SIGN OF THE TIMES—America's "symphony of toxins" behind the carpet-like
green lawns of suburbia . . . [ click photo for next . . . ]
On the road in the American Northwest.
STRIP MINING MUSIC'S PAST vs. GENERATING
NEW REPERTOIRE IN A SELF-SUSTAINING
Omnia apud me musica fiunt.
"Everything which moves through me
turns to music."
ASSUMPTIONS: (0) The Living Art of Creative Tradition is
never 2nd-hand; (1) Contradiction is the primary factor of
fragmentation, corruption and, ultimately, collapse. This is
true of any system, of any network, of any ecology, of any
The Western Classical music tradition is now characterized
by a deep and profound fragmentation between creation,
on the one hand, and performance, on the other. One either
learns how to compose; or one learns how to conduct, or
play the piano, flute or violin. Almost universally, one no
longer learns how to do both.
This is not simply a matter of the efficient, intelligent division
of labor we see in, say, a tradition in which one craftsperson
makes horseshoes, and another makes saddles. In music,
to my mind there is in contrast a crucial necessary unity of
composing and performing. That means that to really be a
composer, and to really be a performer, one must do both,
because only in composing does one learn how to listen and
therefore learn how to hear and bring to life vitally relevant
features of both large and small-scale musical architecture.
And in a complementary manner, it is only in the act of actual
performance that one learns how to feel how the music fits
the body, both of the individual and collective body or organism
of the orchestra or ensemble.
This difference between wholeness and fragmentation is crucial.
To help understand what I mean, here's an image of cultural
fragmentation to keep in mind: If you take a violin and smash
it, you do not get an ensemble of smaller violins. You get bits
or fragments of wood, good for starting a fire, perhaps, but
no longer good for producing living sound. Creative musical
tradition has been, in the view being explored here, in a similar
way "smashed apart."
The driving force behind this fragmentation—the primary
contradiction, as it were—is that it has become the norm in
Western musical practice to use music—especially the
great pieces of the past—merely for the demonstration of
one's own self-centered virtuosity. And what is worse, with
the now nearly universal corporate commercialization of
cultural life, this has degenerated to the nadir of pure and
simple vulgar self-promotion. In other words, to use the
vernacular: it’s all about me. It is not about the music, the
music's spiritual significance or meaning, or how the music
resonates with the much wider social context of the present
repertoire of metaphysical urgencies, like war and peace,
or climate change, or world-wide environmental injustice.
No. It is all just about me, my superficial "good looks,"
my—so common now—"technical virtuosity."*
The deep and tacit contradiction behind this breaking apart
of creative musical culture is that this self-centered usurpation
of past musical greatness for one's own profit necessarily
cuts one off from music's source, a source which, without
defining it or circumscribing it in any arbitrary, limiting way,
certainly lies beyond the circle, with all its greed, ambitions
and fears, of the mere petty "me."
Now, fragmentation, like the fragmentation of composing and
performing, results in isolation. And what is more, the
fragmentation of isolation without the awakened awareness
of the day-in / day-out practice of philosophy, becomes not just a
state, but an actual survival strategy.
This is what has happened, in my view, in Western Classical
music. One sidesteps the facts of contradiction and the collapse
of a great musical culture by focusing not on the whole, but, well,
by focusing on the fragments. So now around the world, we
actually teach fragmentation, and hold it up as something to
emulate. So now we call "great" the violinist or conductor who
has merely made a career of strip mining the past precious
metals of a once glorious musical past, while at the same time
conveniently ignoring the matrix of tough problems which now,
after a century of neglect, envelops New Music like a ring of
death. Obviously, from a distance, the composer who is also
a performer, and the performer who is also a composer, would
be far less inclined to do this.
“What is ‘New Music,’” you might ask? I would say it is music
which arises out of, and contributes to, and is inseparable from
the spiritual exigencies of the current moment. It is not just
digging up the last reserves of lost scores to keep your own
little repertoire solvent. Rather, one begins with a sense of
ethical responsibility to ‘tend to the soil,’ as it were, to make
the tradition richer, especially for the young and future
generations, than when you first found it. This happens naturally
when composers perform, and when performers compose. But
now, sadly, strip mining the past has become a kind of ersatz
creativity, just as the ubiquitous and superficially glamorous
"Baroque Ensemble" has become a kind of ersatz for a truly
vibrantly alive contemporary scene and musical practice.**
It might help here to add another image to our image of
fragmentation above as smashed violins. Now, we need an
image to bring to mind when we think of contradictions.
Contradictions, it seems me, are like the pesky wolf tones
which plague every string instrument. A wolf tone is literally
the conflict of two vortex-like movements, vortices not of
water, but of sound. A wolf tone is a kind anti-resonance,
where two voices, instead of working together synergistically
and thereby giving each other energy, actually "speak, or
beat, or fight against each other," and thereby dissipate energy,
or waste it.***
My contention is that, very simply, such contradictions cannot
be sustained. At least not for long.
*Think of the surface beauty of carpet-like lawns of suburban
culture, created by a symphony of toxins beyond compare.
[see sign pictured above.]
**I'm not arguing against the OLD MUSIC movement. In fact,
I greatly admire it and listen to it on a daily basis the wonderful
resurgence of energy and creativity here. I am simply making
a plea for proper balance. To be a good player of Bach, in my
view, you must also be a good player of Berio, and of your
own compositions. That's my view. It is a matter of aesthetic
and ethical necessity, for otherwise one breathes the oxygen-
deprived air of a mere fantasy world, and thereby hides from
the hard questions about the cultural relevance of one's work,
and unavoidably passes on such lazy habits of mind to one's
***The result is then—as figurative as it is representative of
our deep cultural bias against them—something like the
"howling of wolves." From the wolves' point of view, I'm quite
sure they would say, like the "howling of ranchers, or politicians."
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All Photographs & texts by Cliff Crego © 2012 picture-poems.com