Tag Archives: Creativity

All is Medley

Jonathan L. Friedmann

A “megamix” consists of multiple song snippets played in rapid succession. Verses, choruses, and smaller sections form a unified chain, often supported by a steady backing beat. Megamixes come in three basic types: “album remixes,” a single track sampling songs on an album; “flashbacks,” comprising slabs of popular songs from a year or two; and “artist remixes,” stringing together song fragments from a career. These can be bootleg tributes or studio releases, as with promo mixes advertising an upcoming album. To some extent, cutting and pasting is a natural outgrowth of the post-modern digital age, where music belongs to consumers, and consumers function as (re)producers. Nevertheless, its roots are probably as old as music itself.

Before remix there was medley: a musical piece made from other musical pieces. The term first appeared in the fourteenth century, and originally applied to hand-to-hand combat—still idiomatically called “mixing it up.” The later musical meaning would have suited that medieval context, as folk, popular, and liturgical songs freely borrowed and rearranged motives and melodies from one another. In medieval Germany, common threads connected Minnesong (courtly love songs), Gassenhauer (street songs), and Gregorian chant. By the end of the eighteenth century, medley referred to a sequence of opera melodies. This sense carried into the modern usage, where medley—and its companion term, potpourri—signifies a patchwork of short songs or song-segments performed as a continuous piece.

As self-aware assemblages, modern mélanges differ from their organic predecessors. However, their organizing mechanism is hardly new. Melodies, whether modal or diatonic, improvised or pre-composed, rely upon sounds developed through reuse, reshaping, and repetition. This can be compared to language: just as we internalize vocabulary and grammatical rules from hearing and using existing sentences, so do musicians internalize musical rules from hearing and reapplying existing musical patterns. In this way, every melody is a medley, varying only in degree.

Of course, obvious mixing can attract criticism (and even lawsuits). Constant Lambert famously frowned upon such “pastiches.” He complained, “a composer with no sense of style and no creative urge can take medieval words, set them in the style of Bellini, add twentieth-century harmony, develop both in the sequential and formal manner of the eighteenth century, and finally score the whole thing for jazz band.”

Condemnation and exaggeration notwithstanding, Lambert’s illustration captures the music-making process. Music is fundamentally a generative art: its very status as music depends on its resemblance to other music. Regardless if the piece is a deliberate medley, hackneyed hodgepodge, organic amalgam, novel twist, or post-modern remix, it invariably absorbs, consolidates, reassembles, and builds upon prior music. Perhaps creativity, in the pure sense that Lambert meant it, depends more on the masking of influences than on their absence.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Hybridity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

No culture is an island. The mirage of pure and “uncorrupted” languages, rituals, recipes, beliefs, and bloodlines evaporates on closer inspection. Human beings are genetically inclined toward interaction, cooperation, and mimicry. As big-brained social animals, we constantly absorb, transmit, and reconfigure concepts, behaviors, and technologies. The greater the contact, both within and between cultural groups, the greater the mixing, both culturally and biologically. Beneath the veneer of pristineness is an accumulation of elements, often with roots reaching beyond the scope of memory.

Such hybridity is a musical norm. Virtually everywhere and at every time, internal and external forces have accelerated or decelerated the pace of assimilating forms, styles, patterns, and instruments. Periods of heightened cross-cultural exposure, such as migrations and the Internet age, can both magnify hybridity and heighten the impulse for preservation. But, even when cultural walls are erected, influences inevitably seep through. Moreover, periods of intense hybridization are often followed by periods of stability, in which the new hybrids become “mainstreams” or “traditions.”

On an individual level, the process of musical creation is, almost by definition, an act of hybridization. Consciously and subconsciously, composers and performers mediate between diverse and sometimes divergent influences, intentions, methods, and emotions.

Intentional cross-cultural hybridity has a long history in the Euro-American classical tradition. For instance, Antonín Dvořák originally billed his New World Symphony (1893) as incorporating tunes from spirituals and Native American songs. He later clarified that the music contains “original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music” (emphasis mine). Either way, it is a hybrid. The same goes for composers like Bartók, Copland, and Shostakovich, who meld folk, folk-style, and popular sounds with orchestral techniques.

Perhaps less obvious today are the eclectic tendencies of J. S. Bach. Part of his genius was incorporating sounds from disparate sources: North Germany, South Germany, France, Italy, ecclesiastical chant, etc. Hubert Parry notes in his classic biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story of the Development of a Great Personality (1909): “[I]t must be recognised that the principles of Italian art, in its broader and more substantial aspects, influenced [Bach] considerably; and in the first few years at Leipzig he endeavoured to accommodate his church cantatas to the prevailing taste in Leipzig.” Among other works, this yielded Cantata 174 (Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, 1729), which, like the earlier Brandenburg Concertos (1721), showcases Bach’s sophisticated take on Vivaldi’s formal and stylistic signatures.

