Last year, in my article A view on innovation and preservation I wrote about the tension between musical innovation and preservation of music. Today, I want to take up that topic again, but from a slightly more abstract and philosophical angle of view. These considerations might be applied to Mbira music, but also to other musical traditions elsewhere.
In my article Gaps of Writing I wrote:
In the human mind, knowledge is part of an active, creative process that can apply, adapt and modify it. The knowledge is always incomplete but it is extensible. The core of knowledge we have at any time may be thought of as surrounded by a more fluid “atmosphere” of dynamically changing thoughts and processes of experimentation constantly modifying the knowledge core.
What can be written down, on the other hand, is always only a snapshot of some part of the incomplete knowledge. What is being lost in writing is the creativity and the wisdom.
This thought can also be applied to music. If we record music or we write in down in a musical notation, we only record ore note down one version from a whole “swarm” of versions. A musician might learn a tune by listening to examples and by playing them. In his mind, a core model of that song takes shape but in performances, he might improvise on it and modify it. During improvisation, when you listen to what you are playing, there might always be an element of surprise. And when several musicians play together, the dialog between them will make that core of musical knowledge in each of them resonate and create new variants.
No notations or recording can capture all the possible variations and interactions. Even if we invented something like a grammar of music, a notation that might capture several possible versions as once just like a grammar describes large sets of possible sentences by describing how elements may be put together, such a notation would not capture all possibilities since the creative musician can always modify the structure. And for the same reason, anything that can be written about music would be incomplete since the creative musician is able to invent new music not covered by the description.
This situation is, of course, one of the nice aspects of music, but it poses a problem if we want to preserve music that we have received in a tradition. We can make recordings and we can prepare scores. But in doing so, we must know that recordings and scores only capture a subset of the whole. If we start teaching the music in a music school or conservatory, there is the danger that the tradition will freeze and become sterile. Teachers might no longer teach the tune as a creative structure but just certain fixed embodiments of if that have been recorded or written down. This has happened to several musical and artistic traditions. There was a lot of criticism when some conservatories started to teach jazz because people feared that if you can study and get a degree in jazz, the music, once mainly an improvised art form, would become formalized and sterile in the process. Preventing this is the challenge that the musicians who teach and learn in such institutions are facing.
If the alternative is the total loss of the music or art we want to preserve, making recordings and scores or preserving fixed ways of performance is certainly better than nothing, and I think it should be done. Likewise, if a language is at the brink of extinction, preparing a grammar and a dictionary of it and writing down some texts is better than nothing. But this does not really preserve the language.
An element of life is getting lost here. It is a little bit like collecting butterflies. You stick them to a board with a needle and preserve the beauty of the colors, to be viewed through the glass pane of the glass cabinet, but actually, you are not collecting butterflies, you are collecting carcasses of butterflies. The butterflies are not flying between the trees of a forest, drinking nectar. They are hanging on the walls of a natural history museum instead.
To keep the music truly alive, the art must be transmitted from a master to a student., not just the tunes. On one hand, during learning, the student will learn the usual interpretations of tunes. He or she will listen to performances and perhaps recordings and might learn a notation and study written scores. The student might learn to reproduce tunes very exactly. But this is only part of the teaching; it is the part that can be gained from books or online tutorials.
But there are parts of the teaching process that require the direct interaction of teacher and student, for example when the teacher gives feedback to the performance of the student. And after mastering all of this, the student must be able to step out of the model and dissolve it. The musician who becomes a master will start to be able to blow the life of creativity into the model he has been taught, to turn that model into a cloud of variants with no fixed border. From this, new interpretations and also entirely new music can spring up. The apprentice must learn the rules, but the master will know when to break them. Creativity is the ability to step out of any formal system, so after learning the formal system, you must break out of it. At the same time, you should make an effort to preserve it and to pass it on, perhaps with additions.
While the codification of music contains the danger of traditions becoming sterile and fixed, in a living tradition the risk is that the beautiful tunes of the past will dissolve and be lost completely. This is the dilemma the master musician has to face: to preserve and at the same time to remain creative. I say “dilemma” her not in the sense of something impossible but in the sense of a balance that is difficult to maintain. Recordings and scores are important and should be made, but it is just as important to preserve the living art. This is something that requires a teacher-student relationship.
When traditional structures are under threat from the modern world, it might be necessary to institutionalize this teacher-student relationship. Some kind of school has to be formed, but the challenge should be recognized that in institutionalizing the teaching and learning process, musicians and artists must be careful not to take the life out of the music.