Saturday, January 20, 2007

Teaching Militancy in Music

One of the connections I've noticed over the years is between militancy in students, and certain teachers who display the same militant dispositions. Unfortunately, I believe this is an easy trap for students to fall into. A lot of music students tend to worship their teachers as heroes, and their egos are often flattered at being accepted by such a teacher. Being privy to certain so-called "privelaged information" often adds to this. If the teacher has a dismissive attitude about one or more of his peers, this is often aped by the students.

A case to point out this phenomenon is something I noticed among the students of a certain classical guitar teacher several years ago. This particular teacher was highly opinionated (And, many of his views were obviously fallacious), and I must say that I disliked him immediately when I met him. In any case, at a recital by another well known guitarist - a fabulously good recital, mind you - I overheard a couple of the aforementioned teacher's students criticising the performer. Every little technical detail they could find to criticise, they criticised: "Oh look, he repeated a right hand finger!" There was much more ridiculousness such as that. While there is nothing wrong with striving for technical mastery of an instrument, I find these kinds of attitudes counterproductive, and I think they should be discouraged. This particular teacher and his students are even critical of iconic virtuosos like Christopher Parkening! Idiocy on that level just doubles me up.

Concerning technique: First of all, the human hand comes in a wide range of dimensions and proportions, so what works for one may not work for another. Secondly, innovative performers come along from time to time who completely redefine what is possible on an instrument: Nicolo Paganini, for example. Finally, some very unorthodox performers have styles which are completely the result of their asymmetrical approach to the instrument (I'm thinking of folks like Stanley Jordan and Kaki King here). I have in my repertoire pieces by non-classical guitarists like Eric Johnson, Eddie Van Halen, and Joe Satriani, for example, because not only are they crowd pleasers, but they are also fun to play and have extended my technique beyond the traditional classical guitarist's palette. This, in turn, has influenced my technical approach to my own compositions, which was the entire point.

Classical guitar teachers have tended to take a highly dynamic system - the human hand - and box it into a narrow range of prescribed motions while proscribing a wider range of other possibilities. Trying to over-simplify such a complex system often leads to tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome: The hand neads to be allowed to move naturally in a wide range of motions, or repetitive stress injuries can occur. You would not believe how militantly freaked out some classical guitarists get when I tell them this. It's fun to watch.


I feel fortunate to have come up through the jazz tradition first, because the teachers I was exposed to - guys like Jackie King, Herb Ellis, and Pat Martino - were much more open minded than most classical guitar teachers are (And, Jackie was a good enough classical player that he played the Bach Chaconne, so...). That is not to say there aren't plenty of open minded classical teachers and closed minded jazz teachers, but proportionally my experience has lead me to conclude that the ratio is something like 70/30 in contrary directions between the two fields.

Herb was a particularly humble and open minded guy, and I remember him saying during a class once, "I've never met a guitarist I didn't learn something from." That really struck a chord with me, and I remember the moment like it just happened, though it's been about twenty-five years now. Music in general and the guitar world in particular could use a lot more of that kind of an attitude.

My experience at Berklee was also highly rewarding because of all of the stylistic cross-pollination going on then (1980-1983). There were students from all over the world there, so it was like the United Nations of Music or something (Perhaps not a great example anymore, given the sad state of affairs at the UN today), and the teachers were likewise by and large quite open and diverse in their interests. Sure, there were some crotchety old school straight ahead jazz purists, but they were in a distinct minority.

My experiences in graduate school couldn't have been more different: It was like night and day. O rather, it was like day and night. The guitarists in the classical world tended toward anything but open mindedness, and the same was true of the composers. The real strange thing to me was the fact that the performers didn't compose and the composers didn't perform! That is still a head-shaker for me, but it does answer a lot of questions, doesn't it?

In the so-called traditional composition camp, the closed mindeness was quite militant. Tonal writing was not only frowned upon, but it was often visciously attacked. Why? Who the hell is some university composer who makes his living off of students to disuade them from writing whatever they want? Nobody, that's who. Of course, the students who are willing to buy into this militancy (and put on the kneepads) spread it virally. I use that word intentionally, because anti-tonal militancy is a sickness.

But, things are not exactly perfectly rosy in the tonal camp either. Having been intentionally shut out of the academy (for the most part), tonal composers of a traditional bent are still displaying similar closed mindedness with respect to the acceptance of jazz and popular influences (Again, not all of them, but enough that I think it is problematic) or anything resembling innovation. While the dopey denizens of dissonance in the academy have basically flushed all aspects of true music down the toilet, the tonal guys are stuck in 1850, or 1825, or 1800, or 1775, or 1725, or whatever era they wish to bury their heads in the sands of. Does the musical world really need more Baroque dances that modulate from I to V and back just like Bach's did over a quarter of a milennium ago?! Ought not there be at least some stylistic freshness to distinguish a twenty-first century composition from an eighteenth-century one? I think so, but you would be amazed by how many in the contemporary tonal camp recoil from anything more modern than the sonata process and go off shouting militantly about ars nova and other similar nonsense.

Now, I consider myself to be very conservative as a composer in some ways, and innovative in others, and I've written in styles very similar to old Baroque, but those efforts were always planned as points of departure and means to an end. There is something unique and unprecidented in most of the peices I write, or what is the point, exactly? I mean, if your goal is to write Beethoven's Tenth or Brahms' Fifth symphony, you had better be open to innovation, because Beethoven and Brahms most certainly were!


If I recall correctly, the first time I was exposed to non-equal temperaments was circa 1977 in an old issue of Guitar Player magazine. Some guy had come up with a rather ingenious magnetic system to allow for interchangable fingerboards, and with this system you could get TTET, 5-limit just, 7-limit just, &c. on a single instrument. Guitarists are still experimenting with this today, thirty years later. While I initially only found this curious (And, impractical to play), it lead me to investigate the history of tunings and temperaments.

In a nutshell, I agree with the sentiment that some expressiveness was lost with the move to TTET from the well-tempered systems such as Kirnberger III. There is no doubt but that having every key posess a slightly different character because of temperament differences can be used as an expressive resource within a composition, and composers certainly made much use of this in ages past. However, this very unequal nature is prejudicial to complete modulatory freedom: I do not want any "color considerations" involved with my modulatory plannings, because those plans are the result of purely musical considerations and I don't want my choices influenced by how in or out of tune a particular key-region is.

For modern performances and recordings of Bach or Couperin keyboard music (Et al, of course), it is obviously interesting to hear them with period temperaments... or not. I have a CD set of Bach's Die Kunst Die Fuge performed by Davitt Moroney, for example, and I find the music quite compelling in his period temperaments and on replicas of Baroque harpsichords. However, I've heard The Art of Fugue performed by everything from a piano to a string quartet, and those performances are equally valid, regardless of the presence or absense of a Baroque temperament scheme. Say that at a period instrument cocktail party sometime if you want to see musical militancy in action.

Music on the printed page is, of course, just a recipe: It can be seasoned to taste.

The person who cured me, personally, of the period instrument and period temperament phase I went through was Christopher Hogwood. He recorded a series of CD's several years ago of Beethoven's symphonies with period instruments: I listened through them once and got rid of them. How dull and small they sounded compared with the Georg Solti/Chicago DG recordings from the '80's I liked so much. Give me a modern orchestra any day.

Of course, being a guitarist I didn't experiment with alternate temperaments except as a listener, but even my listening experiences with non-equal temperaments didn't strike me as so profoundly compelling that I wished I could switch to them.

It was through my continuous hands-on work with the harmonic overtone series - first as a guitarist fiddling with harmonics and then as a Synclavier programmer working with additive and FM digital synthesis - that I finally came up with the answer to... well, just about everything musical, actually, but the "correctness" of TTET was one of those things.

The well-known Pythagorean comma is the difference between seven octaves of perfect 2:1 octaves and seven octaves (twelve intervals) of perfect 3:2 fifths. The stack o' fifths is, like, 23 cents sharp at the top. Well, since the entire idea of pitch identity revolves around octave equivalence, you can't stretch the octaves, but you can shrink the fifths. If you shrink them by 1/12 of the comma, you get... TTET. As with all solutions that involve apparent compromise, one can argue that the system is not perfect, but by what measure? If you are saying that all of the intervals are not represented by just ratios, well then fine: That's a truism. But by one measure TTET is absolutely perfect: It is absolutely perfectly equitable.

There is no favoritism - no bias - with TTET. TTET is a non-prejudiced equal-oportunity system, and it only takes the first two intervals of the harmonic overtone series to come up with the solution it represents. Like all most-perfect-solutions, it is also the simplest. I, personally, do not want the key regions within my compositions to have any extra-musical character differences imposed upon them: Since the series implies twenty-four possible major and minor tonics, and twenty-four potential regions within a single composition, I want them to all be equal in relation to each other. Only TTET can do that on fixed pitch instruments, and since fixed pitch instruments dominate most ensembles, well...

Now, you can say you prefer to use this temperament or the other, and that's fine. You can even say that one or the other of the non-equal temperaments sounds better to you and I have no problem with that either. But what you cannot say (And be anything but wrong in the abject) is that the harmonic overtone series implies that any non-equal temperament is "better" than TTET, because it simply isn't true, as I've just proven (For the umpteenth time) for all who have a mind to understand and who haven't painted themselves into a musical corner that they can only defend through militancy, and not logic.

So, the next time someone writes a book with a title like, "How ET Murdered Music" can we all agree to just b!*@#-slap him silly? If someone submits a masters or doctoral thesis like, "Resolved: ET is the Spawn of Satan", can we all just agree to laugh the retard out of the room school?

I suppose not. That would be millitant, wouldn't it?

From now on I promise that I'll just continue to be right about things musical, and I'll alow others to be wrong to their heart's content.


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