Friday, January 19, 2007

The Militant Mediocracy in Music

With a title like that, you probably think I'm going on a (OK, "another") bash-fest targeting my usual favorite punching bags: University music departments and the Sequenza 21 commune: Well, yes and no. To be honest, this phenomenon is something I have noticed in every area of life where I have experience - not just music - but the term crystalized for me through an experience with someone on my side of the fence: A neo-Baroque composer, to be precise. Origins for the feelings that lead to this revelation (If only in my musical world) can be traced back much further, however; at least to my earliest experiences with the classical guitar community.

I suppose it's time I bloodied some noses over here anyway, so here goes.

First, let's be specific about what I mean by "mediocracy": It's kind of like "bureaucracy" - and bureaucracies are mediocracies by definition, I suppose (And vice versa) - so what I mean is this:

"... a dominant class consisting of mediocre people, or a system in which mediocrity is rewarded."

That from the dictionary native to Mac OS X. So, in other words, the patron philosopher of this class of people isn't Socrates, it's Mediocrates: They positively revel in their ordinaryness and are convinced of the unassailable superiority of it (An oxymoron if ever there was one). The militant qualifier comes into play when one of superior ability or understanding appears (Or, even only perceived superior ability and understanding): A sub-group within the mediocre majority cannot tolerate the presence of a truly talented individual, so they become militant.

"... combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause..."

This from the same Mac OS X dictionary. So then, this sub-set of people within the larger mediocre mass becomes so upset at having their fragile egos threatened (If only in a paranoid delusion) and their auto-constructed pseudo-realities challenged (Which are untenable positions in the face of simple logic) that they lash out in an illogical emotional response. This response is a reaction to the truth, mind you: A reaction to factual material that is easily verified, easily explained, and easily understood.


Seriously: I don't get it.

OK: I don't get it any longer.


My entire musical evolution has been driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding. During the past thirty-odd years I've wandered down several theoretical and practical blind alleys and dead ends. I don't view these errant excursions as wastes of time or mistakes, but as inevitable explorations and learning experiences. Case in point:

I got into scales. I mean, I really got into scales. Taking the natural modal system as a point of departure, I figuread out all of the possible seven note modes that had the semitones seperated by a single whole step (The natural modal system has them seperated by two whole steps), and then all seven of the modes with the semitones adjacent to each other. Not satisfied with this, I figured out all of the modes of the so-called harmonic minor scale, and then all possibilities with two semitones and one augmented second. It gets weirder: I then took the so-called double-harmonic minor mode (Arabian mode/"Snake Charmer Scale") and got all of those modes. Then I calculated all of the other possibilities with two augmented seconds... and I harmonized them to figure out the chordal possibilities... and I wrote progressions to "jam" with using them. You get the idea: I had, like, 240 some-odd modes at the end of this project (I disqualified any that did not have a perfect fifth, which eventually lead to the collapse of the entire system, of course). This was my first year at Berklee: 1980.

For over a decade after this, I was a proponent of the school that goes, "the modes generate the harmony" and I couold argue most opponents into the dust with sheer bravado (I'm not a shy guy and I was a Texas State Finalist in Extemporaneous Speaking and on the cross-x debate team in high school). Imagine my surprise, then, when I got to the level of understanding with the harmonic overtone series that I realized just the opposite is true: The harmony generates the modes. Major learning experience. From that point on (1991), I decided to listen and evaluate to the best of my ability versus putting on the armor, grabbing the sword, and protecting myself with the shield.


Listening and evaluating is exactly what members of the militant mediocracy are unwilling and/or unable to do. The individual dolt who's militancy inspired this post - we'll call him JS because he fancies himself a spiritual descendant of Bach - is one of these guys who is of the (untenable) opinion that twelve tone equal temperament is the work of anti-musical forces and that TTET (Which I shall refer to it as henceforth) has been responsible for the decline and fall of the tonal empire. Not only that, but he is one of those hoplessly deluded individuals who believes that non-equal temperaments are superior to TTET (For fixed pitch instruments: Non-fixed pitch instruments are beyond the scope of this discussion). This is obviously false to anyone who understands the implications of the harmonic overtone series. My mistake? I tried to tell him that. And show him that. And explain it to him in terms a musically educated fifth grader could understand.

The good part? I've decided not to be involved with any online communities anymore: There's one (Or, more commonly, several) of these mediocre militants in every crowd. It is simply beneath me to deal with these willfully ignorant people anymore.


I'd rather hang out with babes who appreciate the finer things in life.

Or, drive a big ol' 4x4 pickup truck.

Or, ride a state of the art motorcycle.

Or, perhaps two state of the art motorcycles.

I have better things to do.

Much better things.


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