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Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture through a Composer's Ears

Fineberg Joshua (2006). Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture through a Composer’s Ears. New York & London: Routledge.

br2008_093In a world where entertainment value and financial profit are key ingredients for commercial success and even critical recognition, the purpose and meaning of art in today’s society seem increasingly unclear or misunderstood. The average age of the typical concert hall attendee seems to be fast on the rise, leaving one to wonder who will fill the vacated seats in coming decades. Members of the general public and media often question the need for art forms that seem to have limited popular appeal. Musicians and arts promoters have attempted to create a new fan base through “image” manipulations such as symphonic “pop” concerts, sexy CD jackets, and the pairing up of opera singers with rock stars. But are the point and integrity of art itself lost or diluted as a result? In my opinion, Classical Music, Why Bother? makes a convincing case for the necessity, relevance, and inherent value of “serious” art in modern culture.

There are several reasons why I believe this book is pertinent to the field of music therapy. Many different musical styles and genres are used in music therapy intervention, and this decision is usually based upon client preferences. If music therapists can achieve increased understanding or gain new insights with regard to the value of “serious” music, they will be more effective in terms of knowing when and how to use it in a variety of clinical contexts. Moreoever, an entire model of music therapy, Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), is built upon the therapeutic potentials of listening to classical music. A publication that promotes the importance of this musical genre is most certainly relevant to this area of practice. Finally, society’s view on the role and function of art undoubtedly influences public perceptions surrounding music therapy. If society’s perspectives could be changed or broadened, and more value placed on the importance of music as this book suggests, there could be positive implications for the field. Potential clients would be more likely to seek out music therapy intervention, other professionals would be more likely to refer clients to music therapy, and this could result in the establishment of more music therapy positions in schools and healthcare facilities.

The author, Joshua Fineberg, is a contemporary “classical” composer and professor in the Humanities Department at Harvard University. In recent years, he has taught many students who are not music majors. Discussions with these educated non-musicians revealed diverse perspectives on the nature and role of art, and highlighted a need to address with a broader public what he believes is at stake if serious art forms disappear.

Fineberg introduces the overarching purpose of the book in the Prelude by citing three basic questions often posed to him at social occasions: (1) Why would one actually choose to become a contemporary composer? (2) How can contemporary composers possibly create works equal to those of the Great Masters? (3) Where is the audience for this genre? Rather than giving his typical “cocktail party” response, Fineberg takes this opportunity to thoroughly address these questions by exploring various aspects of the changing place accorded to art in contemporary society. Examples from both music and visual arts are used to delve into several topic areas which are concisely packed into 162 pages.

The book has eight chapters, all of which have potential applications to the field of music therapy. Each one is prefaced with one or more quotations by persons knowledgeable about some aspect of the specific topic area being discussed. This quickly orients the reader to the core content of each section.

Chapter One outlines a perspective on the aesthetic value of art. Here, art is defined by its ability to create and challenge meaning-an ability which includes the potential of art to transform humankind. Meaning-making and personal transformations are also aims of music therapy.

Chapter Two forays into the concept of taste, and a distinction is made between using art for entertainment versus deep aesthetic experience, a distinction that is also commonly made in music therapy. For Fineberg, the first involves leisure and relaxation, whereas the second involves work and personal investment. The notion of acquired taste demonstrates the need to try something multiple times in order to get past the threshold of where one actually experiences an aesthetic object in and of itself, and not through its deviation from expectation.

In Chapter Three, Fineberg criticizes the Conceptual arts movement that was established in the 1960’s and 70’s. He believes that the notion of art defined as a purely conceptual medium (ideas or concepts take precedence over aesthetics) is in direct conflict with the root origins of art. It is the combined skill, labor, and intentions of the artist that contribute to the aesthetic value of art and to our identity as human beings. In music therapy, when clients work to develop the skills that they need in order to successfully engage in musical experiences, they too derive benefits from the aesthetic aspects of the experiences, and thereby further define their identities and connect with their humanity.

Chapter Four explores the value of elitism based on merit. The fact that everyone does not have the opportunity to become a great artist does not mean that those who do have the ability should not be fostered. Music therapists believe that most, if not all human beings have innate musical abilities that should be fostered, even if the majority never becomes musicians in the traditional sense of the word. Fineberg also maintains that as long as “elitist” traditions and institutions remain open to innovation, they provide a context in which the general public can become more informed and engage more effectively with aesthetic works.

