Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Behalf of the Ugly in Music (A Review)

Richard Marsella, in his writing "On Behalf of the Ugly in Music" (Marsella, 2004), raises the idea of employing "wild" sounds which we often consider to be "noise" into our musical practices. Broadening our creative visions of what constitutes music, allowing it to include the sounds by which we are constantly surrounded, in our daily lives, inspires our imaginations and entices young learners as it holds such unlimited potential. He challenges all music teachers to question what they define as the "good", "beautiful" music, and instead, work towards expanding their musical curriculum to include various unusual sources and practices of music production. Marsella's end goal is much more diverse musical smorgasbord.

Humans tend to dwell on the "beautiful" musics, which, according to Marsella, stifles our imaginations. Our view of how music must sound is one that is shaped by our society. It becomes glaringly obvious to the youngest of music students, just what sounds are "ugly", and which we instead, are taught and reminded to always aspire to produce. It is not generally accepted, as music educators, that we encourage our learners to hear various everyday sounds as potential elements of music, but rather to aim to replicate a sound that is familiar, and has been done, many times over. However, limiting our musical palates and failing to seek out new ways of hearing these sounds, is a step in the wrong direction. Instead, to reflect the constant transformation of our society, our music should be evolving to encompass new sounds and methods of musical production, in conjunction with our existing notions of traditional music. For instance, applying classical structure to newly created, "found" instruments, would shed light on a tradition that is becoming dated, and give it a more innovate, modern sound. Marsella suggests that we must not be afraid to explore the "darker sides of art". He goes on to say:
It has been important for me to approach music from every angle, from the recording of incredibly angry and sometimes destructive music, to the calming side of my solo classical guitar playing. I love these extremes in my musical personality, and embrace each side as viable commuicative forms. (p.138)

He also examines our fear of "chaos in music", and presents a strong argument to support its inclusion in our teaching practices. By removing some of the confines of musical structure, children are more apt to be excited to cultivating their own musical styles and tastes, and in turn, act as catalysts for our changing musical tastes. He continues on to highlight some of these noisy examples of music.

One such instance of the success that ensue from a lack of musical structure are the Nihilist Spasm Band, a group from London, Ontario, to which Marsella belongs. This collection of men, who are without any formalized musical training, relies upon their love for chaos and improvisation in their art of music-making. For 35 years, fuelled by their genuine love for music, alone, and relying upon only their homemade musical instruments, these men have established their reputation as a "pioneering [musical] group" (p.139). Despite their lack of formal structure and musical instruction, these men are united in their musical efforts, and continue to pursue these musical acts. Such leads Marsella to question our approach to music education.

The article continues on to discuss our desire to maintain a bland musical taste. Marsella compares the way we struggle to reproduce a musical copy of sounds that have been heard before, to that of a "fast-food diet" (p.140). Just as chefs are fearless in their flavourful experimentation, we as musicians must be brave in our search for new sounds, instruments, and in turn, musical creations. To do so, he encourages us to think differently about these new, formerly ugly sounds. Rather than working tirelessly at "polishing" (p. 144) our musical repertoire, without giving consideration to new possibilities or methods of interpretation and improvisation, we should follow the advice of Miles Davis and respect our musical mistakes. Such an idea would lead to challenge, and creative input, and give musical ownership to the performer. It is this very creative zest, and imagination, according to Marsella, that our current generation of young learners, our youth of today, is desperately lacking. He cautions that we must be careful not to allow the influence of our mass media to control and dictate the musical tastes of our children, as it causes them to blindly accept the musical trends which are easily accessible and driven by the mass media (p. 141). In doing so, our children lose their personal sense of identity and musical tastes, and simply subscribing to that of the majority.

Marsella's insights into what we have socially-constructed as comprising what is beautiful in music, causes me to reevaluate my own musical practices, dramatically. I will be the first to admit my guilt in this one-dimensional approach to music. A perfectionist by nature, I have always tended to stick to the established patterns of doing, especially when it comes to the music that I play and teach to my students. I have held the belief that in order for music to be the most correct and the most beautiful, one had to adhere to the strict musical structures and traditional methods. I did not consider myself to be musically successful until my own music bore perfect likeness to that of a recording; any unplanned uniqueness or creativity was reason to start again, or abandon the repertoire altogether. Musical genius was that which was predictable and premeditated. That was how I had been taught, how I viewed my musicianship, and how I approached my students. Reflecting on the idiocy of this vision, it is only now that I am losing my sense of guilt for being different, and in fact, proud to be so.

I struggled for many years following my undergraduate career in music. In my first year of study, I suffered a tremendous blow to my musical ego, and in turn, lost most of the confidence which I had in my musicianship; it seemed that my teacher felt I lacked any skill required to produce music as was necessary for my success as a performer. Taking his views to heart, I stopped playing for many years following my degree, and only recently, have regained the nerve to return to my passion for making music. I have finally realized that the measure of my musicianship is not my ability to copy and reproduce that which has been done before. Rather, it is in my freedom of approach and creative prowess where the best music is made. I do not have to hear my shaking fingers, shallow tone or uneven rhythms. Instead, I hear my interpretation, and my creative passion at work, and that is what fuels my love for music. Whether I am sitting at my piano, humming a familiar or improvised tune or simply walking with a rhythm and jingling my key chain, music is in the ears of the beholders. Marsella has made me realize that the more we allow ourselves to listen and hear different sounds, opening our minds to new musical possibilities, the greater the musical potential that we unleash. As musical educators, we hold the keys to unlocking our regimented, societal definition of beauty in music: as soon as we teach our students to be creative listeners, we, as a society will allow our musical tastes to become more diverse, and from there, the possibilities are endless!

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