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STUDENT Talks #8 - Why music?

This year’s first STUDENT Talks event was dedicated to the important issue of legitimising music. How do we argue for the position, importance and value of music in society?

Do we need music? Yes, we do. But why do we need it, and how do we justify the need for music in society?

Martin T. Langerød Student at NMH

The value of music in the pandemic era

Susanna Yttri Solsrud, one of the organisers of the debate, set the tone by describing some of the frustration and hopelessness that many music students are feeling after a year of lockdowns and cancellations:

- What could be the consequences of the pandemic for the arts? Am I training for an industry that is about to crumble?

These are questions that many music students currently are grappling with. Since March 2020 the arts have been paralysed by restrictions and cultural activities are among the last activities planned to resume. The stimulus and compensation packages for artists are also failing to reach many musicians. The situation has made it especially urgent to speak up about why music and musical experiences are important. The moderator of the debate, Sigrid Røyseng, questioned what seems to have become established truths when discussing the reopening of Norway:

- Why is the an accepted wisdom that the arts should be the last to reopen in Norway? Why is it not more obvious to everyone that culture plays an important role in society?,

Digital musical experiences

Digital experiences have become an important way of experiencing music in the past year. The creativity and effort that has gone into creating high-quality digital productions are both impressive and important. Yet what is lost when concerts go digital?

Sverker Rundqvist, a double bass student on the master’s programme in music performance, says he has come to realise how important it is to experience music together, both as a performer and as a listener.

We need more people to join us on the journey. Neither those who experience the music nor those who perform it should be alone. The sense of togetherness that music fosters is incredibly important to me.

Sverker Rundqvist Student at NMH

We usually view digital concerts on our own. Rundqvist puts into words what many people are feeling, which is that a key aspect of the experience then is lost. This aspect has to do with the tension that occurs when a group of people share a physical and sensory experience. “We need to experience it together,” says the enthusiastic musician and music student. Still, streamed concerts can have a similar impact as physical ones, according to Rundqvist because of the real-time element and the knowledge that others are experiencing the event on their screens at the same time.

Lars Petter Hagen adds that the pandemic has shown how vital arts and culture are to human interaction.
- When we physically attend a concert, we are taking part in a public exchange of ideas. There is a public discourse around arts and culture which is essential to any society, Hagen claims, highlighting an additional dimension to why it is so important that music and musicians return to our concert venues.

Music as a goal or a means

The process of legitimising music can be divided into two categories. Either we argue for music on account of its inherent value (music as a goal) or its extra-musical impact (music as a means). Occasionally we read articles about how music can make school children better at maths, how it can build communities and improve integration, and how it can boost mental health. In the eyes of composition student Martin Langerød, however, it is important that we do not base the value of music on such extra-musical by-products.

- The discussion should instead be motivated by the intrinsic value of the arts. That’s what we need to do in order to be taken seriously. We do ourselves a disservice if we go with these more simplistic explanations of why music is of value, because we are then talking down the inherent value of music.

Arts and music must be free, according to Langerød, and an art that creates its value on the basis of instrumental, extra-musical functions is no longer free.

Legitimising the musician

Closely linked to the discussion about why we need music is the debate about why we need musicians. And what do musicians need in order to make a living from practising and performing music?

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, herself a pianist and composer, believes that musicians need to become politically engaged.

- This is about strengthening the rights of self-employed people, expanding grants schemes for music and musicians, and challenging people’s expectation that music should be without costs.

We are seeing how other European countries’ funding for orchestras, music services and musicians is being gradually eroded. This is a reminder that existing funding schemes should not be taken for granted.

- In the past we spent a lot of money on music, but now we can listen to practically every single piece ever written for 100 kroner a month. It’s robbery! We are giving away our product, and it instils an attitude that music should be more or less free, according to Nyhus.

There is growing resistance against the streaming platforms in many parts of the world, and music students who will be making a living from music should make this a campaigning issue. Nyhus believes that we can work at multiple levels and not least help bring about a change in attitudes amongst friends and family that making music costs money, and that experiencing music should therefore also have a prize.

- Another increasingly pressing issue is the low fees paid to musicians, Nyhus argues. While most people see a real wage increase every year, little or nothing is happening to musicians’ fees.

