Wheaton College Conservatory of Music


This article originally appeared in Arts Policy Review, January/February 1995. Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036-1802. Copyright © 1995.

For reasons I can only partly explain, I do some of my best thinking in the Stratford Mall in Carol Stream, Illinois. In my office, my mind jumps from one unfinished project to another and caroms off of my calendar, a revolving conspiracy of appointments, meetings and deadlines. At home in my study, I fare somewhat better, but there are still conspiracies: fix this, mow that, don't forget to change the oil and maybe the sofa would feel good. And the college library is just too quiet for my suburbanized ears. Besides, all the books call out to be read or to remind me that someone else has surely said it better.

But the Stratford Mall, at a corner table in the food court between 9:00 and 11:30 of a weekday morning: something happens there in those few hours before the mall slowly changes from an indoor park to a shopping center. Young mothers wheel and walk their children. There are the senior citizens, some quietly by themselves, others in coffee klatches, some of them power walking. Near the food court is a waterfall garlanded by real trees and real flowers. And of course there is the piped-in music, not unlike the Tafelmusik of earlier times. It does its job well, joining the white noise--this sonic environment which, somehow for me, is exactly what I need to bring words and thoughts with an ease that I find nowhere else. So maybe Stratford is my indoors equivalent of a shady 19th century oak by a chortling 19th century stream--Nature's own white noise--facilitating my intellectual agenda. Except there are no mosquitoes, ants or humidity.

I've tried to figure out why this place works so well for me and have concluded that, more than the mothers, the children, and the old folk, it is the meld of the falling water and the music--yes, the music. Maybe I should no longer make fun of the reports about cows and factory workers producing more when music plays. Or maybe I should step down as a professional musician and join the ranks of the aesthetically unwashed.

But the music of Stratford Mall contributes only a fraction to my perceptual world of music. Without any doubt, the single most important piece of music for me, and to my mind, one of the greatest compositions ever written, is the Sarabande from Bach's Fifth Cello Suite. The score is with me in my office all the time, hanging directly behind me. Its pitches and intervals reach centuries ahead of their time and dare me to solfege them. This composition is to me both invocation and benediction, a beginning and an ending. Its grave beauty and procedural mystery force me to the creative edge no matter how often I listen to it. And when it begins, everything else stops and I am left alone with this composition and it fills my heart and goes beyond my understanding, for this gentle heaviness will always somehow elude me. As much as I have tried I cannot explain it fully, nor do I ever hope to. Nor is this Sarabande alone. It is, in fact, the musical frontispiece for an enormously diverse library of masterworks which, I hope, will never become only white noise for me. This library keeps growing; it persists in stretching my intellect and spirit, all the while bringing me no end of aesthetic satisfaction.

Yet I cannot overlook the possibility that the Sarabande or any other piece of great music could sometime make its way into the sound system of Stratford Mall, or more likely, the classically oriented one at Oakbrook Center, an upscale mall just a few miles southeast of Stratford. If perchance it did, it would go to work befriending the environment, joining the white noise to which mothers walk their children and senior citizens enjoy their coffee. Except for me. The white noise would cease and this great masterpiece would lay hold of me as always. That which usually facilitates my work would quickly be turned to singular significance and I would lay down my pen and listen deeply.

But here's the irony. For others, who have become accustomed to music primarily as a portion of a larger environment, the white noise would probably remain white noise. And whether we like it or not, all music--good, bad, old, new, simple, complex, loud, soft--is contextually friendly, seemingly bent on soaking up whatever is around it, easily shifting from foreground to background. It takes a special effort of the aesthetic will to keep it in the foreground--to encounter it on its own terms and for its inherent worth--even when we consciously devote ourselves to this task. In this respect and with the possible exception of the visual arts, music is unlike any other form of propositional communication. Everyone except the most stubbornly absolutist thinkers understands this. And if this present culture survives long enough for its history to repeat itself, the musics created for today's Stratford Malls may well make their way into tomorrow's quieted and tuxedoed concert halls, just as the Tafelmusik of the past has. Musicologists will pore over their various minutiae, showing how this newly absolutized material should be studied and canonized. Mannerisms and protocols will gradually make their way into performance practices; coughing will be frowned on during performances and, by all means, there will be no waterfalls and the sounds of little children will be unwelcome. Meanwhile, some other kind of new music will be piped into tomorrow's Stratfords and tomorrow's music critics may well continue the lament over the ongoing denigration of the art form.

