When I blogged some time ago about music literacy, I mentioned the tired trope “I like to everything except Rap and Country,” which seems to be a response given when someone wants to show a cosmopolitan or open musical taste. Plenty of pixels have been typed about the class and race issues associated with the phrase and I won’t rehash them here as I think that only tells a part of the story that the phrase frames.
One of the local research projects I’ve been working on is charting the evolution of Classical Music in Kentuckiana (i.e. the Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN MSA). Being one of the MSA’s which lies over two states, this makes some of the data gathering a little trickier, but lately I’ve decided to focus very specifically on New Albany, Indiana which is where I currently live and where I spent most of my school years before going to music school.
After the recent passing of Rubin Sher and Don McMahel, two giants of music education in this area, I decided it might be time to really get my hands dirty with data in honor of them and all the other music teachers still with us that I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with since I’ve moved back.
Then she played Steve Reich for them.
The response was, in a word, astonishing. The students began tapping along and became actively engaged in their listening. They asked questions—questions!—about the music (which, in of itself is a pretty remarkable feat). Whereas Mozart was boring, Reich was exciting! It was new—something they did not expect, especially in the context of “classical music.” They wanted to hear more! Several times after my wife played them Electric Counterpoint, they asked for it again, even over popular music examples that she had played.
While Steve Reich might be a composer that we would expect younger students to engage with, what was more surprising was the response she received when she played them Pierre Boulez. Admittedly, the students reacted with confusion at first. However, as the music played they wanted to hear more. They wanted to know where this “crazy noise” was going. Once again, the music engaged her students on a level that neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky ever did. They became active listeners. The music was unique and didn’t sound like “stereotypical classical music.” Like Reich, her students asked to hear “that weird Boulez music” again—many times over, in fact.
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.
Composer, Alex Temple, has written an interesting piece regarding borrowed material in music. I’ll quote the relevant section here:
[T]he response I wound up thinking about the most is actually one that I didn’t agree with. It was from a composer who said that while she liked my music’s collage-y, turn-on-a-dime syntax, she wished that I would use my own materials rather than borrowed ones.
I can see why someone would react that way to my work. I make a lot of allusions, and often very obvious ones. But here’s the problem: what kind of material wouldn’t count as borrowed? If Dayglo Attack Machine had used atonal harmonies rather than major seventh chords, nested tuplets rather than 4/4 syncopations, and sul ponticello string overpressure rather than doubled flute and vibes, most people wouldn’t describe that as using “borrowed material”—but it would be. I didn’t invent that language any more than I invented the language of 1960s advertising . And in fact, those materials are further removed from me culturally than the ones I used: not only do all of them go back at least to the 1960s, but they’re also European rather than American in origin.
At first I thought this was a good way to look at it. We’re all using borrowed materials in music unless we’re actively creating our own idiomatic musical system–like what Harry Partch did when he developed his 43 note per octave just intonation system. As I’ve thought about it since reading the piece I also realized that the issue is far from clear cut. It’s not simply an issue of something being completely borrowed as-opposed-to something being completely original. Ironically, Harry Partch also shows how this dichotomous approach fails in that he had to create his own instruments to play his 43 note per octave system.
See, an argument could be made that, for the most part, music being composed in that Western Art Music Tradition is usually being composed for instruments which co-evolved within that same Western Art Music Tradition. Many of the techniques, stylistic quirks, tonal and rhythmic systems were developed within the context of European Art Music–and within the context of the evolution of European Art Music Instruments.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be able to write from whatever borrowed system that exists–far from it. But what I am saying is that the whole idea of being a Classically trained composer can’t be entirely abstracted from the context of the techniques Classical trained composers have used to learn their craft.
Sure, someone could argue that those techniques aren’t specifically tied to the artform in any meaningful way, but that’s besides the point. It’s not an essentialism or normative argument for tying the Compositional style to the instruments and tradition so much as it’s a descriptive observation about how there is a close connection between the craft and the style of the instruments and the tradition. Otherwise we’d see as many composers writing in Classical Ottoman Turkish Music style, Japanese Court Music style, or Byzantine Chant style as often as Classical Music style and with the same chance level of occurrence. We don’t, and shouldn’t expect to.
