IASPM day 4: Popular Music as Prophecy (Rupert Till) #iaspm2013


Popular Music as Prophecy: Composing the Future. Rupert Till (University of Huddersfield, UK)

Attali describes how popular music organises the structures and movements of society into audible sound, before such socio-cultural developments are clearly visible. He described three eras of music and sound, as did Cutler and Frith after him. However he predicted in 1977 a fourth era of sound yet to come, focused on composition. This paper investigates this prophesied new world, discussing the implications of presenting creators of popular music as composers. It investigates how popular musicians describe their creations and what this means. It explores their aesthetics, why they write music, and what the relations are of their compositions to modes of mediation and distribution. It attempts to define popular music composition, and its relationships with songwriting, arrangement, improvisation and production. It asks what we might prophesy for the future of society, on the basis of a musical world where popular music composers circulate their music directly to their audience, in virtual and social media music communities outside of existing national geographic boundaries.

Rupert starts with his theoretical framework, citing Attali (1977), Cutler (1993) and Frith (1996). Allati has a ‘4th code’ focusing on composition [from his Four Stages of Music]. His Ritual (Oral – 10,000yrs)/Sacrifice (c.400yrs)/Repetition (recordings – c.100yrs)/Composition (deregulation – the future?). Attali’s view is that when the focus is on making and sharing music for pleasure we (will?) begin to enter the ‘composition’ phase.

He points out that popular music ‘composition’ deconstructs the elitism of the classical tradition and therefore may be more apt for a ‘Composition’ age. He then talks about songwriting and describes it as a ‘special case’ of composition, for several reasons, not least because it involves lyrics. He alludes to ‘team composition’ and the blurred line between songwriting, production and arrangement, especially in rehearsal/recording studio creative environments. In Attali’s view (1977, remember) was that in a notational ‘composition era’ these activities could be carried out at home, by an individual.

The paper next cites the timeline of process, stating that it is of course impossible to hear the music before it has been composed, but noting that there are many others in the production chain (e.g. mastering/mixing, distribution etc). He then asks whether it is appropriate to use the term ‘composer’ to describe popular music creative, noting that Joni Mitchell calls herself a ‘composer, perfomer and lyric writer’. He cites various other examples, including Sting, Joan Osborne, Billy Brag, Freddy Mercury, Gary Barlow and Robin Gibb, and shares their reflections and self-definitions.

Rupert now turns to aesthetics and asks ‘why compose’ and quotes Gary Barlow’s stated intention to take a listener-centric approach to songwriting. He pplaies theory from Bruner and Langer (regarding the way music affects), returning to Frith (2005) on the way music changes the state of the listener. Attali’s 1977 prophecy, Rupert asserts, is coming true due to the empower of the caring amateur with access to cheap, widely available digital tools. He reflects economically that over-supply of content reduces costs, noting that although revenues are down, costs are also down [I don’t think these figures are likely to be proportional, given that only the recording is cheap; the cost of marketing/touring and artist is unlikely to be very different from that of the Phonographic Years.]

For the tricky ‘prophecy’ slide, Rupert contends that digital will of course erode revenues to some extent, speculating that the arts may be ‘returned to the people’. He describes changes in publishing, visual art and film.

[Personally I find some of the prophecies to be perhaps slightly romantic, because of my concerns about how artistic quality is achieved through the pressure of market forces. If film-making is democratised wouldn’t this mean that all films become low-budget? What about the role of cultural gatekeepers – how do we deal with the A&R challenge of millions of inexperienced songwriters, all with access to the means of production, all ’emoting’ unsolicited songs to an uncaring audience?]

He ends by discussing the possible downside – political tyranny opportunities, and possible reduction in artistic quality [as I have speculated above].

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