Effective music tends to proceed according to clear premises that are either tacitly agreed upon in advance, or set out clearly and immediately so that such agreement can emerge quickly. The lack of ready and consistent premises is why people dislike and distrust new musics. The music can be complex, but the premises have to be simple.
We look at others’ creative efforts and imagine they just sprung up, for better or worse, like Athena from Zeus’ head. They don't seem like products of a complex interaction of human labor, thought, and intuition. They just seem like more things in the world for us to have opinions about.
The real surprise is, after enough time passes, we start to look at our own efforts that way, too.
I learned from one UNM music professor that a few decades ago, when he got his job here, the local paper used to regularly print reviews of music faculty recitals.
It may be that hearing a piece live in person, as opposed to hearing it digitally, is like having a conversation with someone face to face, as opposed to exchanging messages on a Facebook comment thread.
A few words after my 2010 post Crossroad Blues.
Orpheus looked back because he was an imperfect, fallible human. This is also what made him a great musician. And I suspect mortality is also what allowed Marsyas to beat Apollo. He had the one thing Apollo could never have: the foreknowledge of his own death. This sweetens the music.
The only question, practically speaking, is whether it’s okay, like the Robert Johnson of myth, to look outside yourself for improvement—or do you need to fundamentally trust that you already have what you need to be great?
Coltrane described practice as “cleaning the mirror.” His work was to cleanse the pathways that connected him to the divine. No tower-building necessary; the connection was already there. The work was learning to see it more clearly.
I must say, though, I’m coming to freshly appreciate the importance of teachers. Their influence is bounded, but limitless within parameters. Things they say come echoing through the years, gaining in resonance. The truth is that Robert Johnson didn’t sell his soul to anyone. He learned guitar from a guy named Ike Zimmerman—who, the story goes, had practiced his craft at night, in a cemetery, playing and singing while leaning against a gravestone.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues