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Meet the Slashes

The other day I read an article in the NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/25obmusic.html, about a scientific study on the acceptance of certain intervals being related to one’s level of music education.  I thought it was very interesting.  I also thought it was somewhat amusing.  The study was conducted by Dr. Josh McDermott while he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota.  It’s a study on the interpretation of interval consonance, or how the pleasantness of a musical interval can vary depending on the listener’s level of music education.  I found it interesting, because I do not believe a study has ever been done on this.  I found it amusing, because it seems obvious that exposure to something makes one more aware, accepting, and tolerant of that particular object.  A music education is an extreme, prolonged exposure to a lot of music that the average listener might not find terribly interesting or even pleasant.  Of course, a trained musician is going to find more intervals pleasant than an untrained listener.  In music school, a musician is taught that the consonant (or nice sounding) intervals are a perfect unison, octave fifth, fourth, and all major and minor thirds and sixths.  Everything else is called dissonant (or unpleasant sounding).  These names, consonance and dissonance, are based on intervallic relationships.  Dissonances, at least in tonal music, must resolve to a consonance.  All augmented and diminished intervals are considered dissonances.  Even though an augmented second and a minor third sound the same, the augmented second is considered a dissonance.  The names of the notes determine that they must resolve, or move to, a consonant interval.

Obviously when talking about consonance and dissonance, we’re not talking about personal preferences, these are simply categories that intervals are placed in.  What the study attempted to do, I assume, is find out if trained musicians will perceive more intervals as pleasing than non-musicians.  I would think that the answer would be obvious; since a study was done, the answer—I guess—is not obvious.  Exposure creates tolerance and acceptance.  Knowledge is power.  Knowledge creates tolerance.  In my experience, I’ve seen many students walk in to a freshman class and not be able to listen to anything past 1900 without saying something negative, or at least making a face.  Four years later, they’re not just listening to, but also playing everything from Schoenberg through Golijov.  Their education has made them, not just more tolerant, but also more accepting of the unknown.  They enjoy music more, and I would even say they enjoy more out of life.

After reading this Times article, I noticed another, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/arts/music/25composers.html?ref=music, about the American Composers Orchestra annual Underwood New Music Readings.  The program is intended to give young composers access to an orchestra and feedback from more experienced, older, well-known composers.  It’s a great concept that has helped a number of young composers.  Steve Smith authored the article.  What I found very disturbing was a statement of Mr. Smith’s about the majority of the pieces read that night.  He wrote ”… most of the music played on Saturday suggested that 20th-century modernism — say, from Schoenberg to Charles Wuorinen — never happened.  The bulk of the program was rhythmically steady and consonant if not completely tonal.”  This is really depressing.  I am not supporting dissonance, rhythmic complexity, or any other particular language.  What I am advocating is a sense of adventure in anyone’s creative output.  Creating is your voice, not speaking in someone else’s language.  Basically, having SOMETHING TO SAY is the only reason, in my mind, anyone should create art.  Acting as if the 20th century never happened is not creating your voice.  We live in a world that is the result of all that happened in the 20th century.  How can a creative artist ignore everything that has gone before?  An artist absolutely cannot bury their head in the sand.  What is unpleasant should be faced head on.  Art is not for escaping reality!

So what has changed?  Why should young composers, who have normally been the most experimental, become so conservative?  Is it just a sign of the times?  Is everything becoming increasingly conservative?  Are all these composers potentially tea party members?  Probably not.  However, society today is not promoting new voices.  It is not promoting experimentation.  Contemporary culture IS promoting, what I call, the Paris Hilton phenomena.  It goes something like this: do whatever it takes to become famous.  You have a talent for writing music, write music people will like on first hearing that is unchallenging and easy to digest.  Why would a composer do that?  To win the audience’s vote.  To hear applause, to be well known.  Acceptance, we all want it, but some are willing to do more than others to get it.  I don’t know the composers who ACO played.  I didn’t hear the music.  If these composers truly believe in what they are writing, good for them.  Nevertheless, how can the last 100 hundred years just be ignored?

Maybe another reason a composer writes music that appears not to acknowledge 20th-century modernism existed is that they’re afraid of it.  They’ve never been pushed to expand their own ears.  That is all they know, what sounds good to them and not what is possible with the right combinations.  It’s like eating food with no spice.  It’s simply boring, but they’ve never eaten anything but oatmeal without honey.

How did this all come about?  There really isn’t one particular event that can be blamed.  However, the advent of the Internet has really pushed (maybe shoved is a better word) fame as a goal, not creativity.  The Internet, obviously, is not a sentient being and cannot push anything.  The Internet does facilitate the mass dissemination of the most trivial junk.  Garbage is put on the same footing as great art.  Everyone becomes a genius, therefore no one is.

Today, the Internet has allowed people to post anything they want online.  Look at Twitter.  I don’t really care if you’re drinking a coffee right now or having a bowel movement.  Why would anyone post this stuff?  Because they want to be famous.

I have the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) experience of living in Los Angeles.  Since moving here, I’ve met many people who are filmmakers.  When I’ve asked them who they use for scoring their films most (not a few, but rather most) have said, “Oh, I’m a composer, too.”  I’ve always been shocked when I hear that.  What training makes them a composer?  After talking to many people like this, I’ve come to understand that these people view creativity as a magical act devoid of any kind of technique or forethought.  If you have talent of course, you can do whatever you want.  I find this funny.  When I look at their films or listen to their music, anyone can see or hear how amateurish it is.  Buy a Mac; it comes with Garage Band, now you’re a composer.  Years ago, I was in a Sam Ash music store and overheard a conversation between a customer and a salesman.  The customer said that his daughter wanted to be a singer and asked the salesman what she needed to become one.  The salesman answered “a microphone.”  I thought how about some damn voice lessons?  Around the same time I met a six year old beautiful little girl.  I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.  She said, “A STAR!”  I asked if she wanted to be a singer or an actress or something else that would get her to that goal.  She actually didn’t understand me.  She just wanted to be a star.  Before anyone says, “oh come on, she was just six.”  Ask yourself, do you think it’s normal or healthy that a society puts the idea in children’s heads that you don’t have to DO anything to be famous, you can just BE famous?  I know of no other time in history where a child would’ve have thought of the concept of fame without a reason for that fame.

The jack-of-all trades (people who are geniuses in more than one field) or slashes as I call them; slashes because they’re musicians/authors/filmmakers/etc., are another result of the Paris Hilton phenomena.  Remember Paris is a model/singer/actress.  I don’t know if she’s written a book yet, but she does have her own line of perfume.

I’m not in any way saying please stop making films or writing music even if you have no training.  What I am saying is, if you have talent get some training so you know what you’re doing.  That way, you won’t “reinvent” the wheel.  A Ger+6, serial technique, metric modulation, or any other technique, won’t be a revelation to you.  If you don’t have talent, or the desire to get training then, keep creating, just don’t do it in public.  You’re making a fool of yourself.  Maybe not to your friends, but to professionals you are.

Training, as I wrote in a previous blog, does not happen only in school.  The Beatles, who WERE geniuses, had no music school education, but rather they did have an incredible amount of training through live performances and, after 1963, in the studio.

The thought process must go something like this:  “I am a genius.  I have to be, my (insert family member or friend) told me so.  Consequently, anything I do is art.  Therefore, I can be a musician, a filmmaker, a performance artist, a chef, an author, a spiritual guide, and even a skydiver if I simply say I am one.  Well, maybe not a skydiver.  Forget that all of these professions require training, I am a genius.”  This person may have even taken some courses on their subjects in school.  Still, taking some courses does not make you an expert.

