22 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (vii)

"Order of any kind gives man a sense of security: it is the changeful, the unexpected, the capricious, in other words the unpredictable and uncontrollable, that fill him with anxiety and dread. Hence whenever man becomes unsure of himself, or whenever his creative powers seem inadequate, whenever his symbolisms breed confusion and conflict, his tendency is either to find a refuge in blind Fate, or to concentrate upon those processes in which his own subjective interests are not directly involved. Our psychiatrists have discovered, in recent years, the genuine healing value of mechanical processes like weaving; and weaving remained, down almost to modern times, the highest type of mechanical order..." (44)

Musical instruments and the attendant details in learning to play them fall all along this continuum from "the unpredictable and uncontrollable" at one extreme, to total "mechanical order" at the other. Temperature changes affect different instruments differently. Reeds and corks, springs and strings, sticks and heads are all consumable items, introducing different degrees and kinds of uncertainty into technique and performance practice. Wooden recorders become saturated with water after a certain amount of playing and have to be swapped out; brass players meanwhile can, in a pinch, empty quite a bit of residual condensation in a second or two. Water management is a wellspring (sorry) of in-group humor for musicians of all ages, orientations and abilities, yet it does profoundly shape what is possible for the instruments and for the people who play them. In other words, it is political, just like matters of instrumentation always are.

Certainly these politics loom large wherever "genuine healing value" is prioritized. There are many reasons why brass players generally are not in the healing business (and often in quite the opposite business). Brass technique is uniquely untransparent to beginners; the physical demands are severe; a big-picture resonance between student and instrument can be foreclosed by fixed factors of oral anatomy. Though there is, in another way, nothing less than a cosmic order governing the brass universe, callow tweens thrust into study of a brass instrument do tend to find its operation "capricious," and this is a very unfortunate part of our endeavor.

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