Recently a friend of mine has come into possession of venerable instrument—a cello, to be exact—that was built before he was born and (with a little TLC) is likely to survive his own death. Likewise, the instrument has had many owners and will continue to be played and appreciated by others many years into the future. The cellist’s stewardship of this instrument is a just tiny blip on the lifeline of its history.
This tangible example also makes manifest a truth about music (and life) that is often obscured by our own myopia: more often than not, we are guardians and caretakers of experiences that we typically assume to be uniquely “ours”. When we practice an instrument or compose a new work, we are drawing upon hundreds of years of musical and technical knowledge, and through interfacing with our own unique personalities we transform that knowledge into something novel passed on to future generations; therefore, “my” music is really something like 90% outsourced, with my own contributions comprising only a sliver of the research, experimentation, and notational decisions necessary for “my” piece’s completion. The illusion of ownership is a combination of disingenuity and the ego’s drive to obscure our own relative insignificance.
Our dominant culture and many traditional religions have asserted the view that human beings are entities that somehow stand outside of nature, rather than existing as a part of it. The chief arrogance of our civilization lies in thinking that we are not subject to the same natural laws that govern everything else—whether expressed as an economic paradigm built on the wish-dream of infinite growth on a finite planet, or as the Abrahamic illusion of humanity’s supposed “dominion” over nature. The idea that we share in a larger process leads to a fuller awareness of our responsibilities to that process and to each other.
Like the life of an instrument, musical forms also connect to a lifeline of their own. I’m right now composing a piece based on an ancient dance form, and I have to wonder about the various circumstances of its historical use as well as the way it has influenced myriad compositions besides my own. Every time we create, compose, or improvise music, we are most likely tying into forms, scales, aesthetic notions, and performance practices that did not originate with us, and may be transformed beyond our recognition in the future. Our creativity tends to be expressed in modification, transformation, or even copying errors—which are such minute (if significant) details that it almost seems like a crime to see my own name listed on a concert program without any shout-outs to Bach, Hendrix, Pythagoras, and the like. Our culture seems obsessed with locating creativity and knowledge within the bounds of the auteur’s skull, whereas the archaic conception of knowledge (as something shared and cultivated by the community rather than possessed by an individual) might be closer to the mark.