Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Music and Identity

A good friend of mine is going through a difficult time right now. She is an orchestral musician but has just recently developed a health issue that makes it impossible for her to continue playing. The psychological issue here is one of personal identity: she has been a professional musician since she was very young. Now she feels a bit like she has been flung into a void because, if she is not a musician, who is she?

I am very familiar with this problem because I have re-invented myself a few times in my life. The first time was when I changed from a popular musician (electric bass and guitar in a band) to a classical musician. Then, after twenty-five years as a classical guitarist I reinvented myself as a musicologist.

Do musicians have more identity issues than other people? I honestly don't know, but they have some unique identity problems having to do with the fusion of what they do, play music, with who they are.

My mother was an "old-time fiddler" in the Canadian prairie tradition, which is different from country fiddling in the US as I understand it. If you know jigs and reels on the fiddle, that's close enough. So when I was growing up music as I heard it wasn't very cool. When I was about nine years old I had my first real engagement with music. A friend of my mother's came over to play some music (a frequent occurrence), but this friend played the piano and read music, which was not common. I was fascinated by his sitting at the piano and somehow creating music by looking at these funny dots on lines. So I went over in the corner and scribbled some down myself. Then I handed it to him and said "here, what does this sound like?" Bad, of course. But the idea that music could be written down I found absolutely fascinating.

When I was eleven I took a few piano lessons, but I couldn't get interested in it for some reason. Must have been the repertoire. I'm pretty sure there was a piece called the Jumping Rabbit or something. Occasionally I would hear something that sounded sort of cool: Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" or Malagueña by Lecuono. I seem to remember a Ferrante and Teicher album kicking around. You see, I grew up in an environment that had very little music apart from what my mother did. A little fiddling from time to time, a couple of LPs, almost no radio nor television. Hard to imagine nowadays when nearly every piece of music ever is just a YouTube away.

Finally, when I was 15 or 16 I got hooked on rock: Erik Burden and the Animals, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. I wanted to play drums for some forgotten reason, but drum rental was way expensive so I ended up with an electric bass: "it's in the rhythm section!" Soon I was playing six string acoustic guitar and one fateful day after a mercifully brief career as a rock musician in the worst band in town, and a brief dalliance as a Bob Dylan clone, a friend of mine played me a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. First time I heard real virtuosity. Then I met a classical guitarist whose favorite composer was Bach and my fate was sealed. If there was actually classical music available to me as a mere guitarist, then life were very heaven.

Sorry for that paroxysm of autobiography; I'm supposed to be talking about music and identity. My identity has been fused with music most of my life. Not as a child, but since I began becoming an adult. This is who I am and what I do. So when I have given up on music, which has happened on two occasions, it has been like losing my identity. I don't have a very strong sense of who I am at the best of times. Music provides a framework and a faith. But the thing is that, since I started too late for one thing, I'm not really a virtuoso guitarist and that's what you have to be to have an international career. Otherwise it's weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I don't like playing gigs like that. What I really am is a composer, but it just didn't occur to me. Odd, I know. After one concert in which two of my compositions were featured, a very distinguished university professor came up to me and said I would be more famous as a composer than a performer. I just ignored him--"I'm a guitarist!"

But why? I think it may have been because the whole of my ambitions in music were formed during my first encounter with classical music. I just wanted to play it. It never occurred to me that I could write it. Oh, interesting thing, no-one taught me music notation. I taught it to myself because I wanted to write songs with orchestral accompaniment and I heard orchestras needed everything written down. When I did meet some actual living composers and composition students what they were doing (avant-garde progressivism) just didn't seem too interesting. I'd rather be playing Bach, thanks very much. But all through those decades of trying to be a virtuoso, every now and then I would write something. It wasn't something I took very seriously, but it seemed an essential part of my existence. In 1977 I wrote a piece called "Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord" that turned out to be the first minimal composition for guitar. Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" was over a decade in the future. I even wrote a piece in open form (meaning that the notes are fixed, but when you play them is not) for guitar orchestra. Usually if I were in some sort of ensemble, sooner or later I would write something. Or if I met a really cute girl who played cello.

Finally, after retiring as a performer except for the occasional benefit concert, I became serious about composition. Think of me as the anti-Mozart. So now I know who I am: a composer manqué! Oh, great. But wait, I started this music blog a couple of years ago and frankly, it's a hoot. Or maybe a shindig. A hootenanny!

You know, maybe my identity problems have nothing to do with music...

I'm going to end with a clip of my mother playing the fiddle. This is, I believe, the only tune she composed herself and it is called the Silvertone Waltz. When I get a chance I'm going to scan a photo of my mother to put with the clip, but for now I have a picture of where we lived in the early 1960s, a small town in northern British Columbia called Pouce Coupe. The building is now a museum. Then a couple of photos of the countryside around there and finally a photo of the kind of dance that my mother used to play for.


RG said...

I remember.

Music video will never be the same.

Bryan Townsend said...

It does give a rather different impression with a different kind of music, doesn't it?

I think I am going to follow up on this rather diffuse post with another on music and identity with reference to Baudrillard because one's identity has a large social component.