Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Relevance of Music in Contemporary Life and Culture?

“One has complexes. One has the art complex. One goes to the School of Fine Arts and catches the complexes.” – Jean Tinguely

The answer to the question of art music’s relevance in contemporary culture and life is not only complex, but it is a problem today’s artists must grapple with. Or maybe that is just a complex of mine. Weeks after performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with my high school wind ensemble, I overheard my friend’s brother – a non-musician in his mid-twenties – questioning the difficulty of the music and the praise I received. This reinforced my suspicion that young people have little understanding, and therefore appreciation, of the arts. However, that experience did not harm my view that classical music still has relevance in our lives and culture. That is, if musicians continue to work together and if our culture considers artistic progress, intellectual challenges, self-identity and cultural heritage to be relevant as well.

Any viewpoint is formed by many experiences, but Jacob Ertl’s lecture and performance of a piano transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in March 2008 particularly opened my eyes to more possibilities for music in society. Jacob, a prizewinner of the 2002 PianoArts National Solo and Concerto Competition, returned to Milwaukee Public Schools for an artist-in-residence “Student-to-Student” program designed by PianoArts to educate, inspire, and relate to young people as a mentor. At these programs, Jacob opened students’ minds in a relevant way: he engaged them intellectually and impressed them with an outstanding piano performance unlike any they had probably ever heard. He first performed a smaller section, asking them to listen and explain what they imagined was happening. He then explained the story of the Firebird and pointed out the main musical motive of the section, asking them to identify its number of repetitions as he played the section a second time.

The “Student-to-Student” concert built stepping stones for students to enjoy and understand an abstract art. Music excites and moves people in a unique way, and those who do not understand this would have at least seen how Jacob’s passion and insight caused kids to think in both creative and critical ways. This is how music enriches our lives. That type of experience, along with deeper musical education, is mandatory for someone to understand contemporary music, in particular. In a parallel example, I disliked most Picasso paintings until I understood its challenge and learned in an art class what Picasso was doing.

Music is relevant, but sometimes its relevance lies beneath the surface, creating a conflict of interest between complex artworks and the accessibility of pop culture. However, as long as musicians maintain the goals of progress, challenge, education, enrichment and enjoyment, music will uphold its place as a relevant – and necessary – part of our lives and our cultures.

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