Friday, December 13, 2019

For Christmas: More Thoughts on Music, Creativity, and Media

As the Christmas season approaches, people increasingly "fill their homes" with special music that helps them prepare for and celebrate the joy of Christ's birth and that stirs up the aspirations of human benevolence embodied in various family and cultural traditions of the season.

I hope that this time of year (and other times too) allows us to experience music in its most intimate, personal form (wherein is also found its most powerful capacity to build bonds with others): what I am referring to, of course, is SINGING, and in particular singing together. We should make the most of the upcoming opportunities to sing with our own voices (as best we can) in our churches and at other holiday gatherings. Singing together can be done with great simplicity, if we listen to one another even as we contribute our own vocal resonance. We give and receive within a multi-sensory communal experience that expresses a profound symbol of the whole dynamic of living-together in community.

So don't be shy. We all have music in our souls. Sing!

In common singing, whether as a congregation or in an informal gathering, there are "rules" we follow together, given by the songs themselves, by those who are serving as leaders, and the particular circumstances of the gathering. We should also remember that communal singing is not a contest. It's not the time for individuals to show off their special talents or vie to see who can sing the loudest. As we sing, we ought to be able to listen to the voices of those next to us.

This kind of singing together is not something we do for the sake of "performance," and no one should feel intimidated by a lack of technical skill. Everyone has something they can contribute, something that originates in the heart and soul and emerges as resonant sound from the primordial, multifaceted "musical instrument" that is the human body. If someone doesn't know the words to a song, they can hum softly; if they don't know the tune, they can listen and then perhaps hum the first note of each verse, or even just follow the rhythm softly with a shoe or (depending on the song and the context) clapping hands. There is a personal value to "joining in" to the music in whatever way we can (without disrupting or hindering others in the group).

I do think it's a good thing for everyone to have a "basic musical education" along with the standard educational objectives of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Music and song are akin to language, and in some respects surpass it. In any case they are basic to the enrichment of the human experience.

It's hard to imagine Christmas without music and song.

Of course, most of us enjoy listening to music, and there are many wonderful live concerts this time of year. And throughout the season many of us listen to "Christmas music" that is prerecorded by professional singers and musicians. We like to turn to music that has been developed and presented as a fine art, in various styles, genres, and levels of proficiency. It's natural to appreciate the art of music and the artists who make music, but this appreciation is also an aptitude that can be more deeply engaged by being broadened, cultivated, and educated. This is more important than ever in today's world, where music is crafted and made available to us in unprecedented ways.

We take for granted all the complex media technology that brings music to us on the radio, digital streaming, recordings, and videos. There are many possibilities for enrichment in these media. But there is the danger that so much "thoughtless" access to "easy music" might render dull and superficial our musical sensibility. When music is exclusively defined and commodified as "entertainment," a cycle of degeneration ensues: listeners become less active appreciators and more passive spectacle-seekers, and artists tend to abandon their creative intuition in order to conform to the (profit-driven) constraints of making a fashionable and trendy (but more ephemeral) "show."

The banality of so much popular music has as much to do with our laziness as listeners as it does with the manipulative habits of a music "industry" dominated by superficial trends.

No doubt this has always more-or-less been true about music, given the perennially ambivalent tendencies of being human. But the explosion of technological power has "expanded" the scope of everything that involves human interaction with the material world (some would say "overstretched," but I don't think this is always or necessarily the case — my ongoing analysis of these issues is outlined in other articles and posts). What is remarkable is that, in the midst of all the pressures, real musical creativity finds ways of prevailing and surprising us with new expressions of beauty.

If you've read this far, you might feel like you're being forced to overthink your favorite Christmas playlists or CDs. Haha, you should have known better!😉

I have in fact moved a bit beyond the immediate topic. But since the universally evocative and participatory nature of music is particularly evident at Christmas, I feel that it is appropriate to make a few notes about the broader questions as I continue to probe (in a plodding fashion) the significance of communications media as well as the complex aesthetics of music. (Click HERE to read "Part 1" in this ongoing series wherein I sketch out various musicological ideas.🎶)

There is something fascinating about the various ways music can "come to be" as an intentionally crafted entity, a "work of art." Unlike a painting or sculpture, a musical composition is presented again and again through a distinct artistic activity which is music performance. Even if the composer is also the performer, these are distinct aspects of artistic creativity. Media technology has served to highlight these distinctions, and to develop new aspects of the creative process which can be appreciated in their own right but which also need to be continually refined and incorporated within the musical craft, so that they enhance (rather than cheapen) the artistic quality of the music.

