A Change of Heart

The prevalence of literal thought in society and music sublimates imagination

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a video on Facebook about education. It was about how recent education had stopped stimulating imaginative thought through content testing, etc. The point was that imaginative thinking was more common, more interesting, and more useful than just facts. It rekindled an idea I had pondered many times, about how modern culture and technology has fostered a “cult of the literal.” How access to, even bombardment by audio, video, and constant information has suppressed abstract and imaginative thought and somehow made it seem less important.

Our culture used to be brimming with stories, oral or written, with which you became involved. The stories taught as much as they entertained. They would exist in your mind as abstract images. They meant more as ideas than they would as literal people and places. I took my first trip to Europe this summer, and I saw places that I had heard about my entire life. But by themselves, these places were unremarkable. It’s the stories and my imaginative extrapolations that made them come alive.

I first noticed this trend several decades ago when digital watches were introduced. You would ask someone for the time and they would answer, “3:43,” where before they might have said, “It’s almost a quarter to four.” Digital watches had suddenly made precision important.

The society now has instant access to a thousand times the information that it did when I was growing up. But so much of it is a passive access. It is either video, or a search engine, or stuff roboted to your email. We don’t have to work for it or even think about it. It’s here; it’s gone. It used to take patience and skill to find things out; now if you can’t Google it, it’s not worth searching for.

The culture has changed enormously in the past couple of decades, and I suppose we really have no choice but to roll with it. But I have lived long enough to experience this immense change in my lifetime, and if I step back, I can look at how it has changed me. Because of all the tools I have at my fingertips, the role imagination plays in my work has become limited and temporary. Composers used to carry an abstract aural concept of a piece in their head for months or even years with larger works. Now our computer plays whatever we write as soon as we write it. On one hand, we don’t make big mistakes anymore; on the other hand, we don’t take any chances.

The innovation of the Suzuki method was that it taught Classical music by ear . . . Most Classical musicians at the time thought this was “cheating!”

When I was just learning music, the teaching method of Sinichi Suzuki was just becoming known in America. I can remember that my teachers were horrified. The innovation of the Suzuki method was that it taught Classical music by ear, which is the way most music is learned throughout the world. Most Classical musicians at the time thought this was “cheating!” My piano teacher advised me to not listen to any recordings of the pieces I was playing. He thought it polluted the process of creating my own concept of the piece. Today, listening to a recording is the first thing that a musician does. The Suzuki method has become standard practice. When I started my orchestral career, conductors were expected to have different interpretations of even standard repertoire. Alternate interpretations now often strike my orchestra colleagues as “wrong.”

Classical music has always lived through the imagination of its performers. Classical notation is just an approximation, and was not intended to be very precise. I didn’t think this was the case until I started using computers. Nothing alerts you to that fact more than having a computer play music from your own notation. A computer just plays what it sees – no imagination, no extrapolation. It’s dreadful. When I started recording using MIDI, I found that the computer would record the touch of my keyboard with 128 different volume gradations. It makes the seven or eight different dynamics of written music seem pretty meager. I looked at a graph of my volume values and realized I had used every one of the 128!

MIDI Screen shot
A screen shot of a (condensed) keyboard MIDI file showing pitches and note lengths above and volume (key pressure) in the pinkish area.  The pink areas are places where the sustain pedal is depressed.

But it is exactly that generalization of music notation that has continued to regenerate Classical music throughout the centuries. A musician can always imagine a better performance, and can always imagine improving his or her own performance. The imagined music is what makes the real music come alive; it is just like all those famous places I saw this summer.

Several weeks ago, I wrote on this blog about transcribing from my piano recordings. I had decided that the music was better represented if I transcribed it against a steady pulse, allowing the music to ebb and flow around what amounted to a stationary grid. Though I have been able to do this, and the music on the recording matches well with the music played by the computer from my notation, it does not embody the imaginative spirit that entices a pianist to sit down and play it. It creates the music with smoke and mirrors. If you play what I wrote, the music appears out of nowhere; not because you imagined it and brought it to life.

