Thursday, June 1, 2017

What is "Cultural Significance"?

Here at the Maginus Project we sponsor the recording of musical works which we consider to be "culturally significant." But what does that mean exactly? Since significance is always context dependent, how is it possible to make such an assessment? I'll attempt to answer these questions by first defining the context and then addressing the question of assessment.

Since the Maginus Project is solely focused on recording the best of American music, the answer to our first question must be, "Within the context of American musical culture." But what exactly is American culture? The United States is a pluralistic and multicultural nation. This has been true since its inception although it has not always been acknowledged and, often, demonstrably ignored.

Cultures are defined by the values and ideals which are shared among individuals who comprise their populations. Although a majority of Americans might be said to share a few broad universal ideals such as freedom, equality, and the primacy of human rights, it is not, and has never been, possible to identify a single, monolithic American culture. Instead, "American culture" consists of a complex, diverse, yet intricately interwoven tapestry of subcultures.

These subcultures engage in a complex and -- at times -- paradoxical dialectic. They feed off each other, react to each other, cross-pollinate, and often ultimately coalesce. If such a thing as "American culture" exists, it is therefore a process and not an object.

Music has been said to be a map of culture but, as it is perennially dynamic, it is a map in constant motion. Music reflects and informs culture. It is both mirror and catalyst. Societies change, and are changed by, music.

It can therefore be said with certainty that there is no single definable American musical culture. Instead "American culture" is a container within which many diverse subcultures coexist at any given time -- the proverbial "melting pot."

So if there is no single American culture and the cultural matrix itself is fluid, how then might it be possible to assess the significance of any particular musical work?

This is not an easy question to answer and no approach can ever be complete or satisfactory to everyone. At the Maginus Project we realize that a single set of standards cannot be applied and each work must be assessed within its own relevant context. We therefore draw on the knowledge and experience of recognized experts -- our Advisory Board -- on whom we rely for guidance. The Maginus Project Advisory Board represents a broad array of knowledge and expertise in many domains of music. Our Advisory Board members are recognized leaders in their fields and draw on their experiences to consider a work's merit within its own context.

The process generally works like this: After an initial evaluation, works submitted to us for consideration are referred to one or more members of our Advisory Board who are asked to bring their judgment and expertise to bear on the evaluation process. Criteria considered include the work's compositional strength and the performer's level of mastery within the context of the relevant musical idiom. Using these guidelines, the Advisory Board can then make a recommendation regarding sponsorship.

Other considerations may come into play as well. The likelihood that the work is at risk of being overlooked, unrecognized, marginalized, or lost is important. The artist's desire and ability to make the work available to a wide audience is important also, as is the potential benefit to the artist. Consideration of factors such as these helps us allocate limited resources in the most efficient way possible.

Wherever aesthetic considerations are in play, subjectivity has a role, and admittedly this process is as much art as science. However, the Maginus Project strives to focus our work on artists and works which represent the very best of contemporary American artistry in all its many musical forms.

-Phil Lewis

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