In the remainder of this article, I would like to discuss the perceptual territories through which music makes its way, along with some of the issues which influence the ways we take music in--the ways we perceive it--in our culture. I would like to think that the more we take them together, the more we legitimize all of them in our teaching of music, the better we can equip our students to understand how diversely useful music is, how many ways it brings pleasure and what they need beware of if they want to be the best possible caretakers of an easily honored and easily misused art form. For music itself is naively generous; it gives of itself far more than many of its performers and scholars allow. Its very ubiquity--its contextual generosity, its natural tendency to join forces with whatever surrounds it, so often condemned by the absolutists and prostituted by the pragmatists--needs to be recognized, celebrated, disciplined, and protected. In the remainder of this article, I would like to go over a few ideas which have slowly occurred to me and helped me both in my musical sojourn and the limited amount of teaching that I am privileged to do. I pass them along in that spirit, not unaware of the tremendous amount of scholarship and thought which grace the minds, monographs, books and pedagogies of the American educational system.


It is important to understand the ultimate weakness of labels--how they work best as starting points and how they usually fail as ending points. We musicians know this well, having some rather strange labels of our own to contend with. We realize, among other things, that a scherzo is not a "joke," a fugue is more than a "flight," and sonata-allegro is not always something "cheerfully sounded." We know that performers do not get up and commence walking when they read "Andante," nor should singers feel obligated to hie themselves to a chapel in order to sing a capella.

So with "high" and "low" culture. We know about the hits that these two words have taken, particularly from multiculturalists, how something pejorative and demeaning may be taking place because of the implication that "high" may be superior to "low." For some time I too, had thought that these terms should forever be buried and forgotten, primarily because of the allegations attached to them. However, I have come to realize that "diversity," "pluralism," "multiculturalism" have come into their own kind of difficulty, narrowed down by socio-political and racial arguments, by vague notions of what world music really is, and not least of all, by the general exclusion of Western art music--indeed, all world high cultures--from the discussion. As a result, I've tried to work through the confusion, going back and forth in my own mind, and have concluded that, as much as I am committed to diversity in all of its trans-culture and historical worth, and as frail as labels are, "high" and "low" remain useful as long as they are defined in a better way and then used as the starting points for a new look at all good music and art.

I would like to suggest, therefore, that the terms "high" and "low" culture do not constitute two disparate layers or a hierarchy. Instead, they are inextricably bound together, created by diverse people who are united by imagination, their unique perceptions, and creative genius. Together, they describe a creative ecology, an inter-related, cross-idiomatic body of work, each with its classicisms, traditions, integrity, processes, evolving mechanisms, schooling, and ways of determining and achieving quality. Their differences can best be described up by pairing the following words, each a micro-ecology, each taken in its most dignified sense: primitive-refined, coarse-finessed, common-sophisticated; ornamental- developmental. (1)

We can begin with the first of each pair: primitive, coarse, common, ornamental. This brings a whole range of people and their artistries to mind. We think of peasant folk, blue collar enclaves, laborers, slaves, and their handiwork: hopsacking, stews, porridges, work songs, jigs, reels, dry sinks and pie safes; artifacts made with deep insight and little formal schooling; artifacts that mysteriously combine simplicity and economy; works of art possessing native eloquence; expressions in which the poetic spirit validates the interior structures and grammars; creativity that unites beauty, coarseness and eloquence: the blues, strophic variation, Renaissance dances, the "primitive" side of Picasso and others of his stylistic companions, thatched roofing, wursts, yogurts, Grandma Moses, Eric Hofer, mountain dulcimers, shaped-note hymnody, mazurkas, polkas, American fuguing tunes, windmills, Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs, and shoo fly pie.

