why? (tehran lecture)

why? – tehran lecture

The criterion for acceptance
10. “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; (these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed,) these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.” (Buddha, “Kalama sutra”)


A couple of days ago I heard an improvised piece of music using traditional instruments and patterns taken from traditional iranian music mixed together with some elements of other types of non iranian music. A very fashionable type of music called “world music”. Short musical units that all use the same traditional formal model were stitched together to form a potentiall endless sucession.
This made me think about the question “what is tradition?” and the way we deal with tradition. Several questions appeared im my mind and I remembered an interesting quote from Gerschom Scholem:
“When the Zaddik of Ropschitz who was one of the great disciples of the seer of Lublin was asked: ‘Why don’t you live according to the ways of your teacher?’ he answered: ‘On the contrary, I truly follow him. Just as he left his teacher I left him.'”

This quote summarizes the old conflict: To be traditional does it mean to copy the form or to keep the spirit alive and find a new contemporary form for the same spirit?
One of the most important things we inherited from our predecessors are the musical instruments we use. What is a musical intrument? One could say it is just an object consisting of some pieces of wood and some pieces of dried animal skin etc. put together in a particular way. But I think what an instrument really is is a materialisation of ideas, it is not a neutral material thing (like a stone or a tree) it is a product of the human mind. When you look at any human product it is never completely open and neutral, it is always limited by the capacities of the individual that built it and by the culture that formed the background of this individual. This is particularily the case with musical instruments. All cultures have developed different types of musical instruments and designed these instruments in a very particular way. Why are all our instruments using strings in octaves or fifths or forths, why are the frets of the instruments set to form our scales? This is not something that happened by chance it is a result of a long process of development. Musicians and composers and musicologists developed their ideas of music and an underlying theorethical system. The musical instruments are nothing else but the material form of these thoughts. A musical instrument is music theory and music aesthetics turned into an object. When you use it, when you just play an instrument without deep questioning and reflection the only things that you will find is exactly what other people have built into the instrument.
The same principle that applies to musical instruments also applies to ourselves. We are to a very large extent the product of our culture. The way we think is predetermined by the way our language works, the way we behave by our cultural background, what we like to eat by the cooking of our mothers and grandmothers etc. When we improvise and just follow our musical instincts what is going to sound is what our musical and cultural background has programmed: traditional patterns and formal schemes.
In the pacific region during the 2nd WW a very interesting type of religion called cargoreligion developed. The americans erected army bases on very isolated island in the pacific. These islands were inhabited by people whose culture was still being uneffected by modern civilisation on a stoneage level of developement. What these people saw was that the americans on these armybases performed very strange rituals using strange objects. They saw on the one hand parades, changing of the guards, military drills, flags, brassbands, guns etc. and on the other hand they observed that all the men needed to live (food, clothes…) was just falling from the sky in parachutes or by landing airplanes). What the natives did was that they applied empirical logic and draw a very logical conclusion: When we copy these rituals then we will also receive food from the skies – and that is what they did and still do until today. So they imitated all the american army rituals tried to copy their guns and flags etc..
I think that this is a very interesting phenomenon. When I think of composition I often see a similar strategy I would call “cargocomposition”. Composers see what other composers do and take just the very surface without all the underlying thought and copy the sound without going deeply into the structures. Some go to the Shostacovitch supermarket and buy some classicist form or melody, some go to the folklore market and buy some exotic folktunes and rhythmic structures, some go to the Sciarrino and Lachenmanstore and buy some cracks and whistles. They just take something without really understanding or working on it. To me this is not really composition it is “cargocomposition”.
In my view composition is a process that always oszillates between the two poles of actually doing on the one hand and reflecting what you have done on the other hand. In this process we are using all our human faculties: our emotions, our intuition and our intellect.
The most important tool of a composer is neither an instrument nor a pencil nor a computer but a question: “WHY?”
As composers (and human beings) we try to look at thinks from as many different angles as possible and work our endless path through this forest of “whys?”
For each decision there are always several possibilities but it is our job as composers to take the responsibility and decide on our own. Composition for me means to work through all these questions and then to decide even though we will never ever have absolute certainty that we have found the right answer.
As we experience reality as an everchanging continuum without any definite certainties we find that there is nothing to really rely on. What remains are 10.000 questions. But in these questions and in our attempts to find answers is contained a lot of energy and I think that we as artists have to try to use these vast energies of inquiry and questioning for our artistic work.
Art is always posing questions to reality and it is just out of this attitude of inquiry and questioning that new things or approaches happen in the field of art. New is nothing else but a new viewpoint a new way of seeing reality found through questioning. All possible sounds have always been here it is just that we have not been able to hear and use them as music. We have not found them yet. They were not accesible not percievable for us. So it is not spectacularly new material it is the new vision of the old, of the already known, be it cups and bowls and teapots. A new scientific insight is also nothing else but a new way of looking at things. Everybody has always seen the sun and the moon nevertheless there is a long series of different explanations depending on different historical and geographic situations how this reality should be interpreted.

This attitude of radical questioning is the source and root of any serious artistic or scientific work. It is important that we are talking about work. Art is always craftmanship it is a practical occupation. Work is something you produce, we as composers are not thinking about music but we are producing music. The form we use to answer these questions, about how we understand reality, what reality is is in not abstract thought it is not written communication it is concrete pieces of music. Insight can be expressed or presented in different forms and can be found in many different ways. Rational thought is one possibility the intuitive work of an artist of a composer is another form of experiencing and representing an intuitive understanding of reality. music is not like a scientific thesis a rational communication of rational thought or insights but offers the opportunitiy of direct intuitive understanding of reality. Nevertheless, it is exactly when music is just music and not something intended to point somewhere else to express something else that music can become an object that can make this experience of understanding possible but nevertheless music is not a way of communicating this experience.
The attitude of existentially questioning that is leading to contemplation is a fundamental attitude of an artist. When we look closely at these 10000 questions and go deeper and deeper into this questioning we will find out that all these questions can be summarized in one big existential question: “who am I, what is this that poses all these questions?”

And the deeper you go into this question the question becomes a habit, a way of life. Or you could even say, that you turn yourself in this question. This questioning etches away all your predjudices and usually never challenged habitual concepts. When questioning is a natural attitude there is some point when it becomes a wide openness to free and pure experience without judgement. Looking at things closely contemplating things does not mean judging them, fitting them into a system of thought but it means trying to see exactly what there is to see. Judgement (good or bad etc..) diminishes the witdth of your sight. Important is that these are not abstract philosophical considerations because theorethical thought is seperating us from pure intuitive experience. It is a practical activity it is a way of looking at things, a way of doing things. It is this inquiring practice that is the basis of our compositional work.

This attitude makes the experience and the creation of music as music possible.