Friday, December 31, 2010

Music/Spiritual Practice

This post by Pliable gets at something I've tried to talk about here from time to time, i.e. the parallels between engagement in music and engagement in a spiritual path. He's talking about Zen Buddhism, but I think other paths would qualify for this discussion.

Accepting parallels between engaging new listeners and transmission as practiced in Zen Buddhism takes us down an interesting path. Transmission is totally dependant on physical interaction between teacher and student.

His use of the word "transmission" implies something of more value than mere entertainment to pass the time. "Physical interaction" allows for the deeper communication possible with embodied cognition and mirror neurons. It also allows for the connection between the performer and audience Hilary Hahn has spoken of.

All the dogmas that have developed around reaching new audiences involve adding insulating layers between performer and listener; these range from performance conventions to digital concert halls and virtual orchestras. Yet, if the analogy between classical music and transmission is valid, the process should be reversed. We do not need more intermediate layers. Instead we need high voltages to flow between superconductors (pun not intended) in close promiximity to one another. Which means more live music, physical interaction between audience and performers, music education, music therapy, amateur, youth and scratch orchestras and similar initiatives. And less of an awful lot of things we are getting more of.

It amazes me that more people don't see things this way. It delights me that one of the few happens to have one of the most widely read blogs on the planet. 

Another way of putting this is that there's a lot of attention paid to the very top of the music making pyramid, but not nearly so much to the rest of it down below. In schools, lots of money and time is expended upon the small minority of students in the band and chorus, while the majority are shut out, sometimes very rudely. Many people seem to view music making as something to be left to the elite, but the new research coming in is telling us it can benefit us all, not just the technically advanced. 

One of the main causes of this focus on the top of the pyramid is the ubiquity of recorded music with all its technical perfections. People tend to conflate the value of technical skill with the value of simply making music and listening to it. To my mind the main issue is that there be a match between the music being made and the audience's ability to appreciate it. It's that connection which is important, and technical wizardry can either be a help or a hinderance. A priest or lama helping someone along the path doesn't spout the arcane points of theology until the student is ready. Getting someone on a good path and helping them stay on it is more important than trying to impress them with your knowledge.

This all reminds me of why I write music. For me, the point is to create music the players will enjoy playing and the audience will enjoy listening to. If that happens, the connection is made and the benefits of music will flow from that connection to all concerned. The most heartening thing about the reception Timepiece is getting is the sense it's largely successful in those terms. (More on this compositional motivation here)

(Pliable continues down this path here and is kind enough to mention this post in the footnote)

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