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Monday, 4 April 2011

Weekly Roundup: Fusions, Authenticity, and Stuff That’s Been Happening

The critic ponders.

My last selection of CD reviews all raised a few issues around fusion and authenticity. These are complex ideas that I can’t get into in real depth here, but I think it’s worth keeping them in mind when thinking about any music, not just stuff where they obviously figure. My instinct is to dismiss authenticity as a misnomer, as an ideological subscription to a complex of mythologies around art and artists that don’t stand up to a close examination; but the fact is that the notion of authenticity is important to a lot of producers and consumers of art, and especially music, so it’s not really viable to ignore the idea, and it’s probably disingenuous of me to maintain that it doesn’t inform my own interpretations at all.
I prefer the term ‘integrity’: it implies an artistic wholeness, which is more inclusive than the boundary fence that ‘authenticity’ seems to erect; but it may be another way of looking at the same thing, of buying into the same myth that some art is pure and truthful, while other art is debased and instrumental. I guess the distinction between the two terms lies in their grounds for assigning the quality of truthfulness to a particular artistic utterance: integrity implies a truth that is defined internally, in reference to the artistic process, and the extent to which it is motivated by a commitment to its materials; while authenticity implies more of an emphasis on the work’s relationship to other works, in terms of its originality or distinctiveness.
So how does this relate to the idea of a stylistic fusion? Well, firstly I should say that I believe fusion is more an idea than a thing: we project the concept of a fusion onto some of the stuff that we find it hard to define generically; but I would argue that (under conditions of modernity or post-modernity) every artistic statement is almost by definition a stylistic fusion. Whether setting out to be stylistically innovative or conservative, it is virtually impossible for a creator to avoid drawing their materials from more than one set of sources: even if they stick rigidly to generic conventions, their chosen genre will inevitably be an amalgam of earlier practices. The only alternatives to this are folk art, and experimental art: the one an enactment of tradition where context and content are inseparable, and the other a conscious effort to de-contextualise content and escape tradition.
All music is fusion; but some music is more fusion than other music. Sludge metal is an agglomeration of stylistic features from various historical genres, but it doesn’t sound to the listener (even the informed listener) like ‘style x mixed with style y’. A band like Salsa Celtica, on the other hand, sounds even to the uninformed listener like celtic folk music mixed with latin music; in that case the two styles are so generically distinct that although the band successfully unifies them they still maintain their distinct identities, and even an ardent authenticist might be challenged to argue that either had been debased by the encounter. Where the constituent styles are closer in sound, or in popular associations, as with Cuban and Brazilian dance band music, or Irish and Scottish traditional music, the enthusiast of one may be horrified by the fusion with the other, on the grounds that what is distinctive or unique about their beloved music is submerged or abandoned, and what pleasing novelty the result may possess is the superficial aspect of a lowest common denominator.
I wouldn’t want to dismiss such concerns out of hand, although (mea culpa) I frequently do. I think that if there’s a middle ground to seek, it is through taking some responsibility as listeners, to hear the music as encountered, and in making a value judgement about how much artistic integrity a fusion may have. Clearly if you are listening primarily for a generic meaning, you might be deaf to specific ones.
Looking back over the last few Mondays, I thought I was writing about various aspects of my musical thinking, but I seem to be having progressively longer and longer rants around genre. Genre, tradition, fusion, authenticity, innovation, originality, artistic integrity: these are all complex related ideas, and difficult ones to avoid if you want to discuss creativity and artistic meaning. I’d go so far as to argue that these are the principal sites of musical meaning for many listeners: even if you just like a phat beat and a catchy hook, there will be those cuts you think are good and those you think are cheesy, and the distinction will likely be determined by a stylistic cue triggering an assumption around one or more of these ideas.
I just missed this with last Monday’s post: Elbow win the Dynamic Range Day Award for the best sounding dynamic mix of 2010/11. I’m always suspicious when a reward for the ‘best’ anything goes to a famous band that you happen to have heard of already, since there are a bazillion unknown bands that are every bit as good, but I guess it helps to publicise the issue.
Maf Lewis says interesting things about the opportunities opening up through access to technology.
Sean Parker has put in an offer for Warner Music: if successful, it would mean that the man behind Napster owned the Metallica back catalogue. I like that kind of thing.
This is a pretty fascinating development: Amazon has gone ahead and launched a cloud music storage/ streaming service without negotiating licenses: the legal position looks pretty cloudy (pun intended), but it’s possible that they will be arguing this is personal use, no different from putting the files on an MP3 player. The whole mess of definitions around owning/ hearing/ storing/ downloading/ streaming just got more complicated, potentially to the benefit of listeners: one thing’s for sure, Apple and Google will be paying very close attention.
I think it’s far from true to say that the new media is just like the old media, but I can understand why this bloke’s pissed off, and he makes a lot of valid points. Most importantly, he questions the wisdom of putting your publicity channels purely in the hands of huge impersonal organisations like FaceBook.
I have ambivalent feelings about state funding for the arts: it sustains things that might not be self funding, but you have to ask how much of a good thing that is. There’s an awful lot of visual art out there that has been made because it’s the right product to elicit a living from the Arts Council: I don’t think it’s a bad thing for any of the arts if the only people doing them are the people who love it so much they don’t care whether or not it brings them an income. Having said that, funding for music is heavily skewed towards elaborate and extravagant dead forms like opera (dead because their ability to earn a living in their current forms is a distant historical memory, like Latin). Big cuts to the only national jazz funding portal are not a good thing, and skew the balance further, but as the writer points out, luckily jazz is a growth industry.

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