Sunday, November 06, 2005

Musical Evolution

I'm not referring to historical trends here, but individual ones: Every musician is on an evolutionary path. For those musicians who create music, the musical evolution of what they write is tied to their personal evolution as "Spirits in the Material World", as Sting put it. For the performer/interpreter, the same could be said: The best of them reflect their increasing maturity via increased depth of expression. Young musicians are all technique: In mature musicians technique is totally subjugated to expressive nuance and autumnal depth.

A couple of posts back, I mentioned that I consider my personal musical evolutionary path to be an intentionally slow one, and that is because I want to absorb as much of historical musical practice (Those practices that I find desirable) as I can. When I made this decision I was twenty-nine years old, living in New York, and playing in a rock band. When I say historical practices, that comes right up to the present day, though it excludes the overwhelming majority of Post Classic "serious" music (Sorry, Kyle ;^)). I just got a book of transcriptions of the music from Pat Metheny's 2003 solo baritone guitar album, "One Quiet Night", that I'm studying at the moment. I'm fond of saying the only good twentieth century music is jazz, and while that's an overly broad generalization, jazz is certainly my favorite twentieth-century music. By far.

Back to the band "thing": The inter-personal relationships that come with being in a band, I can do without (In fact, I have learned I'm better off with no really close relationships at all: I simply prefer solitude over any company that I can think of. That's why I relate to Hucbald, the "Musical Monk"). But, I do miss the musical communication that is part of ensemble playing, but not enough to, you know, actually work with any other musicians: I still much prefer being a solo act... in all aspects of my life. And yes, I sometimes crave female companionship, but not nearly enough to go through all the rigamarole involved in a... relationship (shudder). It's funny, but most guys my age have the wife, kids, pets, and all the good and bad trappings that attend that kind of life. Many of them are preparing to send kids off to college, and some of them already have kids who have graduated college. There is a small part of me that is envious of them, but a very small "grass is greener" part that I understand perfectly well. Funny thing is, when I run into some of my old buds, I'm usually on one of my motorcycles riding across the country for no reason other than that I want to, and they tell me how envious they are of me and the freedom I have (If you ever catch me in a minivan, I beg you to do some sort of an intervention). Isn't that funny?

What brought this to mind were a couple of posts on another music blog that - frankly - irritated the snot out of me (There is a reason why Sequenza 21 and a couple of other blogs are not linked to here: I visit them and read them, but that doesn't mean I have to link to them). These posts rehashed - for the gazillionth time - the same tired, old, musical memes that I rejected long ago: Terms like "applicability", or "currency", or "newness"; there is nothing older in music than the term "new" (Does the term Ars Nova ring any bells?). Personally, I view the desire to be "fresh", "new", or "provocative" as a sign of an artistic paucity of idea as well as a certain spiritual vacuousness. Not to mention immaturity (OK, I mentioned it). That does not mean, of course, that everything that is fresh, new, or different is created by dolts, but that is more often than not the case. It is having as a primary motivational force the DESIRE to be new, different, or provocative that I find morally... questionable (Boy, did I go through a long editorial selection process for that word).

Virtually every one of the "composers" (Hey, even with the scare quotes I'm being generous) I've ever met who have aspired to a self-consciously "unique" style I have lumped into the gargantuan pile of musical ignoramuses that I've encountered over the years. Every one of them had one thing in common: They were ignorant of compositional history in that they had no familiarity with traditonal techniques. By that I mean that these guys couldn't do the things that I consider to be prerequisites: Organize harmonic progressions with proper voice leading, write decent modal and tonal counterpoint, write a fugue; The list goes on... How can these "composers" consider themselves to be part of any "tradition" if they have no real, actual, functional, working knowledge of that tradition? In my estimation, they can't. The composers who I consider to be the greatest - Perotinus, Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Taneiev - were walking, talking, and composing musical summations of everything that came before them. By those standards, the overwhelmingly vast majority of contemporary composers who are lionized and spoken of in hushed and reverent tones... don't know dick.

One of the things that is usually attendant in musicians who strive to be new or provocative is a laziness that manifests itself through dissmissiveness. They use phrases like "that's all been done before", or "those techniques have no applicability to modern *spit* music" - things along those lines. These are abjectly lame attempts at masking outright indolence: These slugs simply want to have all the glory without the patience to do the hard work that is required to do it properly. History will more than likely flush them down the appropriate memory hole, but if all they want is their personal Worholian "fifteen minutes", more power to 'em.

While I hate the term "litmus test" as it's commonly bandied about in political circles, I do actually have one of my own. As far as composers are concerned: If they can't compose a fugue at least as well as I can (And have), nothing they say is worth noting. I'll keep my own counsel where music is concerned, but thanks anyway. You'd be surprised how many musical debates this ends (Or, perhaps not).

As I continue to grow in the adventure that is my life (And I absolutely, positively, enjoy the living daylights out of my life), I come to appreciate more and more that decision I made back when I was twenty-nine. There were many years and countless hours involved in aquiring and studying historic theory texts, perusing scores of my favorite music and analyzing them, and a whole lot of writing music. But I got to a place where I enjoy very much being, these nearly thirty years later.

I think Lauren said it best:

"Like, no shortcuts, m-kay?"


Blogger Tim Rutherford-Johnson said...

Hucbald, I'm puzzled that you reject so strongly 'timeliness', but at the same time hold great store by 'evolution'. What is evolution if not a timely interaction with the material world? Evolution and timelessness are mutually exclusive terms; it's one or the other.

3:32 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I'm not against timliness per-se, but I object to a REQUIREMENT imposed on art to refer only to the now, with the implication that everything that came before is of no consequence, and has no applicabilty. I just think that attitude is wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of the points I failed to make is that I believe most of us out here "in the bleachers" are far less stratified and exclusive than those with their feet up by the fire. Know what I mean?

6:45 AM  
Blogger Tim Rutherford-Johnson said...

Absolutely - I instinctively object to 'requirements' of any sort anyway. No, music isn't required to be of the here-and-now (especially not to the detriment of everything before it); but I do think that it's something worth looking at. Even in, say, Josquin. There are things in Josquin's music, questions that are still valid (the relationship between sacred and secular, for one). His music isn't required to have these things, and I wouldn't force anyone to listen to it in that way; but at the same time, they are still there, and if you want to listen to it like that, why not - it might increase your pleasure and what you get from it. I prefer that sort of choice.

5:15 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Excellent. We were in agreement the whole time.

Man, you brought up a composer I love, but haven't listened to in years: Josquin. Perfect solution to my burnout on B's Ninth. I believe I'll cruise on over to the iTunes Store and snag a few tracks.

And, there is no doubt but that popular music has influenced "the tradition" since a very remote and early era. I wouldn't mind reading a good study on that subject, actually.

5:31 AM  

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