Monday, February 27, 2006

Musings - II

A few more notes on Gunther Schuller's groundbreaking volume of essays, papers and addresses, Musings (1986).

The contents of the book are as relevant to the issues of music education now in the 2000s as they were at the time of publication. In fact, in some ways Schuller's analysis of the problems in this wide and variegated sphere of cultural activity is if anything even more acute - now that an attempt has been made to incorporate some of the directions, tendencies, practices and visions he invokes in the volume, which in itself represents more than forty years' experience of composition and practical music-making. It's possible now to see the results obtained by the manner - sensitive or otherwise - in which those ideas have been implemented in education systems,not only in America, but also in the wider world.

When, as one of America's foremost composers, conductors and instrumentalists, Schuller took the Presidency of the New England Conservatory in 1967, he was characteristically modest. "Forgive me for becoming autobiographical for a moment," he said, "but I do it only to make a point."
I stand before you as one of the original dropouts. I do not have any degrees; I do not have even a high school diploma. Now, I'm not advocating this necessarily as a road to education, and I am aware of the fact that times have changed tremendously in the twenty-four years since I left high school. But I have the feeling I would not have been a very good music student in, for example, the rigid programs which allow for almost no electives which some of our schools demand. What I am trying to say is that we must develop a new flexibility in our music education, in our programs, in our curriculi, to make room for the tremendous range in student and faculty types. We seem to be in the process of doing the opposite.
Criticizing universities as "mammoth institutions with mammoth organizational problems", little more than factories with an educational process resembling that of the assembly line, Schuller pointed to the smaller-scale, more intimate surroundings of the conservatory as a hope for the future of music education. However, he also takes care to draw attention to the heart of the problem: institutions, like individual human beings, must remain flexible, or they will rigidify and atrophy. He sees the real test not in the creation of new structures, but in the assessment and evaluation of quality:
quality of faculty, quality of student. And here there is no room for compromise. Idealism does not thrive on compromise, nor does quality. And to extent that it is possible for me to achieve this quality in a human way, I will pursue that goal.
In his talk entitled "Qualitative Evaluation in the Arts", delivered in a symposium at New York University in 1980, Schuller reflected on his experience at the Conservatory, and on the subject of criticism and assessment in the arts, particularly the art of music. The subject, he noted, is "profoundly complex and unyielding of easy answers".

While rejecting the concept of "interpretation" in favour of what he terms "realization", Schuller suggests that the evaluation of a work or a performance depends much more on the observer and the evaluator than it does on the work itself, "or its performance". To explain this, Schuller points to the fact that the degree of an audince's appreciation and understanding of a work is inextricably connected with its level of musical education. Yet the criteria involved in such judgments are not fixed or absolute: they may vary from one historical period to another, they rest on a tenuous balance between subjective perception and objective knowledge, a balance, Schuller says, "between knowns and unknowns". Ultimately, however, education is the only sure basis for the making of such judgments: the only alternative, he points out, is "suspending judgment entirely".

Our culture, Schuller suggests, has been corrupted by a process of excessive visualization: we go to "see" a concert or performance, not to hear it:
Look around you at the next concert and see if you find anyone who is just listening to the music, perhaps with eyes closed or head bent. You won't. What you will see is a hall full of people appreciating and evaluating the performance primarily (and perhaps totally) in relation to the gestures and movements of the conductor.
Schuller also takes the example of someone who knows little about the background to a work of "program music" (he selects Richard Strauss's tone poem Till Eulenspiegel) versus one who does know the origin and background of the work. The latter type of listener is is much more widely-encountered, and will probably account for the majority of the audience in a concert hall. The two types have vastly different experiences of the work, and those experiences and reactions may all be valid. Where the queston of evaluation is concerned, however, they cannot be considered equal.

A way out of the impasse, Schuller suggests, may be achieved by our taking a more critical and skeptical attitude towards the relentless pressure for quantification that exists in our society:
We trust nothing but numbers any more. In education we do not trust the content of a thing, the substance. We quantify it, numericalize in some primitive way - not much higher than the Nielsen rating in television in intent or content. And all that is particularly lamentable in the arts, for they are the least quantifiable of all of humans' endeavors and strivings.
It's in an essence-directed, more life-attuned apprehension of the realities of musical composition and performance, Schuller implies, that we may seek the possibility of overcoming this "number-oriented" approach, and of escaping the trap set by mediocre evaluations and classifications that are the product of a quantifying education system and are in themselves responsble for producing mediocre performances, artistry and training.

All of Gunther Schuller's remarks are, of course, applicable in the widest musical sense, and are certainly relevant to issues of jazz education. In a future posting I want to return to that particular subject, again in the context of Musings.


See also: Musings
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