Thursday, July 19, 2012

Let Freedom Ring!

I was just reading this story about two Seattle men who were detained for two hours and threatened with a $15,000 fine for trying to bring into the US some chocolate Easter eggs. No, really. These particular candies contain little toys that could possibly choke young children, so they are illegal in the US. Crossing an international boundary can be nerve-wracking, but even more so these days when some countries feel they have the right to interfere in the smallest detail of your life.

All of which makes me think of how free music is. The world of music, that is, not necessarily music in the world. I'm apprehensive about traveling to the US with my guitar because I don't have the necessary documents to prove that the ebony fingerboard was harvested in the correct manner. I'm not going to risk having my guitar, my companion for twenty-nine years, confiscated by the State. See these posts. There are so many ways that musicians can be constrained in the world. Take for example the shutdown of Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen in London recently. Perhaps that was justified, perhaps not, I don't really have an opinion on it. But music in the world is subject to all sorts of rules and restrictions, as is everything.

But that just highlights the fact that music, that is to say, the world of music, is a place abounding in freedom. Say you are a composer writing a piece. There are no rules, no musical limits to what you can do. You can write something for 1,000 performers like Gustav Mahler in his Symphony No. 8:

Or write a small piece for piano with no sounds at all:

Or anything in between. This is why it is a bit terrifying, sitting in front of a blank page of music paper and wondering what you could possibly put down on it. Terrifying for two reasons: anything is possible and you are hoping to find something good.

There are supposedly 'rules' in music, of which the most famous is the stricture against parallel fifths. I've even written about the rules of music. But these rules, which could equally be called "aesthetic principles" are self-imposed. You choose to follow them for some reason. You write a waltz in 3/4 instead of 5/4 because that is part of what makes a waltz a waltz. Or, if you are Dave Brubeck, you might begin with a 3/4 waltz and start inserting measures of 4/4. The tune is called "Three to Get Ready".

This album, Time Out is also famous for containing the most well-known piece in 5/4: "Take Five".

So you can put out a whole album about breaking the rules, which is really just extending the rules or commenting on the rules.

Music, the world of music, is free of the kinds of restrictions that the real world contains. True, it is probably best to follow aesthetic principles, or at least seek them! But no-one is going to confiscate your music-writing pen if you don't. At worst, they just won't listen. No-one is going to confiscate your guitar for not tuning it properly or for playing the wrong chord. If you play your electric guitar loud in the middle of the night you are probably going to get shut down, but that is music in the world, not the world of music.

So, let's be grateful for the freedoms we do have. Freedom to compose anything and to play anything. And everyone is free to have their own opinions about what we compose and play.

Let freedom ring!


Mary said...

I really like "Take Five." It brought back memories from when I was a kid and my dad listened to Dave Brubeck and Billy Holliday late into the night. As I was trying to get to sleep... Brubeck is from Stockton, California, where I'm from. I do wonder why John Cage got so famous. Maybe we're not as free as we think, if we can't tell that the emperor has no clothes on.

Bryan Townsend said...

I've talked about John Cage in a few different places here on the Music Salon. The funny thing is that while 4'33 is an absurd musical composition, it is wonderfully useful as an example when you are talking about aesthetics and composition. Call it an essential example!