We are also reminded of a host of primitive and tribal artistries: Usarufa arrows, Cameroonian drumming, Guatamelan marimbas, Navajo design, Romanian folk art, Irish fiddle music, the great repertoire of English carols and folk songs, dry masonry, steel drum bands, Zydeco, ceremonial masks, and barnraisings. Then we circle back around to certain (but not all) kinds of jazz, gospel and rock: Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles (before the commercial gatekeepers got hold of him), Jimmy Hendrix, Sinead O'Connor, Howlin' Wolf, and Henry Butler.

The pairing of refined, finessed, sophisticated and developmental suggests haute cuisine, Mozart, Vermeer, silk, cloisonnŽ, sonata-allegro form, Duncan Phyfe, Chartres, baroque pipe organs, Max Roach, sonnets, Debussy, Keith Jarrett, Erroll Garner, Lenny Tristano, marquetry, Christopher Wren, Leonardo, classical rhetoric, Art Tatum, part but not all of Charles Ives, Andrew Wyeth, Ella Fitzgerald, the Parthenon, Elliot Carter, Lee Konitz, the gamelan, ancient Chinese court music, Roy Harris, Diego Rivera, Duke Ellington, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Several things are immediately noticeable in these pairings. First, certain bodies of art and practices within them are ubiquitous; some jazz is "low:" Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk; some "high:" Max Roach, Keith Jarrett, Lee Konitz. Some classical art is more "low" than "high:" Renaissance dances, the primitive side of Picasso, the English carol, or American fuguing tunes. In these cases, the art has been transferred from "low" to "high" by arbitrary inclusion in concert repertoire and museums, and/or its performance by classically trained artists.

Second, many artisans responsible for producing "high" artifacts were (or are), in many cases, citizens of a lower culture. They went home to their porridges, wursts, cheeses, ales, and crusty bread, wearing their home-spun clothing, bedding down on hand-hewn frames, ticking, and quilting. They danced their jigs and spoke in their common vernaculars. They were stationed beneath those for whom they created many of the treasures that we now call high art. Their artistic intellects and creative minds thus rose far above their social positions.

Third, human creativity is irrepressible. No cultural setting, no matter how deprived of theory, schooling, materials, or tradition can squelch or demean it. Left to itself, even in straitened circumstances, deprived of formal education, it will grow and mature of its own initiative--in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea or mid-town Manhattan. Creativity inevitably comes through, enhancing and enabling virtually any context. All works, high and low, in some way possess a quality which confirms, disturbs, or reforms the contexts in which they come into being. And in this respect alone, they form an indivisible union.

Fourth, low and high art pieces rest quite comfortably together in museums, libraries, learned symposia, homes, offices, shops. And of late, "high" scholarship has done more to integrate their integrities than ever before. And we cannot forget that many low culture artifacts have been taken over by high culture--adopted is too mild a word--as if they were always a part of it. While this takeover may superficially appear to elevate low art, it actually creates an artificial separation between it and related low art forms that are not yet inserted into the canon nor have become a regular part of concert hall fare. This kind of separation might in fact have facilitated the uneasy union of low culture, mass culture and multiculturalism which seems now to exist.

Fifth, "high" is not exclusively art and "low" only craft. Nor is "high" spiritual and "low" earthy. Both appropriate the entire spectrum of artfulness, craft, spirituality, and earthiness.

Sixth, and perhaps the most intriguing, are the ways in which the boundaries between the best of high and low culture are blurred into a unity. Their extremes may be easy to separate, but the territory lying in between is often difficult to categorize. There is an interaction, a circling back and around, a reciprocation, a conversation--an enchanting intercourse, enabled by nothing other than mutual integrity and artfulness. Consequently, we think of primitive ornamentalized compositional processes in the Baroque partitas, American fuguing tunes, the street sounds and meters of Renaissance dances, the heterophonies of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, the ornamental molecularities of minimalism, the inter-stylistic hide-and-seek of William Bolcom and Charles Ives, the primitive classicism of such early American composers as Supply Belcher, the frankness and plain beauty of Shaker design, Scott Joplin and, yes, the comparative lack of developmental and intellectual technique in composers like Chopin and Rimski-Korsakov.

