Friday, August 11, 2006

The Private Theorist

Here's a free dissertation topic for someone: the private theorist. Over the years, a number of theorists have developed their own comprehensive explaination of how music works or might work, and many of those have gone into teaching, hanging up their own shingles. Schenker, Schönberg (before his appointment to a chair in Berlin), and Hauer had private studios in Vienna. In the States, Joseph Schillinger and Leo Ornstein opened their own schools (the Schillinger House, in Boston, would become the Berklee School of Music, and the Ornstein School of Music, in Philadelphia, which closed with Ornstein's retirement in 1955; both schools were notably successful in training Jazz musicians). I myself learned about musical tuning systems at the dining table of independent theorist Erv Wilson in Los Angeles.

Now music theory often falls somewhere between revelation and snake oil, and the more convinced a theorist may be, the more likely his pronouncements are to sound like sales pitches for aforementioned snake oil*, but sometimes you have to work in the wilderness for a while before the establishment notices. Note only that while Schenker, for example, is standard academic fare nowadays, some of the establishment theorist of the not so distant past are now considered eccentric: McHose, anyone? In recent times, I don't find myself thinking about Schoenberg's or Schenker's theories much, I do think about Hauer's a bit, and I have found Wilson's can be used productively.

In the end, though, the proof is in the pieces: does a theory help you to understand a piece that you listen to, or want to perform, or does it help you to make new pieces?

* I'm not sure that it's entirely relevant, but I thought that I ought to mention that I was once given a sales pitch by Ornette Coleman - a composer with an idiosyncratic theory - for the Dick Gregory diet plan, and another theorist once tried to sign me up for the Bates Method, a course of exercise said to improve vision. Maybe the whole message of this post is actually that missionary zeal can often follow from musical zeal. Or maybe not. Maybe the message is this: musicians are just odd.

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