Computer music pioneer Max Matthews claims he is not a "musician." He had some training with some instruments, but considered himself an amateur. Not that that stopped him. He composed and created a great deal of respected music compositions and software.
On a visit to campus once he showed us his radio baton. The device consists of a flat table and a hand held stick. The device can track the three-dimensional movement of the baton relative to the table–a very early wii controller or sorts (but without nearly as fancy an accelerometer.)
The movements of the baton could control a midi device. In the demo he had for us, Matthews played through some of Beethoven's 5th. His movements along the x-plane regulated the tempo, the y-plane dynamics, and the z-plane elements of string timbre and attack.
It didn't sound that great. The radio baton hasn't really had that much of a legacy, besides the obligatory picture or paragraph in computer music histories. But the idea behind it is a very good one. Matthews told us that, as an untrained musician, he could not ever perform the music he so loved. When performing music, he explained, one always has to worry about "playing the right notes" and "playing then the right way."
The radio baton, he explained, freed a music lover to play music without having to worry about the technical details. It offered direct connection with the music, where crude swings of the baton could execute what might normally take years of practice or a stage filled with musicians. Matthews wanted that experience, that high.
Why bring this all up? On Youtube tonight (where all good grad students waste their summers) I came across a video made by, Lasse Gjertsen, a self-proclaimed amateur musician. In this video, Lasse taped himself playing different things on drums and piano. He then chopped up the recorded and footage and put together a "live performance" of him playing a complete song from these chopped up bits:
The most creative stuff sometimes comes from the least trained. I don't think that video is musically genius or groundbreaking, but it sure as hell is entertaining.
I've known plenty of musicians who worried that their training somehow squelched their creativity. There's a precept that listening to Western scales makes it impossible to think outside the equal-tempered-box, just as learning "how to play" the flute might make one adverse to doing something…i don't know…like this:
Of course you can do that and more without a conservatory education. But maybe it's easier without one. I remember in high school imaging what might happen if someone (somehow, somewhere) had a piano in their house but had never heard piano music or any Western music for that matter. What might they create? Sure, the piano is already tempered to a single scale, but besides that, blank-slate for my imaginary person.
(I was very bored in high school).
Christian Wolff didn't teach music at Dartmouth for many years. He taught Classics. He actually refused to teach music (or so I was told) on the premise that teaching people music only limits the possibilities of what they might create.
I have a very spotty music education. I'm not very good at any instruments. Yet, I fancy myself a creative composer. I sometimes wonder if my lack of education accounts for my creativity. Maybe it's just a way of explaining away my lack of training and proficiency. Not sure–I like how William Billings explained it best:
"Nature is the best Dictator, for all the hard dry studies Rules that ever was prescribed, will not enable any Person to form an Air any more than the bare Knowledge of the four and twenty Letters, and strict Grammatical Rules will qualify a Scholar for composing a Piece of Poetry…For my own Part, as I don't think myself confin'd to any Rules for Composition laid down by any that went before me…I think it is best for every Composer to be his own Carver."