Thursday, 30 December 2010

What do we mean by 'good'?

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I have spent a moderately pleasurable day updating music, cataloguing CDs and generally playing at being a librarian. I even wore the uniform!

While doing this the matter of standards and art arose. In reality it sprung from an on-line interchange with Dave Briggs in response to a blog post I wrote about books. The interchange related to genre fiction and whether the constraints of the form limit the capacity for greatness. Thus it is less likely for a list of greats to include writing from a given genre.

To explore this, I felt it would be interesting to consider music - an area where the same snobberies and prejudices sit but where I am more comfortable with what might be termed "elite" music. However, reviewing my collection of music reveals a bewildering variety - everything from unashamed pop-rock from Bread, through more highbrow prog rock stuff (Caravan anyone?), reggae and ska, folk music - including the incomparable Incredible String Band, jazz and plenty of that elite music.

If I were forced to choose what I consider the very best - and I expect not to be so forced - it would be a tricky toss up between Bach and Led Zeppelin. Yet, in the comparison with the literary world, Led Zeppelin is 'genre' music constrained by the limitations of the rock form whereas Bach's world is limitless. But this ain't so - any more than is the case with literature.

We create categories of art, literature, music and so forth merely for our convenience - genre works like brand in this respect by providing a shortcut to decision-making. I like science fiction so that's where I head. However, such categories do not separate good from bad, the elite from hoi polloi.

Orchestral music ranges from pretty shallow and derivative work (I fear much of Vaughan-Williams falls into this definition) to the immense, shuddering majesty of Mahler or Beethoven. But where does 'good' stop and something else begin? At what point does opera become operetta and hence musical theatre? We could argue till domesday about these subtle distinctions - about whether dystopic fiction such as '1984' or 'Brave New World' is science fiction, as to how we define Neal Stephenson's magnificent 'Baroque Cycle' - is it magical realism, or historical fiction or (as Stephenson chooses) science fiction.

All of which just leaves me still more confused - I do know what I consider good which I guess is what matters! Even when others choose to think otherwise - for sure it ain't not being a genre that makes for good or bad!
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3 comments:

JuliaM said...

"However, reviewing my collection of music reveals a bewildering variety - everything from unashamed pop-rock from Bread, through more highbrow prog rock stuff (Caravan anyone?), reggae and ska, folk music - including the incomparable Incredible String Band, jazz and plenty of that elite music."

Ditto (with the possible exception of ska)!

johnpopham said...

Interesting stuff, Simon.

I'd be more or less with you on Led Zeppelin. I am not sure that Led Zep is necessarily genre music, it has been pigeon-holed as such by lazy journalists and the like, but, if you look at the full range of their music, it stretches any defined genre to breaking point.

And, as for my favourite topic, Rush. I have often described their output as late 20th Century Classical Music. Sure, it's rock music, but, if you heard some of it played by a full orchestra, and didn't know who it was written by, you might think it was by a classical composer. There is a String Quartet that has recorded some of their stuff, but I don't think that does it the justice a full orchestra would.

One of my favourite albums is "Moment of Glory" which is a recording of the main event on German TV on Millennium night, The Scorpions playing back by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Give it a listen on Spotify http://open.spotify.com/album/3eFDZodtqeOCyhqMuomVxg I think it might go some way towards illustrating my point.

Crispin Moor said...

Interesting post ... my only observation is that I generally enjoy listening more to music of the second rank, at the upper end of, (begging probably too many questions), such as Caravan, Focus, Erich Korngold, Ozric Tentacles than I do listening to 'great' music (whatever that is!). May be a genre thing or not, who knows!