Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year's Rant on the Simultaneous Rarity and Plentitude of Genius

Some of the benefits of being able to access on-line libraries like the WIMA or the Petrucci Library, sharing musical performances through YouTube, and having relatively few complications related to making recordings of new music or music in the public domain (aside from figuring out how to pay for making them), is that we are now able to understand that there have been a far greater number of people of what we like to call "genius" than we ever thought possible.

Most of us measure ourselves against people who can do and have done wonderful things. "I could never do that" is the usual response that someone might have after reading about or hearing about someone who "accomplished" something. There are exceptions, but the "never could" often turns itself into a "never will." Perhaps we spend so much energy measuring that it takes up too much of our time and our creative energy. My response is simply not to measure. It saves a great deal of time, and makes more room for creativity and the pleasure I get from seeing, hearing, and reading wonderful music and literature.

Success in music has become intertwined with the accepted capitalist view of success. It seems that we have to keep making more music in order to show any sort of cultural "profit," that is, if there is anybody who cares. Sometimes, when life circumstances make it difficult to keep accomplishing, a composer might not feel able to "produce." A composer without the regular stimulation from people who want to play and hear his or her music might not be as motivated to write as a composer who knows that the music he or she is writing will be played by people who want to play it, and heard by people who want to hear it.

I'm starting to believe that most music goes unheard.

At the beginning of my musical adulthood, the list of later 18th-century and early 19th-century composers (composers of the Classical Period, if you will) numbered in the scores. As of today, the Petrucci library lists 553, and these were 553 composers who had their music published. I imagine that number will double soon, since music from library collections all over the world is constantly being scanned into their on-line library.

A few composers, like Marianne Auenbrugger and Francesco Zappa (I couldn't resist that name) published only one piece (as far as we know), and some well-known composers were more prolific than anyone would have imagined, like Johann Nepomuk Hummel (this list reflects just a fraction of his total output). There were also prolific (and excellent) composers like Anton Ferdinand Titz who wrote music that didn't survive the consequences of time (as well as wars, revolutions, and natural enemies like fire, water, and decomposition).

A chunk of time spent in a library (of any kind--on line or physical) can show that creativity is part of the human spirit, but it also reveals how limited we all are. As a culture we have become a society of consumers of ready-made products. We have limited room in our virtual homes for all the treasures of the past (and the present) that we have at our fingertips, and we have proportionately limited time to enjoy them. Many of us lack to the skills, whether they be language skills or music reading skills, to evaluate what we find. This deficit exists within a greater popular culture that regularly asks opinions from "non-experts" on matters having to do with government and musical ability, and then accepts those opinions as being worthwhile data for measurement. Cable news reporters include audience surveys in their newscasts, newspapers regularly ask their readership to respond to on-line questionnaires, and then as "consumers" we are constantly urged to equate quantity of response with the quality of the product (performance, idea, candidate).

Perhaps it is a good thing that the world of "classical music" (or at least my world of "classical music") tends to function separately from "everything else."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A dear former teacher of mine made the distinction between "genius" and "productive genius," and opined that "productive genius" was the proof of "genius" by degree while the marker of a test score and membership in some self-congratulatory club was merely the ground out of which "productive genius" should come. If prodcutivity did not accompany "genius," then he was uninterested in this tested group for they proved by omission to have at the minimum misused, or worse ignored, any gifts by such non-productivity.