Early in my life, my exposure to music was almost exclusively classical music and opera. At home, we had a semi-portable stereo phonograph, and a kitchen radio. The record collection was, with the exception of a handful of children’s records, classical and opera. The kitchen radio mostly played news from the local NPR station, but also classical. On Saturdays, sometimes my dad listened to latin jazz while doing house cleaning chores. Below is an image (not mine) of a similar player.
My exposure to popular music essentially began in third grade when we moved from Hamden to North Haven, both in Connecticut. My new best friend there essentially introduced me to popular music. He had a much older brother who no longer lived at home, but some of his records did — Beatles and such. But also their family’s radio was more often tuned to popular music stations. And they had a radio in their car!! My dad was so against the added complexity of having a radio in the car, he seemed ready to pay extra to have it removed when finally it came standard with their next new car (a VW Rabbit). He also was suspicious of the rear wiper, fearing it was just something else that could break. I tried to argue with him based on the number of times he had to have the front wipers repaired (zero, aside from replacing blades…), but he remained dubious.
Anyway, back to music. While I can’t honestly remember it ever being explicitly stated, I definitely grew up with the sense of popular music, or really modern music of any sort, as being somehow inferior to classical music. And while I feel that the older music that has survived over centuries is the work of genius, I have come to feel less apologetic about finding real musical creativity and perhaps genius in more modern compositions. It’s easy to think of orchestral music as something well-defined, and never changing, but in reality, things changed all the time. The piano was a recent invention at some point. New instruments have always been added, and gradually accepted into more formal settings.
I remember reading about the creation of the Theremin, named after its creator, Leon Theremin. He saw his invention as a novel and serious musical instrument, incorporating new technology, rather than a tool for creating the spooky, alien sounds that came to fill the soundtracks of 1950’s sci-fi horror movies. Here it is in a more light-hearted setting:
So if we can accept that the tools for making music must be allowed to evolve, then that allows us (or at least me) to accept modern music as being the work of artists, and in some cases genius.
Back to my personal history with music. The first record I ever purchased was the Eagles’ Hotel California, in 1976. Or it might have been a Christmas present. However it was that it came into my possession, it was my first. I don’t have all the records I ever purchased, but I do still have that one
I of course listened to it over, and over, and over. Apologies to my family — it was before headphones were an option for me.
I did not have much money then (who did?), but a lot of what I did have went into buying records. And when, eventually, I earned more money by raking leaves, shoveling driveways, delivering papers, etc., I was able to save up for a “stereo system” with a built-in 8-track tape player, from Radio Shack (of course). It was something like this:
Eventually, I saved up for a turntable (not Radio Shack, but I honestly don’t remember the brand. I do remember it had a ceramic cartridge, rather than the preferred magnetic one, because that was what the input on the receiver was built for.) And finally, headphones (definitely from Radio Shack, with two volume sliders on one of the cups.)
But again, let’s get back to the music. One of my favorite bands of all time was, and continues to be, Pink Floyd. They combined powerful songwriting with a profound ability to push the envelope in terms of what sounds could be incorporated into music. In the days of recording on analog tapes, they would splice tape into precise loops for certain sounds, and incorporate recordings from the field into their music. Their albums as well tended to constructed as a singular, thematic whole, rather than a collection of unrelated songs.
But don’t trust me on the music — listen to Doug, an admitted Classical Composer:
I am inclined to believe that if the composers of classical music had the tools available to them that we do today, they would not advocate for limiting the definition of music to the sounds that could be made from a collection of 20-30 different instruments. They would, as they did, allow themselves to bring their artistic vision to reality using all the tools available.