ALL GOOD GOUDALL
music • 22.12.04
I’m interested in what the composer Howard Goudall is saying. His view resonates with my own experience - at least some of it. Goudall is a trained musician (not like me) and like many of the current bunch from the academies he is eclectic in his tastes (like me). He can just as easily embrace the classical world as he can the popular. He is consistently critical of the ‘serious’ music fraternity for its cleaving to old values, for its elitism and snobbery.
He is big on inclusivity and there was a time when I would have unreservedly concurred with him there, a time in the past when I was open-minded and inclusive in my attitudes. I subscribed to an ethos then of participation for all in music and was always open to possible new structures and developments and ways in which the sonic arts could enrich lives. The employment of such thinking was how I went forward during my early professional years and I don’t like to think I’ve changed all that much with time in this regard. I wanted to see music-making brought to communities in a much more inventive and integral way to how it had been for most of the 20th Century.
What Goudall seems to be saying is that in large part this is what has actually happened. There are now all kinds of varied musical interests and activities going on in communities, schools and colleges with ever-increasing varieties of participation available whether for vocation or recreation. Even from my relatively isolated place now I can see something of this with the kinds of involvement that are possible structurally these days far more varied than when I was starting out.
There is little in any of this I would be quick to take issue with given its all-embracing outlook and my own alignment over years. And yet there is something lurking, something in the shadows here that bothers me. it is that Goudall’s perspective is fine when it’s about people ‘doing’ music. But when music is more than just something you do and becomes the thing that you ‘are’, when it is your life, when the artistry around it is what defines you and shapes your identity then the orientation is rather different. The art that really matters in the world is that which comes not from these inclusive, ‘anyone can’ situations, but from the ‘very few can’. As I’ve argued before, it is the fact that certain works come from unusual people in unusual situations that determines their appeal and relevance. True artists stand out from the crowd and derive importance as a consequence of their altered perspective.
Goudall’s argument doesn’t do much to foster that position. It wouldn’t be a popular position to put forward apart from anything else. Elitist arguments for anything these days aren’t popular which is, I believe, damaging to the world of the artist. The high value associated with music comes from the segregated, exclusive position of those who make it and that probably holds true for all creatives. Their different attitude brings to the culture something it otherwise wouldn’t have. Goudall’s case may seem all-good: about education, inclusiveness, participation and recreation. But it is perhaps altogether too good. Fuse these elements and in theory you get super-good but I doubt if it works like that. It misses the deeper and darker essence of having a relationship with the Muse.
The more primitive and primal elements of creativity, the place that many of the great artists and writers have gone in order to bring forth their valued voice is missing in this picture. The danger of the ‘all-good’ were it to become the entire vista is that the progressive qualities in music-making, its capacity to illuminate, to push the boundaries, to capture the moment in an original and relevant way, to produce work that has in-built posterity, these facets are likely to be lost and disappear into a mundane, supine ordinariness. It is the maintenance of high value that is the thing. This egalitarian notion of ‘let’s all do it together in happy congregation’ is fine and noble in some ways, many ways, but not for the art-world generally which needs to thrive on non-conformity and a lateral approach; it has to present as unique and fresh, like it has something to say which is insightful, ideally said in a voice no one has heard before. If this eclectic, inclusive, ‘everyone can have a go’ world is to take precedence then perhaps it will have to evolve its own new elite so that those who ‘are’ music, as opposed to those who ‘do’ music, will be structurally supported by the mainstream in a manner that suits their commitment and talent.
Summation and further thoughts:
The making of music and maybe art generally should be exclusive at the point of creation but inclusive at the point of appreciation. The very separateness of artists and their coming from an alternative perspective is part of what gives them their relevance. They should go against convention to come up with something different and insightful. Let the wider world make its judgement on whether they have been successful in doing that by having the presentation of the work as inclusive as possible at the point of appreciation.
With classical music the problem was that in the 20th century both creation and appreciation became exclusive. It was too elitist and as such became a turn-off for the majority. It was no longer the popular music it had been. A great creative explosion from Cole Porter to the Beatles, from jazz to rock-and-roll to hip-hop and country, filled that space in spectacular fashion.
The danger with contemporary pop is that it is becoming in some respects the opposite of classical: pop is, or at least is seen to be, inclusive at both the point of creation as well as appreciation. I think this is watering it down into the insipid offerings of the ‘anyone can’ environment. This is not to deny that there are many talented people around. There are probably more than there ever were. It is that the context in which they are obliged to work is over-populist and too inclusive for its own good thereby draining away the very value that is integral to music-making.
The right formulation for music is a mix of inclusive and exclusive. Exclusive at its source, at the point of creation, and then inclusive when it gets presented to the world, at the point of appreciation. What Howard Goudall is saying may sound laudable but his adopting of an all-good inclusivity across the board is in danger of denying music its very life-blood, its essential creative spark.
written 2004 in response to Howard Goudall's
all-inclusiveness for music