Now and Then

March 14, 2010

The revolution that the Internet has brought, and is bringing, can both horrify and exhilarate — or, more likely, do both at once in different proportions in different people. As an important new article points out, the Internet is eminently about Now while also offering unprecedented facilities for harnessing the lessons of history.

This somehow reminds me of the burden/opportunity of being a musician today. Our ancestors, right up until quite recent times, were interested exclusively in the music of their time and place. The Now, in fact. These days, musicians need just as much of the past’s traditional Now — at least as incarnate in fundamental skills and the ability to produce well-formed music in the present — while at the same time being burdened/endowed with a very extensive and conscious past. The degree to which this is true is unprecedented. In “classical” music, at least, composers and performers are almost universally informed by the past far more than ever before.

It is a commonplace of automatic-pilot journalism that Schoenberg broke with the past. But it is also true that he did so furnished with a knowledge of traditional harmony and counterpoint that may have been all but unequaled in the musical culture in which he was rampant. Composers now have to be prepared to have their work compared with everything from the phasmagoric twelfth-century polyphony of Notre-Dame de Paris to the sometimes similarly acrid effusions of Radiohead. And a modern keyboard performer may need to be able to play Ligeti etudes one night and Baroque continuo from a figured bass the next — while using the very latest digital technology to convey to her students something of the background of virginal-playing in the Elizabethan court one semester and of the Parisian experiments of Messiaen the next. The same knowledge of harmony will be needed for a thorough treatment of all of these.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that the well-prepared modern musician may be of all people the most readily-naturalized citizen of that global cyberworld that is now here, and is to come.

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