Friday, September 01, 2006

Hit and Run Theorists

Composers have a certain amount of luxury when it comes to music theory. We can invent it, and we can consume it, but we don't really have to commit ourselves to a theory in the same manner that a professional theorist would. Let me be clear: theories of music are extremely useful to composers in laying out possible materials or relationships and ways of ordering or evaluating those materials or relationships, but the way in which we use those materials in an actual work of music can be, in a word, arbitrary. And composers can be fairly promiscuous in their choice of theoretical partners: if it works in a piece of music, we don't really care where an idea comes from. (On the other hand, there are examples of composers who have tried to trim their works too closely to a particular theory, the late, revisionary, Hindemith is the best example, and the results were, at times, unfortunate).

That said, composers can be marvelous theory teachers, and I would hope that those composers who are in academia will not stand blindly by as their tenure-track lines are handed over to professional theorists. There are some talented composers out there who could use the day job, and their perspective, arbitrary and promiscuous as it may be, is a practical one, and one would wish that the teaching of music has not been so hardened by specialization and institutionalization that we can't liven up our personnel choices from time to time, with some inter- and intradisciplinary flexibility. (Performers and musicologists and ethnomusicologists and can also be wonderful theory teachers, and composers and theorists can usefully teach music history or ethnomusicology as well).

There's a story about John Cage and David Tudor. Cage was preparing for his first extended invitation to the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan. He asked Tudor about how he should act there, and Tudor replied "Like a hit and run driver". As someone whose own visits to academe have become rare, I'd say that's a fair approach to music theory as well.

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