In summary, this grand ecology is what a true and discerning diversity is about. It is, paradoxically, a seamless garment in which the weave is strong and authentic and from which we can experience the immense sweep of human creativity. We can move through this world celebratingly and thankfully--that is, if we really care about quality and authenticity. Only after we discover the strength and unity of this creative continuum--for that is what I shall call the high/low continuum from now on--can we separate it away from the conditions and dangers of contemporary popular culture, to which we can now turn.


If high and low culture comprise an unbroken continuum, popular culture comprises yet another. It too, crosses lines and obfuscates boundaries; it too, is cross-idiomatic. But more than that, it is powerful enough in its own way to commandeer virtually the whole of the creative continuum, melting down its character and removing the edge from its uniqueness in order to fit its interior prerogatives. This reconstitution is best described, for want of a better word, as the kitschifying of the entire continuum. This kitschifying then institutionalizes itself, transforming what it has taken over into a separate culture--deftly organized, organic, moneyed, cleverly networked and virtually as American as anything America has been able to create. The virtual omnipresence of popular culture may well be the sure sign that, outside of a vigorous intellectual and spiritual reformation, this country may have found its real self, its true cultural and aesthetic voice. It seems that the best of this country's folk, ethnic, and religious art forms, is slowly being repressed or slickened by popularization; it seems that America is slowly proving itself incapable of producing a truly indigenous classical culture--having virtually forgotten the marvelous precedents of its fuguing tunes, its ballads, its Civil War music, its Horatio Parkers, Charles Ives', Aaron Coplands, and Roy Harris'; it seems also that we are bypassing the uniqueness and importance of serious jazz and musical theater. Instead, popular culture appears to be America's indigenous speech, as familiar as its fast-food apple pie and as much a part of its persona as its technological, military, and economic institutions.

What is kitsch? Kitsch is authenticity in full aesthetic masquerade. While mediocrity may be poor quality with no place to hide, kitsch is overt and exhibitionist; it is presumptuous, insincere and hypocritical mediocrity. It is blatant and strident pretension. Kitsch is never too little. Quite the reverse. Kitsch is intemperance and overstatement, mimicking excellence, but missing the point of what brings excellence about. Kitsch appropriates any given style and then works it over without the eye, ear, or spirit for detail, nuance, subtlety, depth, and overall eloquence. It is bathos instead of depth; froth instead of lightness, mass instead of force, busyness in place of detail. Consequently, kitsch will variously streamline, pervert, gloss over, misrepresent, or overstate a style, using only those elements which impart only the roughest approximation of the real thing.

Kitsch preys on the untrained because of the way it approximates. Compared to authentic colonial style, kitsch is pseudo-colonial, not semi-colonial; if it is jazz, kitsch is pseudo jazz--ear candy; if it is art music, blues, Broadway or classical, kitsch is the pseudo alternative. It is theme park stylism, pretending toward something for which it has no indigenous resource, meanwhile deluding the pretenders and the consumers into believing that they are experiencing the real thing. Kitsch is the difference between antiques and "antiquing;" between crass ornamentation and integrated design, between development and bombast; it pretends toward the whole without recognizing wholeness; it is creativity from the outside in; it therefore is pseudo-authenticity. Kitsch is not artistic cuisine or peasant porridge but ersatz nourishment garnished with itself. Put another way, if creative authenticity is ontological nourishment, kitsch is ontological Nutrasweet. Kitsch is the stylistic cohort of contemporary docudrama, just as docudrama is virtually the prevailing format for the whole of contemporary culture: news as docudrama, worship as docudrama, family life as docudrama, and art as docudrama.

Finally, kitsch is not only questionable content but a questionable attitude about good content. To kitschify Beethoven or Duke Ellington is to use these artists as a way of creating a top 40, easy listening mentality within a reference point of quality. In this sense, the major symphony orchestras kitischify the largely unheard world of art music by turning the music of the Beethovens into virtual mantras--reducing mystery to familiarity and dulling intellectual engagement with press releases, producing Hollywood Bowl extravaganzas, and creating the impression that the real artistic issue turns on the who of super-star performance rather than the what of content.

In short, popular culture is the price we have decided to pay for our urge for easy access, trivial engagement, and facile exit. Thus popular culture is as much a moral issue as its an aesthetic or stylistic one.


