Monday, January 16, 2012

The excitement of the not-new

Long-time readers of this blog may be interested in or utterly bored by my occasional ramble on "classical" music.  If you come to the blog for stuff about Mark Driscoll or about what happened to Lief Moi then I understand that's the sexier set of terms in a search engine than, say, Anton Diabelli's guitar sonatas or a question about how such and such articulation markings on an English horn may have been selected by Castlenuovo-Tedesco for his Ecloghues.  That's all fair.  And if you're into the former and not the latter you probably just skip out entirely on blog posts reflecting on how the art of contrapuntal writing in choral literature by Tallis or Byrd or Palestrina would inform a guitarist trying to complete 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.

I hope to write in a way that skips the sea of technical minutae and instead write about the process of discovery I have made over the last ten years.  One of the things about history is that history is a sea you cannot possibly navigate in its fullness no matter how swift or big or broad you may think your mind is.  In other words, when Koholeth wrote there is nothing new under the sun this was a warning to those who thought they were so innovative they sincerely believed they were doing something no one had done before.  Is there something new?  See it has already existed in times past.

When I began working on my giant cycle of sonatas for guitar, woodwinds, strings, and brass I had the impression no one had even attempted such a cycle before.  Well, a guy in his twenties can be forgiven for not knowing anything about the fifteen chamber works for guitar composed by Ferdinand Rebay!  I have only been introduced to Rebay's works within the last few years thanks to some of William Feasley's recordings, particularly the d'Amore Duo CDs I still intend to write about this year.  Rebay was able to publish arrangements of Beethoven and Korngold and was a prolific composer but he lost his teaching position in the Anschluss and died in poverty and forgotten.  It has only been since about 2005 that his works have started getting even some attetnion again.

Only scholars of the most esoteric and specialized knowledge would have had any idea that Ferdinand Rebay even existed, let alone have heard his music.  What this means at a personal level is that a big lifelong project I've had of composing a cycle of chamber works for guitar and assorted instruments is not new. Even back when I thought it was possibly without precedent this merely proved that not only I but a majority of classical guitarists just didn't have enough history in hand to realize this was not the case. Fortunately the impetus and inspiration to create music does not require that one ever be innovative! 

When I began working in 2007 on a cycle of 24 preludes and fugues it was because it seemed like a fun project.  I had not heard of such a cycle being composed before but I could not bring myself to believe that in the centuries of the guitar's existence that no one had even considered such a project.  In time I was introduced to Castelnuovo-Tedesco's 24 preludes and fugues for guitar duet.  I also discovered Igor Rekhin's cycle for solo guitar.  Neither composer could be called a guitarist and so I thought, well, this means I might be the first guitarist to tackle such a project ... which seemed odd considering how many thousands of guitarists there are who must be better than me.  And last year I read Koshkin has finished his cycle, which makes him the first guitarist to compose a large contrapuntal cycle in the history of the instrument. 

Now if my ego were inextricably tied to doing something no one had done before I and the rest of us would all be miserable people indeed.  I had a friend in college who remarked in frustration about a fellow college student of ours, "He writes about sex like nobody has ever discovered sex before."  Well, okay, you know but as the axiom has it, everyone has a first time.  We know that doesn't literally mean everyone of course but you get the idea. Something may be the most mundane and provincial thing on earth but for a person who has never had sex before and is in love sex appears to be a big, big deal.  A person who has never ridden a bike before won't care that millions and millions of people have ridden bikes before. 

There are freedoms, opportunities, and experiences that are not new and ultimately will not be new that may be new for us precisely because someone who has come before us fought the battles and undertook the struggles to make what is, for us, a still ultimately mundane experience to be normal, even as pedestrian as it must be to be taken for granted and not perceived, in its way, to be a miracle.
I am able to see because countless men and women refined the procedures of cataract removal surgery and scleral buckling to a point where I can read despite having had a very nasty cataract in one eye and a macular detachment in the other.  I have benefited a great deal from not having to be the first patient to have needed such care!  There are times when there is something new under the sun and you don't want to be involved in that unless it is the accidental necessity of what ends up being called history.

There are many ways in which we can regard the past.  One is to only ever regard the past as full of human evils that must be transcended.  This is a resolutely foolish and useless way to see history and people.  You will never ultimately transcend the foibles and fallacies of previous generations even if you pierce through the veil of their cognitive biases and uncover ways to overcome those.  You are the offspring of that generation, after all.  You will still have cognitive biases and shortcuts of thought.  You will still make some horrible mistakes based on almost inexcusably terrible oversights, underestimations, overestimations and accidents of historical blindness. 

Another is to consider the past brilliant and worthy of preservation but in this case you are not preserving the past, you are looking to the past and reading yourself into it.  The people who often seem most likely to do this, of course, are the people who are convinced of their power to change history now.  Think of any number of Republican candidates who will try to sell themselves as continuing the legacy of Reagan these days.  Consider any number of Democrats who would attempt to convince us that Camelot will return.  Or, to be a classical guitarist about it, how many guitarists who I'm sure you've never heard of before have released press copy talking about how so-and-so carries on the great tradition begun by Segovia. 

It probably goes without saying that I don't consider either approach to be very wise.  There is a way to embrace the past without overlooking its horrors just as there is obviously a way to consider the new not only with some caution about how new it truly is but to consider that the new may not always be good.  The new that is pursued is usually pursued, in the end, for some old reason that a lot of people could agree upon.  That's the thing even about the truly new, the truly new when it comes, pleases us for the oldest of possible reasons.

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