I’m a documentary junkie. So much so that I was actually upset when An Inconvenient Truth snagged this year’s Oscar—Jesus Camp was totally robbed! All over-glorified PowerPoint presentations by ex-vice presidents aside, I decided to re-watch another Academy Award loser, Promises, last night. The 2001 flick conveys the different points of view held by seven kids living on disparate ends of the political/religious spectrum during the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It’s interesting to see their passionate options so strongly formulated by—but not entirely—a history that goes back beyond their short years. Of course when some of the children are brought together face-to-face, they get along with one another almost effortlessly, and even lament the fact that once the filmmakers leave, they may never again be united. There is no doubt that history is a strong force, but when we’re able to suspend its effects, even temporarily, some amazing things can happen.
History also holds great sway when we talk about music. Looking back at Belinda Reynolds’s Walden School love-fest, and the gushing responses left by readers, all of this makes me wonder if we classical music types place way too much emphasis on history. The fact is, we ignore history all the time. We have to in order to survive. Think of it this way: Those of us who grew up here in America have some sort of warm-fuzzy sport in our psyche—not exactly patriotism, but close—something totally unconscious that tells us that we’re just a bunch of good people as a nation. But the fact is, a lot of bad shit has gone down here inside our borders, so how can we feel so cozy? We learn to ignore things, especially any remnants —racism, poverty, you get the idea—still lingering long after our forefathers perpetrated acts we now find unconscionable. I’m not saying this is the right thing to do; it just works for us notoriously unhealthy Americans. Applying this attitude to music, have you ever imagined what it must feel like to compose music totally freed from the burdens of Fux, Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Cage, and Ferneyhough? I suppose you could ask a Walden School student for the answer.
Given the fact that students seem to get so much more from a music education that de-emphasizes history, maybe adults should give it a shot. Go to your bookshelf and toss out any theory books. Next time you’re importing something into iTunes, try to restrain yourself from entering the completion date. If you’re feeling really crazy, leave out all references to chronology. String Quartet number 4, 27, 43, who cares? Next, just to be consistent, stop dating your own compositions—does it really matter anyway? Maybe throwing all this caution to the wind will resurrect your inner child and you can start composing with a part of the brain that those theory classes never even touched.