We can now consider the role of entertainment in the practice, teaching, and critique of art--high, low, and kitsch. In this section I hope to make a few suggestions which could positively affect a pedagogy of music perception and response and, not least, of all, bring the music of the Stratford Mall and the Bach Sarabande into a working relationship. Before doing that, I would like briefly to go over two issues.

The first has to do with the difference between musical quality and musical relevance. If someone does not like, say, Western art music, this may not signal the absence of refined taste or the presence of bad taste. If this same person prefers progressive jazz, Islamic maqam, and the music of the gamelan, we can only say that his or her taste is contained within or limited to these musics. The same thing must be said about the person who prefers Western music from 1400 to 1750, John Philip Sousa marches, and bluegrass. It is therefore unwise to say that musical diversity in our present culture is legitimate only if it includes Western art music. Given today"s cultural mixes and options it is entirely possible for a body of great music to be irrelevant for a body of people who otherwise have high aesthetic sensitivities. In other words, there is nothing wrong with someone putting Western art music in a less-than-primary position as long as the entirety of his or her choices is dominated by a quest for quality and perceptual growth.

The second issue is about the difference between musical production and musical content. Music, like theater and dance, is a composite of two artistic actions: the art of significant content and the art of presenting content significantly. Thus, there are standards of quality and ways of perceiving which may apply directly to the way music is performed without applying to the musical content of the performance. Hence, there is a marked difference between a great performance and a performance of great music. This difference has never been more pronounced that it is today, when techniques, production, and the power of person have combined into a dangerous whole. Consequently, music may be perceived to be relevant or good on the basis of who is doing it, how it is done, than what it intrinsically is. This is as true of art music, with its personality/prestige cults as it is of pop and rock, for our culture seems increasingly obsessed with a fusion of narcissism, irresponsible charisma, technique, money, and majorities. We are also the victims of the commercial gatekeepers--classical and popular--who choose our content for us and then, through the force of advertising, lull us into thinking that we as free Americans have chosen it for ourselves.

Probably the most serious aspect to our obsession with production has to do with the technological paraphernalia used in numerous ways, either to divert attention away from content and onto production, or so exaggerate content that is perceived to be weightier than it really is. While live musical events, particularly in popular music, are guilty of their own share of technological overkill, it is in the recording studio that technology can be used to create a bigger/better-than-life soundscape, to cover for otherwise average performances, and to cause even great artists to appear better than they really are. Musical events are shifted, enhanced, sifted, corrected and transformed so much so, that many artists and musical events can only survive on recordings, or if the artists go "live" with the same content, the aesthetic downturn is alarming. This is nothing other than artistic cover-up. The perceptual damage done especially to our young people--the creative and ethical loss they suffer--is nothing short of a scandal.

Now to entertainment. Somehow, it has become natural to attack the concept of entertainment and to assume that it and good music--whatever we mean by "good music"--are mutually exclusive. If we were given these three words-- art, quality and entertainment--and were asked to choose what matches and what doesn't, the most usual answer would be that art and quality match and entertainment is the oddball. This is due in large part to the way critics have established criteria that, in a sweeping gesture, assume entertainment to be the opposite of great art and the soul mate of popular culture. Creating high-quality art, they say, takes time, concentration, intellectual prowess and no small amount of intensity. Great art is not quick and easy; it is deep and difficult. It engages us down where the sum and substance of the human dilemma, the wrestlings, the sufferings, the protests and the triumphs can be found. Consequently great art does not offer immediate gratification, nor does it court those who seek it.

Entertainment is its opposite. It lacks substance, depth and intrinsic purpose. It is fluff, whimsy, aesthetic meringue, ornament and fleeting fancy. It thrives by seeking out and exploiting the lowest common denominator and proves the worth of this strategy at the cash register. Entertainment is industry; serious art is noble purpose. Entertainment fronts for substance and seduces the unwitting into thinking that they are engaged in the real stuff of life. Entertainment is sit-com think and Muzak; it is production over content, sizzle over substance. It is addictive--just another way an already addicted society has of "shooting up." In short, it is a sign of a civilization in its death waltz.

So they say.

