The Music Matrix

The Music Matrix

Joelle Zigman took some heavy but, one hopes, constructive criticism last week for her post “The Pop-Classical Spectrum.” There’s a lot to say about the issues Joelle raises, but I want to focus on the question Joelle’s now-notorious diagram asks rather than the answers it provides. If we’re trying to sort out the relationship(s) between the practices of vernacular and cultivated music in present-day America, my suspicion is that generalizations about creative process or ontological substance are unlikely to lead to a really worthwhile model. When I saw Joelle’s diagram, what immediately came to mind was that it would be much easier to take a cue from Pierre Bourdieu and chart the positions of various kinds of music within the field of production—in other words, by the conditions under which they’re produced and consumed. I grabbed the nearest envelope and got to work:


What you see here is completely speculative, and I can already see a few serious problems with it: Pop and rock are terms so general as to occupy most of the board, so I had to use arrows rather than the dotted container to show that. No doubt proponents of older and alternative country musics are fuming at my allegation that they belong to a “bourgeois audience”; I suspect that the “country” area should be quite a bit larger than it is. Advocates of electronica and hip-hop are probably feeling the same irritation. I imagined that John Adams sits at the upper left corner of the “new music” area and Elliott Carter at the upper right, but I’m sure that some of you would argue otherwise. That’s fine.

There are plenty of problems here, but the great thing about a graph like this is that if we gave a computational musicologist access to consumer information and a corpus of reviews, he or she could produce a much more rigorous version of it, and we could actually see how much market-autonomy hip-hop enjoys compared to contemporary music or to what degree jazz is consecrated by reviews and endorsements compared to electronica. Such an analysis may well reveal that the graph is pointless because every type of musical practice on it stretches to every level of consecration and autonomy—in other words, that certain subcategories of classical music, say, exist all the way over in the lower left of the rectangle and some kinds of country in the upper right. In fact, if any computational musicologists are reading this, please steal my idea! I’d love to know whether a diagram like mine holds up. In the meantime, I’m sure we can find plenty more objections to make in the comments area…


Stop by this week to acquaint yourself with Brett Wartchow. In the tradition of the great electroacoustic shadow plays, Brett’s stereo fixed-media piece Germination Variations spins a fable with remarkable clarity and acuity—do check it out. By the way, this whole crazy compilation was Brett’s idea; we discuss it at some length in our interview.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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