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Influential.

Recently I’ve found my mind trying to come to some sort of conclusion about where stuff comes from.  I don’t mean PHYSICAL STUFF, but rather IDEAS STUFF.

I’ve always found it a rather comforting thought that all the physical stuff – all the elements – remain, however they might get recombined in different ways over time.  The same amount of hydrogen or oxygen or silver or whatever it might be is always there, just rearranged…  The idea of ‘life after death’ doesn’t appeal to me at all, but the feeling that whatever I’m made of will eventually be broken down and become a part of something else – that’s rather a pleasant notion, somehow.

But what about the IDEAS STUFF?  I tend to feel that this ‘ideas stuff’ is the only thing in the universe that can ever really be ‘new’, and even then don’t you still get the feeling, quite often, that there is nothing new under the sun?  (Just read a newspaper from a few decades ago, or tune your radio to a commercial pop station and then to the ‘oldies’ station… you’ll get the picture.)

If you ask me (well, you probably don’t, but I’m going to go right ahead and ASK MYSELF!), the trick with ideas is noticing that you are having one.  And then having some kind of discernment as to the quality of them.  And finally, having the confidence to do something with them.  I think most people fall at the first hurdle, probably – not acknowledging their ideas for what they are.  I’m sure there must be many a wonderful idea languishing in some mildewed corner of our collective consciousness, having been mislabelled as ‘whimsy’, ‘perversion’, ‘nonsense’, ‘utter wrongness’, ‘wishful thinking’, or similar.  Maybe some of them arrived a little ahead of their time, like the one I read about in the New Scientist recently – a whopping great giant card index system called the ‘Mundaneum’ (come to think of it, the name can’t have helped, can it?!).  The idea of this was to collate all the factual knowledge there was, and store it in a logically-arranged card database, based on the Dewey Decimal System.  Members of the public could write in, asking for specific information on any topic, and a clerk would locate the vital fact in the filing system and reply, giving the questioner the answer they required.  The information on file would be constantly updated.  This was going to be big – le Corbusier was dragged in to design a magnificent modernist structure to house the operation, which seems to have been intended as a full-on temple of learning (perhaps a bit like the great library in Alexandria – you know, the one that burnt down?  Every time I think of that, I cringe.  Ideas up in smoke – ouch!).  It was envisaged that eventually, when the technology allowed, people would be able to access this wonderful resource from the comfort of their own homes, using some kind of telephony-based system, via a viewing console…

Well, the second world war and other concerns intervened, and the project ended up moving from one rather ignominious home to another (including a lock up garage, at one point), before finally being given up as a lost cause.  Fast forward a few decades and here we are, with the entire internet at our fingertips.  (Perhaps Wikipedia should have been called the e-Mundaneum, in tribute to its card index forebear!)

Other ideas, of course, may on their début be met with bemused looks and head scratching, or indeed downright barefaced outrage and orange-lobbing, only to become so profoundly influential that entire swathes of our thinking style would be completely different without those ideas having existed.  There are all sorts of candidates for the title of ‘most influential musical personage’, depending on your preferences (Robert Johnson?  Elvis Presley?  Mozart?  Those blokes from Abba?  Take your pick!), but the idea-merchant who seems to crop up most regularly behind the scenes of my music collection (helpfully inspiring many a musical curveball) would have to be good old Stravinsky.  One of these days I must ‘further my education’ by finding out who it was who inspired him.  (Maybe an ‘idea lineage’ could be constructed…  I wonder where that might lead me, back through centuries of ideas…)

I found this quote, which seems to sum up the basic character of unusual-sounding music rather well:

“Consonance, says the dictionary, is the combination of several tones into a harmonic unit.  Dissonance results from the deranging of this harmony by the addition of tones foreign to it.  One must admit that all this is not clear.  Ever since it appeared in our vocabulary, the word ‘dissonance’ has carried with it a certain odour of sinfulness.  Let us light our lantern: in textbook language, dissonance is an element of transition, a complex or interval of tones that is not complete in itself and that must be resolved to the ear’s satisfaction into a perfect consonance.” – Igor Stravinsky

Oh yes!  Hooray for dissonance!  Three cheers for a pattern that is not necessarily tidily finished off for you in advance!  You know, this actually applies to all sorts of things, not just music.  And I think most people have clear ‘mindstyle preferences’ – favouring consonance or dissonance – sameness or otherness; I know which one tends to appeal to me.

Let’s give the last word to another modern composer, speaking of our friend Igor again:

“There is not a composer who lived during his time or is alive today who was not touched, and sometimes transformed, by his work.” – Philip Glass
 

Comments

( 2 confidences — Confide in me... )
rhodri
Apr. 21st, 2008 12:01 pm (UTC)
When I was studying for a music degree about 400 years ago, I remember sitting through lots of discussions along these lines. Theodor Adorno's name kept cropping up, I seem to recall. God knows what it all meant, though. I wasn't really listening. I was too busy thinking about how I could get away with doing a dissertation on Trout Mask Replica. Which I eventually managed.

Man, you like Todd, and Magma, and Beefheart. Were we brought up in the same house?? If you don't know The Rotters Club by Hatfield & The North, you must get it and digest it immediately. End of humourless contribution.
song_of_copper
Apr. 21st, 2008 12:37 pm (UTC)
Goodness me, TMR as dissertation fodder... the best I could manage was to quote Frank Zappa and Julian Cope in the conclusion to my archaeology project!

(My musical taste seems to be founded on a fondness for eccentricity. Recommendations are always welcome! Maybe I'll have to add H&tN to my ever-burgeoning musical shopping list. I keep on saying this, but 2008 is turning out to be an expensive year...)
( 2 confidences — Confide in me... )

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