Sunday, June 14, 2009

You kids and your music

My grandmother recently asked me this question:

Could you please tell me how entertainers(?) in dishabille attire,screaming incoherently into a mic can command concert size audiences - something I always wonder about. Does everybody memorize the lyrics before the concert? I am looking for a young person's perspective.

Here's my best shot at an answer.

A form of this question has been asked of one generation by the previous ones since the dawn of music, basically paraphrased as:
How can you kids listen to that hideous noise?

Sometimes the question isn't even a question at all, but an expression of incredulity that the performance of the latest popular musical trends managed to escaped explicit mention by somehow slipping the minds of the framers of the Geneva Convention.
My father "asked" me this question when I played Dave Matthew's Band for him several years ago, and by "asked" I really mean he looked at me with a cold stare, rolled his eyes and mumbled, "Whatever". I'm sure his parent's "asked" him the same thing.

You know how I know this? Because one of the most popular composers of his time, though not nearly rising to the historical significance as his father, Johann Christian Bach was frequently and publicly chastised by his father, the immortal Johann Sebastian Bach, for writing such festeringly putrid crap. J.C. Bach, the son, is most known for the influence that he had on the concerto style of Mozart. Yes, that Mozart. J.S. Bach, who died in 1750, basically asked of his own son, one of the great influences of possibly the greatest composer in the history of music:
How can you kids listen to that hideous noise?

This is, in my opinion, irrefutable proof that there is nothing special or particularly offensive about the music that "kids are listening to these days" no matter to which "days" and/or "kids" you are referring. Its all relative.

For a fabulous story on this exact subject I suggest listening to this episode of Radio Lab, a public radio show from WNYC. The show at the link is about sound and music and how the mind deals with them. You should listen to the whole hour, but if you are strapped for time, listen to the whole hour anyway but start paying attention to the story about the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring starting at 31:40.

Stravinsky was way out on the bleeding edge of tonal music in the early 20th century when his new ballet, The Rite of Spring, was first performed in 1913 in Paris. This was back in the day when going to the premiere of a new ballet was like going to see the new Harry Potter movie and Paris was the place to do it. Everyone was hip and really got into the whole classical composition scene. If you were going to draw a crowd in Paris you had better be doing something really new and cool.

Well Stravinsky brought it that night and the audience, if you'll excuse the colloquialism, completely lost their shit. There was a riot. Stravinsky had to sneak out the back. It was bad. They wanted him dead.

One year later, after other composers had assimilated what Stravinsky had done and started to emulate it, The Rite of Spring was performed again. This time they carried Stravinsky out on their shoulders, but in a good way. He was a visionary. A mere twenty-seven years after Stravinsky had to sneak out of the concert hall for fear of his own life, The Rite of Spring was selected by Disney as one of the pieces in their groundbreaking full length animated exploration of classical music, Fantasia.

From maddening to kids' music in one generation.

The Radio Lab podcast, and I highly suggest listening to it and all of the other Radio Lab podcasts for that matter, has a great explanation for what happened. It involves a part of the auditory cortex in charge of assimilating new and unfamiliar noises and making some sense of it. The practical upshot of which is, you are comfortable listening to what your brain has already parsed. If your brain hasn't analyzed some set of sounds yet, you will feel uncomfortable, possibly extremely so, listening to it until you have.

My guess is that in addition to this, some people like the feeling of unease that new and unrecognized music gives them and they go and search out new and interesting music to challenge their brains. Most of us, though, like what they liked when they are growing up and pretty much stick with that for the rest of their lives.

As much as I hate to admit it, I think I fall into this last category. I listen to a huge amount of music, but I haven't bought a whole new album in years, all of my stations are programmed to play music I already like and I can't for the life of my figure out how can the kids these days listen to that hideous noise?

So there you go, Grandma. That's the best answer I could come up with.

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