‘Dead musicians get a better deal than live ones’

‘Dead musicians get a better deal than live ones’


norman lebrecht

April 24, 2016

Simon Zagorski-Thomas, professor at the University of West London, has used his 15 minutes of fame on BBC Radio 4 to argue that popular music should be given more academic attention and funding.

‘It seems to be up to the younger universities to take the lead in analysing musical forms that live outside of the world of the classical score and to create a musicology that is more relevant to our experience of music now.’

His rant has annoyed a lot of classical academics and his institution is hardly a rain-maker of serious opinion. Still, you may use it to define your definitions of classical music.

Listen to the 15-minute talk here.

tchaikovsky death mask


  • Pianofortissimo says:

    The title is “Dead White Composers” and the timing is 13:25. I should have listened to some Beethoven instead.

  • Milka says:

    The living dead will find this annoying.

  • Maria Brewin says:

    I’m always amused by the way these people use the pretentious term “relevant” – presumably because “popular” sounds too commercial.

    Music is primarily about emotion. Any new emotions discovered recently?

    • John Borstlap says:

      The philosophy (disguise of commercialism) seems to be: the more people like something, the more relevant it is.

  • David says:

    He’s absolutely right. Though I am no fan of musicology myself, it’s undeniable that there is out there a form of snobbery and prejudice which simply believes that classical music — because it is geared to allegedly more “sophisticated” audiences — inherently possesses greater artistic value and is therefore more worthy of attention. In fact, classical music does not possess any privilege when it comes to artistic worth. There are countless examples across many genres, including pop, jazz, rock, new age, and many others, which display incredible degrees of sophistication and complexity in terms of the way harmony and counterpoint are used. Ironically, classical music may actually the one which is less innovative in many ways, as most of its composers have been bound by rather strict and well-defined rules taught in conservatories and music schools — there are of course exceptions, but a Debussy, a Mahler, a Schoenberg of a Stravinsky represent a rather small minority compared to the whole. When classical music wants to radically innovate and thus becomes contemporary music, it results for the most part in music which for the most part just sounds bad and which people, outside the concert setting, once in the privacy of their homes, may not actually be tempted to listen to, or at the very least listen to with much pleasure. The author is absolutely right about the issue of complexity — as I (a classical musician) listen more and more to other genres, I am continually astounded at the level of innovation (most of which I suspect is actually instinctive and not theory-based) which some of these artists display. Why then would they be undeserving of scholarly attention, if not for the fact that their music simply does not represent a certain socio-economic class?

    • Maria Brewin says:

      I find myself in total disagreement with almost everything you say. I might, at some point, have agreed with your comment about the direction in which modern classical music has been moving but even that has changed.

      A few points:

      “incredible degrees of sophistication and complexity in terms of the way harmony and counterpoint are used” – any examples and, more to the point, anything new?

      “most of which I suspect is actually instinctive and not theory-based” – yet you seem to be saying that it deserves greater study. It might be possible to study music which is instinctive but I suspect that you would be onto a hide into nothing, or you would destroy the very qualities which you seem to attach so much value to. How would you teach future composers to be “instinctive”?

      “as most of its composers have been bound by rather strict and well-defined rules taught in conservatories and music schools” – a bit taken aback by that comment. Which conservatoire did Mozart attend? Far too many composers went their own way for that accusation to stick.

      “Why then would they be undeserving of scholarly attention, if not for the fact that their music simply does not represent a certain socio-economic class?” The “class” argument is entirely predictable and has been done to death already.

      • DAVID says:

        Hello, and thank for your input. I’d like to reply to the points you made:

        1) as to “complexity and sophistication,” I would offer examples such as Pink Floyd (whose albums “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall” are masterpieces in my opinion.” Jazz Artists such as Terje Rypdal, John Abercrombie, Bobo Stenson, Jan Garbarek, Marcin Wasilewski, Carla Bley, Sun Ra, Pat Metheny (“Still Life Talking,” “Offramp”), Randy Weston, Miles Davis. David Bowie’s trilogy — Heroes, Low, Lodger. New Age artists such as Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. I must admit I am less familiar with more recent stuff, which I tend to find much less interesting, but groups such as Coldplay or Massive Attack still pique my interest.

        2) as far as instinct vs. theory, the point I was trying to make is that many of these artists do not have a solid grounding in music theory, yet this has never prevented them from writing rather complex and well-sounding music. I’m not sure whether musicology would help us appreciate them better — the point I was trying to make is that studying them would not be any less legitimate than studying a major classical composer.

