Thursday, February 12, 2009

On knowledge and technique

"Who will dominate dominance, and what's left of the individual when he becomes the object of knowledge and technique?"
-André Comte-Sponville.

Although originally a question on medicine, a good one for composers.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Geography in music

The time-space duality is not only of vital importance in music, but it presents a different relation to that of extra-musical everyday experience. Basically, the sensation of space is also manifested in a temporal way in music. The analogy between a visual and a musical work resides in a fascinating translation where the spacial dimension is temporalized. And even though this is a very rich topic, I would like to deal with a derived and more specific one: musical geography.

It's common (perhaps too common and too ordinary) to link music with cultural aspects like society. And why not, since music is part of culture. But when culture feeds only on itself, it starts to smell funny. Reason enough not to be surprised when talking or thinking about certain music of how we rely not only on extra-musical terminology, but on extra-cultural references. Albert Einstein used to say that Mozart's music resembles the universe. On the other hand, Beethoven's music is perhaps too cultural and self-referent sometimes.

Then, if culture isn't everything, what more is there capable of permeating creative thinking and, therefore, artistic work? Geography and its peculiar phenomena. And here our conceptual world hopelessly collapses. No more self-references, no more abstractions, but simple perception of things and events. Of course, it's difficult to have geography without culture, it's difficult to have anything without it. But a culture that looses its grip from its environment begins to agonize, and eventually might die, unless it can transform itself and reestablish its links.

So what has happened with music? Precisely that, it has dissociated itself. Music has been theorized, finding refuge in the academic world. There they heroically safeguard how music is made, but not music itself.

But going back to geography, I remember one time I was able to understand this more clearly. In a road trip from middle to north Mexico a gradual change of the surroundings was made evident, which respectively went from complex and plentiful, to expansive and open. When the trip started, proximity between elements (crooked trees, weeds and plants, rocks, etc.) made the landscape contrasting and saturated. All this, along with the suspended fog that envelops everything around sunrise, generates a saturated and quickly-changing sensorial experience.

But the environment started to open up. The further north I went, space between elements began to widen, vegetation homogenized, the sky was clearer, and changes in general became slow and subtle. This great openness fostered a different perception, focused on the austerity of the landscape. But the quantitative simplicity of elements gave rise to a qualitative perception that resides within things. The open space revealed a subtle complexity of properties, not of relations. The slightly changing tones of vegetation, the reliefs of the land, the constitutive characteristics of hills and mountains. All this translating into long textured landscape moments of a rich plastic aesthetic. These are my familiar surroundings.