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There is a curious place in English writer Samuel Johnson’s biography on Jonathan Swift. Therein, he implies a correlation between Swift’s late withdrawal from society and his sanity:

“Having thus excluded conversation, and desisted from study, he had neither business nor amusement…His ideas, therefore, being neither renovated by discourse, nor increased by reading, wore gradually away and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness”.

From neither reading much nor talking to others, Swift’s mental state was left wanting. The only recourse Johnson could see was insanity.

This is in striking contrast to his early years when, Stephen Miller writes, as “…a young man in London, he was noted for his conversation”. Leaving London was, for Johnson, the moment where it went downhill.

Does that imply that living in a metropolis is the only thing that will bring us artistic solace? That New York and cities of its ilk are the only place where we can thrive as musicians? The implications of Swift’s tale are different.

Take composer Conlon Nancarrow. He has been noted for his time of isolation in Mexico. There, he wrote eccentric compositions for player piano that bear him recognition. As Andrew Durkin notes, Nancarrow was not all alone in his endeavors. He had the friendship and assistance of many who helped with even the machinations of the player piano alone. In one instance that Durkin cites, Nancarrow mourns the loss of one such person:

“People think that if I can write for player piano I must have much mechanical ability. In fact, the one man in Mexico who was really good and kept my pianos in shape died not too long ago. So I don’t know what I’m going to do”.

Nancarrow feels as if he cannot write for player piano without the help of his friend. In some way he is fearing for the reclusion that Swift endured. He was afraid of true isolation. Substitute “mechanical ability” for anything. Any musical endeavor is not a one man machine. We equally take in so much from the people and ideas that surround us.

That idea is not new and has certainly been stressed by countless others more qualified to write about the subject. But lest the message is not clear: a scene is a lifeline. To unplug this chord from any musician is certain catastrophe.

Regardless of qualification, that is something we need to tell ourselves over and over again.

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When we attribute a quote from a person or her work, sometimes something odd happens. We quote it as if we first heard or read it from the original source. But how often does that happen? Sometimes a quote comes from someone else referencing the quip.

Yet what do we do? “As Martin Luther King Jr. said…”. We don’t put “As John Doe used in his Book, Martin Luther King Jr. said…” It seems superfluous. Martin Luther King Jr. and what he said is most important here.

Taken another way…

Are our musical tastes merely references to other people’s taste? Could we have discovered any of the music we listen to without another person’s help? Even the random find at the record store required someone to put that record into the store. Even the cool track you found online needed a person to upload the track. Even the concert, where a musician is playing to you, is brought together by so many people behind the scenes.

Does it matter to source? Could it be like our examples with quotation: is it not just the music that matters?

Is this a fair assessment though?

Go back to the Martin Luther King Jr. example. Could you have discovered the quote otherwise, without John Doe’s help? Maybe, maybe not. Either way you discovered it with the help of John Doe.

Whether we like or not, other people have an impact on what we listen to. Ornette Coleman’s music does not just sing from the Heaven’s. It is given to me by someone else. To cite our sources could be a way of admitting that music is made of a complex web of relationships.

Music is not just brought down from the magic mountain by every artist. Artists need others who will not only help them come down from the mountain but spread their message to all they can.

 

Neurologist Oliver Sacks stressed the use of lenses when engulfed in his own field. In a particular moment in his memoir he disclosed such thoughts in his chemistry studies: “…I think in narrative and historical terms…I devoured books on the history of chemistry, the evolution of its ideas, and the lives of my favorite chemists. Chemistry had, for me, a historical and human dimension too.”

Though how often do we exploit the historical side of music exclusively? A canon for instance, be it for classical music or jazz, stresses the historical dimension to the point that living composers find themselves competing with dead ones. History alone inundates the present.

What of the human dimension? In its pursuit of the present, could we lose a deeper narrative? Sacks mourned how his peers at UCLA scoffed at the idea of perusing eighteenth century texts concerning neurological matters. The field of neurology spoke to this: “…in many journal articles we read, they made little reference to anything more than five years old. It was as if neurology had no history.” Flying by the seat of one’s pants, there is no anchor for which to rely on.

