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Personal Music in an Impersonal Age?

by William Harris

     We live in a new age in which the Personal Computer has become a force in life, a window into the world, a complicated instrument which millions of us can use as a tool for business, for research, or for data -- or simply as an instrument in itself which can be used to record, generate and stimulate personal communications with oneself or with the world. This has all happened so suddenly that a person who emerged just now from a twenty five year coma, a modern Rip van Winkle as it were, would hardly recognize the new world around him. And nowhere has the development of this entirely new thinking been more profound than in Music.

     My first introduction to harpsichord music was through Landowska's Goldberg Variations on 78 rpm discs, played on primitive turntables using (as I recall) cactus needles sharpened every few hearings on little handheld abrasive needle-grinding machines. From there to digitized sound on CD discs, let alone a music industry expanding exponentially in ten directions -- perhaps the best term would be musical culture shock within our lifetime.

     But has music become more personal? There was always something distant and exotic about turn-of-the last century European artists coming to this country to show us what music should be. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of young adolescents were set down at the piano as the instrument of choice, learning to push the right buttons for the right black dots on the score page. How many people will remark that they "used to play the piano", although it was hardly "play" in most cases, just discipline soon terminated.

     As the chain of music becomes longer and more indirect, from composer to score to private performer -- or to public performer for an auudience in a concert venue -- or to a recording session in a studio, followed by mastering and finally a CD which goes to market -- Music itself becomes impersonal. In a world where the Personal Computer has leaped into use everywhere, we need some new access to Personal Music for the good of our souls. Unfortunately there is no machine like the personal computer which can put is in contact with the interior music in our minds. The violin in its case in the closet or the piano gathering dust in the livingroom are often mere reminders of a pre-recording day when you had to play music if you wanted to hear it. There is more music everywhere, but less in your private mind, close to your inner self.

     So one might ask: Is there going to be such a thing in 21st Century America as "Personal Music"? Following rock or country performers to crowded halls, or getting the newest popular CDs is musical in a sense, but it is also part of the human social instinct to participate in what everyone else in into, to be in the au courant scene.

     One might ask if Jazz doesn't fulfill a creative personal function for many, not specifically those who listen but those who are engaged in making jazz music. I feel that Jazz is the only place for musical self-expression at this time, but have distanced myself from jazz because of its self-imposed restrictions. It is group playing, which involves a social sense of great importance, but with costs of self-adjustment to the group. Since Jazz is performance oriented, it depends on an audience response, on outside approbation, which sets it apart from the personal music I am talking about. The pre-set formats of rhythm and a recognizable melodic thread do hold the group together so they can function musically, but this also costs, much as the self-imposed format of an early Classical Sonata cost itself a great deal of freedom. Beethoven knew all about this in his last years.

     And Jazz has a history if its own, it is very conscious of its antecedents, and tends to work within an historical framework, even if much de-modulated as in the European Free Improvisation movement.. Bach's Brandenburgs could be considered a written score to something which was once Baroque jazz, with its measured cadences, instrumental leads in turns, and all. Jazz and Baroque have been noted as sharing certain features, the overall rhythmic regularity, the instrumental turns in the Concerto Grosso, and the lack of open spaces and rests, which Mozart developed in his late period. But the unaccompanied Cello Suites, which Bach wrote in house arrest in the privacy of his home, have something very different, very personal. It is music in this range which I am thinking of, I suspect it must be solo playing for a long while, if you find a second or third voice to work with in real time, that is great good fortune. But the start is you and your instrument and what the two of you can devise as you go. Is this all Fantasia? Yes, that is the way the human mind seems to work, but there is always hidden form working in the background, which is really the way the human mind works.

     Playing an instrument is self-defeating in a sense, since the Beethoven Sonata you have practiced for months is in fact played much better on any one of a dozen brilliant recordings, probably with much better sound than your half-in-tune piano can muster. And if you decide to go into things seriously and study the harmony, counterpoint and historical chains of musical threads, are you prepared for the detail, the dry scholarship, the infinite splitting of analytical hairs? Is this what music is really about?

     Back to the beginning: Can there be a new interest now for such a thing as PM, or Personal Music? In other words, is there such a thing as a relationship with music for you as a private person, through a musical instrument which you can manipulate to your personal satisfaction. And if so how would you want to go about it?

     This is no simple situation. When you play a piece, you are repeating the inventions of a "composer", doing faithfully now what he or she was once doing expressively. This is not your personal thing, it is someone else's song, poem or story, and if you are of a mind to read others' things, this is perhaps enough. But if you have a yen for something of your own, something you design and execute yourself, then you find little help from your schools, your teachers, your mentors. You are on new ground.

     Children have wonderful imagination, they tell personal stories, sing their own tunes -- until the schools regularize them soon enough. They don't have hands to play a keyboard scale yet, not enough grasp of the fingers and not enough practice. But the one who goes through eight years of lessons and does have the necessary equipment to play a piano, has usually lost imagination along the way.

     Notice the way Itzak Perlman plays violin: He closes his eyes, the score is not on paper but in his mind down to the details. He has enough talent and training to make the music his own, and it shows! But is this only for the trained virtuoso to close his eyes and hear the music from within?

     Putting together a personal sense of music is something which anyone can do. Hum your own tune rather than a popular one, think of sounds which come from your mind rather than from your CD player. And above all, select an instrument which you can learn to play with your personal mental and digital equipment, stay with that instrument year after year as you evoke its sounds at times when your wearied mind needs comfort. There are people who play music for fame or money, for ego or status, for friends' and family compliments ... and this is perfectly reasonable in a highly social and competitive society. But there should be room for a personal reconnoitering with the self in a flow of musical sound, which you do for yourself, by yourself, and with knowledge that it is your own music property, something nobody else in the world will be doing exactly that way at that time. There is innate individuality in music, and in a world in which the role of the individual is constantly shrinking, there should be some private retreat in which a person can be secure for an hour a day in being just with oneself. Meditation and emptying the self of the self is a good way for many, but for those who rejoice in the fullness and richness of a vibrant life-experience, music is another way. You add music to your life and speak to it privately.

     I have often wondered why the cicadas which become so prominent in early August bother bowing their serrated little legs so persistently, concertizing everywhere for that short season before the great cold. Some have suggested that it is an involuntary action of no great meaning, others have found that is is an accurate indicator of the ambient air temperature. But I am sure that the cicadas have found their way into the art of music-making, and with all the energy their short lives can muster, they go about declaring with a vengeance that they are alive, that they are here, and that they can, with absolutely confidence in the process, make their very own music.