The dissection of any music—folk, classical, pop, and otherwise—discloses similar eclecticism, varying in degree. These, too, can be self-conscious, like Afro-Cuban or jazz-rock, or masked, like American fiddle music and rock ‘n’ roll. Usually, the amalgamated sounds are not easily picked apart. The organic fusion of elements, whether musical, linguistic, culinary, biological, or otherwise, rarely reveals its seams.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Between Reason and Monsters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1799 Francisco Goya published “A Collection of Prints of Capricious Subjects.” The eighty etchings and aquatints, known as Los Caprichos (caprices, folios), criticized the “multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society” and particularly in Goya’s native Spain: superstitions, arranged marriages, corrupt rulers, powerful clergy, etc. The forty-third print is among the artist’s most enduring images. Entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”), it shows an artist (possibly Goya himself) asleep at his drawing table. He is surrounded by bats, owls, and a wide-eyed lynx—ominous creatures in Spanish folklore. A mysterious figure lurks in the center, staring directly at the viewer.

On first impression, the illustration seems to be an endorsement of rational thought: when logic lies dormant, the world becomes demon-haunted (to paraphrase Carl Sagan). But this is only part of the meaning. A caption accompanying the print warns, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” Pure rationality and pure irrationality are both dangerous. Reason without emotion is too dull and heartless to adequately address basic human and societal needs. Emotion without reason gives rise to all sorts of prejudices and harmful fantasies. When held in harmonious balance, passion and intellect create life-affirming art.

Goya’s rejection of absolute rationalism marked a transition from the Enlightenment to early Romanticism. While not denying the value of science and social reforms, he reclaimed emotions as an authentic and positive force.

Romantics would further the cause, placing knowledge and wonder, history and mythology, order and spontaneity side by side. Their idealization of expression stirred them to especially grand appraisals of music, which E. T. A. Hoffmann called “the most romantic of all the arts—one might say the only purely romantic one.” This belief owes largely to the balance Goya advocated. In most of its incarnations, music is both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Its raw materials and construction are open to theoretical and scientific analysis, but its evocations are almost by definition non-rational. Most important, its expressiveness is born from its structure.

As a visual artist, Goya might have objected to the musical bias of many later Romantics. After all, the counter-requirements of heart and mind are found in every art form to a greater or lesser extent. At its best, art is a reminder of what makes us human: form and feelings, function and purpose, reason and emotion.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Traditionalization

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Tradition refers to the transmission of customs or beliefs from one generation to the next, or the fact of something being passed on in that manner. There are family traditions, cultural traditions, national traditions, religious traditions, and so on. Precisely why some things are treated in this way and other things are not is a topic too broad and varied to be reduced to a simple formula. But, underlying almost everything regarded as traditional is the term’s Latin root, traditio, meaning “surrender.” In no small part, the act of surrendering to and accepting what has been passed down is what makes something traditional.

Even when tradition is used as a noun, the term has an active connotation. An object, practice, or conviction does not burst into existence with the authoritative label. Rather, it gradually assumes that status through a process involving usage plus time. A recipe, for instance, becomes traditional through continued preparation and consumption. Likewise, the Western classical tradition is an assortment of Greco-Roman ideas, institutions, designs, rituals, and artifacts that have been received and integrated into later cultures. By definition, those things that have a lifespan extending beyond their originating time and place are, in some sense, traditional. Everything else is not.

This has relevance for music. Songbooks are filled with selections printed under the heading of traditional. Most of these are orally transmitted songs of anonymous authorship. However, it is not unusual to find songs with known composers listed as traditional. Strictly speaking, such ascriptions are errors: the songs did not emerge organically through an oral tradition, as the attribution suggests, but from the creative minds of individuals. The editors of such books can be faulted for a lack of careful research. Yet, if we understand traditional as an active adjective rather than a static noun, then it is an accurate depscription.

More often than not, so-called traditional melodies are so familiar as to have lost ties to any person or moment. This phenomenon, call it “traditionalization,” has at least four interrelated features: (1) The composer’s identity is forgotten and/or becomes irrelevant; (2) The music becomes the “property” of the masses; (3) The melody achieves a sense of timelessness; (4) The song is felt to be universal, no matter how closely linked to a specific situation, population, or storyline.

