Monday, April 2, 2018

The Law of Unintended Consequences

I was visiting my dynamic half-sister last week, who is ninety-five years old and still drives her own car. She has indicated interest in my musical activities on several occasions so I have brought some CDs for her in previous visits. One of them contained some of my orchestral music (in software synthesized performances, let me hasten to say) and I was surprised to hear it wafting in from the other room one morning this week. I had forgotten she had that one. I went out to see what was up and found that she likes to listen to it while she is ironing. Sigh.

Well, to be fair, it is not terribly good music, just barely listenable. I was going through a lot of experimentation when I wrote it and I suppose I would describe it as being influenced by Steve Reich, Debussy and Prokofiev in equal parts without being very interesting or memorable. Here, as an example is my Tres Imágenes:

I have to say that, if I had known that its final function was to be mildly diverting background music to the mundane task of ironing, I would probably have written something rather different! These days I don't see my task of composing music as excluding music with this kind of function. Though I am a bit puzzled as to what to write, exactly. People like Haydn and Mozart wrote a great deal of music for dancing, processions, diversion and so on. The music was still elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

But these days we do seem to have a different task before us. If I could write charming, inoffensive music in the style of earlier times, I might well do so. But I find that I can't. At some point I write something so offensively trite to my ear that I have to erase it and that leads to deleting the whole thing as it is all of a piece. Then I go back to trying to find something that is not trite and clichéd. When I do, as I hope I did in my recent piece for violin and guitar titled "Dark Dream," it will not be the kind of thing that my sister would put on as background music to the task of ironing. She would not like it at all, I'm afraid.

I think I can relate one aspect of my character when it comes to aesthetics to something that happened in Grade 10. This is when adolescents are at their most intolerant and annoying. I had newly moved from the Interior to Vancouver Island so I was the new guy and painfully lacking in social abilities. I ended up being a kind of appendage on the edge of the nerd and geek squad in my school. Let me just outline the basic social groups there as they may be a bit different from your experience. In descending order of coolness from high to low there were the jocks of course, tall, physically adroit and popular. Then there were the hard rockers, the tough guys. This was just before the hippy sixties hit in my area so they wore black leather, had blakies on their boots or shoes (these were little metal plates that made metallic clicking sounds when you walked--it seems to be a local term) and practiced kicking one another. Below these were the dorks, nerds and geeks: the pseudo-intellectuals who dressed funny and were probably headed for a career in accounting. Anyone left over was simply an unclassifiable remainder. I was a probationary member of the geek squad until one day the others decided, purely as a psychological experiment, to ostracize me. One morning I went to school and all my supposed friends were no longer speaking to me. That pushed me into the unclassifiable remainder  group.

The interesting thing is that the very next year the 60s washed through our school (even though chronologically it was actually 1967) and some of us started growing our hair long and smoking marijuana. I also was in a band by then so the whole social order was turned upside down. Or so we thought. We passed our time at school assemblies and award ceremonies sitting in the very back and booing everyone who received any sort of prize.  We were now at the top of the coolness pyramid, even if only in our own minds.

I think that this whole series of events caused me to be sufficiently alienated that I really don't care too much what music I am supposed to be writing or who for. Yes, you can accuse me of being narcissistic or whatever, but I don't think that is the case. I ran across a clip of Jordan Peterson a while ago that provided me an interesting perspective on the role of artists. It is the job of craftsmen to provide those things that people need in their daily lives. Musically, that would be a lot of pop music and things like pleasant music to provide diversion while you are ironing. But it is the job of an artist to take things a few steps further, to leave the campfire of social acceptance and wander out in the wilds a bit and to come back with some idea, or bit of something that you can add to the art form to make it just a bit different (and therefore less immediately acceptable). You have to be creative in a true sense, in other words. This is why, as Jordan Peterson also points out, creative people usually find it almost impossible to monetize their creativity. The corollary to that is that if something is really successful it is most likely not that creative.

Of course there are some puzzling exceptions that would include people like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Both successful and both also pretty creative, though they certainly don't rack up the enormous sales of the true pop stars. Let's hear a little Tom Waits in case you are not familiar with his oeuvre. This is "Step Right Up" from the album Small Change (though in Canada it was on an album with a somewhat different track list titled Pasties and a G-String):


Marc said...

Thanks for the glimpse into the biography. "But it is the job of an artist to take things a few steps further, to leave the campfire of social acceptance and wander out in the wilds a bit and to come back with some idea, or bit of something that you can add to the art form to make it just a bit different (and therefore less immediately acceptable)." Have just spent an hour listening to Tom Waits and reading about his exploits-- only knew his name, and, while it turns out I have indeed heard this or that song, I had never paid any attention. He does seem to enjoy experimenting with different instruments and with objects usable as intruments. Don't know that I'd want to live next door to him, however (although the Wikipedia page anyway makes it seem as if he and his wife are very private people in their non-stage lives so, who knows.)

Bryan Townsend said...

We should do a poll: which composer would you like to live next door to? Mozart would be pretty good, and Haydn. Schubert for sure. But probably not Stockhausen (those helicopters) or Varèse.

I am delighted that I have, sort of, turned you on to Tom Waits.