        3) as far as being rule-bound, regardless of which school a composer studied in, the fact remains that classical music remains a clearly defined and rule-bound tradition which has been followed for centuries and which has informed even those who, like Debussy, strongly departed from it. Debussy himself was heavily criticized for not abiding by current standards, to which he famously replied “Le plaisir est la regle” (Pleasure is the only rule). It is true that many composers went their own way; I would suggest that those are just the tip of the iceberg compared to the many who didn’t stray significantly from the tradition and who are lesser known today. It’s important to keep in mind the numerous and lesser known composers who contributed to maintaining a community of tradition to which even less “conventional” composers remain strongly indebted to. There is a in my opinion a continuous line from Bach (and possibly before) all the way to the early Schoenberg, to which corresponds a definite logic which only a few dared question and break.

        4) Finally, when it comes to the “class” argument, it may well be that it is predictable and done to death. The real question is, does that make it invalid in any way? Can we seriously deny that such considerations play absolutely no role in all of this, or that there are no tacit standards for what is socially acceptable or not in terms of music studies? Dismissing a certain type of music because it is mostly appreciated by people who might not fit into the regular concert sphere, in my opinion, is simply not a valid position. I would compare going to a concert a little bit like going to a museum, with all the posturing they often both entail. It’s one think to appreciate a Manet painting because one understands its specific qualities and why it is indeed a great painting, it’s another to claim to appreciate it merely because one already knows it’s a Manet and that therefore one is expected to appreciate it. How many people would be able to differentiate a piece by Boulez from one written by a lesser composer — without being told in advance who the composer is? How many people would be able to recognize the mediocrity of some early works by major composers (i.e., Wagner’s Piano Sonatas or Saint-Saens’ early symphonies)? In my opinion, not many — and that’s the critical point here, at least it seems to me.

        • Maria Brewin says:

          When asking for “examples and, more to the point, anything new?” I should have made it clear that I was asking for details of precisely what musical innovations the “innovative” people in the pop and rock world are responsible for. Books have been written about the development of classical music and other musical genres with long standing traditions. It is pretty clear who did what first. However, it is not unusual for people here to make outlandish claims about the ground breaking innovations by this or that band but, when pressed, they seem unable to say precisely what those musical innovations are.

          “I would compare going to a concert a little bit like going to a museum, with all the posturing they often both entail.” Sorry, but I really cannot agree with that. It strikes me as a very cynical way of viewing other people’s motives – a bit like saying that men only go to football matches to start fights. One or two do, most don’t.

    • Allen says:

      The speaker praises Meshuggah for their use of polyrhythms, so I looked them up. It appears that at least part of the polyrhythmic drumming is computer programmed in advance.

      I’m sure it could indeed give many classical composers ‘a run for their money’, as I think the speaker said. I doubt if the Berlin Philharmonic could keep up, even on a good day. But then I’m sure there are many electronically and mechanically generated sounds that they would be unable to keep up with. Whether this ‘complexity’, of a sort, is actually processed by their listeners’ ears in a meaningful way, and whether it translates itself into musical sophistication is probably debatable. But then that is probably just another example of snobbery.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Again one of these utterances which is taken-up with pincers by cultural anthropologists, as a specimen of modern-day ‘liberated thought’.

      The quality that defines Western classical (art) music is not complexity as such, but the musical, aesthetic and psychological quality of the works. Experimental pop music can be more complex than Mozart’s symph 41, but can never stand comparison with a mere one bar of that 18C guy in artistic terms. This comment is just another example of egalitarian thinking, product of 20C anti-bourgeois ideology which was under the delusion that classical music was an instrument of cultural class warfare.

      There are many people out there who hate high art – the best art of their own culture – because they feel incapable to experience it, and instead of making some effort, they try to diminish it, to besmear it, to make it go away – this nagging reminder of their lazy inadequacy. For them, pop music and quasi-academics demanding serious academic treatment of it, are a gift from heaven, because it confirms their own bad, seriously underdeveloped taste. In this way, pop music is like religious absolution: the lazy barbarian is forgiven his inadequacy about which he felt so guilty, and does not need to try to improve himself.

      There is nothing against pop music, but where it tries to get its hands at high culture, the motive is always to conquer a place which it does not deserve. It is the attempt of the looser to present his failure as an asset, and to paint any critique as snobbery. Karl Kraus would lick his fingers, reading SD.

  • Patrick says:

    Well, good musicians certainly get more attention than bad ones.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Pop music already has substantial funding… from the ticket buying public.

  • pooroperaman says:

    If you’re not a very good musicologist, then I’m sure it’s easier to make a living analysing simplistic pieces of music than complex ones.

    Likewise, if you can’t understand the good stuff, then naturally you’ve think the lesser stuff is better.

  • pooroperaman says:

    ‘you’ll think…’

  • Haydn 70 says:

    Simon Zagorski-Thomas…yet another populist academic ignoramus participating in the ongoing lowering of standards.

  • Haydn 70 says:

    “‘Dead musicians get a better deal than live ones’”

    No, you are incorrect Simon Zagorski-Thomas, aka Village Idiot: composers of art music get a better deal than pop/rock musicians…because they are worthy of it.