Sunday, October 10, 2010

Musicspeak: Bach and Iron Maiden, Part IIa

My musicspeak post last week provoked a lively conversation that has made me think all week. Some of the reactions seem to indicate that the topic has touched on something more than just the discussion of art music.

Here are the unspoken assumptions that underlie the post:
  • that there are different groups of art;
  • that it is meaningful to separate those groups.

One assumption no
t present in my post:
  • that some art forms are better than others.
Let me examine these assumptions. The assertion that there are different types of art is not disputed. How we group different types of art is where the disagreement starts. This is when
we look a
t established labels and exclaim: what do Rembrandt and Kandinsky, or a Vivaldi concerto and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra have in common?

Here was when I found John Steinmetz's definition helpful. Unfortunately, I left out an important part. And it's this:

Art music requires the listener to pay attention

Experience and knowledge, yes, but paying attention is an even more important aspect.

Let me back up a little and address the question of why it is meaningful to have labels. Why not just say: here is a whole slew of music, enjoy? My take is that there is simply too much available, and without some sort of a classification system, we'd feel lost. Sure labels can lead us astray, but they are a convenient and often helpful way for us to navigate our lives.

And maybe it's not possible for humans not to label. Just think for a moment all the ways we categorize things and people in our lives. These categories are likely inexact or inadequate in some ways, and they can result in all sorts of meaningless and even harmful generalities. But is it really possible that we don't mentally separate foods into healthy/unhealthy, or people as those you trust your children with and those you don't?

Here is another example of why I use labels. When someone asks me what kind of musician I am, I tell them I am a pianist and an orchestral percussionist. In their minds, they know that by percussion, I mean instruments such as these:


and yes, this:

and am likely to perform in a venue like this:

standing around with these fellow percussionists:

They would probably not conjure up this image:

or ask me where I usually gig, which they may if I had just said I was a percussionist. (Nope, can't play the drum set at all. Maybe I'll take lessons one day. But it will have to come after lessons in jazz singing and bass guitar.)

I am sure you already some responses to what I've written so far and I'd love to hear them. And please come back for the continuation of this exploration. Tomorrow, I'd like to invite you to imagine some scenarios with me, to discover the responses you may have to different answers to this question:

"So, what do you write?"


lotusgirl said...

This is a fun discussion. There are some art forms that I am more comfortable with. That's not to say one is better than the other, but for whatever reason deep within me certain ones resonate more with me than others.

Solvang Sherrie said...

What amazes me is that no matter what kind of music you make, you're using the exact same notes, yet they sound SO different and create such different emotional responses in people.

Bish Denham said...

All I have to do is think of jazz, so many different styles. Not all styles appeal to my ear, but for the most part, I love it! And Sherrie's right...the infinite variations we get out of 8 (7) notes is AWEsome.

Yat-Yee said...

lotusgirl: It's probably true of anybody to resonate with one rather than others.

Sherrie: yes, the raw material does seem very narrow. But when you play with rhythm, texture, timbre, tone quality, pitch, dynamics, etc. the variations are astounding. And don't forget music outside of the Western tradition, where the pitches don't exactly coordinate with the scale system that we Western musicians are used to. When I played in a youth orchestra in Malaysia, I would get all sorts of conniption when we performed with traditional instruments, such as the Gamelan, and because of the difference in tuning, I thought we sounded out of tune all the time! Took me a while to convince my ears that it was all good!

Bish: Jazz styles are so varied, and I too, like some but not others.