25 January 2009

Tribute to an Inheritance

This book review from The Nation touches, in a roundabout way, on a very important subject for musicians and artists of all stripes. Of authors Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, reviewer Mark Engler says,

Their foremost ethical question is, given that we owe most of our productivity to a common social inheritance, to what extent can we say that we have "earned" our personal wealth?

Whether you tack the word "social," "cultural," or "artistic" in front of it, this idea of inheritance is one that all musicians grapple with to some extent. Just as political conservatives extoll the "self-made man" as if he exists in a vacuum apart from the accumulated wisdom of his society, so are musicians too often fed the "Great Man" theory of history, by which we are indebted to only a select few towering giants of music, when really, the roster of contributors to whatever tradition we work in (or against) is almost endless. This not only predisposes us to overlook plenty of music we might end up very interested in were we to ever encounter it, but also conditions us to aspire to join the club ourselves someday, this being the ultimate measure of success or failure in our careers. Both of these conditions are unfortunate, the former because it narrows our horizons, and the latter because it begets envy and petty bickering among contemporaries, both over their own status and that of forebears for whom they may feel compelled to advocate, for whatever reason.

One would hope that musicians could collectively do better than the ego-driven hero worship, self-aggrandizement and name-dropping that dominates today's scene, which, the flawed logic of it aside, does more harm than good when it comes to the social side of making music. Cage's writing on this subject presents a more refreshing alternative, as does Feldman's recollection here of a saner ethic prevailing in 1950's New York. ("What a terrific show. Am I glad he did it. Now I don't have to." Can you imagine hearing that after an exhibition or a concert?) Whether it is realistic to expect such an attitude to take hold among large swaths of artists and audiences I'm not so sure of, but it is a worthy goal nonetheless.

While ego-driven personal ambition is an unavoidable part of life, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it cannot possibly be turned into a constructive force. I suspect that one can be both ambitious and successful without falling victim to more unseemly bouts of overt narcissism. Here's somewhere to start: when paying tribute to a musician that is perceived as an innovator, is it not more appropriate to do one's own thing rather than simply aping one's hero? To continue the economics analogies, literal imitation as tribute is more like the "casino economy" of stock brokers, hedge fund managers, and securities traders: just as these paper pushers don't actually produce anything material, literal imitation as tribute contributes nothing new to the fabric of musical life. Only with a healthy dose of oneself in the mix does one produce musical goods that may become a meaningful part of the next generation's cultural inheritance, hence giving back as much as one can (in fact, giving the only thing one really has to give, that being one's individuality, however subtle or extreme it might be). Conversely, merely reiterating that which you yourself have inherited is a regressive act in that it takes more and gives less (and is never as good as the real thing anyway). It is in this way that the most overt tributes too often become the most overt affronts (think Kenny G and Louis Armstrong).

One need not bother building monuments to musical heroes, for to imitate them is merely to be oneself. And let's face it, when it comes to the Tributes to So-and-So that pop up with such regularity these days, it is often all too obvious that our heroes are merely being used for name dropping in hopes of somehow capturing the attention of a fatigued and increasingly frugal audience who couldn't possibly know or care who we are, but might have heard of someone we listen to. In the end, that's not really much of a tribute.

The emphasis on individuality and aversion to stylism is, of course, just as prone to running afoul of the inheritance question, since each of our originalities is really just a conglomeration of our influences. It is this very realization, however, that can inform a more humble approach to one's own place in the grand scheme of things. How much credit does any one person really deserve for their music, after all? Beyond simply expanding the Heroes list from composers, performers and teachers to include inventors, scientists, music theorists, publishers et al, what if we go so far as to consider the effects of parenting, heredity and environment on a budding musician? A concept such as work ethic, which is part and parcel of the conservative notion of "individual responsibility," could then be seen as something for which one was no more responsible than their hair color.

Importantly, by problematizing individual responsibility, one problematizes individual accolades as well. This angle can quickly become an exercise in nihilism, and suddenly, nothing matters at all and no one deserves any credit for anything. There's no reason to take things quite that far, but at the very least, an acceptance of oneself as the product of one's cultural* inheritance rather than an exceptional amount of some sort of innate or acquired merit is a big step in the direction of toning down the petty bickering and egomaniacal crusades over status that are tremendous burdens on both the music world and life in general.