The situation has become especially acute during the coronavirus pandemic in that grants schemes are based on last year’s income. A letter published in the VG newspaper on 23 February this year and signed by 350 Norwegian musicians paints an accurate picture of what it is like to start out as a young musician, where many engagements in the early days are badly paid or where the promoter only covers expenses and the musicians are expected to pay for free.

It is a complex problem, because the organisers are sometimes unable to pay more.

- Perhaps the Arts Council could create a bonus scheme for festivals that pay musicians a decent fee? Ingfrid suggests.

Although there are many battles to be fought, it is important that music students do not lose faith and continue to believe that it is possible to make a living from music:

l these battles may seem overwhelming to those of you training to become musicians today. But it is possible to make a living as a musician; I’m one of many living examples of that.

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus Pianist and composer

“Art always has a political dimension”

The Arts Council Norway was established in 1965 to maintain an arms’ length principle vis-à-vis the funding authorities and to exercise professional artistic judgement irrespective of changing political leadership. As chair of the Arts Council Norway, Lars Petter Hagen is a compelling voice when it comes to arts and culture.

- I’m glad that NMH is taking a lead in talking about existential questions – such as why art is important. It may seem obvious to those of us who work with it on a daily basis, it’s part of our body, of our personality, but reflecting on why art is important and on why we create art is a fundamental part of society and of arts education.

The Norwegian government spends a large part of its annual budget on culture, and there are numerous official documents arguing why this is important and valuable. In these documents, instrumental justifications of the merits of art and justifications of the intrinsic value of art exist side by side. In Hagen’s opinion these two aspects do not have to be incompatible. Art can increase Norwegian exports, help boost tourism, provide health benefits, improve well-being and help include minorities – all without losing sight of the aesthetic dimension.

- It boils down to the fact that art is important because it is important in itself. And the function of art is found in its own logic, in the work. Art allows for otherness, a free space away from the rational, economic reality. If that dimension is lost, then art is no longer important, it just becomes a political tool, Hagen argues.

Art, according to Hagen, is closely linked to social structures, to institutions and to historical events. This is why the autonomous and instrumental arguments are intertwined.

Art and culture always have a political dimension even if they are autonomous

Lars Petter Hagen Chair of the Arts Council Norway

Making the bubble bigger

So how can we better make ourselves heard in the social discourse on the value and significance of music? Røyseng asks whether the debate about legitimacy is at risk of becoming too intellectual and therefore also excluding many people. Rundqvist points out that it is difficult to explain the value of a physical concert experience to someone who rarely attends such events. To prevent the discussion from becoming too academic, he therefore believes that musicians must continue to aim to bring out the experience of live music to as many people as possible:

- The NMH is a bubble, Rundqvist claims, adding that so is the music industry in many ways, albeit a slightly bigger one.

To me, it’s about making that bubble bigger, to open it up and include more people. That would make it easier to argue for the physical experience and value because more people will have felt it and are familiar with it.

Sverker Rundqvist Student at NMH

Why do we do music?

Music education must prepare students for answering this banal yet existential question. Ingfrid believes that NMH students must be conscious of their own justifications of why they are doing music and practise how to justify and argue in favour of their artistic projects to the Arts Council, festivals and promoters.

- Applications and projects must be well thought out, Nyhus points out. This is a skill that should be practised during the studies.

Langerød thinks it might be a good idea to employ teachers with high-profile performance credentials who also have music policy experience as part of their skill set. He also believes that NMH should get more involved in forums for information exchange.

Hagen feels it is important that arts education programmes introduce their graduates to the wider public sphere. This is crucial if we are to maintain costly arts education programmes, institutions and a public arts scene in the future.

- Legitimising art and culture is a never-ending battle that we must fight again and again. We need to be confident enough to explain to everyone we meet why we are doing what we do, why it’s important. That’s the long and short story of it, Hagen says towards the end of the panel debate.

… and this important debate continues so that we, in moderator Røyseng's words can “find the words and language we need to contribute to the public discourse and make everyone see the value of music, even in times of crisis.

egitimising art and culture is a never-ending battle that we must fight again and again.

Lars Petter Hagen Chair of the Arts Council Norway

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Did you miss out on the STUDENT Talks or would you like to see it again? (It's unfortunately in Norwegian)

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