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Friday, July 22, 2011

Everyone loves a celebrity

It’s human nature to lend our attention to those who have acquired Stardom and the accruements that come with it, namely: fame, success, and personal wealth. Movie Stars, TV Personalities, and Pop Music Icons are among the household names that everyone – I mean everyone – knows. It’s as if in mass-culture we assume that everyone has a basic understanding of the most popular trends in art and music.

For several generations now, media has been the de facto conveyor of popular aesthetic norms, and anyone without cable television and/or broadband Internet access will find themselves solidly on the wrong side of the proverbial Digital Divide.

While I have accessibility to new media today, it wasn’t always that way. After graduating high school in the early 1970’s I went off to college and for several decades intentionally lived in a self-imposed cultural bubble. It’s as if I choose to limit the sensory input of mass-media around me, and focus primarily (and very intensely) on a select area of musical endeavor: contemporary concert music. I attended live concerts constantly, hung out with practicing musicians and composers, and fully immersed myself in what I found to be exciting new music scenes in Boston and New York. I considered this to be part and parcel of learning my trade, and an essential ingredient for developing my personal style. The only technology that connected me to the world was a rotary dial telephone, a record player, and a FM radio for the news.

Filtering out mass media, and the pop culture that fuels it, has a downside too. One can quickly become a nerd and social outcast. Even today I often feel like an alien in my own country when people I meet discuss personalities and celebrities I’ve never heard of. Social settings can be awkward. Conversely, many of the musicians and composers that I know (and who inspire me) are virtually unknown to everyday individuals. It’s a sad fact, but I’ve gotten used to it.

Fortunately, there are still a few who co-exist with me in my cultural bubble. It does seem that the bubble population has been in decline as the elder members, the old guard of the new music cult, pass away. But through the magic of social networking and with the influx of a few eager, similarly-minded souls, there is still enough oxygen in the bubble to provide the elements of basic life-support.

My cultural bubble included some late, great heroes - “eminent” composers that not everyone has heard of: Milton Babbitt, Arthur Berger, Luciano Berio, John Cage, Edward T. Cone, Ross Lee Finney, Lukas Foss, Andrew Imbrie, Leon Kirchner, David Lewin, György Ligeti, and my teacher Donald Martino. Other composers, still alive and active in the bubble today include: Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Mario Davidovsky, John Harbison, Meredith Monk, Shulamit Ran, Steve Reich, Gunther Schuller, Stephen Stucky, Charles Wuorinen, Yehudi Wyner, Chen Yi, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. That's quite a diverse group.

All of the composers listed in the paragraph above are examples of musicians who have exceled to the highest level of accomplishment in the field of contemporary concert music. They have written cutting-edge chamber and orchestral works. Although not superstars in the celebrity sense, they’ve achieved a modest following within the field and won the respect and admiration of their peers. If there is a valid measure of success in the niche discipline of new music composition, these composers have clearly demonstrated it.

What I find strange about current trends in culture is the idea that a cultural bubble (such as the one I was nurtured in) is in some way academic or elitist. If one looks from inside the bubble to the outside world, it looks a little different. My decision to self-isolate during my youth and develop within a limited space was one of personal choice. Everyone has the right to do so, if they wish.

At least some people have opted to limit their exposure from the onslaught of mass culture to focus on the finer details of a different brand of art and music. It’s not elitist to focus one’s attention on a narrower area of expression by filtering out the collective noise of modern society. True, some practitioners of contemporary music composition are employed by a university, but I wouldn’t hold that against them. Everyone’s gotta make a living. Not everyone has the resources, notoriety, or income stream of a celeb. But not all academics are academicians. Let’s avoid guilt by association as a default argument.

Here's my point….

The list of composers mentioned above was of inducted Members (and Honorary Foreign Members) of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in Somerville, MA. The AAAS is one of the several long-established pillars of scholarly accomplishment. Its “elected members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs.” The Academy was founded in 1780, and has been one of the few non-profit scholarly organizations willing to recognize and endorse serious composers on an equal footing with professionals in other distinguished fields. Kudos to the AAAS.

But recently the AAAS seems to be allowing itself to be swayed by the monolithic gravitational force of pop culture. In recent years, the numbers of musicians inducted into the AAAS have broadened in scope. While fewer composers of serious concert music have been admitted over time, celebrity-artists seem to be making the cut ever more frequently. It’s as if there is a conscious effort by the general AAAS membership to avoid selecting composers who may be avant garde or obscure in favor of entertainment personalities with names that everyone knows.

Composers of serious concert music will never be able to compete on equal footing with Rock Stars and Pop Icons. They don’t have the name-recognition, backing, wealth, or fame that goes with that job description. That’s one of the reasons why an organization like the AAAS should exist, to provide recognition and support for artistic creators with a minority viewpoint. The size of an artist’s audience and bank account should not be a measure of their creative or professional success.

I have nothing against Rock Stars. I hold no ill feelings toward them. However, before you send threats and hate mail my way, let me admit that I too appreciate what they do (for what it is). But, I have to wonder what the broader social value is of inducting Superstars into the AAAS?

What benefit or value does Bono (Paul David Hewson) derive from his AAAS membership? (Mind you, Bono’s election to the AAAS was based on his career in music, not for his admirable work with the UN, social justice, and charity). Bono's rock band U2 is said to have earned $195 million dollars in 2010 [Forbes].

For the Class of 2011, the AAAS will induct singer-songwriters Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Leonard Cohen - while not a single composer of concert music will be admitted. Do Megastar celebrity artists actually give a hoot about the accolades of academic distinction? On the other hand, most composers of serious concert music elected to the AAAS would likely regard such appointment as a great honor and a significant milestone in their career. The award has historically lent at least momentary recognition and encouragement to a composer’s life-long creative work.

Is this a sign of our times? Aren’t there enough living composers of sufficient talent to merit inclusion in the 2011 Class of the AAAS? Could it be that society defines success by how much fame an artist generates rather than the innate quality and uniqueness of their expression? Are there too few serious composers with the prerequisite name-recognition to qualify for inclusion?

Offhand I can think of at least two dozen contemporary composers who are highly qualified and worthy of inclusion in the AAAS. In years past, they probably would have been inducted without hesitation.

As I see it, this is endemic of a general societal trend toward Populism. Most distressing is the long-term prognosis for my self-erected cultural balloon. It’s one thing when a group of musicians voluntarily choose to isolate themselves from the media hype of celebrity culture to practice their trade within the peace and seclusion of a small self-defined and dedicated artistic community. It’s another when the bubble is rudely penetrated from the outside, and the sanctity of the semi-private artistic space is violated.

It’s getting harder to selectively tune out the deafening noise of our collective popular culture. Its presence is all pervasive and persuasive. However I worry that there will still be a place left in the bubble for those of us who prefer to tune into a different, non-commercial radio frequency.

But, I admit, everyone loves a celebrity.

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