Sunday, November 4, 2012

Own and Play an Instrument

The advent of musical notation facilitated the creation and performance of complex music. No longer was music limited to what could be fashioned in one's head and memorized, but intricate harmonies and rhythms could be worked out, revised, and shared. Music was liberated from the mind and hands of the composer. You could now play music even if you could not compose music, at least if you could get your hands on any scores. Paper was precious, and thus so remained music.

The arrival of the printing press made music plentiful. Instead of having painstakingly to transcribe scores by hand, a process which produced not only illegibility and errors but relatively few copies, sheet music could be shared in great quantities. All that remained was the not inconsiderable task of learning to play it.

The invention of recording and replaying music at last made music cheap, and by cheap I do not mean poor, of course, but rather more precisely, costing little labor or trouble. One can now enjoy music without having either to write or to play, or even to ask or hire someone to play. You pay a modest fee and can enjoy a performance as many times as you like. Without much of an investment you can experience a massive symphonic movement or a delicate piano miniature. This ease has many virtues, the greatest of which is that one can hear performances one would otherwise never have. Likewise one can replay performances and study and compare technique and interpretation. Lastly, one can simply enjoy more music.

None of these benefits ought to be underestimated and I am not about to castigate sellers of CDs and mp3s. Yet minds starting with Plato's have considered the ill effects of putting ink to paper, wondering what is lost. Perhaps there is not much difference among the leaps to written music, then to mechanically printed music, and most recently to recorded music. The presence of written music meant that to play music one no long had to be creative, one could simply play the notes on the page. Yet this innovation seems not to have led to a decrease in composition or performative creativity. Not only did professional and semi-professional composition explode but so did amateur music writing. Likewise was it common both to write and play, but even performers who did not compose were expected to extemporize. True, few improvised like Bach and Mozart, but it was the norm for performers to have a few tricks and techniques with which to play with a theme on the fly. Mind you, it was not all excellent in concept or execution, but musical activity boomed.

Yet the popularity of recorded music has, I think, coincided with live music becoming a rarer presence, and thus music in general becoming a more passive experience. I don't mean to suggest, though, that recorded music has caused a decline in performance, only that the omnipresence of music made possible by recording has masked the decrease of live performance. Not in concert halls necessarily, has live music disappeared, but in the nooks and crannies of life. This is a rather anecdotal observation, but it seems the DJ has replaced the performer at most social gatherings, or perhaps more precisely, at gatherings at which music is not the focus. It seems harder and harder to find a space into which recorded music or worse, television, are not pumped in. Likewise informal music-making seems not so frequent. I wonder how many musicians, professional and amateur, play or sing informally in social gatherings or among small groups of friends. Is it common or acceptable at a party to begin to sing and play, or must the TV and iPod be on to entertain us?

Now recorded music is not to be regarded as an evil, but its presence reminds us that in the absence of the scarcity and struggle which necessitate certain virtues, we must cultivate them for their own sakes. In this case, although we are not forced to learn an instrument in order to enjoy music, we ought to learn the skill and cultivate the talent because making music is a meaningful and edifying activity. We will always be entertained and engaged by the virtuosi who play what we cannot dream, but there is also a place in society for casual music-making with its variety, spontaneity, happy accidents, and good humor.

So when the power went out last week and I sat in the dark listening to the charge in my iPod slowly ebb away, I realized with a new clarity that it didn't in fact house any music, but rather reproductions. Neither did the CD contain any, really, nor the sheet music. Music is someone playing, with all of the spontaneity and imperfections of the performer, the audience, and the moment, not a canned experience identically reproduced each time. So I went over to the keyboard, sat down, and promptly remembered it was electronic.

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