Grounded by History

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.


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