That previous analogy begs to be extended. It is almost as if history in this context is like gravity. Too much and we are crushed by the weight. Too little and we fly towards the ether. Only by an equal distribution can it keep us on the earth.

To be grounded by history is to carry a narrative with us in our musical endeavors. Not to be crushed by it, not to float away in absence of it, but grounded by it.

When we do something with help from an outside source, it is “because” of something. Because a band is funded on Kickstarter, they can go on tour.

When we try to do something regardless of the tension from an outside source, it is “in spite of” of the thing that we do it. In spite of insufficient funds, a band goes on tour.

“Because” and “in spite of” can be odd dance partners. The question can become who is leading who. Let’s take an example: In spite of insufficient funds, a band goes on tour and because the band goes on tour, they enlarge their fan base. The “because” is led by”in spite of”.

While “because” can sometimes be in our control, it is dependent on an outside force acting upon us. Only in our hands can “in spite of” nurture and grow into a useful asset.

Then again, sometimes things are not as black and white. Sometimes “because” can actually advance our careers or give opportunities that were not there to begin with.

Yet we have to step back and assume that “because” will not always be there for us. That record label. A host of venues will not pick us to play. Classical music concerts will not all of a sudden be sold out everywhere.

So, in spite of all of that, let us make change happen.

Further in Andrew Durkin’s Decomposition: A Music Manifesto, he quotes R. Murray Schafer when discussing how music can be treated “as a sensory anchor and stabilizer against future shock”. Durkin uses the neoclassicism and Early Music movements of the early 20th century as examples of this. Some chose to keep a style, be it adopted from the past or wherever, as a beacon betwixt the rolling fog. Style is life.

Then there is the fog itself; constantly shifting and never rooted. Graphic designer Milton Glaser said that “[w]henever Picasso learned how to do something he abandoned it”. David Byrne mentions this kind of rootlessness as a virtue of Tibor Kalman, a graphic designer who is responsible for the cover of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light: “Tibor and company don’t have a signature style, and that is a worthy ambition in life…. Having a recognizable style relegates you to the status of quotable icon. And while being an icon is flattering, I imagine, once it happens, you become irrelevent”. To stop swimming is to drown in this view. Style is death.

Yet is it ever that clean cut? One can be a classical musician who plays modern repertoire and pieces in the canon interchangeably. One can be a jazz musician who plays old standards yet also writes original tunes to perform. One can be a punk rocker immersed in the history of the genre yet constantly searching for ways to branch it out.

It could be that we are constantly adjusting within certain paradigms. Maybe stylistic life and death make up the existence of a musical life. In between both we stand. Perhaps that is all we got.

 

“‘What things influenced you?’ Well, what things didn’t? All that variegated music that we’ve all heard; all the things that I reading. I mean, I can’t imagine…And to be specific about it, one would almost be, I think dishonest. So many things have crept in and determined one’s thinking. I don’t have to tell you a composer. You know, as a piece germinates, the form that it takes. If you had to go back and retrace that, it would not only be superficial…you’ve forgotten it”.

Composer Milton Babbit taps into the baffling idea of influence. It is such a verb that leaves more questions than answers. How does one even articulate, let alone know, what enacts influence on you?

Could influence be akin to the body’s immune system reacting to foreign germs?

Take what an immune system does: it has to detect bacteria, viruses, and such, and distinguish those from our own tissue. Otherwise we would be destroyed from the inside. In the face of what one considers repugnant musical material, one might build up preferences as a means of fighting said dislikes. Hard Rock quashing Disco as an example.

As the immune system keeps us alive from distinguishing the good and the bad, the influence that put our work in motion is comprised of both ends in this sort of battle. Sometimes the disease wins out or the immune system thwarts the germs. But either way, the immune system is still fighting or there are still negative agents squirming within us. This dance makes up the human condition.

Perhaps that can be why distinguishing influence in a musical context is so baffling. Like Babbit said, the positive and negative influence us in such a way that we cannot say only good music influences exclusively or vice versa. It is thanks to this flux that influence is ever to shape ourselves as musicians.

A final question: could there be such thing as a neutral influence? Or, to continue the analogy, is anything we take in either interpreted as part of the body or as a virus?