S ome readers’ responses to the previous ‘American Mavericks’ post coincided with an intense social media dialogue about the merits of Louis Kahan’s famous quote (below), about originality in art.
A rt is a journey into the most unknown thing of all: oneself. Nobody knows his/her own frontiers… I don’t think I’d ever want to take a road if I knew where it led.”T he very next day, I visited the China Institute’s current exhibit on sǎn-yuè (散乐; literally, scattered/aleatoric/improvised folk music), chamber music from pre-Qin times. Unexpectedly, that visit—and the materials in the exhibit that span such great geographic/cultural distances and many centuries of time—enabled me to explore my feelings about what ‘novelty’ or newness or radical originality in music means. Maybe you, too, will reflect on this subject. At the bottom of the post are some links that may interest you.
尤 其是在泱泱大唐时期 ,借助于“海上丝绸之路”,华夏中原与西域丰富多彩的散乐、百戏、, 可上溯至远古时期,在典籍中常被称作“散乐”。T he materials on-display at the China Institute demonstrate a characteristic elevation of spontaneity and boldness as a value. In my own native Scandinavian culture and its sagas, in Snorri’s ancient eddas in Old Norse, it was wrong for a skaldic poet to fail at extemporizing excellent, heroic poems on-the-fly. The poems were meant to be spells, effective at invoking the gods; if your recitation was conventional or formulaic—not ‘loose’ enough—the magic would fail; the gods would not appear or, worse, would be displeased. So, too, it seems with the ancient Chinese sǎn-yuè music, especially the elegiac pieces that commemorated the honored person’s life. Maybe the best way to describe this sort of heartfelt innovation is in the archaic sense of the word 'illustrious' (luminous), in keeping with the book Da Xue (The Great Learning) by Zeng Zi (505-437 BC), one the four classics. Ritual may provide a necessary context for magic, but ritual/convention is not by itself sufficient for magic. It’s the loose magic that you’re aiming for, not the ritual per se; the ritual is only one means to an end.
[Especially in the Tang period, by way of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ and Chinese Central Plains and its diverse folk music or ‘one hundred plays’, sanyue can be traced back to pre-Qin times, as early as Zhou (1075-256 BCE), and was often called ‘loose music’ or ‘variety music’ in Chinese literary classics.]
F rom its very beginnings, the American venture was permeated with adventure, with the challenge and conquest of the unknown... Thomas Jefferson merely formalized the already deep-seated conviction that the American enterprise was not only ‘novel’, but about novelty... Novelty has become a value esteemed for its own sake, a cult of permanent potential. In this regard, the cult of novelty is closely related to the cult of speed.”A mericans’ obsession with ‘new’ seems, to me, deeply connected with our culture’s individualism—our crazy fascination with ourselves as the current descendants upon whom The Future depends. How much more sensible the Chinese view seems, as expressed in sǎn-yuè (i.e., long collective lineage, in which the current generation of individuals is almost inconsequential compared to cumulative impact of the revered ancestors)!
Michael Gellert, The Fate of America, p. 169.
A lthough revolutionary novelty in art... turns out more often than not to have arisen from a countercultural milieu, bold innovation—no matter how contrary to the status quo—does not itself a counterculture make. Authentic counterculture is driven by an impulse even deeper than the desire to innovate or to overturn conventions.”W ere the compositions in the recent ‘American Mavericks’ concert series explicitly motivated by the composers’ ‘counterculture’ aspirations? Or were they motivated by a wish to create musical ‘magic’? Or by something else?
Ken Goffman & Dan Joy, Counterculture through the Ages, p. xxii.
T he world of hyper-critical online commenters ... have created the perception that glory is reserved for those who can out-shock, out-weird or out-hip the last batch of musicians... Making music should be about pleasure and fulfillment, not some intellectual divining of ‘progress’ and uniqueness. Today’s musicians would be well advised to heed Van Morrison’s words: ‘In silence, easy—to be born again.’ ”H ow, then, to foster more and deeper musical innovation, in a world that’s become so much noisier with each passing decade? Where to find real -9.4 dB silence anymore?
