Published in Computer Music Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 6-7

Should Music-Making Be Reserved for an Elite?

by Laurie Spiegel

In her review of Joel Chadabe's book "Electronic Sound" (CMJ Vol. 21 #3, pp 100-101) Anna Laurel Arpel says about the last chapter:

"As the author asserts 'Interactivity at home means that an amateur, perhaps without talent or skill, can participate in a rewarding way in a musical process.' I wonder about this recurring concept. Who wants to dine at a restaurant where the dishes are prepared by people without skill or talent?"

The analogy does not fit. At issue instead is the rectification of an entrenched situation analogous to one in which non-chefs are allowed no means of cooking for themselves for their own enjoyment in their own ways, a situation in which the vast majority are forced to eat only foods cooked for them by a small elite group of expert chefs in professional kitchens.

No one is advocating the burning of all classical works or the replacement of all expertise and talent with their absence. Music is inclusive, and musics and their techniques and forms are cumulative, not mutually exclusive.

It is important to place within a larger perspective the relatively recent (a few hundred years) mainly Indo-European sociomusical model in which music is assumed to consist of individual complete unique works actively created and performed by a small number of elite experts for a large passive listening audience.

The 20th century's addition of both recorded and broadcast media to the previously-dominant medium of the concert hall had skewed even further an already much distorted ratio of passive listeners to active music. But more recently, countertrends have shown up: Music is increasingly often being defined in terms of process instead of as specific sounds, in part due to how it is used, and as part of our century's paradigm shift from conceptualizing as entities and categories to thinking in terms systems and their components and dynamics. Recording has made all sound replicable to a degree far surpassing the only previous sound replication technique (written notated music). And a greatly expanded variety of technologies for sound capture, manipulation, and dissemination are cheaply available to all.

This is not new. It is a return. Long before concert halls, famous virtuosi, classic instrumental scores, publishers, recordings, and broadcasts - globally and for our entire human past - music was almost certainly something that most people did actively. In many cultures it still is, and much of this music is conceptually quite remote in purpose, concept, and form from the finite-length fixed-form single-author masterworks that many here view as both norm and ideal.

Though relatively low in numbers in our own highly specialized and data drenched culture, many non-musicians do still enjoy the process (per se) of making music themselves, whether alone or with family or friends, at home or in other grassroots venues such as churches, clubs or schools, whether the music is vocal, instrumental or electroacoustic, whether solo or group, established repertoire such as chamber or folk music or more open ended improvisational forms such as are found in jazz or rock.

Unfortunately, for various reasons - technical, educational, economic, physical, psychological, competitive, and other - far more people in our current culture would love to make music than are able to do so. At this stage, computers can and do help them to in ways not widely possible a mere 2 decades ago. Seeing this happen has been one of the greatest gratifications of my own work. The understanding that underlies Mr. Chadabe's statement, at least as I see it, is this: To the extent that the making of music is a process restricted to very few, music's benefit, value, and pleasure for the human community overall are being very sadly curtailed.

There will always be great masterworks and great performances by individuals of exceptional knowledge and skill, and fixed form finite single author musical works will continue to exist. That such works can be dealt with as property and easily made to form commercial product units ensures their survival at least for quite some time, as does their inherent quality as human experience. But anyone who thinks that such works should or will indefinitely maintain an exclusive dominance over all other musical forms and processes has not been paying much attention to musical history or ethnography, to what is going on musically in this world right now, or to what else besides masterworks and virtuosi people really do love about music.

- Laurie Spiegel

Copyright ©1987 Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
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