For reasons that aren’t totally public, I’ve been revisiting Donald Jay Grout’s History of Western Music. Grout has been the Virgil to countless undergraduates’ Dante as they passed through the infernos, purgatories, and (hopefully? eventually?) paradises of music history survey class. The book begins in ancient Greece and heads right up, tentatively, through the middle of the twentieth century. Such a wide geographical and temporal range leads one to a big question: with so much musical activity covered, what pulls it all together? Dithyrambs, Gregorian chant, troubadour songs, Baroque dances, Classical symphonies, avant-garde complexities; what makes all of this “music” and other things not music?
We don’t know much about ancient Greek musical practice, because music wasn’t much notated back then. We do, however, have their music theory in writing. And evidently the Greek notion of “music” was a wide one indeed. They say that “music” was an adjectival form of “muse,” and was a quality that could describe a whole range of activities.
As composer James Klopfleisch, also bassist of this band, recently told me off the cuff: “Music is a situation we find ourselves in.”
For years I’ve been obsessed with getting past music the noun toward music the verb. Now I find myself most interested in music the adjective, music as a quality of situations.
The most famous medieval music theorist was probably Boethius, who divided music into three categories: (1) musica cosmica, the music of the spheres, the perfect arithmetical balance of heavenly bodies; (2) musica humana, the “music” of harmonious social relations; and (3) musica instrumentalis, that is to say, audible music. Everything we now consider “music” falls under the third category.
In another way, though, little has changed. From ancient times, most people’s notions of music have been restricted to associations with dancing and with sung words, and this hasn’t gone anywhere. Today for most Americans music means a steady dance beat. Further definitions would include people singing with guitars or pianos, on stage, on a recording, or in church. Or—and this ties to the Dionysian history of drama—we might describe music as providing emotional atmosphere for movies and video games. (My friends who teach young composers report that this is the most common area of inspiration for their incoming students.) All other concepts and applications are rarified and unusual. The not uncommon white American dismissal of hip-hop, for example, as “not music” evinces if not a thoroughly deplorable bigotry then at least a fabulously narrow definition of music.
What about the spheres? What about harmonious social relations?
I’ve been listening to Doug Perkins’ podcast. Doug is a high-level percussionist, teacher, and organizer in the new music community. In his recent conversation with Joel Gordon, he said the following somewhat remarkable thing: “I use the music at Boston Conservatory to teach ownership and leadership and thoughtful decision making. I certainly don’t make music because I think it sounds pretty. That’s the last thing I think about.”
The composer and acoustic ecologist David Dunn once wrote: “What I’m really expressing is a spiritual and ethical imperative. The point is not whether someone is making ‘good’ music. The question is: to what use can we put music that is life-enhancing? That may mean not making music in the manner we’re used to.”
In the Republic, Plato famously and fascistically dictated the types of music that should and should not be allowed in the ideal society. This, of course, is even more narrow-minded than the present attitudes described above. But I can only admire the sentiment expressed here:
“He who mingles music with gymnastic in the fairest proportions, and best attempers them to the soul, may be rightly called the true musician and harmonist in a far higher sense than the tuner of the strings.”
Fingers crossed for fair proportions.
• 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