This latter description sounds like we have returned to a discussion of popular culture, the degeneration of integrity into kitsch, and the top 40 classics. On the contrary. While it seems natural to match kitsch with entertainment, it is not quite as easy to demonstrate the ways that serious art--throughout the creative continuum--can likewise be compatible with entertainment. So the issue does not lie in the caricatured extremes of art and entertainment but in the expanse of perceptual territory lying in between, in which an entire gamut of legitimate music making and perceiving may take place.

Perhaps we can best demonstrate this issue by creating a matrix of four common perceptual scenarios, in which different kinds of musical content and varying degrees of engagement with that content can be combined. Two terms will be used to describe these: deep and shallow. They are not to be considered as isolated extremes but as endpoints in a continuum. Neither term carries pejorative connotations. Each is flexible and can be made to fit special circumstances. A musical composition may be shallow from one perspective and deep from another. What may be shallow for a second grader may be deep for a college senior, and the reverse. Or elementally simple music (shallow in a musical sense) may have significant cultural weight (deep in a sociological sense). It must be remembered that shallow need not mean trivial, mediocre, or simplistic. Rather, it can signify a completely legitimate way of approaching content, or it may refer to a type of great music.

A couple of simple analogies may help. Clean water may run shallow or deep; in either case it remains water and remains clear and clean. Milk, in the nutritional sense, is not as strong as meat. Comparatively speaking, milk is shallow and meat deep. But it is no less legitimate or complete. And for the milk drinkers, it is whole, it is deep, and it is complete. Applying these analogies to music, we can say that music can be of high artistic quality and still be shallow. We can also say that music can be extremely simple and short-lived and still be deep. With regard to the former, certain fast movements of Haydn or many of the elegantly styled improvisations of George Shearing come to mind. A good example of a simple and short composition of considerable depth is Paul McCartney's Yesterday and most certainly the Bach Sarabande mentioned at the beginning of this article. While the two may not be of equal depth or of equal quality, they are far from being shallow. With these analogies and illustrations in mind, we can go more fully into four perceptual scenarios, each with its own continuum.

1. Shallow engagement with shallow content, or casual listening to elementally simple or casual music. In this case, both engagement and musical content are light but not lacking quality. Here are some examples: (1) Taking in shallow music as background while watching a cartoon. The music is Bach's Fugue a la Gigue and the cartoon is a technologically sophisticated version of a tennis match at double speed; (2) humming Amazing Grace while working at a precision lathe; (3) singing madrigals in a bank lobby.

2. Shallow engagement with deep content, or casual listening to elementally complex or profoundly expressive work. For example, one might casually listen to a Mozart string quartet at an outdoor reception or listen to someone play a Bach trio sonata in order to determine the acoustical qualities of a new concert space or offhandedly enjoy a profound composition that, in other circumstances, might be engaged with deepest concentration. Another example could be listening to the relative shallowness of Phillip Glass' music composed for the movie Koyaanisqatsi, a deeply disturbing art piece.

3. Deep engagement with shallow content. Here, one may be engaged in serious study or analysis of an elementally simple composition. For instance, serious study can be given to, say, Sinead O'Connor's uncanny ability to bend, or come at, pitches from their sharp side (in contrast to the overwhelming tendency of jazz and pop musicians to bend pitches to or from the flat side). And while this is being undertaken, the stylistic relationships between Irish pop/rock styles and their folk counterparts could be researched. Then, all serious performers must engare deeply with musical content, even the shallowest, in order to present a convincingly artist performance. Or, in an entirely different setting, a newcomer to an established musical style might have to concentrate deeply on a piece of music that others, familiar with the style can take for granted. For example, a classical music novice in the early stages of piano study may struggle to penetrate a midly dissonant, technically simple composition by George Rochberg. Furthermore, there are times when, for a variety of reasons an admittedly shallow composition will generate deep emotional response or lead someone into an engagement with profound intellectual issues that both include and reach beyond music itself.