On the other hand, Chapter Five postulates that aesthetics, values, or taste may not be the issue; perhaps it is the concert hall which has become an outdated media. The pros and cons of technological solutions (i.e. virtual audiences, interactive performances, advances in recording techniques and distribution) to this quandary are explored. Music therapists are also using more technology in their work in order to make music experiences more accessible to clients as well as to broaden the selection of creative options.

Chapters Six and Seven focus more specifically on music and composition. Fineberg suggests that greater understanding is needed in terms of why tonal music functions so well for its listeners. This may be of particular interest to music centered music therapists who believe that the therapy lies within the music itself. Fineberg believes that this knowledge would help composers to design musical languages that could be used to create new works that are both inspirational and accessible. Chapter Eight provides a comprehensive overview on the “spectral approach” to composition where composers like Fineberg are attempting to better understand the general rules underlying tonality in order to create functional, intelligible and creative new music. This information could provide new perspectives to music therapists who use improvisation or composition as primary forms of intervention.

The book aptly wraps up with a Coda section where Fineberg provides a list of nine humorous formulaic endings. He ultimately concludes on a serious note stating that “.society is currently in the process of choosing – through action or inaction – whether nonpopular, nonfunctional art will remain a viable part of our culture.” (p.147). It is his hope that readers will feel compelled to respond in some manner (agreeable or otherwise) to his stated position.

In my opinion, Fineberg successfully addresses the questions he set out to answer. His arguments are very thorough, clearly articulated, and well referenced. His heartfelt personal opinions, anecdotes, and use of humor help to engage the reader in what could otherwise become a pedantic philosophical discussion. I also found the material to be intellectually stimulating and validating – particularly in terms of similar issues that I grapple with, including the role and function of music in my work as a music therapist, and how music therapists, like classical composers are often unacknowledged or misunderstood by the general public.

I did take issue with Fineberg’s use of the term “non-functional art” (art does not serve a practical purpose), as I believe there is potential for misinterpretation. The making of art does at the very least serve a function for the artist. The actual issue is whether society considers this function to be practical or essential. This may have been what Fineberg meant but it is unclear. He also states that art “.is a luxury. [and] does not directly improve the lot of the suffering masses” (p. 37) – a statement with which many music therapists might disagree. Art may not literally be able to feed the hungry but artistic responses to pain, suffering and tragedy can help to make meaning of difficult events, and provide great comfort and benefit to both art makers and receivers. This perspective actually contributes to Fineberg’s overall argument. Artistic responses to the events of 9/11 are just one relevant example (See a special edition of The Arts in Psychotherapy 29, no. 3 (June 2002) for more information on this topic).

Finally, this book was written from the perspective of a composer trained in the Western “classical” music tradition. Although the broader societal meaning of culture may have been too overwhelming to fully address in this book, the contemporary society that Fineberg refers to is becoming increasingly multicultural, and this most certainly has an impact on the role being accorded to art. This impact needs to be acknowledged, and the exploration of “accessible” musical systems and “serious” musical traditions of non-Western cultures could have relevant applications to Fineberg’s position.

Although the title might intrigue some, the apathy and lack of interest in “serious” contemporary music and art as described by Fineberg may ironically dissuade the broader public that he wants to engage from reading his book. However, for anyone who truly cares about the arts, this book is a must read. It is relevant to composers, ethnomusicologists, music educators, music therapists, performers, other artists, cultural scholars, and dedicated arts consumers. It will especially resonate with music therapists who are concerned with the aesthetic aspects of the music therapy process, and with those who believe in the inherent therapeutic value of creative expression. Fineberg’s passion for his beliefs in the importance of the arts stoked my passion for my beliefs in the importance of music therapy.

As long as a significant number of people continue to view the arts as an unessential “frill,” music therapists will struggle to gain mainstream acceptance, and many potential clients will not have access to the services that could help them. We need more open debate, dialogue and action by those of us who have the most obvious vested interests in this subject matter. We need to work together with other musicians and arts advocates. Music therapists have unique and important contributions to make in this area, which could inspire increased awareness, and a more enlightened public perspective regarding the inherent value of art in today’s society. Eventually, this might allow clinicians to spend much more time actually doing their work, and much less time defending it. 3, P)

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