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History: Does it Matter?

Does music history – that which has already been explored/composed/performed – matter to a composer?

It depends.

If you compose pieces to add to an existing body of music (dubstep, modal jazz, microtonality, modular synthesis, whatever) and to help this body develop/evolve … then, sure: history matters. It’s like doing scientific research; you build on what’s already been discovered. There’s no sense in repeating the (successful) experiments of your predecessors, because there’s nothing further to be gained, and gaining is what it’s all about. So you study, exhaustively, what’s already been accomplished in a field, then devise experiments to explore new territory. It’s like GE’s motto, which I heard so many times growing up: “Progress is our most important product.”

If, otoh, you compose to explore your self, to help you-as-unique-humanoid-individuum develop/evolve … then the history of what others have already done is less important. In fact, it can get in the way of compositional self discovery. For example, let’s say you became fascinated with using de-/re-sampling devices to create extreme covers of 60s pop recordings. a hyperlayered cubistic rendering of Wooly Bully, that kind of thing. You could forge blithely ahead, taking simple joy in discovering your personal breadth and width in extreme cover-ism, without regard for what someone else might (or might not) have done in this field before. Or … you could do the research and find out that, alas, “It’s already been done!” – plunderphonics/turntablism – and decide to end your exploration before it’s even begun because it makes no sense to re-explore territory that’s already been charted. I find the latter approach depressing, a waste of potentially wonderful personal energy/creativity. It doesn’t matter if you repeat what’s been done before, as long as it’s new/fresh for you. (Repeating your own history is another issue.)

Music history matters very little to me as a composer. My primary goal is not to “add to the canon” but to continuously re-create and celebrate my self through making music. (Not that this self is any better than any other self out there; but it’s the only one I have(/am)! And the only one of its kind that the universe will ever see (for better or worse). If that’s not worth celebrating, I seriously don’t know what is.) I don’t summarily reject music history; that would be stupid. There’s so much beautiful music out there! If I run into something that excites me – from any era of music – I’ll listen to it, study it, attempt to home in on its essence. But I won’t care a jot about its “historical significance,” how it fits into the evolution of a particular canon. I’ll just enjoy it, glean what I can glean from it, then move on.

Having this “History be damned!” attitude has its pros … and cons. (Obviously.) More on this another time.

Posted on December 6, 2011 at 11:15 pm by rachmiel · Permalink