From this perspective, a song can be simultaneously traditional and written by a known person. Moreover, any melody—or, really, anything—can become traditional by way of its passage from generation to generation, and the power that such passage yields.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Consequences

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified two modes of maintaining social order. The first is mechanistic solidarity, wherein cohesion develops among people who play similar roles and whose status is more or less equally valued, save for those in leadership positions. This applies to kinship-based systems (formerly called “primitive”) where the unit of organization is the extended family or clan, and the distinction between the individual and society is minimal. The second is organic solidarity, in which order is achieved through a complex division of labor and role differentiation. This is typical of capitalist societies, which rely on the integration of specialized tasks.

Both systems have their merits and demerits. In the musical realm, the division of labor allows a select group, known as “musicians,” to focus on the craft and make significant cultural contributions. However, such specialization tends to have the opposite effect on the rest of the populace, which is tacitly discouraged from making music, even as an amateur pursuit. This contrasts with the norm in indigenous groups, where an egalitarian ethos encourages music from everyone. Although lacking in notation and recording, and all the artistic expansion they afford, their music can be remarkably intricate and varied.

Ethnomusicologist John Blacking was especially critical of the Western bifurcation of “musician” and “non-musician.” From his experience with the Venda people of South Africa, Blacking concluded that music is a species-specific trait, like language, and thus a natural mode of expression available to all. A passage from his book How Musical is Man? sums up this view: “[If] all members of an African society are able to perform and listen intelligently to their own indigenous music, and if this unwritten music, when analyzed in its social and cultural context, can be shown to have a similar range of effects on people and to be based on intellectual and musical processes that are found in the so-called ‘art’ music of Europe, we must ask why apparently general musical abilities should be restricted to a chosen few in societies supposed to be culturally more advanced.”

Blacking identified division of labor rather than an absence of aptitude as the dampening force on music compulsion. In capitalist societies, where skills become professions, commercial music is a major industry. Yet music sales still depend on our fundamental musicality. The performers may be specialists, but they are no more proficient in discerning musical sounds than the listeners who support them. Thus, the musical consequence of societal evolution is not biological but sociological. The shift from indigenous to industrial societies causes a general redirection of emphasis from collective music-making to individual listening. We remain musical, but our active expression is significantly stifled.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Wagner and the Music of the Jews

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Anti-Semitism was not uncommon among nineteenth-century composers. Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky and others are on record making derogatory comments about Jews and Judaism. Most of these musicians carry no stigma; their works are performed without hesitation. This is not so with Richard Wagner, whose vitriol was exacerbated by his affiliation with left wing revolutionaries. Two things make it difficult to separate Wagner’s work from his views: the Nazis espoused his music, and he wrote a polemical essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music,” 1850, 1869). While he cannot be blamed for the Nazis’ use of his music—he died before Hitler was born—the anti-Jewish sentiment in his infamous essay is hard to dismiss.

Wagner makes two basic points in “Das Judenthum in der Musik.” The first is that “the Jew” is incapable of reaching the musical heights of European composers. He takes specific aim at Felix Mendelssohn, whom he considered more of a technician than an artist, and whom he thought lacked the passion and heart of a Beethoven (or of Wagner himself). He also mentions Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jacob Lieberman Beer), a once-popular opera composer whom Wagner felt was too practical, too calculated, and too concerned with popular tastes to be truly creative. Not incidentally, Wagner was convinced that Meyerbeer, a Frenchman, had deliberately sabotaged his early efforts to enter the Paris establishment. (Contrastingly, in 1841 Wagner wrote a glowing review of La Juive—The Jewess—a grand opera by another French Jewish composer, Fromenthal Halévy.)

If we remove the anti-Semitism and generalizations that fueled these observations, then Wagner’s views are not far off: Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer are in some ways inferior composers of the Western canon. But there is good reason for this. Jews did not enter the world of European music until the nineteenth century, and even then had limited opportunities to develop their craft. They were late to the party and had a lot of catching up to do. Moreover, Mendelssohn, a “classicist,” adhered to conservative and essentially canon-affirming tastes. Wagner died in 1883, so he missed out on the twentieth century and its slew of innovative Jewish composers: Copland, Schoenberg, Bernstein, Philip Glass, the pioneers of Hollywood film music, etc. In addition to being a venom-infused stereotype, Wagner’s image of Jews as musically uncreative is simply outdated.

His second point is that “The Jew flings together the various forms and styles of all composers and eras.” Wagner meant this as an insult: Jews have no musical language of their own, but instead appropriate their neighbors’ music and perform it as foreigners. If we take out the negative implication of “Jew as imitator,” then Wagner’s opinion was actually correct—and perhaps even ahead of its time.

Wagner lived when Jewish music was gradually becoming a topic of interest among Wissenschaft scholars, who amplified the cultural uniqueness of Jews and Judaism. As part of that agenda, Jewish scholars perpetuated a myth of musical continuity, wherein some elusive element of “authentic” Jewish music could be traced back to Jerusalem’s Second Temple. This element was never discovered, and was never really looked for in any serious way. Still, it was a powerful sentiment that basically went unchallenged until the mid-twentieth century, when scholars came to terms with the fact that Jewish music is always tied to its surrounding, as Wagner pointed out. Contemporary critics view the ability to adapt music of the surroundings as a strength, rather than a weakness, of Jewish culture.

Not surprisingly, Wagner’s admirers tend to downplay his anti-Semitism, while his detractors emphasize it. As noted, he wasn’t entirely incorrect in his comments on the music of the Jews in his time and place; but the hatred that saturates his words cannot be ignored.

It is sometimes remarked that Wagner was envious of the Jews, but this assertion is rarely elaborated upon. I’d like to add my own theory. Wagner’s greatest claim to fame as a composer is the leitmotif: a recurrent theme throughout a musical composition that is associated with a specific person, idea or situation. Given Wagner’s obsession with the Jew in music, he was almost certainly aware that leitmotifs were a staple of synagogue music in his native Germany, and had been since the Middle Ages. The High Holidays, for instance, were full of them (the so-called “Mi-Sinai tunes”). One might even argue that Wagner stole the concept from the Jews, or was appalled to hear Jews using a musical device he thought he had invented. This could explain at least some of his vehemence. It also suggests that maybe—just maybe—Jews weren’t so uncreative after all.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Improvisation and Origination

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music begins as improvisation. Guided by an internalized assortment of musical conventions, proclivities, and preferences, and propelled by a need for self-expression, the musician offers up an unfolding sequence of tones. Sonic strokes are applied to a canvas of silence and time, coalescing into a piece of music. What happens after the initial act will determine what type of improvisation it is: creation for the moment, or creation for repetition.

In musical styles that value extemporization, such as jazz and ragas, certain sounds are not meant to extend past the performance. They are embraced as spontaneous creations in and for that moment. Beauty arises, mistakes are made, ideas are asserted, and ingenuity is flashed—all without concern for documentation. The experience begins and ends in real time. In contrast, music created for repetition is expected to persist beyond the improvisatory genesis. Tones emerge from the imagination, but are thereafter revised, re-shaped, and retained for future performances. This process occurs in both oral and scribal cultures, where music is reiterated through person-to-person transmission, notation, audio recording, and often a combination of these. The impulsive journey of formation becomes a roadmap for reproduction.

There are cases where creation for the moment and creation for repetition intrude upon one another. These “violations” take the form of transcriptions of improvisatory solos, recordings of jam sessions, embellishments in classical compositions, and the like. Purists shun such rule breaking: improvisers guard the ephemeral nature of their craft; classical musicians shield the notes on the page.

Frank Zappa was a vocal critic from the improvisatory camp. In a 1984 MTV interview, he blasted fellow guitarists for playing carbon copies of their recorded solos on stage. Zappa was asked, “Do you consider yourself a great guitarist?” Rather than self-labeling one way or the other, he gave an assessment of the state of guitar playing, lamenting the scarcity of intuition and risk taking. His response deserves quoting in full:

“Well, I’m specialized. What I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on the guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear performed on stage have been practiced over and over and over again. They go out there and they play the same one every night, and it’s really just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination, and when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here. But you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation. I don’t like any of the guitar solos that have ever been released on a record, and I think that the real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live, not freezing it and saving it on a piece of plastic someplace or putting it on a video.”

It should be mentioned that Zappa was no enemy of notation. He meticulously scored his songs for all instruments, including percussion, and was notoriously perfectionistic regarding the conversion of his writing into sound. But he also knew when to depart from predetermined ideas and respond to the moment. What he despised was the breakdown of distinctions between the fixed and the improvised. Implied in his comments is recognition that music can only be improvised once. After that, it takes one of two paths: evaporation or concretization. For Zappa, fleeting sounds should be kept fleeting, while stipulated sounds should remain stipulated. Even so, Zappa himself sometimes wandered into the awkward space where impromptu playing becomes frozen for consumption. A series of guitar-solo albums and a book of solos-in-transcription are testaments to that uncomfortable truth.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.