Culture Magazine

Thriving and Jiving with Music @3QD [+ Liszt & Roma Music]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

I’ve got another post up at 3 Quarks Daily:

Thriving and Jiving Among Friends and Family: The Place of Music in Everyday Life

It’s a lightly revised version of my introduction for a book Charlie Keil and I have just published:

Thriving and Jiving with Music @3QD [+ Liszt & Roma music]

Check out this blurb from Steve Feld:

Who says a peace manifesto can’t be deep fun? The wisdom of collaborative practice rings bells on each page here, inviting us to dance in the streets of a world still within reach. Get with the beat of this drum!

As I note at the end of the article, Playing for Peace: Reclaiming our Human Nature, is the third book in a series: Local Paths to Peace Today. The first book, We Need a Department of Peace: Everybody's Business, Nobody's Job, is about a simple concrete step the United States can take in the direction of peace, to create a Department of Peace in the Federal Government, which was originally proposed by Benjamin Rush in 1793 – and is currently proposed in H.R. 1111 proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee of California. Breaking up large nations and corporations would create a bit more free-play in the world, allowing for greater cultural variety and local autonomy. We lay that out in the second book in the series: Thomas Naylor’s Paths to Peace: Small is Necessary. The goal of Playing for Peace is to sketch out a basic educational regime, a paideia, to use some Ancient Greek terms, that can provide a framework, an ethos or 'moral character' in which we can create a new world that is both more just and more joyful.

You can find a table of contents and a description of each of the articles in the book at this post from July 29, 2022.

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Meanwhile, I’ve been re-thinking music. It started when Charlie Keil asked me to see what I could find about Beethoven’s capabilities as an improvisor. I quickly found quite a bit, some of which I’ve blogged here, Beethoven was a supremely gifted improvisor – From the testimony of his contemporaries [the past isn't what you thought it was]. I’ve known that Beethoven was an improvisor for some time, as were other classical composers. But I didn’t quite realize how central it was to their musical practice. Something I learned from reading around in Dana Gooley’s Fantasies of Improvisation: Free Playing in Nineteenth-Century Music (2018), which I’ve not yet finished. Thus Carl Czerny, perhaps Beethoven’s best-known student, wrote an instruction manual on improvisation, Systematische Anleitung zum Fantasieren auf dem Pianoforte (1829).

Leaving liturgical organ music aside, improvisation didn’t all-but disappear from classical music until roughly the middle of the 19th century, and even then the idea of improvisation remained as a kind superior and purer form of music. This led to romantic ideas about Roma (Gypsy) music, which Golley notes (p. 266):

Grellmann’s pioneering Versuch über die Zigeuner, for example, from which many nineteenth-century writers borrowed, described music is the one “fine art” the Roma people cultivated, but said nothing about improvisation in connection with music. Nor was improvisation a dominant marker of gypsy character in the novels of Walter Scott, which played a disproportionate role in disseminating ideas and images throughout Europe. Liszt’s Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie (1859), a book probably ghost-written to a considerable extent, was thus a pioneer in giving great emphasis to the improvised character of the music. It set out to challenge prevailing comical and fantastical stereotypes and celebrate the musical gypsy as a kind of unsullied, primitive artistic genius, and to this end it used improvisation is a key literary motif: “Gypsy art [l’art bohémien], more than any other, belongs to the domain of improvisation, and cannot subsist without it.”

Improvisation here is not only a metaphor for the wandering, day-to-day existence of the gypsies, but also for an intensity of expression and direct transmission of feeling absent from music produced through mediation and reflection. The music is strong and vital because it is “so eminently inspired, so little dominated by the laws of reflection or constraint, so spontaneous, and until recently so inseparable from improvisation.” In gypsy performances there is furthermore no conflict between the player’s authenticity of expression and the formation of communal bonds.

This reads remarkably like ideas that developed about jazz in 20th century America.

This idealization and etherealization of improvisation seemed to parallel the solidification of the idea of a musical work as a kind of fixed Platonic ideal. Here I must confess that I didn’t realize that that conception stood in need of solidification. For I had implicitly assumed that it had always been there. And for me, of course, that is the case. That’s what I learned, just as I had learned that improvisation was this exotic and mysterious practice. These two conceptions go hand-in-hand: the fixed and eternal work, exotic improvisation. Those conceptions were worked out in the middle of the 19th century.

It seems that the existence of a written score is not itself sufficient to support the idea of the fixed work. That idea is projected onto the score, but does not arise from it, perhaps because even the most carefully notated score must still be interpreted.

There’s more, about music and childhood. I’ve made some notes about that here, Liszt, childhood, and improvisation.

More later.

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