Sunday, November 4, 2012

Arcana, Ism's and the Problem with Terms

     A few weeks ago I mentioned a former teacher I had named Henry Gaffney. Henry has since passed, but I'll never forget the first time I met him. I was sitting in my Harmony class and he came in to give a lecture on sound. He sat at the piano and before saying anything he just smashed down on the keys with all his might and waited for the sound to die before he said this:

"What did you just hear?"

     A couple smart-asses giggled and named some notes and others said "noise" and one person finally said "expressionism". Henry stopped and got angry. "Expressionism", he said. "You know what the problem with 'isms are? Surrealism, expressionism minimalism, postmodernism are all terms used to make money. It's branded on you to make you more marketable." He paused briefly then slammed on the keys again. "It fucks with you!", he screamed. "It steals away every chance we have of making our own interpretation so we no longer have to think for ourselves."

     It turns out this ideal is one shared among many of teachers I had in my time at Berklee. It was also one shared specifically by a man named John Zorn. If you don't know who he is then I suggest you read up on him. He is, by the opinion of many, considered to be the most eclectic man in music. Even more so than guys like Steve Reich, John Cage and the late Frank Zappa, a hero of mine.

     Mr. Zorn has a series of books that I think many of you should at the very least look at. They are called "Arcana" and the sixth book was just released last month. These books are a collection of writings by active musicians describing new approaches to performing, composing, teaching and the list goes on. They are meant to fill a gap of the lack of "insightful critical writing about a significant generation of the best and most important work of the past two decades." In the preface of Arcana I John gives an interesting idea to Ism's and branding that is almost word for word what Henry mentioned in his lecture. You will find people writing about really advanced ideas and also really simple, but often overlooked ideals.

     This is a 21st century approach to writing and reading about music. The writing is not the best quality (certainly not up to grammatical par with Ivan Hewitt's "Healing The Rift"), but it is sincere, free of bias and is populated with both male and female contributors who are still working and relevant today. Some are famous performers and some are teachers at community colleges. All of them are pioneers. Please do yourself a favor and  at least look at these books. There is something for everyone here. I have only read up to the third one, but that is still over 900 pages of essays by our real contemporaries. Enjoy!

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