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Baby See, Baby Do

Culture is what people do. It is not, we repeat, not, what people did. What people did in the past, fascinatingly invaluable though it may be, is history, and if its medium is artistic, then the subject is the history of whichever art form is involved.

Nor is "culture" necessarily on a lofty intellectual plane. When the vast majority of a country's inhabitants chooses to indulge in a particular pursuit-be it witnessing two men beat each other senseless in a prize fight, gyrating their pelvises within or without hula-hoops, or piercing their noses or ear lobes for the insertion of gems or trinkets — then these activities, while they are in vogue, become part and parcel of a nation's consciousness. Should that conduct persist beyond the moment of a passing fad, then this conduct must be considered to have cultural significance, to be one of the sociological fingerprints of a people at a given point in time.

As such, our definition of "culture" should aim to be as non-judgmental as possible, and as descriptive as we are capable of being. A string quartet player or chamber music enthusiast might abhor the staticky plosion of electronic overload so indigenous to the pops music of our day, but the sounds he hears (and hates) are a more palpable part of his culture than the far more ratified (and less amplified) sounds of an instrument in a Haydn or Carter quartet.

And here's the rub, particularly in so dynamic and pluralistic a society as ours. Is it unfair to posit that the great majority of participants in the pops experience have no knowledge of, or interest in, either Haydn or Carter quartets? Is it unfair to submit that the great majority of chamber music enthusiasts do not wish to admit the pops experience to their concept of culture? Has there always been so immutable a cultural divide, inevitably determining music's watershed either towards an elitist audience of the few, or towards the mainstream of the many?

Never has the dividing line seemed greater, the gulf more unbridgeable between the two valleys towards which the cultural waters flow. And never has there been less cause for such a dichotomy to exist, what with the longer lifespans we enjoy, the availability of mass media, and the increased leisure and money that permit us to pick and choose the menus of our cultural fare.

In order to understand the situation existing in today's arts, and most especially in the most "abstract" of them — music — we must first recognize that there are many different outlets or "markets," and that some of these are larger than others. That the pops audience is larger than the concert audience is self-evident; that they should be almost mutually exclusive is not. Even within the concert sector itself, there are forms which attract a wider public, e.g., opera, symphony concerts; and forms to which a smaller (but equally enthusiastic) following flocks, e.g., art songs, chamber music. In recent times, we have been reading a lot about "cross-over," styles of musical expression which seem to attract audiences that are different from the predictable ticket buyers. Examples of this have included music that mixes various forms of jazz or folk material with more traditional concert structures. Certain types of experimental music have brought out the curious. And a fleeting look at the people queued up outside the box office for a Steve Reich or Philip Glass concert would suggest that the so-called "minimalism" in music provides different people with a different motivation for being there than we are used to in our old, established concert halls. Those people are expecting different things from the music they pay to hear, and they get it.

But what is it that determines how people choose to spend their hours and their dollars? Why will so many appreciate some products while finding others puzzling, irrelevant to their lives or, worse, boring? The answer may lie not in the product but in the people.

People respond to what they know, to material with which they can identify. Recording series such as the Unesco Collection of music from exotic and far-away places have exposed us to the sounds of the Orient, of India and Africa. While we may marvel at these musics, so vastly different from our own, our appreciation is surely more intellectual than visceral. Conversely, put a Beethoven string quartet before an aborigine and see if his response is not one of bewilderment. His particular aesthetic apparatus simply does not produce an appropriate reaction, his musical conditioning having been so different from Beethoven's.

Listen to the people you know talk about music. The composer, the performer, the teacher, the critic — they all seem to set out from a starting point which needs to be questioned: the inevitability of their particular trade and of themselves within it. Even the music merchant falls into the trap, expressing interest only in that which sells according to his expectations and dismissing everything else as peripheral and unnecessary.

The problem, as we see it, is that too many of us may be too used to viewing the arts in general and music in particular from the top down, rather than the bottom up; from the vantage point of our own parochial interests and concerns; and not sufficiently from the viewpoint of the ultimate user of the art-in the case of music, the listener. In bygone times, the line between the professional and the amateur was slim indeed. Everyone made music, to more or less of a degree, and the music that was being made wasn't so complicated that it defied the common currency. But as our times became increasingly complex, so did our arts and soon we found ourselves employing specialists to provide what we could no longer provide for ourselves. And, losing the direct connection to music's creative impulse, we became passive spectators rather than active participants. Passivity, however, can take us only so far. It can lead us to museums and music halls to witness the history of what was.

As to what is and what will be, that will have to be determined by our cultural conditioning. And by "our" we mean all who share a common time and place.

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