Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Accessibility options

A pleasant May evening, and an argument with a friend about the music of Iannis Xenakis. (All in a day's work.) He holds that the music of Xenakis is inaccessible; I hold that it is, in fact, quite accessible and that our difficulties perceiving its structure are an accident of our musical training. If we listened to the music without attempting to divine its pitch organization, I burble, we would see it the way the composer intended - in terms of shapes and sound masses, not in terms of chords and melodies. To an untrained listener, therefore, the music is anything but inaccessible.

This is precisely the wrong way to talk about music.

Accessibility is supposed to mean just that - ease of access. A building is accessible to wheelchair users, for example, if it is equipped with an elevator or wheelchair ramp. It can also be accessible by public transit, by a narrow mountain pass, or by opening the door. The word's secondary meaning ('easy to understand') emerged only in the early 1960s - coincidentally, the same time its root word, "access", morphed from a noun into a verb. (You don't "access" a building, you "gain access" to it.)

Observe, however, the effect of using "inaccessible" to mean "difficult to understand", rather than one of its near-synonyms like "complex" or "challenging". The listener "challenged" by a "complex" Xenakis piece is temporarily failing to engage with it. He has the choice to continue struggling to make sense of it, or to give up. The listener who confronts an "inaccessible" musical work, however, is a victim. There's nothing he could have done; by playing Xenakis for him, I have clearly failed to take into consideration his differing musical ability. He will never understand anything in the score, because Xenakis presents obstacles he is innately unable to surmount.

Note also: it's easy to argue that a work of art can be "complex". It's difficult, however, to argue that it should be "inaccessible". By defending "accessibility" as a desirable trait in pieces of music, you make the counterargument untenable. ("So you're saying that accessibility is bad?")

The move to the vocabulary of "accessibility", therefore, is a political move. Under pending Ontario legislation, all public buildings must be fully accessible by 2025. For older buildings, including most churches, this means renovating the existing structure to make it wheelchair accessible. This is not optional; having an inaccessible building amounts to discrimination, and failure to comply will lead to heavy fines.

The same argument, applied to music, is invidious. Consider: under proposed legislation, all musical performances must be accessible by 2025. For older performing groups, including many church music programs, this means replacing older, inaccessible repertoire with new, accessible repertoire. This is not optional; performing inaccessible music amounts to discrimination, and failure to comply will lead to heavy fines.

The situations are not remotely analogous, and shouldn't use the same vocabulary: a piece of music isn't a department store, where you should be able to whizz through the doors and ask to speak to the manager. Indeed, a large part of the delight of music is the enjoyment of gradually uncovering its secrets. Unfortunately, the language of "accessibility" is everywhere, most especially inside the established Church, where it takes a broadly populist form. ("We need to have service music that people will find accessible; otherwise, the effect will be lost on them, however high the quality might be.")

Remove the word "accessibility" from these formulations, and you end up with either shocking snobbery and condescension ("You and I might understand the music of Bach, but the plebes in the pews are too stupid") or total nonsense - subjective personal impressions, easily discarded. We will be well on our way to reclaiming a reasonable standard of musical discourse if we manage to get rid of this ridiculous buzzword.

1 comment:

liz garnett said...

Thank you for this polemic - you have a knack for identifying and articulating the real problems underlying things that have been giving me a long-term low-grade discomfort. 'Popular' and 'mainstream' are perfectly good antonyms for 'specialist' without introducing the language of democratisation. If there is a political problem behind people not having the wherewithal to understand music intended for connoisseurs, it is to do with the educational and cultural institutions that fail to provide the opportunities to learn how to engage with it, not with the musicians producing interesting artistic products.