R1 – Music and Context

My view of music is that its development is mostly arbitrary, and that works are always in the context of some system, culture, or individual. Rather than something like math or physics, which appear to exist in the universe independent of humans, music is something created by humans for humans. Explorations are done within the context of popular swing tunes in bebop, within the context of the limits of pre-existing improvisational jazz tendencies in free jazz, within the context of the “human” element of music in works generated by computers. Some may appear more profound or ambitious when viewed independent of context (e.g. more academic papers would be written about computer-generated music than a revolutionary pop-punk album), but all must be recognized as relative to a pre-existing structure. Tastes are decided by which contexts you place value on or follow more closely. Where the key players in the readings fall short for me is when they imply any kind of condescension or objective superiority of one context over another, as though it weren’t a matter of taste and their experience, but some deciding factor independent of humans.

Lewis says something similar that resonated with me in “Improvised Music after 1950” – “In my own view, the development of the improviser in improvised music is regarded as encompassing not only the formation of individual musical personality but the harmonization of one’s musical personality with social environments, both actual and possible.” This acknowledgement of the context of social environments in playing a part in the creation of the music I think applies just as well to Cage as it does to the jazz improvisers. Cage was working with the context of a musical heritage very based in tradition that he found restrictive. Thus, it makes perfect sense that his concepts of aleatoric and chance music could have come strictly from that “Eurological” context, as Lewis shows many music historians to imply, but the years of material of improvised jazz that occur before Cage are impossible to ignore. Cage and Bird were both seeking freedom from separate rigid structures, Bird found it first in improvisation, and the “jazz context” became a large force in America, which then must have had some bleed-over into Cage’s world. Trying to completely isolate these contexts, developed arbitrarily, serves no purpose other than to promote separation and “otherness”.

Cardew’s desire for musical “innocents”, who have escaped formal musical training, is interesting. He seeks to hear music completely free of any context. Yet, he simultaneously acknowledges, as through his references to Godel and Wittgenstein, that humans are ultimately tied down to the context of their own bodies and that of the universe. Thus he more accurately seeks music free of cultural context. I agree with Cardew that such a purity would be interesting to perceive. I think he goes too far in that he seems to hold it up as some kind of holy grail. Yes, it would be interesting, but as musical developments are largely arbitrary and always connected with humans, it would not show any great truth independent of human nature. Similarly, with Oliveros’ questions about the future of music with augmented human capabilities, these only create a new structure through which arbitrary musical developments can emerge. Things like rates of information processing will skyrocket, as will perception of time and memory capability, so the music would most likely reflect this in its complexity. Yet, this “complexity”, which might seem impossible to decipher or appreciate (though very well may be possible) by unaugmented humans, would still be relatively straightforward to an even more powerful processor, and all levels can still be appreciated within their own context, never invalidating the enjoyment or craft experienced by those “below”.

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