Fundamentally Sound

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.

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7 thoughts on “Fundamentally Sound

  1. pgblu

    Would it were that easy
    Theory books don’t always reflect history. They sometimes reflect something even more detrimental (by the standards espoused here), namely an abstract and idealized notion of how music behaves. As if it behaves.

    Some people do compose without a sense of history, but I haven’t been impressed by the results, at least not because they were somehow ahistorical. This historically ignorant music (ignorant now in a neutral sense) did not seem to me more ‘free’ or unfettered than other music.

    Perhaps having studied history, if it’s done right, helps us negotiate our own freedom through reflection on the very historicity, malleability, of musical material. Only when history is misunderstood as an indication of correct behavior does it impede creativity.

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  2. Matthew

    Thing is, every musical tool out there, be it physical or theoretical, has a history whether we like it or not. If I’m composing at the piano, the ideas are already being mediated by the historical evolution of keyboard instruments and techniques. Play a triad, and there’s at least four centuries of implications built into it. You don’t have to keep it all in mind all the time, but the deeper you go into the nature of the sounds and the process, the more likely you are to come face to face with all the practice that’s come before you.

    I’m not trying to come down on one side of the fence or the other—the proper path always depends on the situation—but I think there’s a difference between realizing there’s history there and choosing, for aesthetic purposes, to ignore it, and pretending that there’s no history at all. I’d rather go into things open-eyed, fully aware of the historical baggage that each musical concept carries, and then decide whether to root around in the suitcase for hidden treasures or just leave it shut. (My personal ideal is a flexible give-and-take with the richness of music history; shutting it out completely seems as dogmatic as slavishly worshipping it.)

    It’s tempting, particularly in American society, to assume that we’re naturally endowed with everything we need as artists, that education and influence are inevitably interfering with our real, inner voice. But the collective wisdom of a millennium of Western music (or any other music, for that matter) isn’t something to be set aside lightly. The myth of the uneducated genius, who is able to cut to the core of music better than legions of the conservatory-trained, is both powerful and risky. Boxers are always wary of going up against rank amateurs because, in their ignorant unpredictability, they’re more likely to land a lucky punch than a professional. On the other hand, they’re also more likely to get knocked out.

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  3. Colin Holter

    I agree with both Philipp and Matthew, and I’d add that even if you write some music in an entirely ahistorical manner, you won’t be able to prevent me from hearing it in a historical manner.

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  4. siconesis

    I agree, the sense of history cannot just be erased from our psyche, and that, I believe, shouldn’t be frowned upon by ourselves or someone else. When Picasso expressed a desire to paint like a child I don’t think he wanted to disregard everything he knew, but maybe wanted to recover some special quality from childhood.

    On the other hand, when history is taken as a forward-moving force that completely determines future events, then the limitations start imposing themselves and make, in this case, the music suffer.

    No innovation is completely new, it builds on something else, it incorporates profane elements to accepted ones. And when someone tries to make him/herself believe otherwise, it shows, and not in a favorable way.

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  5. marknowakowski

    Randy, your articles are generally very entertaining, and sometimes even quite informative. They’d be so much better if you didn’t have to begin every one with some backhanded political/ideological comment.

    That being said, I agree with your theoretical views, to a point. While I’ve never enjoyed studying theory, I recognize how it helps my compositional development. We certainly take ourselves too seriously at times. In the end, however, there are folks that will take chances, step outside of the box, and achieve something special with their craft. This is produced by a little something called “character”, an attribute ultimately independent of pendantic pressure. There have always been musical followers, and there have always been musical achievers. Mozart built on Tradition. So did Cage (gasp!) So will the next genius. Throwing away all aspects of the great tradition of western music will in no way help us move forward. Actually giving a solid education in musical rudiments — something lacking nowadays — is where we need to put our efforts

    Then again, if you actually thought that “Jesus Camp” deserved an Oscar, I’m not sure I can read your articles seriously anymore.

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  6. philmusic

    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.

    Dear Randy:

    I don’t think its a question of too much history, rather its a question of whose history we accept for our own.

    Oh, I did not post on that particular “blog”.

    Phil’s Page

    Reply

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