I t is with a horrible irony that one reads Solzhenitsyn’s essay ‘The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How It Wrecked the Century’ (Feb. 7, 1993). It is an attack on all things modern… It is small comfort to note that Mr. Solzhenitsyn has a more universal cast of heroes than Zhdanov did, invoking as he does… the music of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert as the spiritual foundations of foregoing centuries. It may be appropriate to decry the calls of post-modernism, but to do so in the name of a past—a set of circumstances no longer applicable to a world in which all but Mr. Solzhenitsyn live—is hardly to awaken Russia and the West from ‘the coma and a period of silence.’ Rather, it dooms us to a traditionalism even older than xenophobic nationalism.”A bright, open-textured scoring makes it almost impossible not to achieve a thrilling and outward-looking effect, an emotionally-moving and meaning-filled ‘path’, even if it is a ‘path’ that is a familiar one. A dark, densely-textured scoring makes it almost impossible not to achieve a brooding, interior effect, which can likewise be an emotionally-moving and meaning-filled ‘path’, even if it is a ‘path’ that is a familiar one.
Irving Horowitz, NY Times, 14-MAR-1993.
W hat’s more, we wonder about the inner lives of people who inhabit the extremes: those whose feelings burn intensely vs. those who are impossibly cool and detached. The emotionally intense people seek variety, radical novelty, and complexity, far more than the cool ones do. They have more diverse goals, and because they are doing so many different things, they experience more conflict in their lives. This comes out in the music they compose, naturally…
B y contrast, in the sanyue compositions, we hear a kind of ‘explosive novelty’... not unlike the animal beauty of hunter-jumper equestrian competitions... a prodigious urgency, a drive or impulsion, a ‘Can I do this? Yes!’ puissance. We hear all of the five traditional Chinese moral virtues: ren (仁 - benevolence), yi (义 - righteousness/justice), li (礼 - propriety), zhi (智 - intelligence), and xin (信- honesty/belief/truth). These are adhered to—not in a perfunctory, stilted, inauthentic or forced manner but instead in an inspired, extemporaneous, improvisational and authentic ‘hunter-jumper’ manner… especially so in the case of elegiac ritual pieces.
I n summary, even very volatile, mavericky people seem gradually to mellow some with age; the constitutionally, irredeemably ‘mavericky’ ones, not so much. In any culture, what matters with regard to the social value and durability of the spontaneously crafted music is whether its expression—radically novel or canonically familiar though it may be—is honest and nontrivial and genuinely empathetic to at least one constituency of size N>>1.
- Sanyue bas-relief carvings
- Diener E, et al. Wealth and happiness across the world: Material prosperity predicts life evaluation, whereas psychosocial prosperity predicts positive feeling. J Pers Soc Psych 2010;99:52-61.
- Gellert M. The Fate of America: An Inquiry into National Character. Potomac, 2002.
- Goffman K, Joy D. Counterculture Through the Ages. Villard, 2005.
- Gordon J. “Cult of Novelty”: Peter Miller’s ‘Walter Benjamin’ course at Bard College.
- Kobau R, et al. Mental health promotion in public health: Perspectives and strategies from positive psychology. Am J Publ Health 2011;101:e1-9.
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- Li C-J. History of Chinese Ancient Music. East China Normal Univ, 2010.
- Oishi S, et al. Income inequality and happiness. Psych Sci 2011;22:1095-100.
- Pian R-C. Song Dynasty Musical Sources and their Interpretation. Harvard Univ, 1967.
- Picard F. Pour une musicologie générale des traditions. RTMMAM No. 1, 2007.
- Picard F. Vocabulaire des musiques d'Asie orientale. You Feng, 2006.
- Picken L, Nickson N. Music from the Tang Court (Vol. 7): Some Ancient Connections Explored. Cambridge Univ, 2006.
- Roszak T. The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. Univ California, 1995.
- Thomson M. The cult of novelty. TheWake, 14-APR-2010.
- Wirtz D, et al. What constitutes a good life? Cultural differences in the role of positive and negative affect in subjective well-being. J Pers 2009;77:1167-96.
- Wu Z, Liu D-S. Zhongguo Yinyue Shilue. Beijing: Renmin Yinyue Chubanshe, 1993.
- Yang Y-L. Identification of San Yue explained. Beijing: Renmin Yinyue Chubanshe, 2010.
- OtherMinds 17 Festival (01-03 MAR 2012)
- Emotiv EPOC headset
- MiND Ensemble YouTube channel
- Axelrad J. Neurofeedback ensemble puts MiND over matter. Michigan Daily, 17-APR-2011.
- Minciacchi D. Translation from neurobiological data to music parameters. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003;999:282-301.
- Oteri F. Spoiler alert (essay on Jonathan Segal’s ‘Disharmonic Adventures of David Stein’). NewMusicBox, 02-APR-2012.
- Schumann G. On brains, Babbitt, and the end of the year. Sequenza21, 20-APR-2011.
- Smooke D. Adieu, avant-garde. NewMusicBox, 19-APR-2011.