The Only Good Musician Is A Dead Musician

Simon Zagorski-Thomas

March 9, 2011

I wonder if British universities are finally coming around to the idea that there might be some value in contemporary music. Of course, the music departments that received the highest estimations in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise are all still run on the assumption that the only good musician is a dead musician (as in Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc). However, of the eight musicians on the Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts sub panel of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (which replaces the previous system), three have their specialisms in contemporary music – although none of them specialise in popular music or jazz of course.

How many other subjects at university level, though, have a majority of their undergraduate students (and by this I mean all music related courses) interested in a completely different subject area than their lecturers’ research specialisms? That’s not a rhetorical question by the way, I’m interested.  In fine art, theatre studies, English literature and film studies, do a minority elite study the dead masters of past ages whilst those who are interested in contemporary work have to struggle for acceptance or work in the ‘lesser’ universities? I suspect not.

Of course, there are a few departments in the better universities who have islands of contemporary excellence and there are even one or two where the music departments are dominated by people who study the living or at least the only recently deceased. There are even some good universities where the study of popular music has gained a foothold – but for the most part they are banished to the sociology or cultural studies departments. And for the most part they study the culture surrounding popular music rather than the music itself.

However, this issue is more complicated than necrophilia. Musicians not only have to be dead to be good but they have to compose rather than perform, write scores rather than improvise, use traditional orchestral instruments rather than electric or electronic ones and produce music for passive listening rather than active participation (leaving aside the question of being male and European). And music is a class issue too – there’s a particular culture of thinking that the mainstream of classical music is a higher form of art – requiring more refined mental abilities that other forms of musical appreciation. This has a rather weird corollary that sees more ‘intellectual’ subsets of art music such as the works of Ligeti, Stockhausen or Carter as being ‘too difficult’.

As a class issue, it seems that art music remains a signifier of membership and support of the status quo and that differing aspects of it demonstrate various levels of sophistication and differentiation: knowing about Monteverdi and Gluck marks somebody out as being more sophisticated in some ways than a Mozart buff – and yet perhaps suspiciously more sophisticated. The same is true of popular music in relation to forms and levels of bohemian character, rebellion and political or social extremism. Instead of signifying membership of a subculture, we now use music, like other aspects of culture, as a basket of goods that reflect both our ‘taste’ and our position in society. Delete as appropriate: I wouldn’t like to be thought of as someone who likes Shostakovich / Abba / Led Zeppelin / Darkthrone.

By the same token, it would seem that if you want to get to the top in the academic world of music, you should choose the right subject area as well as being clever. In fact, working in the right subject area can also be seen as a marker of being clever because it is associated with sophistication. Academics are always talking about sexy subjects and cinderella subjects but usually in terms of research funding or student demand rather than some deeper, intrinsic ‘value’.

So does this mean we have to think the unthinkable? Does it mean that the prestige of some aspects of academic subjects over others might be determined by prejudice and snobbery rather than relevance, complexity or academic rigour?