Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Age, adventure and accessibility in music ... what direction are we going?

Well, once again, it's good to be back and, while I have been listening to some great music over the past few days, I thought that instead of writing about that at the moment I would rather talk about an issue that has been playing on my mind a little for some time - the question of how musicans seem to change the style and flavour of their music over time.

In classical music it is pretty well axiomatic that composers' later music is more adventurous, less conventional, than their early music. The early music of people like Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, even Mozart, is much, much simpler, easier to understand, even easier to listen to, than their later work, which generally breaks more rules, explores more uncharted territory, and is more innovative and daring.

And yet in non-classical music, it seems, more often than not, to be the other way around. Bands start out breaking all the rules, creating and playing music that respects few if any boundaries and then slowly, over time, their music becomes more mellow, more accessible, more 'popular'.

Of course, my own knowledge of the whole vast non-classical domain is still very scanty and it's likely that for every example I could cite of musicians moving in one direction, someone could cite examples of others moving in the other. And yet it's a trend that seems to be prevalent enough and wide enough, at least in much of the music I have been listening to, to have made a impression on me. I look at bands like my beloved Einstürzende Neubauten, the music of Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, Hunters & Collectors, Swans, Muse, Tori Amos, Diamanda Galás - and, for the most part, their earlier music seems more uncompromising, more "out there", than their later work.

Obviously, there are exceptions - musicians like David Sylvian and Scott Walker, for example, and even to some extent Björk, who have done some incredibly daring stuff in their later albums. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

I'm not sure why this is and, while it would be tempting to ascribe it all to the pressures of commercialism, and the need to produce music that sells, I'm not sure that that explains it totally. A band like Einstürzende Neubauten, for example, never seem to have been particularly fussed about commercial success and, at any rate, great artists - which many of today's musicians clearly are - can never really stem the flow of their creative juices, no matter how strong the pressure to make a buck might be.

Even Wagner, who was as easily seduced by the lure of a few extra Deutsch Marks as anyone could possibly be, and who decided to temporarily abandon his massive, epic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and to instead put his energies into something that would bring in some money and to therefore write a popular romantic opera ended up in fact writing Tristan und Isolde, a work that has been credited with revolutionising modern harmony, and turning music into an entirely new direction forever.

So, what is it that drives these changes in style and appoach in today's musicians? How big a part does the demands of an increasingly commercialised music industry really play, or is it just that we now live in times where we become more mellow, rather than more daring, in our old age? Or to people just run out of new ideas?

Or have I got it all wrong anyway and is the real story that today's musicians, every bit as much as yesterday's, still do become more adventurous as they develop and mature, and I have just been listening to the wrong stuff, or listening in the wrong way?

Thoughts would be very welcome ... !!

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