Tag Archives: John Seely Brown

Boundaries of Freedom

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music exists within parameters. To be recognized as this or that type of music, it must exhibit identifying markers related to rhythm, harmony, voicing, instrumentation, chord progressions, melodic design and the like. The boundaries that define a genre serve as both constraints and catalysts. As the musician bumps up against the borders, he/she is forced to pursue novel approaches and devise novel solutions. The same occurs when one works in a genre-fusing medium, like folktronica, or in a genre purportedly free of boundaries, like free jazz, which, in rejecting the strictures of bebop, arrived at its own structures of composition. To borrow an analogy from educational theorists Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, music materializes inside a petri dish, where the context and raw ingredients are fixed, but the end result is organically grown.

New music emerges from a tension between rules and the freedom to act within those rules. Controls and regulations provide the impetus for exploring creative options and devising innovations. This is a dynamic familiar to any game, be it football, Monopoly or musical improvisation. With basic guidelines and basic tools, the imagination is equipped to soar.

Composer Frederick Jacobi (1891-1952) embraced this view. In his day, Jacobi was among the most popular and respected figures in American classical music. He was especially noted for incorporating ethnic influences into his works, first drawing from Native American sources and later from his own Judaic roots. In both cases, he aimed to preserve characteristics of the folk material while upholding essential conventions of classical substance and form. With these dual restraints, Jacobi wrote numerous groundbreaking works, including Indian Dances (1927-28) and Shemesh (1940).

In 1948 Jacobi was invited to address the first convention of the United Synagogue of America and Cantors Assembly of America (both of Judaism’s Conservative movement). His topic was nationalism in the arts. He described challenges a composer faces when striving to balance individual creativity, ethnic ties and universal outlook. He warned against relying too heavily on folk material, yet stressed the importance of fusing one’s artistic voice with that material. Specific to Jewish music, he emphasized conserving age-old synagogue customs, such as cantillation, motivic patterns and prayer modes. The most intriguing part of his presentation was this comment: “The surest way to kill whatever originality one possesses within himself is to try to be original.”

What Jacobi meant by this is that originality requires limits. Unbounded expression is not only an impossible goal, but also an unmotivating concept. Musical avenues are not discovered or invented so much as they cultivated (as in the petri dish). New works are formed from existing materials and within existing confines, and new genres are really divergent genres: they consist of sounds derived from established sounds. As with a schoolyard game or ethnically informed classical piece, the rules are not to be broken. They are the stuff upon which creativity thrives.

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