Thursday, December 30, 2010

The sound of no hands clapping


Social media is hot, metaphysical media is not. Which means Facebook has replaced zazen in the search for enlightenment and silence is divorced from its metaphysical companions of chance and impermanence to make it social media friendly.

Zen Buddhism has attracted many musicians including John Cage. Enlightenment, silence and impermanence are central to Zen, as is the concept of transmission. The role of a Zen master is to transmit the dharma, these are the teachings of the Buddha that lead to enlightenment. Transmission is the ritual process by which the dharma is transmitted from teacher to student and it has been likened to an electric current arcing from one conductor to another.

Let us accept for a moment that analogies between classical music and metaphysical media are valid. This is unproven, but previous paths such as the Tao of music, Music exists only in constant flow and flux and Classical music as ritual suggest the analogy is at least worth considering. Accepting parallels between engaging new listeners and transmission as practiced in Zen Buddhism takes us down an interesting path. Transmission is totally dependant on physical interaction between teacher and student. It cannot be achieved remotely and cannot be achieved quickly. Transmission is only possible between two superconductors and the process is halted if intermediate insulating layers come between teacher and student.

Now for teacher and student read performer and listener, and for Zen read classical music. All the dogmas that have developed around reaching new audiences involve adding insulating layers between performer and listener; these range from performance conventions to digital concert halls and virtual orchestras. Yet, if the analogy between classical music and transmission is valid, the process should be reversed. We do not need more intermediate layers. Instead we need high voltages to flow between superconductors (pun not intended) in close promiximity to one another. Which means more live music, physical interaction between audience and performers, music education, music therapy, amateur, youth and scratch orchestras and similar initiatives. And less of an awful lot of things we are getting more of.

Confirmation of the validity of the transmission approach comes from interesting sources. My recent explorations of Google Trends, which reached a very large readership, indicated that classical music and social media may not be the best partners. And the transmission approach is no more than a variation of Benjamin Britten's holy triangle of three superconductors - composer, performer and listener. Britten's words from his Aspen Award acceptance speech have appeared here many times. So I am taking the extraordinary liberty of misquoting him. Britten's original 1964 text can be read here. As we approach 2011 I offer the following updated version:
Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they possess a computer and iPod. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Thanks to the internet music is now free for all. If I say the computer is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a computer and iPod. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener."
* For more on transmission read Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing. It is the fascinating story of desire, devotion and excess at the San Francisco Zen Centre. Classical music can learn an awful lot from this book, and not just about transmission.

** Cover graphic and soundtrack is John Cage's 36 Mesotics re and not so re Marcel Duchamp performed by Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices and spoken by Terry Riley. The work is dedicated to the Japanese video artist Shigeko Kubota and includes a quote from the Zen teacher Daisetz Suzuki.

*** Vocal ensemble Exaudi is teaming up with leading sound artist Bill Thompson in a project based on John Cage's Song Books in the Britten Studio, Snape on Feb 4.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

4 comments:

Pliable said...

Well, here is a generous view of my sin....

'Creative misquotation of Britten by @overgrownpath: "Thanks to the internet music is now free for all...."'

http://twitter.com/alexrossmusic/status/20467195825881088

Kevin said...

I agree with you; but I do have one question: how can the intermediate layers be peeled away when one of the only ways to make it attractive, or viable as a product, is to turn it into a spectacle, i.e., further remove it as a transmissive vehicle towards a kind of shiny, hyperreal extravaganza (I'm reminded of the irony implicit in Corigliano's "Circus Maximus," which, by necessity, utilizes the very means it comments upon.).

Pliable said...

Kevin, a very interesting and also very Zen question.

You say "the only way to make it attractive, or viable as a product, is to turn it into a spectacle". But that assumes we have the right measure of 'viability' and the right definition of 'product'.

In the perceptive comment you added to my Google Trends post you challenged the accepted definition of 'product'. I think your challenge is correct. Classical music, in its search for mass market credibility, may well be measuring itself against the wrong definitions of 'viability' and 'product'.

Classical music may, in fact, be healthier than people think. It may simply be judging itself against the wrong benchmarks. But the real danger comes when it tries reinventing itself to reach those irrelevant benchmarks.

Pliable said...

Lyle Sanford commented via Facebook:

This is a wonderful post! Rather than leave a really long comment, hit a few high spots in a post of my own.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year!

http://registeredmusictherapist.blogspot.com/2010/12/musicspiritual-practice.html