Academic or Not?

Subject: Academic or Not?
Date: Sat Jul 10 1999 - 06:26:13 EDT

I believe that Ian Chuorun recently asked to be pointed in the direction
of an 'academic' piece of ea/cm, and towards a <choose you poison>
'non-academic' work.

I think that one way to look at this is not to look at the piece itself
and call it academic/non-academic, but to look at the environment and
context within which it is being so-labeled.

For 'academic', I would nominate Charles Dodge's "Earth Magnetic Fields",
or Milton Babbitt's "Ensembles for Synthesizers" -- or at least I would
have done so with much more vigor 25 years ago. At the time of their
composition, the sounds and ideas were not common currency: they were in
competition with "A Day in the Life", where the "new" ideas were part of
the icing on the cake. Dodge and Babbitt were difficult pills to swallow,
being gritty cake themselves.

But less so, for me, today. The pieces haven't changed, but I have.
(Maybe that means that the pieces have changed, in which case the
re-contextualization discussion has undergone a meta-recontextualization.)

Historical parallels abound. The Bach Cello Suites were considered
academic studies for close to 200 years, and were treated as such. Casals
championed them as 'concert pieces', and now they are no longer so
'academic'. The ears of the listening audience changed.

Sometimes the word 'academic' is applied to compositions which are
'difficult to get into' -- but not for everyone. Elliott Carter's Second
String Quartet (1959) won the Pulitzer Prize and Critics' Circle Award in
1960 (with the UNSECO Prize in 1961) etc. For many mortals, this piece
has taken years to begin to assimilate into the mind (I speak for myself
as many mortal).

On first hearing, for me it was chaotic and disorganized: it's rationale
lay in arguments that I had never been exposed to, and therefore I was
not ready to accept them as 'valid' 'musical' concepts. In a word, I
found it to be 'academic'. But now, some 35 years later, I am able to
grasp it more fully, on its own terms.

But after some 30 years of grinding away on the Carter, my ears have
developed a flexibility, and my mind much greater range, for hearing and
contextualizing sounds and pieces. It's likely not dis-similar to the
noise/not-noise issues of the 50s / 60s / 70s.

Sadly, I still describe some (new) pieces as 'academic' when my response
is, "Yes, that's what I would have done." -- but that's not the only type
of piece that fits into the "YTWIWHD" category: the radio abounds with
them ... but maybe that's just a sign of creeping (or galloping)
middle-age, a period defined as "when everything reminds you of something

Academic also has the more traditional meaning of 'by the book', or 'by
the rules', also called 'dry' ... but that opens up the Brits to head off
to the pub ... for that matter, almost anything is an invitation for some
people to head off to the pub fa a poin'a'bih'er. Cor blimey, I see'd



Nary a sound, the still leaves limply grey-green
Soon, the rains

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