4. Deep engagement with deep content. One of the tenets of a discerning musical pluralism is that while quality should always be an issue, it can be found in many kinds of music. The same is true of musical depth, as long as we understand that there is more than one kind of musical depth. There is intellectually profound music: structurally complex, carefully worked out, replete with integrated detail and synergized into an architectural whole. It calls for and gratifies intense intellectual efforts on the part of the perceiver. Interestingly enough, this kind of music communicates profoundly with those who simply love it, even though they may have no intellectual clue as to how to get at its procedural intricacies. This is more possible with music than virtually any other form of communication: syntactical intricacies need not be understood for the music to be deeply loved. If we are not careful we can give the impression that the intellectual is the primary criterion in great music. And we might wish further to assume that because art music appears to be more consciously and consistently intellectual than folk and popular music, including even the most intellectualized jazz, these musics lack profundity.

Several catches--at least five--follow on this assumption. First, a significant body of art music, let alone popular, folk and jazz, is intellectually shallow, yet profoundly spiritual. Second, a significant body of intellectually conceived music is shallow because little or nothing of the spiritual or transcendant mobilizes the intellectual content. Third, many musicians, who chose to write simple, uncluttered, relatively "unintellectual" but good music, possess profoundly deep intellects. They are capable of the most sophisticated interchanges of ideas. They can think paradigmatically and express themselves poetically, but they may see no need to interpose these mechanisms into music. They are no less wholly educated than those deeply intellectual musicians who may not be particularly good at expressing philosophical thought even though they are obligated to express themselves philosophically. Fourth, profundity may issue out of a performer's ability to move people profoundly, irrespective of musical content. And the intellectual response to the work of the performer may too easily be metamorphosed into comment about content. Personal power and musical power are two different phenomena and once again we find ourselves back in the production/content dilemma. Fifth, someone can be profoundly moved to deeply intellectual thought by music that has little or no depth, at least in the eyes of those "who should know what musical profundity, after all, is." We all know that some of the least meaningful music, in the church, the concert hall, or home, has profoundly affected people and worked deep change in them, yet their aesthetic values may stay the same.

Deep engagement with deep content includes intense performance, study, perception, or composition of structurally and expressively complex music. This is what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls perceptual contemplation. (2) While this is thought by many to be the normal way most people are thought--or expected--to encounter great music, it probably does not take place as often as might be imagined. What serious musical consumer can honestly say that, for the entire length of, say, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, he or she has deeply engaged in this deep content without letup? Even with the most devoted, the mind wanders. But while the mind wanders, the beauty and expression continue to press in. As has already been suggested, one of the wonderful things about music--good, bad, simple, complex, shallow, and deep--is that it can truly be heard and enjoyed while other things are going on. Furthermore, there is a profound difference between music making as a coordinate of another function (harvest songs in a tribal society or chanting during the Eucharist) and music making as background to another function (music in shopping malls or an organ prelude backgrounding congregational talk before "worship actually begins,") it remains true that even the most trivial music will somehow affect a given context.

This is the good part. The bad part comes when music makers and users persistently fail to approach deep content with a corresponding personal depth. There are those for whom great music has been turned into Muzak, simply because of a perpetual habit of trivial--not shallow--engagement with meaningful content. As suggested in the section on popular culture, we might call this "attitudinal Muzak." And in a culture that has become so addicted to music as insignificant significance--when virtually an entire culture turns into one grand Stratford Mall--it is no wonder that even some of the most well-intentioned musical efforts become lost in the larger morass of pleasurable insignificance.

This problem is not limited to secular culture. Pleasurable insignificance can be sacramentalized in religous and liturgical settings. Trivial engagement with trivialized content, coupled to a perception that worship is pleasure and the presence of the Creator its chief pleasure giver, can easily be traced to a spiritualization of significance made insignificant. There is far more "Muzaking" in church music and Christian "concert" music than we care to admit. The example already spoken of--congregational socializing during preludes and postludes--is but one example, perhaps the most minor. The larger dilemma lies in the transforming of church activities into sitcom theology, sitcom ministry, sitcom witness and, by natural extension, sitcom music making.

