“[Y]ou don’t have to hate in order to love.” —John Rockwell, Preface to the Da Capo Press re-issue (1996) of his book, All American Music
Earlier this month I got all worked up when Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that youth should “fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music.” As I was growing up, sports always felt oppressive; it was sometimes physically dangerous and almost inevitably instilled a competitive mindset re-enforcing a very destructive “us vs. them” instinct which often leads to poor civic behavior. Music, on the other hand, always seems to encourage sharing: in performing, coming together to create something extraordinary that could not be done individually; in listening, opening your mind and heart to someone else’s ideas; and in composing, to find a way to express something unique for others to experience.
This is admittedly a very starry-eyed view, but it is one to which I have steadfastly held on, not just for music but for all of the arts, with some slight amendations here and there. (E.g. outside of the performing arts there usually isn’t a split between those who creates work and those who recreate it through their interpretation, plus most other art forms are about looking rather than listening or at least looking in addition to listening.) But might it ultimately be somehow naïve to believe that the arts always foster camaraderie and generosity?
Right before I left for California, I read a somewhat sobering essay by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian about how artists must be rivals in order to succeed and that the only way to effectively assess art is to evaluate it, or as he put it: “to be good is to be better than someone else.” And Mark-Anthony Turnage, during the composer talk at the Cabrillo Festival, remarked on how competitive the composition scene is in Great Britain. Sound familiar? Clearly everywhere there are a finite number of opportunities and always more people who want to be heard than the total amount of time there is to hear things. But all of this made me feel somewhat queasy since it is diametrically opposite to the way I approach the arts. I like to believe that there’s room for everyone and that if there isn’t a clearly attainable opportunity for something, a new opportunity can be always be created that will ultimately help more than the person who initiated it. It’s a “more is more” philosophy.
And yet, just about every new movement in the history of Western music—whether ars nova, the Florentine Camerata, the Second Viennese School, the New York School around John Cage, minimalism, even ragtime, bluegrass, bebop, rock and roll, punk, and hip-hop—set itself up in opposition to what preceded it. In fact, the whole notion of “new music” implies that there’s “old music” that’s somehow no longer as vital or valid.
Of course, musical traditions from all over the world get their validation by long histories, sometimes going back millennia. It is great to play Indian ragas, Peruvian huaynos, Shona mbira music from Zimbabwe, even actually Iranian gushehs, because people have done so for as long as anyone can remember. However, such indigenous musics also define themselves culturally and ethnic identity is clearly about being different from people who are from somewhere else.
If all of the above examples aren’t clear cases of “us vs. them,” what is? But in the technologically interconnected brave new world of the 21st century, shouldn’t we aspire to a different paradigm, one that is non-judgmental and all-inclusive—an aesthetic in which the distinctions between old and new or native and foreign are ultimately irrelevant? And might such a paradigm go further in making the case that the arts, rather than being a form of luxury entertainment, provide core experiences for all people?