a moratorium on musical moratoriums

I'm backdating this so it will be a proper Musical Monday, but in reality this is Tuesday, a little after noon. I'm at the local library near work, reveling in how nice it is to have a keyboard with a functioning letter "n" and "b"! This morning I had an appointment at my local Department of Human Services to apply for food stamps--successfully, this time. Last year when I was on unemployment I'd also applied, only to be rejected because my benefit amount was too large. Odd, really, since it wasn't all that much more than my current weekly paycheck, and at the old apartment the rent was much higher and I had all the utilities.

Ah, well.

I want to say a few things about music. This is, in part, inspired by Gin & Tacos' recent post, and the comments that flowed after it. By the by, I adored the OK Go video, and also Pachelbel's Canon in D transposed into the key of J was really delightfully creepy.

People do get attached to the music we liked as teenagers. For all that I've been out of my teens just less than a decade, this much I've found to be true of people who are in their 90s as much as those in their 40s. Anton LaVey called it "erotic crystallization inertia", which seems to me one too many adjectives. Though the phrase does conjure up the image of the personality as a kind of Freudian chemical experiment, which reaches a state of dynamic equilibrium and hovers around it thereafter. I prefer either mechanical or biological images for the personality myself, though metaphors, like music, are largely a matter of taste. I digress! One way or another, even though fond (or dismal) associations mean that time alone can never rob one's adolescent favorites of their appeal, over time one does develop a discerning ear.

'This band, this singer, this song that I enjoyed back in my day,' we'll say to ourselves, 'they were really just a re-hashing of the great so-and-so from a previous decade!' There's a certain exasperation that often comes with that thought, a feeling of having been cheated. 'How dare someone trick me into liking them, when all they were doing is something somebody else already did better?' To say nothing of the upstarts who have the temerity to continue composing, or at least performing, new material, long after one's own musical preferences are set. And as often as not, doing what seems to the educated ear to be a half-baked imitation of other musicians, perhaps from one's own preferred time period--who were themselves imitations. "A copy, of a copy, of a copy," as the fellow said in Fight Club.

The general consensus seems to be that all the really good songs have already been written. Not once, not twice, but many times, the most moving melodies revisited and scrubbed smooth and frictionless like a stone staircase made treacherously slick by the passage of many thousands of climbers. Various persons pointed out a couple of extremely cogent facts. There are, for example, a finite number of notes in the scale. And the scale we use, as evidenced by the weirdness of the "Canon in J", seems to be the one human ears are able to appreciate, through some emergent quirk in the mystical relationship between mathematics and biology. There are, furthermore, among the finite but enormous possible combinations, a still-large but much more limited number of melodies which are pleasing to the human ear and capable therefore of carrying the emotional weight of a song.

All of these melodies have been used many times, will be used many more times, and all of them are what patent lawyers call "known in the art" though they are not yet codified as such. Before the era of recorded music it would have been impossible ever to become acquainted with this fact as an individual, however obvious it is to the deductive mind. People before recorded music had to make do with whatever music-makers presented themselves, live and in person. Our enrichment in this respect is also our impoverishment. We now have the luxury to demand that every performer and composer present to us, not just the best that can be had in a given region, but the best there ever was in all the world.

Someone in G&T's comment thread mentioned a bit of trivia of which I had not been aware. Apparently at one point Bob Dylan (jokingly or not, I've no idea) proposed a moratorium on new songs. Seems a bit mean-spirited to me; "I've already withdrawn my money, so let the bank close now--screw everyone else." I didn't comment over there, partly because the conversation had wandered into television, where I'm not really fit to contribute, and partly because this is an issue I take very personally.

A moratorium on new songs might be a perfectly fine thing for a listener, who knows they have all the recorded musics of the world to explore. In that vast library of sound one could explore for several lifetimes and still find new things to appreciate. Such a moratorium would just about kill me, though. If that well ran dry, if I went looking for music in that secret place where all else falls away and could never find it again, knew that it was gone, it would be worse than losing a limb, my eyes, my ears. If I lost my ears I could still make music--likely not as well as Beethoven did when he went deaf, and not anymore with my own pipes. If I lost my eyes I would do almost nothing else. Eyes and ears and hands and feet and all, though, are means to an end. As Leonard Cohen put it, "magic is no instrument; magic is the end." Music is far from the only part of life which is magical, which is an end in itself to those who love it. Any one small life has room for only a few such. A person is fortunate who can lean on more than one, though one alone is just enough to sustain self and sanity in perilous times.