Returning to the deep/shallow matrix, it is difficult to determine which of the four scenarios excludes entertainment, for entertainment implies engagement coupled to pleasure at any number of levels. To say that entertainment excludes deep engagement with deep content is to overlook the full definition of entertainment. The dictionary defines entertainment as something that can engage as well as divert. And even diversion can imply deep engagement with deep content. For in addition to the diversion that pleasure legitimately gives, there are other kinds of diversion which coordinate well with the most honorable kinds of music making and usage. For instance, the analytical and historical study of music as diversion means that we can exchange the act of thinking in music to one of thinking about it. Or we can use the principle of association as diversion, which means that music's contextual ubiquity can draw musicians and music users into contemplating, experiencing, even synthesizing music with its many contexts. The whole, then, can become greater than the sum of its parts. Finally, the use of music in religious contexts is really the act of using worship as a way of diverting music away from becoming something strictly in and of itself.

So we must conclude that entertainment is yet another continuum. As such, it can be both good and bad. It can be be present in any of the deep/shallow situations. It is a necessary ingredient of a balanced life. It need not be out of place anywhere, even in liturgical settings, as long as its virtues outmaneuver its dangers. Entertainment is not the down side of a more noble action, nor does its presence automatically signal the substitution of mediocrity for quality.

Consequently, we can summarize by saying that in order to spot the danger in entertainment, we must first of all see its value, remember its ability to divert and to engage in its rightful place in the deep/shallow matrix. We then can say this: When societies or individuals include both diversion and engagement in their perceptual lives, and when quality and the pursuit of excellence drive the whole of the creative continuum, entertainment can be right as rain.

The danger in entertainment then becomes apparent: If and when an individual or a society becomes exclusively an entertainment society and when entertainment is stripped of its obligation to engage and legitimately divert; when the continuing and only object is to disengage; when shallow engagement with shallowness of content is the only allowable possibility; when easy entrance into, trivial engagement with, and easy exit from, an experience dominate the whole of perceptual engagement; when greatness is trivialized by trivial and trendy uses of greatness--high art as a synonym for affluence, history as docudrama, the sexualization of culture (which in turn guarantees the trivialization of sex), masterpieces as top 40 hits, religion as top 40 morality and spirituality--then we can truly say that entertainment is not just shallow; it is a deep evil from which society must extricate itself.


If we can assume the foregoing to have some value, the task lying before music educators is sobering. This task is not simply one of teaching great music only in the tried and true ways--drop needle testing, visually and cognitively limited analyses, undiverse diversity and provincial classicism. It is a complex act which demands the revision of our musical taxonomies. Learning to love music is not a cafeteria of separate course work in classical music, popular music, religious music. It is not a frozen canon, made that way by historians who have failed to see into the wholeness of the creative spirit. It is, rather an expansion and enrichment of the canon by recognizing the wealth of the artistic imagination. It is not the act of sanctifying absolute listening to absolute music at the expense of participating in music at any number of levels in any number of contexts. It is not high culture as the alternative to low culture, but both as a refreshing and tantalizing wholeness in which shared wisdom, shared imagination, shared dignity, and shared elegance bring the human community into closer contact with its true self. It is not an ill-informed connection between popular culture and the creative continuum, but a sensitive distinction between the kitsch of popular culture and its legitimate alternatives. It is the difference between love and addiction, passionate commitment and arrogance, between pleasure and offhanded indulgence.

Our task in widening our young peoples' love for music is not so much getting them to listen intelligently to a certain kind of better music, but insuring that intelligent listening and caring engagement take place within the many ways of engaging in musical content--from shallow to deep. We must teach toward balance; toward a life of diverse musical usage; toward diverse ways of knowing and using music, along with an increasing love for musical art--something profoundly more than sonic wallpaper and more experientially diverse than music for its own sake.

So I return to the Stratford Mall and the Sarabande and the immense perceptual world of which music will always be a part. If I am to teach honorably I must teach the whole world. I must freely admit how ubiquitous music really is--how it can trickle into every nook and cranny of culture, sometimes nearly lost, other times gloriously highlighted, articulating its inherent worth and laying claim to its right to be deeply attended to. If I can somehow show that the glory of music lies in the many ways it brings pleasure; if I can weave these all into a perceptual whole, without idolizing one and damning another, then maybe I can assist in the reform of an art which is fast losing its perceptual completeness, sucked into the trivialities and addictions of popular culture.


(1) A portion of the material from here to the end of the article first appeared in a slightly different form, as a part of Chapter 6 in my book Music Through the Eyes of Faith. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993).

(2) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp 24-25, 34-39.