For thousands of years, the live performance itself was the only "artifact" that the instrumentalist or singer "made" — and it existed as an audible reality only when it was performed. Styles of playing and sometimes even a repertoire of musical "works" were passed on person-to-person, through listening and acquiring the craft of performing.

The development of written musical notation expanded the possibilities of sharing music in larger circles, with the potential for a greater "distance" between composers and performers. Music sheets could be hand copied and distributed, and certain songs or forms of music were standardized over regions or within institutions.

Then, there was a technological explosion in media, which in some ways remains the most revolutionary event in the history of communications. The multiplication of human communication (including the content of musical composition) became, at least in principle, limitless. An invention appeared that caused a massive expansion in human power. It came suddenly, and with implications no one could have imagined at the time. It changed the world.

The invention was the printing press.

(Just look at how much we take for granted, everybody!)

The Print Revolution is a topic for another paper, but suffice it to say that for music it became the vehicle for the rise of the composer as a distinctive artist, who could print and distribute his own original music to multiple ensembles of music performers in faraway places, and this distribution could continue long after the composer's death. The composition became an art form, and eventually its complexity and originality blossomed in many directions.

Thus began the novelty that we call, ironically, "Classical Music"!

During the past one hundred and fifty or so years we have had a lot more technological expansion. We have had a blizzard of technological expansion. It has had an enormous impact on music, and the task of fashioning beauty (not to mention the new kinds of artists who participate in the process) is still in an early and rather chaotic stage of development. (This is one reason why I "cut lots of slack" for the efforts of musicians — another reason being that, as a musician myself, I have personal experience in the difficult struggles of this project).

One rather well-established development is certainly worthy of note. Recording technology has opened a whole new dimension of music as an art form. It has given a much-deserved new focus to music performers (distinct from composers) as artists in their own right. It has now become possible for performers to make an "audible thing" that has an "accessibility" and a "permanence" analogous to a painting or sculpture. At the same time, it has expanded the possibilities for the composer to distribute audio performances of his or her work.

Then there are the "technicians" whose responsibility is to perfect the transmission of music to the recording. In the beginning, most of them were focused on the science, the practical engineering involved in making the product. Yet it became increasingly clear that aesthetic sensibility was also crucial to appreciating the finer points of how the recording should "sound." As recording production became more sophisticated, the producer began to be more distinguished as an artist who collaborates in the project of making this distinctive work of art: recorded music. 

Digital technology has continued to expand this role, so that today there are certain types of music constructed entirely of electronically generated sounds that can be arranged and recorded by a single person. Some have practiced this technologically demiurgic musical solitude, but it has already proven to be a lonely burden. Music is diffusive. The work of making music involves an urge to be shared. Thus it's not surprising that digital technology in music is being used to generate new possibilities for all kinds of collective activity, bringing diverse new players from all over the world together in a process which, as I said before, can be chaotic.

The CD is still provides the highest quality for listening 
As we keep an "ear" on what emerges from all this creative ferment, it's important to acknowledge that the art of recorded music today can achieve an unprecedented level of superiority that not only contributes to the accessibility of music but even has a "beauty" of its own. Like all forms of excellence, it is not common, but it can be found.

Just to bring these reflections to an end, let us note that your favorite Christmas recording — even when it is commercially attributed to one artist — is a collaborative achievement of many artists who each contribute their own creativity and skill.

Perhaps we all should become more attentive and appreciative listeners.

And whether or not all this technology dissipates and fractures musical art or opens new integrated and cooperative possibilities for it depends in part on our ability to listen to the music that is created and discern the beauty of the whole (in its various forms, and diverse "levels" of analogical coherence). Learning to express music ourselves is one way to deepen our capacity to listen. That expression still begins in a fundamental human place, the human body.

So go ahead and sing this Christmas. Or tap, or hum, or participate — somehow — in the music. You won't regret it!