M U S I C
In the study of art, music deserves a place of its own. Where visual art (except for kinetic structures such as mobiles) is naturally apprehended all at once (even in three-dimensional forms such as sculpture where not all parts are simultaneously visible), music requires time as a framework on which to lay down its pattern.
It's a matter of bandwidth. Where the human eye can receive an enormous amount of information (shape, color, position, velocity) in a fraction of a second, the ear is much more restricted in the complexity of distinct information it can process in conjunction with the brain. It simply is not possible to represent so many distinct qualities all at once in a static form such as most visual art.
So music must be dynamic. It only makes sense when perceived with the passage of time. And this requires a different analytical perspective.
Much of what passes for music these days suffers from the same disease as modern Art in the broader sense: it's all about the artist.
One example is what I call the "breathy little-girl-in-a-coffeehouse" sound. A few years back we started to hear female singers doing a sort of stream-of-consciousness type song, generally offering some highly poetic (and highly personalized) plea for the toleration of some socially unacceptable behavior. (This kind of rock'n'roll revolt against social norms used to be handled by heavy metal groups. But because the music was so loud, you couldn't hear the opinions of the lead singer... so, obviously, the music had to go.)
Suzanne Vega is one of the matriarchs of this style, but since then she's been joined by Jewel and others. Alannis Morisette seems to be one of these in basic temperament ("I," "I," "I," etc.), but she at least has talent beyond vocal tricks and self-promotion. Her voice is well-disciplined; she's got a great range, both in terms of pitch and of volume. But at least as important, unlike most of the other "Lilith Fair" types, Morisette seems to care about more than just showcasing her voice. She actually shuts up now and then and lets the band play, just as though she realizes that the most important thing of all is the music.
It's almost listenable.
My own tastes run more toward music without words. For some people, one of the best things about music is the soloist; I'm more impressed by music not dominated by one raging egotist. This doesn't mean I can't or don't appreciate individual skill. I can and do. I'm just more impressed by someone who works _with_ the rest of the music instead of insisting on always being out in front. Consequently I prefer symphonies to solos, choral works to opera, and New Age to Pop.
Another reason why I prefer my music depersonalized is that I tend to be distracted when I'm writing (essays or software) by words I hear sung. So when I hit the music stores, I look for "music without words."
From the Continent, I like Vangelis, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jean-Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield, and Tangerine Dream. Their old work is still fun to listen to, but I find that much of the recent work of all these artists is superb. Voices by Vangelis is particularly good; it starts off with a song that sounds like men at the oars of a galley ship--it's refreshing to hear modern music that's more "manly" than the breathy and whiny little-girl stuff. It sort of reminds me of the old romantic swashbuckler movies of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It's just fun! I like Vangelis's more recent work, Oceanic, too.
Also excellent are Mike Oldfield's latest works: The Songs of Distant Earth strikes me as being what "world music" will sound like fifty years from now. Tubular Bells II is a fitting sequel to Oldfield's virtuosic debut album. All the original instruments are used, reminding me of revisiting old friends, but the music is updated to a happier major key. Voyager, meanwhile, highlights still-strong Celtic themes with new instumentations and richer accompaniments. One doesn't often hear bagpipes outside of Scottish/Irish settings (or P.D.Q. Bach concerts), but Oldfield uses them to very good effect.
Another favorite source of music for me are the works on the Windham Hill label and its imitators. I first discovered these in my days as a college radio DJ, and they were just what I had been looking for without my even knowing it. Namely, high-quality instumental music that could be played in the background. Distracting noises from outside could be masked, allowing me to get all kinds of creative work accomplished.
One of the first examples I found of this type was by William Ackerman (one of the founders of the Windham Hill label). Ackerman's work often features his fine guitar playing accompanied by various other individual artists playing instruments from piano to violin. Another great example was the solo guitar work of Michael Hedges. His playing was astonishing; I still can't figure out how he was able to make one guitar--even if it was double-necked--sound like two guitars being played independently. Sadly, Hedges died in late 1997 in a car crash, but his music will always occupy a prominent place in my collection.
Lately I've been enjoying the work of Mark Isham and Tim Story. Isham uses a computer to generate themes, then develops the ones he likes into accompanied pieces. Seeming to be going the way of Mike Oldfield, Vapor Drawings and Film Music were fully instrumental, as was Tibet (a perfect accompaniment to a cold, overcast day). But Isham's later albums, Castalia and Mark Isham, feature more pop-oriented songs (that is, they're music with words). The music is still very good, even if not optimum for my "no words" needs.
Tim Story, meanwhile, is much more a minimalist. Where Philip Glass uses explicit percussion to create rhythm, Story's music derives its rhythm solely from the melody line. This gives it a much more "unified" texture. Where a piece of Glass might have you tapping your fingers in time, a short Story is more likely to have you humming along without your even noticing. (And most of Story's songs are short; they average about four minutes in length.) I find it to be excellent background music--very much like a musical score to my day.
Finally, I have to admit that, every now and then, even I get tired of "user-friendly" music. Sometimes I just want to rock the place. When that happens, Soundgarden is OK, or even Sex Pistols... but for that real backbeat-driven gotta-dance feeling, it is my carefully considered opinion that the single greatest rock-n-roll song ever performed is Jerry Lee Lewis's classic piano-scorcher, "Great Balls of Fire."