last year, on the perennial question of ‘relevance’. This one should be stapled to every would-be cheerleader’s forehead:

If we tell stories, they will be ours. And will they be relevant? If they are good stories, bravely told, then yes. Because opera is no different from pop music in this regard. The big hits come not from a desire to be relevant, not from market research, but from a blend of talent and courage. Far from reflecting modern society and its tastes, really great art forms them. And great art is always relevant – it makes itself relevant – whereas bad art will always be irrelevant.