Cliff Crego's blog, whitebark—
Notes scratched into a stonepine snag, open to the light, clear air . . .

December 2010
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Filed under: General
Posted by: @ 7:00 am

Living Art is never 2nd-hand

Contradiction is the primary factor of fragmentation, corruption and, ultimately, collapse.

This is true of any system, of any network, of any ecology, of any cultural tradition.

The Western Classical music tradition is now characterized by a deep and profound fragmentation between creation and performance. One learns how to compose; or one learns how to conduct, or play the piano or violin. Almost universally, one does not learn to do both. This is not division, say in a natural division of labor, where one specializes for the sake of perfection, as one craftsperson makes horseshoes, and another saddles. In music, there is a necessary unity, because only in composing does one learn how to listen and therefore learn how to hear and bring out crucial and relevant features of both large and small-scale musical architecture. And in a profoundly complementary manner, only in performance does one learn to sense the mutually shared spiritual resonance of musical meaning which is really the why and how and wherefore of one’s art.

This difference between wholeness and fragmentation is crucial. If you take a violin and smash it, you do not get a collection of smaller violins. You get shards, bits, fragments of wood. Creative musical tradition has been, in the view being explored here, in a similar way broken apart. The driving force behind this, the seed of the primary contradiction, as it were, is that it has become the norm in Western musical practice to use the Muse, or the spirit of music—perhaps stronger terms could be used here, such as exploit or misuse—merely for one’s own personal self-expression, for one’s own demonstration of virtuosity. And in the now universal corporate commercialization of cultural life, this has degenerated to the nadir of pure and simple vulgar self-promotion. In other words, to use the vernacular, it’s about me. The contradiction is that the Muse, to use again an ancient term here and, of course, the root meaning of our word, music—demands relational resonance in three different directions at once, always with oneself, the ‘me,’ the other, you, and the world or universe, or All. (I would argue strongly here that this resonance with very subtle webs of meaning outside of oneself is the source of musical energy and intelligence.)

Fragmentation results in isolation. Isolation without philosophy becomes not just a state, but a survival strategy. This is what has happened in Western Classical music. One sidesteps the facts of contradiction and the collapse of a great creative musical culture of world significance by focusing not on the whole, but, well, mere fragments. So around the world now, we teach fragmentation, and call great the pianist or violinist or conductor that merely has made a career of mining the past precious metals of a once glorious creativity, while totally ignoring the vitally important matrix of problems—not contradictions—which concerns new music.

“What is ‘new music?’” you might ask. I would say it is music which arises out of and contributes to the exigencies of the current moment. It is not just digging up the last reserves of lost scores to keep your own little petty career solvent, as people say nowadays, but rather one begins with an ethical responsibility to ‘tend to the soil,’ to make the tradition richer than when you first found it. This happens naturally when composers perform, and performers compose. But now, sadly, mining the past has become ersatz creativity, just as the ubiquitous Baroque Ensemble has become an ersatz for a truly vitally alive contemporary musical practice.

Contradictions are like the pesky wolf-tones which plague every string instrument. They are literally two movements, or resonances, or voices, which, instead of working with and giving each other energy, take energy away and merely fight. Such contradictions cannot be sustained. At least not for long.

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