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22 June 2010

Some Thoughts on Music Appreciation

Think back to the enjoyment you felt watching a magician as a child. Even if you knew that there was something less-than-real about what was going on, you were still able to soak up the experience since you didn’t know how the deception was being carried out. In a memorable cultural moment from my own childhood, I knew that David Copperfield had not actually made the Statue of Liberty disappear, but the fact that I couldn’t explain how he made it appear as if that had actually happened was mesmerizing.

I’ve often felt sorry for the magicians, their assistants and apprentices. Undoubtedly, they all went into that profession because of that mesmerizing feeling that I experienced as a kid, but in order to become a professional, one necessarily is required to abandon the chance of ever feeling that sense of awe ever again. To perform the magic, one must understand the illusion. In effect, the curtain is drawn back revealing the wizard.

This same irony is played out in the arts as well and, for me, happened with music. I felt a similar sense of awe when engaging music. It was transcendent and inexplicable. It was expressive and experiential. It was ineffable. So, naturally, I wanted to do it. Just like the young apprentice learning the tricks, I learned to play. I learned the scales, the meter, the phrasing, and tragically, at the exact moment that I became musically competent, the magic was gone.

It is from this situation that I approach music today, trying in vain to recapture the magic. This has meant searching out music that is a step ahead of my comprehension and ability, namely jazz and metal. These two much maligned genres are in practice quite complex. Many criticize metal for sounding like noise or being too loud. Many criticize jazz as being passé or unstructured. The truth is that these types of music are among the most virtuosic and theoretically demanding. For many, this makes them too far “out” to be enjoyable, but for one who is searching for something suitably esoteric, they are perfect.

A good analogy would be Thomas Kinkade. One can find his art for sale in most any suburban shopping mall and on the walls of many a middle-class home. His realistic style and idyllic and idealized subject matter make the work easily accessible. It is unchallenging and, I would argue, boring. But, that’s the point: the requirements for inspiring awe vary by individual experience. For the typical (self-respecting) musician, a happy little Jack Johnson ditty (a tonal Thomas Kinkade painting if you will) just isn’t going to cut it, but for the average lay person, it’s likely more than enough.

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