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|Ch. 1||Musical Values||10|
|Ch. 2||Uses and Abuses||33|
|Ch. 3||Music as Art||51|
|Ch. 4||Understanding Music||72|
|Ch. 5||The Old, the New, and the Contemporary||91|
|Ch. 6||Cultural Choices||111|
Posted March 7, 2003
This is a courageous book to write in the world's present anti-intellectual climate. I know that statement sounds like hyperbole, but it's true. Because Julian Johnson flies in the face of the prevailing winds, not just in popular culture, but in much academia today as well. What Dr. Johnson says, essentially, is that the trend of seeing so-called 'high culture' and particularly classical music, as elitist, as exclusionist, is itself actually elitist. He reasons that people or organizations who set themselves up as today's cultural arbitors are in fact exclusionary, because they are determining what is right for the public, what they desire. It's far more than just a clever contrarian argument. Johnson gets to the core of classical music, its essence, what makes it different from any other music in history, by discussing how it is put together, how it develops, how it works through time, and then shows how these techniques are not present in today's popular muisc, which rely instead on simple, short repetitions to create and reinforce a mood, a moment, a feeling. Thus, he argues, pop music is more about feeling, about gratification of the senses, about 'taste' and subjective preference, while classical music, from a musicological point of view, has traditionally measured greatness by how the individual work exceeds the expectations and limitations of the form in which it is set. Classical music's tension is (generally) in this structural conflict between the formal and the individual, whereas pop music's (generally) is from the personal reaction the listener has to the textures, sounds, and lyrical message, conveyed through repetition, circular (non-developing) structures, and novelty of sound coveyed through electronics more often than not. And there is a difference, as he points out, between novelty and originality. What all this means is that classical music has a unique value as a cultural artifact that today's musics, no matter how different they try to be on the surface (with new synthesized sounds, new volume levels, new extraneous gimmicks such as costumes and props), cannot convey. He insightfully points out that often the most advanced technology is used (under the banner of progress) to create the most rudimentary of song forms and structures, and that people are responding to the surface 'lust,' the sheen of the soundworld, rather than intellectually to the construction, the stretching and reevaluating of boundaries. We come to the ironic realization that technologically-crude music made hundreds of years ago is actually more 'cutting edge' than the most advanced pop manufactured on synthesizers and computers, because (although he does not quite say this) technology does not replace the human intellect, but it *can* allow it to hide behind a curtain, much like the old man at the end of The Wizard of Oz. The book has some serious shortcomings. Johnson keeps trying to tie classical music's value to some sort of humanitarianism (both unnecessary and naive, in my opinion). On p. 8 he makes one of the book's oddest statements: 'Those who devalue art today point out that only in the last few hundred years has our society privileged certain works and activities as art and promoted them to an almost sacred status. But it is no coincidence that this has taken place at the very time that the rationalization of human life--both private and public--has severely threatened the idea of individuals' value by making them dispensible units in a quantitative system.' Despite the admitted evils of modern mechanization (see my review of 'Koyaanisqatsi' for more on that), I've never read anything in history to indicate that we valued life more in the medieval past than we do now. And I feel the author gets carried away in the 'commoditization' of classical music, making the silly statement that packaging has made all music 'the same size and shape,' i.e., a CD jewel box. How is this different than 60 years ago, when Glenn MillerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 30, 2002
In brief, Johnson's noble defense of the Western classical or art music tradition, which I very much share with him,is, unfortunately,written in a slow,heavy, over-intellectualized style which masks any semblance of soul, spirit, passion, or gusto, thereby defeating its very worthwhile purpose -- the rallying of the faithful,the persuading of the doubtful, the un-masking of the hostile. Tragic, this -- and frustrating!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.