How we find democracy in modern music

New Years Resolutions Sale!

Save 25% on all instructional courses and packages. Use coupon code 2020newyears through 2/29/20. Click here to learn more.

Sometimes, I have the misfortune to read incredibly dubious statements.  That happened to me a few times this week.  In fact, the one below may be the silliest assertion I have read in 2011.  The writer was discussing the Middle Ages and said this: I think it’s clear that the period was culturally superior to pretty much any that has followed it–and probably superior to any that preceded it.

And later on: I think a pretty good case could be made that 18th century America was culturally superior to the Middle Ages, but I’m not inclined to think so. We were not generating anything like the quality of art.

Now, he could be right in theory.  But based on what we know about history, it seems incredibly doubtful.  Though the royalty and privileged class may have talked a good Christian game, their Christian ideals certainly did not result in a civil treatment and value of the common man. Their way of living reminds me of the famous line from Animal Farm: All men are created equal but some are more equal than others.

Regarding art, I have no idea what he is talking about.  What art from the Middle Ages was superior to the art after it?  Painting? Sculpture? Music? Go to any art museum in Europe and compare the different periods and see if you can see what he is talking about.  I can’t imagine.

There are a few people out there on this Middle Ages kick lately and in my opinion, they have some massive blinders on.  Be wary when you run across them.  Their opinions do not pass a reasonable smell test.

In regards to music, most of you know that I believe that music has continued to improve over the centuries and it certainly has improved since the Middle Ages.  Not much music has survived that period, and few think we are missing out on anything.  In fact, most musicians would be hard pressed to name one composer from the Middle Ages.  Even Palestrina came after the Middle Ages.

I do agree to a point that art is a good indicator of its underlying culture.  You can see that in numerous ways that are way too involved to discuss here.  While it would not be fair to say that the music of the Middle Ages was bad only because of its culture, its culture certainly did not help it.

The far better music that came later was not just because of the culture either.  After all, it had a foundation to build on.  But I want to take a moment and discuss how American democracy has helped influence music in a good way.

If you play traditional classical music, you probably understand why I would say it can feel aristocratic.  You are constantly reminded who is in charge and it isn’t you.  The composer’s wishes are binding and a teacher or conductor has the power to tell you what they think the composer was thinking.  To this day, many teachers think it is very close to a sin to change a classical composition in any way.  My guess is this kind of thinking is probably a relic of aristocratic Europe where classical music composition took place.

Let’s contrast that kind of thinking to democracy.  Democracy helps people believe that they have value to lend to a
proposition.  Sometimes they really don’t and that creates problems, but I will take those problems over historic European aristocracy any day.  That is doubly true for the Middle Ages.

By far, the biggest influence that America has made on music is bringing democracy to performance.  In this way of thinking, musicians actually are considered to have value to contribute beyond just reproducing music at the pleasure of the composer.

This change in thinking was radical and it has created much tension between musicians of various styles.  While the concept of democracy probably always existed to an extent in folk music, it now exists in much performed music.  Today, most professional musicians are not force fed every note but rather given a loose framework to follow.  Improvisation is expected, encouraged and valued.

I was watching an interview with Yanni recently.  Yanni’s music is a perfect example of what I am talking about.  He gathers musicians from a wide variety of cultures, puts them together and encourages them to do their thing.  Here is a quote from the interview that demonstrates his acceptance of musical democracy: My biggest challenge is making sure I am not too controlling.

When considering the size and expense of Yanni productions, you can imagine how hard that challenge is.  With millions of dollars on the line, giving up too much control is difficult.  But in the end, Yanni believes that his music will be better with their input.

Now, without making any judgments about Yanni’s music, I will say that I agree with his statement and I have completely bought into that philosophy.  If I write a piece of music, I want you to improve it.  If I am playing a piece of music, I want to feel the freedom to change it.

And when I am playing with other musicians, I am not going to try to control them, even if I am paying them.  I am rather going to hire the best musicians I can and then turn them loose.  That is when you get the best results.  Obviously, there needs to be a plan for the music you play.  But if the musicians are good, the fewer restrictions you put on them, the better.