*I cringe at invoking the concept of "culture" at all, since it seems mostly to be used as a bludgeon against anyone who prefers their music free from literary associations and functional obligations, as I do. Even with these particular distractions out of the way, though, there doesn't seem to be any better term to describe the melting pot of ideas that contribute to a musical tradition, however absolute.

05 January 2009

Direct Paths

For many musicians, the question of identifying what exactly got them "hooked" on music in the first place and subsequently attempting to reproduce that effect on their own audiences leads to a curious and awkward relationship between self-discovery and externally imposed learning. Depending on the musicians and their unique experiences, this process may be wholly or partially about developing a theory of causality between music and the emotions; unfortunately, the colloquial, pseudo-scientific understanding of the relationship between music and the emotions that dominates much of both amateur and professional musicological discourse today is so flawed as to be of little or no practical use to those musicians seeking a personal solution to this question. As an instrumentalist, I would argue that this unfortunate circumstance necessitates a renewed focus on direct paths to musicianship, namely through the imitation, internalization, and synthesis of the physical, sonic phenomena that comprise the music one is interested in, as it is these phenomena which are directly responsible for any emotional content one might ascribe to music.

That different listeners may experience unique emotions during the same performance is well-documented; this is, I would argue, not merely an unavoidable fact, but also an essential form of biodiversity in any musical ecosystem without which the collective creative ferment of society would become dull and monotonous. It is for this reason that many well-intentioned efforts at music appreciation are fundamentally flawed: they assume that the ultimate goal is to create the same experience (emotional or otherwise) in each listener by educating them to listen and respond a certain way (usually the way of the person giving the lecture or writing the article). I would argue that if a piece of music seems to be quite universally well-received, this is not a piece which many people have been taught to like, nor is it one which imposes a particular listening style on anyone who might hear it; instead, it is a piece which appeals to the greatest total number of unique individual listening styles.

As one element of such appeal, emotion per se cannot be dealt with generically. There is a great range of possible emotions, many of which have been reported as a response to music by someone at some point. It should follow from this realization that musicians cannot learn to emote musically simply by emoting generically; there must be a more direct path. The trick here is to somehow balance the conscious and subconscious, to avoid becoming a "trained monkey" without merely playing "by feel." One must be suspicious of any technique that bypasses the conscious mind too greatly, such as the technique of applying descriptive terms to musical phrases in order to elicit a musical performance from the student without helping them to recognize and understand the technical factors at play, or the approach of simply repeating a task until it becomes more of a habit than a consciously executed action. Success in this realm is achieved only by putting aside for a moment the sedimented emotional and literary associations that others have imposed on the music over the course of history and forging a musical interpretation that synthesizes one's sonic experiences into a unique personal voice.

In order to be able to reproduce these results at will, the student first must consciously understand how they are achieved; varying amounts of repetition can then be used to adjust how conscious the student is of their newfound technique. Basic fundamental techniques like breathing or hand position require significant repetition so that the student truly does not think about them yet executes them correctly; technical nuances and interpretive devices, on the other hand, ought to be internalized without becoming blind habits, since the student will inevitably need to maintain the ability to make subtle adjustments to these techniques "on the fly." While the teacher should use whatever means necessary to elicit the desired results from the student, once they are achieved, it is always helpful to ask what exactly it was that made these results possible. Only with a concrete understanding of the answer to that question can the student begin to take ownership of their development and start to become their own best teacher.

Insofar as desired emotional responses are caused by physical, sonic phenomena, pedagogy must concern itself first and foremost with nurturing the student's ability to create (or recreate) such sonic phenomena. Rather than leaving students grasping for sonic equivalents to their unique emotions, teachers must ask students to (1) identify the sonic characteristics which lend a given performance its perceived emotional qualities, (2) imitate and vary these devices according to personal preference, and (3) apply the personalized devices to their performances as they deem appropriate. This is first and foremost a creative endeavor, akin to composing or improvising, whereby the ultimate goal is not merely to "paint by number" by compiling an inventory of devices to be drawn upon one at a time when needed, but instead a synthesis of one's cumulative knowledge and experience into a unique personal voice.

Physical, sonic phenomena must be the unit of currency in any economy of musico-pedagogical ideas. Emotion being an effect of such phenomena and not a cause, it tells us very little about how a performer might create or recreate a musical moment. Conversely, direct paths to musicianship are those by which the student acquires the knowledge and ability to consciously and purposely realize their musical intent.