Music or Muzak?

One of my pet peeves regarding the state of music today is the drive to create homogeneous sounds in all categories. I call this tendency creeping Muzak after the bland 'elevator' music that dominates Doctors offices and public buildings.

One place a lack of imagination in musical language is evident is in the concert hall where the same standards are played again and again - never really challenging an audience, never venturing into uncharted territory, or just never giving us anything new to listen to. Too many people in the Creative Director/Music Programmer capacity have a limited imagination when it comes to the use of music and the vast sound canvas available to the modern ear.

But the problem is not only in classical music. Films suffer from paint-by-numbers composition ala Hans Zimmer - where every score sounds the same, every swelling cue covers a proscribed route of ascension.

I don't live in New York, so I don't get a huge opportunity to attend plays, but the problem of Cookie-Cutter music seemingly infects the theater as well. Not specifically from a composition standpoint, but from a 'packaged for consumption' view.

The image of a Pop producer frantically training a lightly-talented young girl to become the next Britney is an accepted one in our culture. We like to be snarky about how easy it is to 'create' a pop star. The only reason it is possible though is because an industry that is focussed on profits (not creativity) has built a paradigm wherein the sameness matters more than talent. The music is packaged for optimum consumption - just like cookies.

We humans are creatures of habit. We are reassured by the sameness of things. We like recognizing a tune, responding correctly, feeling we are part of something larger. There is another side to our nature, however. We are curious, we like to explore, we experience change with a sense of mingled dread and excitement. Live music should tap into this aspect of our personality.

In this instance, touring rock bands manage the expectations of their audience far better than your average orchestra. They succeed in mixing the old and new in set lists designed to reward old fans and encourage new ones. Every concert expands the audience's understanding of the band's canon and encourages an exploration of new sounds. (This incidentally leads to a great deal of record sales!)

In the classical music world we pride ourselves on being above all of that. After all, the old trope is that the people who enjoy classical music are above other music fans - better somehow, more educated. Too often this leads to a classical music season that is little better than Muzak - soothing, familiar, forgettable.

In the classical world what are we doing that encourages individual expression, musical exploration and true creativity? What are we doing to effectively reward our fans with the tried and true while simultaneously introducing them to new music and possibilities? What are we doing to avoid the Muzak trap?


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