It’s interesting that these slashes are never architects (at least I’ve never seen one).  Architecture, besides being a great art, also functions on a purely practical level.  The building could fall down and kill people if the architect doesn’t know what they are doing.  A slash person needs to work in subjects that are not potentially lethal.  It has to be a field where the argument comes down to taste, not anything objective, even within a cultural context.  Also, to become an architect you have to know math pretty well.  That’s too much work for a slash person.  Edison said, ““Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  Art for them is the opposite of Edison’s dictum; it’s ninety-nine percent inspiration and one percent perspiration.

Why should anyone care about this?  Does it really matter?  The question really is, “How can it not matter?”  The puffing up of egos without any legitimate basis is a fantastic sickness in our society today.  The slashes insult every hard working musician, filmmaker, performance artist, chef, author, or spiritual guide, and all other creative individuals out there.  They also insult any work of art itself by presenting their own work on an equal basis with true works of art.

When I was younger, I realized I wanted to be a composer.  What did I do, I went and got training and worked most of my waking hours for years to get good at it.  In graduate school, I learned to write papers from a professor who in my first semester called me into his office and showed me what a terrible paper I had turned into him.  I worked, with his help, and learned how to write a pretty good paper.  I have no training in filmmaking or being a chef and do not call myself anything other than a composer and musician.  I do like to cook and consider myself pretty good, but I have no plans on opening a restaurant and I do not publish my recipes on Facebook, MySpace, or my own website.

Michelangelo studied for years.  He STUDIED painting in order to become a painter.  He STUDIED sculpting in order to become a sculptor.  He STUDIED architecture in order to become an architect.  Hard work is how you create, not the myth shown in the movie Amadeus.

Remember I am not saying in any way a person shouldn’t create unless they’re an expert in the field.  Being an amateur is a wonderful thing. Amateurs create a knowledgeable audience.  Something that is rare today, but always very desirable.

Not everyone can be a professional.  In the 19th century before radio and phonograph, with the rise of the middle class, people wanted to hear music, but could not go to a concert hall everyday.  What did they do?  They learned to play an instrument.  They formed string quartets, woodwind quintets, and other ensembles.  The difference today is, they played for their own enjoyment.  They didn’t inflict it on the general public and call themselves geniuses.  They also actually learned to play an instrument, not air guitar, or Guitar Hero.  Einstein, a pretty smart guy, played the violin.  Probably, being Einstein, he could have requested to play at Carnegie Hall.  Who would have refused him?  However, actually being a genius, he didn’t have to massage his ego by playing in public.

What I’m saying is realize who you are and what you can actually do.  Be honest with yourself as to why you are doing art, what your limitations and your expectations are.  Realize that after the initial inspiration, the majority of realizing a piece of art is hard work, technique, and perspiration.  If you do have true talent in a certain art, foster that talent.  Learn about it.  Become an expert in it.  Truly love it.  Don’t dilute it by doing rubbish in a whole bunch of different arts.  Do one thing and do it well.  Actually contribute to society.  Create for others, not for your own ego.

If you are not an expert, please don’t call yourself a genius (even in your own head) in order to legitimatize yourself.  Do not insult another artist in order to make yourself look good.  Admit it when you don’t understand something instead of putting it down.  Then you can learn about it.  That’s how you grow as an artist and as a person. Do not pretend to know something you do not really know.  At some point, you will run into people who really do know what they are talking about (there actually are experts out there) and you will make a fool of yourself.  If you do make a fool of yourself, apologize and do not make up an excuse in order to save face, you will look simply like a bigger fool.  Do not present something in public until you actually are ready to do so.  When you do have something to say, AND you know how to say it, go for it!

Do NOT make art in order to be famous, do it because you HAVE to.

  1. JMF
    December 7, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed here. However, I believe ones distaste with the Paris Hilton/slash phenomenon can be best expressed thus:
    “If you don’t want to be a pop star, don’t be one”

  2. May 30, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    Really good food for thought!

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