In my previous post about tools for the 21st Century Musician, I discussed improvisation as probably the most useful tool musicians can be using. In a way, technology is even more indispensable. Unless our voice is our primary or only instrument (and even then there are exceptions), then nearly everything we make music on is the result of some level of technology. Whether we’re talking about the technology of carved bone flutes and dried skins over a wooden frame, or the highly advanced craft that luthiers use to carve/mold stringed instruments, or the ability to build circuitry or program for electronic instruments or computers, there is always some level of technology involved in the making of musical instruments.
Imagine having a conversation with someone but instead of speaking you had to read from a piece of paper with writing on it. Now imagine that none of that written text is your own but words written by other people. Not only would your end of the conversation lack some measure of spontaneity, but you would also have to carry around an impressive library of text which you would have to have organized for quick retrieval lest you stymy the flow of the conversation. This is kinda what it’s like being a musician that can’t improvise. Improvisation in music is the analogue to our normal everyday ability to improvise with our voices with the spoken word. It’s also something that disappeared from Classical Music training for a while though it’s making a comeback.
Soundpainting is a kind of live composing sign language created by New York composer Walter Thompson in 1974. Designed for musicians, dancers, actors, poets, and visual artists, the Soundpainting language consists of roughly 1200 gestures that are signed by the composer/director who is known as the Soundpainter. Soundpainting differs from the late Butch Morris’ Conduction (created roughly around the same time) in that the gestural language of Soundpainting is more general and is designed to be used by non-musicians.
A recent piece by Sugar Vendil titled Performers as Co-Creators at NewMusicBox discusses a current piece using musicians as dancers and brings up many of the issues I’ve discussed in my previous two installments of this on dancing while playing the cello series. The Nouveau Classical Project is developing a piece, Potential Energies, which will premiere in Brooklyn at BAM Fisher on May 29.
A couple years ago while reading Dick Weissman’s book, Making a Living in Your Local Music Market, I blogged about the section in the book about Musical Literacy. As Weissman related some remarks by Bruce Ronkin:
He defines it as an awareness and understanding of all musical styles, instead of concentrating on technical aspects of music. I think this is a very useful concept, because it places emphasis on the student and teacher being open to many musical styles. The truth is that most of us are fixated on specific musical styles and techniques, and many of us don’t listen to a variety of musical styles.
Which tracks well with how we’ve redefined, or rather broadened, the definition of literacy. Or rather, how we’ve come to broadened the scope of what we mean by being literate. Thing is, I’ve changed my mind about this. Not that what Ronkin states is untrue in any sense or that there isn’t this connotation of possessing knowledge about a subject being something we can refer to as being “literate in the subject.”
No, the problem here is that this isn’t the primary definition of literacy and by focusing so much on the secondary, albeit valuable, definition we’ve come to leave behind the denotation relating to the ability to read and write. The two definitions are not the same thing. This shift is precisely what Weissman wants to emphasize:
Bruce’s notion also re-focuses the notion of literacy, removing it from the sheer ability to read and write music notation. It isn’t that these are not useful skills, it is rather that they don’t necessarily define musicality.
But by shifting away from the reading and writing skills, we’ve also lost all perspective on the wide variety of music notations that actually do exist or have existed in the past (and what might be developed in the future).
Sure, the idea of a “cultural musical literacy” can encompass knowledge of these other notation systems, but simply knowing about them and how they work isn’t the same as being able to read and write in them. It’s the same way with language. Knowing that Mandarin doesn’t really have bound morphemes as we find in English isn’t going to show me how to read or write in hanzi or pinyin. It can help me understand the language and how it differs from English, sure, but that’s not the same thing as actually being literate in it.
And that’s the other problem. We mistake the idea of fluency and literacy often. Or rather, we tend to be imprecise about the terms. Being fluent in a language is generally a prerequisite to being literate in it. While some exceptions apply–such as with ancient languages which are no longer spoken (i.e. “dead languages”)–generally we learn how to speak a language, i.e. become fluent in it, before we bother to learn to read and/or write it (if at all).
This is almost the exact opposite of what happens in academic musical training where we learn how to read music, an occasionally write, but rarely do we learn how to “speak” it. We even have a special name for this musical speaking–improvisation. Think of how odd it would seem if we started referring to our ability to speak a language as improvisation (as true as that generally is) rather than simply the more normative (and frankly, descriptive) “speaking.”
Jazz aside, in most orthodox Western musical training, reading music is central. Writing it (i.e. composing) is secondary and Speaking (Improvising) it is probably a good last.
Obviously that has changed over the past few decades with the fragmentation of performing institutions once historically informed performance and new music ensembles became more common. And in the past few years, improvisation departments and classes in music conservatories are becoming ubiquitous. Trained musicians are now learning some improvisation techniques from the baroque and classical era as well as from more modern times.
The SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) have increasingly become specialized performing institutions that present a very specific range of music right in between (mostly late classical, romantic/post-romantic, early modern periods). Whether the latter caused the former or vice versa is besides the point because the consequences of having more and more institutions ultimately mean resources for them become more fragmented as we’re seeing in practically all forms of entertainment in this Post-Pop era. That some of these older institutions are seeing fewer returns in general says nothing about the vitality the Classical Art form as much as it says about how the revenue is becoming more distributed amongst many other “newer” organizations.
And once we get outside the “purely” Western Art Music world we find that, despite all the varieties of musical notations I’ve been illustrating this blog post with, most music is transmitted orally and improvisation is the norm. That fragmentation of ensembles into the early music/late classical-romantic-early modern/new music was just one side of the coin and today we have plenty of classically trained musicians who are supplementing their training in more popular and/or world music styles. The recording industry term “crossover” was coined for marketing purposes pretty much during the heyday of Pop music during the 80s, but musicians like Mario Lanza were already doing what we’d call crossover in the 50s.
Music improvisation is simply musical fluency. Musical Literacy, or the ability to read and/or write music, is a different thing altogether and sadly, doesn’t require fluency to be used as is usually the case with language. I think that the historical separation between music fluency and musical literacy is a side effect of increased specialization which has led to fragmentation of audiences, resources, and ultimately musical styles.
A shift into another style of music presentation will simply shift the musician into another fragmented or fragmenting industry which is why I say that diversifying your performance skills portfolio is far more useful than becoming a hyper-specialist. All classical musicians should learn how to become fluent in music, not just literate.