“Music cannot decide whether it is an intellectual pursuit, an art, or a craft.”
I was intrigued when a close friend said this to me. And I have been pondering it since. Is music to be thoughtfully and analytically considered? Is music the application of human skills, an expression of human imagination and creativity? Is it an activity resulting from the physical work of human hands? Must music fit into a single one of these boxes at all?
I think many people too often rush to categorize and label the world and all its concomitant facets, instead of experiencing all of it. We can worry about explaining it later—that is what reflection awards, right? And I am not entirely convinced by the idea that thought has any primacy over human experience, because I think thought should be a reflection of human experience. Thought is a tool to be used for understanding and reflecting upon the experiences of our lives. It does seem to be, admittedly, oft misused and replaced by the perceived need to preface experiences with an understanding of what we are meant to absorb and take away from those experiences. This seems to miss the point of experience altogether. And in music, the phenomenon is really no different, in my mind.
In music, and perhaps in many other fields as well, I see in people an urgent and misguided need to understand, a yearning to feel rooted in a correct assumption, a desire to achieve an elevated position of knowledge. The problem is that too often these notions of understanding, of correct-ness, and of knowledge are, ironically, quite misunderstood, dare I say incorrect, and contradictory to attaining knowledge. This is because they are defined by institutions, or by other people, when they should be self-designed and self-implemented. The commonly accepted notions of understanding and knowledge are taught, when the entity of understanding itself is one that cannot be taught. I believe strongly that the best teachers are those who do not merely teach a student what to learn, but how to learn. They provide resources and tools. The responsibility then lies on the student to take what is given them, use it or reject it, and choose their own direction to follow. Knowledge comes with experience, and experience comes from activity beyond the classroom. Knowledge is different from comprehension, the latter of which can be taught and studied, the former of which requires, if it is to be attained in any true depth, an escape from the confines of textbooks and rules…or a decided effort to challenge those structures in place.
Now, back to the classifications. What if music can be artistically crafted, craftfully considered, and thoughtfully experienced, simultaneously? Then the question of whether music is an intellectual endeavor, an art, or a craft, becomes less important than the question of how music can be more than one, or a combination of those, at the same time. If we are going to enter the realm of classification, then I must admit that I do employ a particular hierarchy. I also must admit that my specific consideration of what constitutes an intellectual endeavor (and an art, and a craft, but particularly the intellectual pursuit part) probably differs greatly from many academics in music today.
[By the way: to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what “academic music” means—I think it is actually an oxymoron. I am confused by the surge in musical production by composers who openly state that the purpose of their music lies in presenting mathematical combinations of sound and carefully arranged sequences of algorithms within music. This is not interesting to me.]
Music seems to be a world divided. In their most extreme forms, the positions seem to take the following shape: there are those who believe music is to be carefully scrutinized, talked about, analyzed and picked apart, and that the resulting knowledge about a piece constitutes the reward of studying music as a whole. It should come as no surprise that I think this misses the point entirely. Then, there are those who believe music is to be experienced, to be felt, to be reacted to viscerally, without a care for what’s behind the process of the piece, without a desire to comprehend the intricacies behind the obvious. I also have problems accepting this position. Where there are extremes, I tend not only to search for a middle ground, for commonalities, but more importantly for potential combinations. Not because I aim to please, and not because I am interested in assuming the role of mediator—really, nothing could be less interesting than that, in my opinion. Rather, it is because in a world of polarities, I believe in uncovering pluralities. Because in the musical world, with all its divisions and divides, I see possibilities for connections and fusions. While others may see dissent and chasms between ideas, I see a unique opportunity for collaboration and synthesis.
And that is what I seek, passionately and expressively, in my own music. Whether I have found the right (as I will define it) combinations, blends, or clearly defined voice yet matters not. The point is that I know in what direction I am going. I have and will continue to be given tools to use and challenge and reject. Everything else, the intricate details, I will be working out for the rest of my life.