Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) observed, “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” The biographies he had in mind were not those of famous men and women, but the lives of anonymous individuals who constitute the real spirit of a nation. The notion of regular folk as history makers was almost unheard of in Carlyle’s day. And although some modern historians focus on ordinary people and groups long neglected—like women and indigenous populations—our awareness of history is overwhelmingly shaped by profiles of the “greats.”
Understandably, writers of history are drawn to high profile players, dramatic episodes and popular places. In order to map out and find patterns in the sweep of time, dots are connected between a handful of carefully selected people and events. What the writer chooses to include or exclude is shaped by biases and pet interests. The story presented invariably favors certain views, parties and locations. However, while this process is faulty and subject to revision, it is essential for reducing the immensity of human experience into a comprehensible snapshot.
Music history is similarly conceived of as a linear path punctuated by luminaries. The annals of historical musicology—the study of musical composition, performance and reception over time—are filled with anecdotes and analyses of the lives and works of big-name composers. In the West, the periodization of music is centered on famous figures, both representative and transitional. Mozart, for instance, is seen as a quintessential Classical composer, while Beethoven is considered a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods.
That the musical timeline is organized around emblematic personalities is perfectly logical. Music is a human invention and those who make it determine its course. Yet, while we can trace stylistic developments by linking one famous composer to the next, this neat (and in some ways necessary) construction not only obscures less prominent musicians, but also ignores multifarious influences that inform each piece along the way.
It is no secret that major composers inspire other major composers, either through friendship, study, admiration or a master-disciple relationship. The inspiration is sometimes acknowledged by the composers, and other times gleaned from their compositions. But musical information does not pass on exclusively through masters and masterworks.
The ear of the composer is alert and sensitive to all sorts of sounds, some of which are consciously or unconsciously recalled during the act of composition. The sources of these sounds may be famous, folk or forgotten, but their imprint is indelible. No piece of music is an island. Whether conventional, groundbreaking or somewhere in between, music involves the absorption and manipulation of existing sonic material. Even the most innovative composition is built upon previous efforts. And the more musical access a composer has, the more eclectic and plentiful the influences.
The potential complexity of this musical picture is captured in a reminiscence from trumpeter Frank London: “We studied [at the New England Conservatory] a mixture of classical and jazz, as well as lots of other stuff—pop, folk, and ethnic musics—while developing a particular philosophy that still guides my own musical life and that of many of my peers. The idea is that one can study and assimilate the elements of any musical style, form, or tradition by ear. You listen over and over to a Charlie Parker solo or a Peruvian flute player and learn to replicate what you hear. . . . We became cultural consumers. No music was off limits.”
The history of a single piece contains the histories of many other pieces, which are themselves built on the histories of other pieces, and on and on. Thus, as Carlyle might conclude, music is the “essence of innumerable biographies.”
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