Near the end of the piece, Temple says:
[O]ver the years, I’ve continued to think about that conversation, because I keep running into the same ideas. For example, Garrett Schumann recently posted on Twitter that composers who use common-practice tonality should do so “thoughtfully” and “deliberately,” and be aware of the “historical and socio-political assumptions” involved in making that choice. I’m all for thoughtfulness and historical awareness, but what strikes me is that I never hear anyone calling on composers influenced by Saariaho or Lachenmann or Ferneyhough to be thoughtful and deliberate in their use of pre-existing ideas. It seems to be taken for granted in many new music circles that anyone who composes in a European modernist idiom is doing so because they’ve thought about all the possible options and made a historically informed decision to go with that one, but that anyone who composes in a tonal idiom is doing so naively. The funny thing is, the assumptions that people make actually contradict each other. If atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the “native language” of contemporary classical music, then you can’t take it for granted that anyone who uses them is doing so after years of rigorous aesthetic soul-searching. They might just as easily be doing it because it’s the norm in their musical subculture.
Taking what I’ve said above, then some of that thoughtfulness and historical awareness and socio-political assumptions have been part of what has built the system in question. Sure, not the totality of it–music systems can’t completely encompass the totality of any historical period. Then again, neither can a regular linguistic text. That doesn’t mean that some of the historical meaning isn’t embedded in the text.
I think that we as musicians tend to forget that notated music is text. Musical text, to be sure, but a kind of text nonetheless. All texts, whether linguistic, mathematical, musical, etc. have been constructed in a very specific historical period and region. How the text is used, what it looks like, and how it represents something physical has as much to do with it’s being embedded in some historical and socio-political context as it does anything else. The transmission of the text, and how to use it, is also dependent on how it co-evolved with the instruments used to reproduce it.
There’s a reason we don’t use Korean Chôngganbo, Byzantine Chant notation, or Hamparsum notası, to notate Western Classical Music, and it’s not unrelated to why we don’t use various form of tablatures or chord charts to notate it. This isn’t a comment about complexity–other notation systems are built to noted types complexity that Western Classical notation can always adequately represent. Part of why they were constructed is specifically to highlight compositional techniques and musical styles that are tied to the traditions within which they have evolved. Again, a whole system of notation, instruments, performance practice, and history which are closely (though not essentially or normatively) tied together.
This is not to say that “atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the ‘native language’ of contemporary classical music” so much as just one of major dialects of contemporary classical music. To be sure, what Temple is talking about is how much the field is changing with regards to the openess of younger composers to more contemporary idioms and musical dialects and languages, but for the most part all those tend to fall within the musical techniques used in the extended European-American world.
Interestingly, I had posted the following quote to my twitter feed–not specifically in reference to Temple’s piece (I hadn’t read her piece when I posted this).
“If you’re fluent in only one language you’ll likely make stupid generalizations about languages. Same thing with music.” #BoldCellist
— Jon Silpayamanant (@Silpayamanant) January 18, 2014
And it was semi-facetious remark directed at something completely unrelated (Doom and Gloomers), but the core sentiment is still applicable. What Temple said isn’t stupid, by all means, the main point regarding the double standard of disparaging composers for using a “borrowed idiom” over another idiom which is in many ways just as borrowed is a problem. In the end, though, the problem has more to do with how we tend to make sharp dichotomies to reinforce certain hierarchies. It’s just classic ingroup/outgroup behavior that humans have been doing since we were hunter/gatherer tribes.
I think we need to move beyond that and find the nuances between the sharply opposed viewpoints when they exist. And by all means, used “borrowed” materials all you want in your compositions–I’d love to hear Temple’s “Dayglo Attack Machine” whether it’s using appropriated music or not.