Melodically I know my limits; I catch myself echoing my own stuff now and then even after only fifteen years of working at it. Lyrically I'm on a more solid footing. Even though writers of lyrics have essentially the same kinds of things to say in every place and time, the evolution of language and culture ensure that those same human experiences will need to be described anew, those same truths must be evoked from slightly different angles of view. (I'm grateful to Amber, by the way, for quoting Kipling at me at great length and assuring me that even though it's not fashionable here and now, the world is not going to stop needing good poetry.) But even if I'd reached the limits of my competence and discovered my skill as a maker of songs to be barely mediocre, I would not stop. I would not consider it for a moment. I might, on the advice of trusted allies and my own conscience, decide to take my dim, flickering little work and "hide it under a bushel". By choice, I mean, and not by this stupid lack of the ready means to do otherwise.

But I would not be bullied out of making music by the mere weight of musical history. That sentiment is, frankly, more stupid and tawdry and designed to lead astray the innocent than the lyrics to A Simple Plan's Welcome To My Life. Music is not like chemistry, or math, where once a thing is discovered it may (must!) be done just the same way every time to achieve the desired result. Music is like cooking, like storytelling; we need at least a little of it to get through every day of our lives, whether we're aware of it or not, whether we participate in it actively or passively.

There are a finite number of tunes, of course. There are a finite number of edible foods, too. And certainly every possible combination of foodstuffs has been tried, whether by a world-famous chef or a curious and enterprising three-year-old. I despise the way the word "artist" gets overused these days, slathered liberally over everything that touches music. In much the same way, come to think of it, that bad lyricists harp on the word "love" when the four-letter word they really mean to use would get their silly song taken off the radio. But every really good creator of anything is an artist, any really good sandwich-maker or porch-builder or room-arranger, even if, like a janitor, all you create is order and cleanliness where once was refuse and filth. Love, skill and attention make the difference.

One's art is one's passion is one's life, the love that binds us to reality and to the world and everything and everyone with whom we share it. The finished product itself might not be of very much to use to anyone but the maker. But whether it's "therapy poetry" or a spotless room needlessly re-cleaned to calm its inhabitant's nerves, it's worth the doing. It may be the act that prevents another act, one of needless destruction rather than needless creation. Or it may be practice, a taste of things to come, the first stumbling steps down a road that leads somewhere, anywhere, so long as it is a place better than here.

To be angry at someone for despoiling something you love is natural and, within limits, just. To be willing to destroy something you love because it has been despoiled is an act of cowardice. So let the people who are bad at making music keep trying, I say. And if they are not really trying but are merely content to be bad, then perhaps one day I will get ahold of them, and shake them by their lapels and roar at them until they think twice about casually misusing what gifts they may possess.

At work, they've got a computer upstairs with a lengthy playlist, a mixture of songs new and old. Some in each category, the new and the old (but especially the new!), annoy me to the point of baring my teeth at the speakers in the ceiling, and complaining of the songwriters' faults to any and all who will listen. (Welcome To My Life is naturally at the top of the list in the teeth-gnashingly awful category. Though I admit, to my shame, to having seen Simple Plan in person, I got almost no pleasure out of it and was glad I had a place to sit down.) I've thought very often of reinstating Musical Mondays as a place to voice my complaints in text. Apart from the lack of free time, one of the things that has stopped me is the thought that somewhere out there, there's a kid who doesn't know any better, for whom this song I consider third-rate and exasperating helped them in some way. Teased a kernel of truth out from between the floorboards in their mind, and helped them lift it up and carry it off to where it could usefully be planted.

Having an excuse to think it over in a different way, though, has been good for me. This is the internet, for dog's sake. If perfectly intelligent and forthright people can go around saying music's dead and we should shut off the rat faucet already, then by great Marilyn's bra strap I ought to have the gumption to scold the songwriters of today for being lazy, and for not upholding what I consider to be a sacred trust.