Thursday, December 20, 2007

Our Happy House of Cards

If you take a course in calculus or quantum mechanics, the content of the course is pretty much going to be the same wherever you go -- sure, there'll be different emphases, and certainly different pedagogical styles, and the environment (both physical and human) in which you study does make a real difference, but there is a more-or-less settled consensus on what is essential to know, what is useful to know how to do, and what the shared terminology for the subject is.

In musical studies, we are very far away from such a consensus. The canon of music history is increasingly loose and evermore less centered around "classical" concert and operatic works of late 18th- to late 19th-century central Europe, and the repertoire of works studied as part of an historical narrative is increasingly variable from school to school and from one teacher to the next. In music theory (which is actually more practice than theory), there have always been local styles of analysis and terminology (yes, Virgina, there's an invisible line running roughly along the Germany-Austria border separating the scale-step theorists from the functional theorists, so that the tribes shall never mix) , but the local practices in (or even within) individual schools in the US often take this to an extreme, such that unless a student is flexible and a very quick study, it's rarely possible to jump from the middle of a theory course "sequence" in one locale to another. Add to this the complication of parallel sequences taught in many places for jazz or vernacular musics. Or how about electronic music, an even more extreme case? At some schools, an electronic music course will cover "classical" (love that word, so useful in so many contexts) studio techniques, including old-fashioned tape splicing, in others, it may be digital recording techniques or computer music (synthesis or computer-assisted composition), and in others it will be using the studio to make digital mock-ups of instrumental scores, and in still others, you may lay hands on circuits and wield your soldering gun to roll your own electronic instruments.

I happen to think that this lack of consensus is a very good thing. The diversity and liveliness of music demands a diversity of approaches and musical studies has long since grown out of the idea that a single aesthetic, as described historical or analytically, has value above others equivalent to the value of truth over falsity in domains like math or physics. William Austin's Music in the Twentieth Century told a fantastic story beginning with Debussy while Alex Ross's recent book tells another compelling story beginning with Strauss's Salome and neither story cancels the other out. Having these alternative accounts of the same time period gives our sense of history dimensional depth and texture. I think that there is a lot of study to be done on the ramifications of having parallel historical accounts or parallel theoretical systems for the production of real music and the parallel streams should be crossing one another more often, invisible line at the Austrian border be damned. Indeed, voice leading scholars may have something to tell jazz musicians (who focus on chords and scales) while a student of the Javanese gender has really interesting things to say about counterpoint.

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