So I have gone back to notating the music rationally, by showing the rhythms and tempos in a clear fashion that gives a pianist something to re-imagine. Though I must show changes in tempo, I am not showing every rubato. I use the notation to show the structure, and let the pianist show the music. This is what musicians have always done, and what they do best.

Discursive beginning

I was amused to read last week that the State of Arizona has decided to reintroduce the teaching of cursive writing into its Common Core education curriculum standards. It has not been taught here for at least thirty years, and both of my children missed it. My wife and I were alarmed at the time, and passed on what we knew to our kids, who seemed quite eager to learn it. Their teachers would hand out practice sheets to the children (and parents) who requested them, and that seems to have continued to this day. My wife became an elementary teacher in 2007, and was doing the same for her students, but only upon request. For the most part, however, it has remained untaught. I now realize this has been the case for most of the country.  journal-writer

My daughter took to cursive and, being a strong reader and interested in literature, she was filling up spiral notebooks with fantasy novels by the time she was in high school. Her script was so small, my aging eyes could barely make it out, and I think the fact she was writing in cursive made it seem more rune-like and secretive. Her brother learned it, but wasn’t that interested, and they were both typing by the time they were in middle school.

Nowadays, my daughter has been working the past few years for a Senior Center in Ohio. She keeps their books, repairs and keeps their computers up to date, writes their newsletter, delivers meals, and whatever else they need her to do. She says that often the seniors will leave notes for staff members, and many of the notes are in cursive. She says that the younger staff members will bring the notes to her because they can’t read them! I have to admit that it never crossed my mind that not learning to write cursive would cause someone to not be able to read it, but, of course, this is the case. My wife told me that when she started her student teaching in a fifth grade class, she wrote an instruction in cursive on the chalkboard and turned around to a room full of blank stares. Finally, a child raised her hand and said, “We can’t read that.”

In a sense, I can relate to them. My mother had to be part of the last generation to learn Gregg Shorthand. Before computers, and voicemail, and dictaphones, and electric typewriters, there had to be a way to take notes at the speed of conversation. Gregg Shorthand was a system of swoops, lines, and dots that stood for sounds. I thought it looked like Arabic. My mother would take phone messages, write to-do lists and grocery lists all in shorthand. I had no clue. Going through her effects after she had passed away, we found countless cryptic, indecipherable notes. She could have been smuggling arms for all we knew!

Learning that hardly anybody under the age of forty could read cursive was particularly disturbing for me because I have been keeping a hand-written journal for most of my adult life. I say on this blog’s About page that I have a stack of spiral notebooks that is “knee-high”. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, though I suppose it depends on the length of one’s legs, but it is easily a couple dozen or more. Realizing that there may be very few people in the future who could read them, I was stunned by the fact that I might have to transcribe them to the computer. The thought made me feel a whole lot older!dandelion-seeds-cover

My daughter kept a blog for a while. She mostly did it to highlight her artwork, which was in sort of the Imaginative Anime genre. She is very good at it and drew some of my early album covers. I talked to her about doing a blog in which my posts were hand written and posted as JPEGs. Her reaction was, “Hmmm . . . That would certainly be . . . novel.” I guess it is a good thing I decided not to do it that way.

cricket-cages-1400x1400Sometimes, I admit, I also miss the act of meticulously writing out my music by hand. Music calligraphy was very satisfying, though it took what now seems like forever. Every once in a while, I do some of it, if only to get the notion of longing out of my head. All I have to do is make a mistake with pen and ink to realize what a tremendous advantage the computer really is. My son was a pretty good violinist growing up, and after a youth symphony rehearsal one day, he came home in a huff. After complaining about how bad some contemporary piece was, he said as if it were the last straw, “And dad, it wasn’t even written on the computer! It was, like, scrawled out by hand!” I had to dig up some of my earlier scores to show him what life was like in the Dark Ages.