Composer or Carver?

Brent Reidy

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."

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Composer or Carver?

  1. I don’t know about the refusal to teach music, but I have heard Wolff say in an interview somewhere that he went into Classics because he thought the job prospects were better.
    I’m also a lousy instrumentalist, but I don’t think of it as an advantage. It’s something I can get away with because of technology, but I wonder if having better proficiency at, say, the piano would make it easier for me to take advantage of the extremes of the instrument. I often find that composer-performers (Evan Ziporyn, Nathan Davis, and Ha Yang Kim, for instance) are able to get sounds out of their instruments that nobody else can, and make them sound idiomatic to those instruments rather than like an add-on extended technique for the sake of adding on an extended technique. There’s also the pure self-promotion angle. Every piece I write I have to find somebody to perform it–I suspect that if I could play some of them myself I’d have a lot more performance opportunities, which would lead to more performer networking, which would lead to more performances by other performers as well.
    The Radio Baton is pretty cool, and I’m hoping that the next generation of Guitar-Hero-style games will focus on enabling creative expression rather than on pattern matching and reproduction.

  2. Empiricus says:

    RE: 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 presume this is the million dollar question. To that end, I would cite Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. Both were were certainly gifted, but in intrinsically different ways yet no less successful than the other, aside from popularity! And this could lead to some interesting debate on a number of subjects.
    A lot of debates thrown my way involve, as I see it, a division (though never black and white) between entertainment and amusement. To my detriment, as my friends will attest, I am fond of asking one question at the end of nearly any musical debate: is it (the subject or performance or music) more successful as entertainment or amusement?
    I don’t have any answer to the crux of your post, but I will beg the questions. Is musical creativity derived from education? At the onset, I would say no. On the other hand I would like to believe that an awareness of the world at large is valuable as a musician.
    Unfortunately, I must hark back to Aristotle’s Ethics and his famous chair. What makes for a “good” chair? First, we need to define what constitutes a chair. But, and here’s the problem, what makes one chair superior to another chair? I have no idea.
    I also have no idea whether or not education impedes creativity. But, as a performer and a listener too, I like what is good. And most of the time, I like what is entertaining, as opposed to what’s amusing. This is why I hold both Jimi and Frank in high esteem.

  3. Olivia says:

    While I understand the impulse reflected in the too much structure critique, I think some of it misunderstands the nature of knowledge. What we communicate with words, sounds, and images is determined more by our existing textual, sound, and visual traditions. It is this tradition that makes communication of meaning possible. Nelson Goodman made that case clear in The Languages of Art. While I think too great an adherence to traditional structures can be boring and repetitive (been-there-done-that), I don’t think one can establish a “natural” musical approach. “Natural” (at least in science and the visual arts) generally means a particular political position about the relationship between human beings and their environment. Just to be clear, I am not addressing whether a particular work is “good” or not. I don’t think matters of meaning and structure should really be concerned about what is good anymore than psychology should be concerned about determining who is worthy.

  4. squashed says:

    The flute guy is a genius! He is going places.
    (The drum guy should be pelted with tomato)
    My favorite Drum clip.

  5. squashed says:

    the best beatbox+vocal youtube clip, imho

  6. Lyle Sanford says:

    Hi – a non-academic in the peanut gallery here. That video of the beatbox flute guy is wonderful in general, but what really fascinates is the blend of the gestures of the music making and the music itself. Hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. For me, that performance stays on the edge of the ever present now. Sort of like Glenn Gould. The flute player may not be “properly” trained, but only someone with a deep relationship with their instrument could produce something like that.
    Thanks for that video and for keeping the blog going over summer.

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