11 December 2007

The Art of Socializing

When I was in college, one of my professors was fond of referring to music as "The Social Art." It has also been said that an ensemble is very similar to a marriage, only among many people rather than just two. These are indeed an accurate descriptions of music, but it is something to loathe, not celebrate.

Music's inherently social and collaborative nature is overwhelmingly stifling and burdensome to its practitioners, who understandably have trouble putting aside a laundry list of non-musical personal differences: clashing personalities, personal hygiene problems, varying organizational skills, past romantic involvement, physical mannerisms, egotism, substance abuse, and even deep-seated cultural divisions of race and class can all cause an otherwise fruitful collaboration to go up in smoke (or, more likely, never happen at all).

To cite yet another well-known anecdote, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Perhaps it is evidence of how difficult it is to create truly exceptional musical products that performers and colleagues rarely last long without developing irrevocable animosity for each other (i.e. over the failure to produce such products via their collaboration). It is more likely, however, that it merely reflects this laundry list of pre-existing conditions, at least a few of which virtually all of us bring along to any collaborative endeavor.

In theory, music may indeed be "The Social Art," but in practice, it would be more aptly described as "The Art of Socializing" manifested on many different levels, a tangled mess of precarious interpersonal relationships which few people have the patience, skill, and guile to sustain for long enough periods of time to reach whatever musical goals they might have.

Is it realistic to expect people to put aside significant personal differences for the benefit of the music? Some would argue that musical success is crucially dependent on social cohesion among the collaborators. Others would quickly point out that counter examples abound throughout recent musical history. To a great extent, once you have managed to assemble the group and thrust them into action (i.e. on stage in front of other sentient beings), they will, on reflex, simply turn their attention to the task at hand no matter how glorious or dismal the offstage relationships have gotten. Where music particularly becomes "The Social Art" is where the music requires prolonged exposure, rehearsal, and study in order to realize, hence presupposing a commitment on behalf of all involved to remain engaged with these collective efforts.

In other words, familiarity among people may breed contempt, but between a performing musician and a particular piece of music, it breeds proficiency, if not artistry. This is a paradox which few musicians are able to solve (or, more likely, avoid, which can only happen out of sheer luck). Those few musicians, however, will be exceptionally able to sustain fruitful musical collaborations, and whether or not any given observer judges them to have been musically successful, they will likely have the most successful careers in every other sense.

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