Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Most Delightful Science Fictional Hooey

I want to make a point that is not often made in the music world: how dependent we all are on one another. This point is not often brought out because the economics of the music business tend to revolve around the presentation or creation of "unique special snowflake" status for every musician. Every bit of publicity about musical artists focuses on how original, unique, novel and entirely new they are. That's what we are trying to sell, that is what will, we hope, bring people to buy tickets and recordings.

But it is a distorted picture. The truth is that the musical world is a collaborative one. Every artist has spent years in disciplined study, much of it with teachers and masters that transmit the immense cultural wealth of music tradition to the young would-be artist. How, exactly, do you play a scale with good tone, legato or staccato, rhythmically smooth and with control of the dynamics? Since the scale is a fundamental building block, musicians spend years learning them under the guidance of a maestro. Just one example. Then there is repertoire: what is the important repertoire for your instrument and how should it be played? I am leaving aside all those silly arguments about how every artist interprets every piece differently. That's true as far as it goes, which is not very far. I'm talking about the more basic level. How do you get those big chords to balance properly? How do you get the proper impetus in the allegro? How do you get that motif to sparkle (or droop in an expressive way). How do you get the music to come alive off the page? Those unique, individual interpretations come much later, layered on top of the basics.

The point I am making is one that has been long known to economists and there is a famous essay called "I, Pencil" that expresses it very well. Here is the link.

This is all by way of introduction to what I really want to talk about. There is a short story by science fiction writer John Varley titled "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" that is centered around the act of musical composition. It takes place in the rings of Saturn and has some really sexy bits. Barnum and Bailey are a symbiotic duo, human/symb. The details of how that works are not important to my point. The duo live floating around in the rings of Saturn all by themselves. Every few years they come in to the moon Janus to market their musical compositions. See, here is the problem. Without any training, work or exposure to what other musicians are doing, Barnum and Bailey just come up with fully-developed compositions. Where do they come from? The unique nature of symbiotic life and the unique environment of Saturn's rings. Barnum and Bailey can't read music, can't play an instrument and, at first, can't even sing their musical ideas because they have never tried. But somehow, there is a complete musical composition that has come to be inside.

But it's all hooey. It's just not possible for one or two symbiotic entities to be composers cut off from absolutely all influences and with absolutely no training or exposure. Sorry... Varley specializes in metaphysical MacGuffins like this: the amazing and mysterious symbiosis of these two entities, combined with the incredible environment of the rings of Saturn leads to music out of nothingness. Nope. That's not where music comes from. If it did then R. Murray Shafer would be a really important composer. Who? Yes, exactly!

This is the kind of mistake that non-musicians, even very creative and gifted non-musicians like John Varley, make. They see the final musical product and have no real awareness of how it came to be. Like the story of the pencil, there is a lot of collaborative effort. Also, music compositions do not grow out of nothingness and come to full development in the mind alone. True, there are stories that Mozart composed his last three symphonies while on nature walks just outside Vienna, but we don't have any real evidence for that. The absence of proof is not proof of absence. What we do have, in the case of Beethoven, is volumes and volumes of sketchbooks where he plugged away at themes for months and years until they got to their final form.

In music school, to make sure that you really are learning stuff, the instructors make you sing written down melodies at sight and make you write down melodies played to you. They do the same with harmonies and rhythms. This is because, in order to be literate in music, this is what you need to do. John Varley has this utopian view that music comes to be via a kind of alchemy. Not so...

But I love his stories! Music often has a big role. In his trilogy Titan, Wizard, Demon, one of the races inhabiting an artificial world are master musicians who love two composers above all others. J. S. Bach and John Philip Sousa. Let's end with a couple of pieces by them. First the US Marine Band with "The Washington Post March":

And here is a movement from Bach's Cantata BWV 56 conducted by Ton Koopman:

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