Dangerous Liaisons

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately around the topic of sociolinguistics—specifically, the study of how American dialects develop and change. I happened across the following snippet from Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene (Routledge, 1995):

Mastering a complex and difficult craft gives you an inbuilt incentive to defend its practices. If I have invested time and effort learning how to write according to a particular set of prescriptions, I will take some convincing that those prescriptions are not necessary and desirable; to admit that the rules are both arbitrary and pointless is to devalue my own accomplishment in mastering them.

Of course, by “prescriptions,” Cameron refers to the guidelines of written and spoken English, but she could just as easily have been talking about music: Certainly composers undertake the cultivation of a “complex and difficult craft,” and although they don’t necessarily obey a “particular set of prescriptions,” they do “invest time and effort” in acquiring a collection of indoctrinated technical and ideological regulations. None of this is especially surprising; what is striking is the idea that a composer’s attachment to his aesthetic might be connected to an investment rather than to logical and/or emotional conviction.

I don’t think it does anybody any good when a composer’s creative assets are thusly frozen, so to speak. There are several ways to view this problem: One is to take it as a word of caution, as in, “I hope I never forget to be rigorously self-critical, even if that means jettisoning my life’s work.” Another perspective, however—Cameron’s, in fact—is the social scientist’s. If we interpret her hypothesis as a principle with quantifiable ramifications among the population of composers, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that some portion—perhaps a very large portion—of that population is unlikely to be straight with you when it comes to how music should be written. Seen in this light, Cameron’s axiom is a warning of a very different kind: Trust no one, because anybody who knows how to write music must be assumed to be incapable of impartiality. Scary thought, isn’t it?

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2 thoughts on “Dangerous Liaisons

  1. philmusic

    ” to admit that the rules are both arbitrary and pointless..”

    Though this idea is perhaps similar to my own concept of “professional opinion”, (teams will criticize other competing teams, but not their own) there are some rules that are neither pointless or arbitrary.

    Especially when it comes to “personal hygiene.”

    Phil Fried, Skidrow University–free beer!

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  2. jbunch

    Isn’t “arbitrary, though meaningful” also an option? To portray any kind of change in the nature of craft/language as making what preceded it “pointless” betrays a conclusion that has far prevented a fair consideration of the possibilities contained in the premises. This was probably your point in the first place though. The problem is that what is “arbitrary” is understood to be what is “without essential meaning or a specific end” rather than to be “that which is an expression of human aesthetic freedom and inventiveness.” If the former, it would only seem natural to experience anxiety concerning the future of art, if the latter, anxiety may also be present but only as the fear that you don’t possess the inventiveness to do something compelling, good, or beautiful with that freedom. The former – in what I think of as its patent falsehood – doesn’t really deserve to be discussed anymore (except in its positive form where it is absorbed into the latter – as in Cage). The question(s) “What will I venture with my aesthetic freedom – what world will I create?” is a more exciting and fruitful one.

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