PERSONAL MUSIC IN AN IMPERSONAL AGE



We live in a new age in which the Personal Computer has become a strong force in our lives, a window into the world, a complicated instrument which millions of us can use as a tool for business, for research, for archiving data ---- or as an instrument in itself which can be used for personal communications with oneself or with the world. This has all happened so suddenly that a person who emerged just now from a twenty five year coma, a modern Rip van Winkle as it were, would hardly recognize the new world around him. And nowhere have the results of this entirely new thinking been more profound than in Music.

My first introduction to classical music was on 78 rpm discs, rotated on primitive turntables using cactus needles sharpened every few hearings on little handheld abrasive needle-grinding machines. From there to digitized sound on CD discs, let alone a music industry expanding within our lifetime exponentially in many directions, perhaps the best term would be "musical culture shock". Music has become ubiquitous, but has it become more personal?

Music always means lessons for thousands of young adolescents who were set down at the piano as the instrument of choice, learning to push the right buttons for the right black dots on the score page. How many people will remark that they used to play the piano, although it was hardly play in most cases, just hard discipline soon to be terminated as school days ended. For many parents Music Lessons were a matter of cultural prestige, the right thing to do for a child's education, and although the idea was sincere and educational, the process was often more disciplinary than artistic.

As the chain of music becomes longer and more indirect, starting from composer to score to beginning performer studying an instrument, and on to public performer for an audience in a concert venue, or to a recording session in a studio, followed by mastering and finally a CD which goes to market ---- through all these stages music itself can become distant and somewhat impersonal. In a world where the Personal Computer has come into use everywhere, we need some new tools to access Personal Music for the good of our minds. The violin in its case in the closet or the piano gathering dust in the living room are often mere reminders of a pre-recording day when you had to play music yourself if you wanted to hear it. Now there is much more music everywhere, but less for your private personal use, much to hear but less for personal participation. Music like baseball has become a non-participating activity for the majority, a passive auditory activity.

So one might ask: Is there going to be such a thing in the new America as "Personal Music"? Following rock or country performers to crowded halls, or getting the newest popular CDs as soon as they appear - - - these things are musical experiences in a sense. But some of this is part of the human social instinct to participate in what everyone else does, to be in the au courant scene, following the musical crowd. We participate in Music as hearers, not as doers.

One might wonder if Jazz doesn't fulfill a creative personal function for many, not specifically those who listen but those who are engaged in making jazz music. Jazz is at this time the only place for musical self-expression, but some of us who have been brought up on a diet of Bach and Brahms feel somewhat distant from jazz because of its self-imposed restrictions. It is a group playing activity, which involves a healthy social sense , but with costs of self-adjustment to the group activity. Since Jazz is performance oriented, it involves an integrated group response, which sets it apart from the personal music I am talking about. The pre-set formats of rhythm and recognizable melodic thread do hold the group together so they can function musically, but this has real musical costs in scope and expression.

And Jazz has a history if its own, it is very conscious of its antecedents, and tends to work within an historical framework, even if much de-modulated as in the European Free Improvisation movement. Bach's Brandenburgs might be considered a written score evolving from something which was at an earlier time a free-form proto-Baroque Jazz, with measured cadences, instrumental leads in turns and a general group feeling not unlike the small jazz ensemble. Jazz and Baroque have been noted as sharing certain features in overall rhythmic regularity, the instrumental turns of the Concerto Grosso, and the lack of open-spaces and rests a la Mozart. Entirely different in sound and spirit are the unaccompanied Cello Suites which Bach wrote in the privacy of his home in virtual house-arrest; they are very intense and very personal. I suspect really personal music will be solo playing for a long while, but if you find a second or third voice to work with in real-time, that is certainly good fortune. But the start of personal music must be you and your instrument, and what the two of you can devise as you go.

Learning to play an instrument is self-defeating in a sense, since the Beethoven Sonata you have practiced for months is in fact played much better on any one of a dozen brilliant recordings, probably with much better sound than your half-in-tune piano can muster. And if you decide to go into things seriously and study the harmony, counterpoint and historical chains of musical threads, are you prepared for the details of immaculate phrasing and pedaling, the infinite splitting of analytical interpretational hairs? Whose taste are you following in playing, the original composer's, your teacher's. or your own sense of musicality? Is drill to a set pattern what music is really about?

Back to the beginning: Can there be a new interest now for such a thing as PM or Personal Music? Is there a possible relationship with music for you as a private person, working with a musical instrument which you can manipulate to your personal satisfaction. And if so how would you want to go about it? If you are one of the many who have taken piano lessons as a child for more than half a dozen years, you have a lot of musical phraseology stored in your mind, and your hands are familiar with scales, chords, arpeggios and much basic music theory. Since the piano has the largest pitch range of any instrument, a graphic layout in the keyboard, and is capable of independent voices with two hands, each to some extent capable of controlling two voices with practice the piano would seem be best a good vehicle for your private, personal experiments. Unlike violin or flute, the piano doesn't feel isolated when playing solo. So let's continue this discussion with the notion of "The Personal Piano"!

But there are no simple situations. When you play a piece, you are repeating the inventions of a "composer", doing faithfully now what he or she was once doing expressively. This is not your personal creation, it will always someone else's song or sonata, and if you are of a mind to read others' things this is quite enough. But if you have a yen for something of your own, something you design and execute yourself, then you find little help from your traditionally oriented schools, teachers and mentors.

Children have wonderful imagination, they tell personal stories and sing their own tunes --- until the schools regularize them in the name of education. They don't have hands to play a keyboard scale yet, not enough grasp of the fingers and not enough practice. But one who goes through eight years of lessons and does have the necessary equipment to play a piano, has often lost a great part of the original child's imagination along the way. Notice the way Itzak Perlman plays violin: He closes his eyes, there is no score on his music stand, but it is all there in his mind down to the details. He has enough talent and training to make the music his own, and it shows in the performance. Of course Perlman is a talented musician, a man of rare ability. But is it only for the trained virtuoso to close his eyes and hear the music from within?

Putting together a personal sense of music is something which anyone can do. Hum your own tune rather than a popular one, think of sounds which come from your mind rather than from your CD player. And above all, select an instrument which you can learn to play with your own mental and digital equipment. Stay with that instrument year after year as you evoke its sounds at times when your mind needs quiet and comfort. There are people who play music for fame or money, for ego or status, for friends' and family compliments......and this is perfectly reasonable in a highly social and competitive society. But there should be room for a personal reconnoitering with the self in a flow of musical sound, which you do for yourself, by yourself, and with knowledge that it is your own music property, something nobody else in the world will be doing exactly that way at that time. There is innate individuality in music, and in a world in which the role of the individual is constantly shrinking, there should be some private retreat in which a person can be secure for a half hour a day in being alone musically with oneself. Formal meditation as an act of emptying the self of the self is a good way for many of us, but for those who rejoice in the fullness and richness of a vibrant life-experience, music offers another pathway. When you add personal music to your life you can speak to it privately and personally.

I have often wondered why the cicadas which become so prominent in early August bother bowing their serrated little legs so persistently day in and day out, concertizing everywhere for that short season before the great cold comes. Some have suggested that it is an involuntary action of no great meaning, others have found that it is an accurate indicator of the ambient air temperature. But I am sure that the cicadas have found their way into the ancient art of music-making, and with all the energy their short lives can muster, they go about declaring with a vengeance that they are alive, that they are here and can, with absolute confidence in the process, make their very own music. That is in essence what personal music is about.



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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris