State of Music

Sean’s Opinion on the Current State of Music

The Dysfunction of Today’s Music
by Sean P. Fenlon
c. 1999

I see a genuine dysfunction with the current state of music. This dysfunction is caused by today’s composers’ inability to balance and reconcile academia with accessibility. In more simple terms, the accessible music of today (primarily in popular genres) tends to lack musical sophistication, and the sophisticated music of today (primarily in the modern classical genre) tends to lack elements that can allow a general music listener to relate. This assessment can be expanded through examples:

A country music singer can release a single with catchy lyrics and simple melody that can immediately appeal to millions of listeners and can become a virtual overnight success. But in terms of musical sophistication and performance (i.e. melody, harmony, rhythms, form, texture, timbres, etc.), there is nothing that could not be duplicated by a student guitar player within a few weeks. Due the lack of musical sophistication, the song is unable to maintain the interest of a listener over the long term, much like a small piece of candy.

Conversely, a talented concert pianist, trained at the finest institutions and by the finest teachers, becomes a composer. In one of his compositions he labors for months in combining the most complex musical elements he has learned through his years of studies and experiences. The result is a brilliant composition breaking fresh new territory in terms of harmony, form, rhythm, etc. Unfortunately, it is so academic that it very little immediate appeal to anyone who doesn’t fully comprehend all the elements of the composer’s creative process. Although, the freshness of the sounds can create new kinds of stimuli to a listeners brain with each hearing. Thus, the composition can act more like a bottle of sophisticated wine that can be savored in small amounts over a long period of time with a flavor that “grows on you.”

The disparity is intensified when musical performance enters the discussion. As previous mentioned, the country singer’s song could be musically duplicated by even a music student, whereas, the composer’s piece would probably require a performance by highly skilled and highly trained musicians. Thus, in terms of an audience being able to appreciate the highest level of musical performance, it is unfortunate that it likely occur in a composition where the actual performance will probably overlooked by a listener who cannot relate to the content.

Improvisation is as big of an issue. Some of the most able performers on the planet are those who are the most skilled in the art of improvisation. Improvisation can be unsurpassed in terms of an individual’s ability to create musical excitement, particularly in live performance. Although most popular styles and genres involve some element of improvisation in their language, they fall far short of the sophistication of the improvisation skills of jazz musicians. Ironic, however, is how this skillful spontaneous approach to music is typically presented in (again) unsophisticated compositions.

The problem, as I see it, is the lack of middle ground between the phenomenon accessibility, academia, and improvisation. Although there have been movements to attempt to reconcile the three elements (i.e. the Gunther Schuller led “Third Stream” movement), none have gained significant support in the musical community at large. This, to me, is a great tragedy. The music that I have found which has indeed reconciled and balanced classical elements, popular elements, and improvisation has been some of the most rewarding music I’ve every heard. And it never loses its appeal!

The challenge I face as a composer is to find the perfect balance among classical elements, popular elements, and improvisation. I want no boundaries in musical language. I wish to consider any and all sounds (acoustic, electronic, ambient, noise) as equal elements of raw material building blocks in my creative process. And most important, I wish to shape these sounds in an overall formal structure that makes architectural sense. And I hope that other composers will join me in this challenge!

[Writer’s note: please refer to the music of Pat Metheny and Greg Hatza for an examples of a music-makers that have blown away this challenge]

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