Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Wages of Professionalism

I was reading about the minnesinger Neidhardt von Reuenthal (died about 1250) and noticed that he was not only a composer of songs, but also a nobleman and crusader. That gets me thinking. When did ordinary people, that is, non-professionals, stop making music? I think that it must have started sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. A technological event and an historical trend would be my choices for the causes. The technology is recording, of course. As soon as we were able to make relatively accurate recordings, then the outstandingly gifted professional musicians would increase their dominance. As soon as anyone can buy a recording of Caruso, or Heifetz or Horowitz, then the local artists decline in importance and influence. Before, they could only dominate the concert hall they were playing in that night. The other trend was toward complexity and virtuosity. An amateur pianist can negotiate a sonata by Haydn without too much difficulty. Even lots of music by Beethoven. But with Liszt and Paganini, the whole point of their music is to transcend what an amateur can do.

So, inexorably, the role of the amateur musician declined and diminished more and more to the point where now, the making of music is left largely up to full time professionals and the rest of us just play the iPod. Someone like Condileeza Rice, who is reasonably accomplished on the piano, stands out because nowadays it is so unusual. I think recording technology has been even more crucial than the higher technical requirements. Before everyone had access to recordings, people sang and danced as a regular component of life. They worked and sang work songs, they drank and sang drinking songs, they loved and sang love songs, they marched to battle and sang battle songs.

Here is what we do now:

Not bad, actually. But if they weren't in a war zone, they probably wouldn't go to the trouble. The consequence now is that the vast majority of people imbibe music passively, having little in the way of experience in being makers of music themselves.


Nathan Shirley said...

And now with the decline of the music industry we may well be heading back to the days when professional musicians were few and far between. You can't shake a stick on YouTube without hitting a few million amateur musicians, many of whom have millions of views each.

Here is an interesting article that isn't completely off topic and mentions that $250k Beatles licensing fee you brought up in a recent post-

Bryan Townsend said...

I had to really think about this, Nathan. I went to YouTube to sample things that people put up. I did a search for "Spanish Romance" as that is the kind of piece that an amateur classical guitarist would be likely to play. Yes, lots of 'amateur' guitarists such as John Clarke whose version has over 2.6 million views! The thing is, with that many views and the fact that he is selling CDs, I suspect he does not think of himself as an 'amateur'. Another version, with almost 1.9 million views is by a guitar professor who I'm also sure does not think of himself as an 'amateur'.

Why are we tempted to think of these as 'amateur' performances? Speaking for myself, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, most serious guitarists shy away from a piece like this because of its limited aesthetic content. It is almost a kind of cliche. Not to say it is easy--in order to play it really well, you have to practice! Second, the performances are not very artistic. Mr. Clarke, for example, does a kind of latinization of the rhythm converting a simple 3/4 in triplets into a 3 + 3 + 2 pattern. This is what we usually call a mistake and one typical of amateur or self-taught musicians. Second, the performances are often halting, unsteady, with questionable tone and so on.

You and I must be snooty elitists!

In that link to the essay by Steve Guttenberg that you pasted, he talks about music becoming unimportant, just a kind of omnipresent soundtrack in the back of people's lives. It does seem that way. I've had to leave a couple of restaurants recently because the soundtrack they had playing, not so quietly, was just impossible for me to tolerate for more than a few minutes. So I guess most people barely listen, or perhaps even barely hear it...

On the other hand, something between 100,000 and 200,000 people showed up at the Zocalo in Mexico City this week to let Paul McCartney know that they thought his music was pretty important!

Nathan Shirley said...

If you and I are snooty elitists, then what does that make all the snooty elitists??

I suppose I was thinking of all the kids who post themselves playing Fur Elise, Canon in D, or the theme to Super Mario Brothers on every imaginable instrument. But yes, the true amateur musician is different than the student musician I suppose. The lines between student, amateur and pro can certainly get very blurry!

That Steve Guttenberg article I think says more about the shift of power/money in the music industry than anything. It's certainly a time of transition for mainstream music in that sense. But he might have a point regarding passive listening becoming more prominent.