After a recent show, I had a conversation with a woman about early poetry. She described an ancient female poet who was obsessed with writing poems at a time when there wasn’t much understanding about what poetry was. Because of this, some people were pleased by her work while others wondered why and how she wrote what she did. I asked the woman to imagine that situation in regards to music. We both got lost in that thought for a moment and became somewhat excited about these situations. Both represented the freedom from preconceptions about how something is supposed to be done. The idea of that freedom might seem very liberating to anyone working today: What would it be like to actually make something new?
In truth though, it is challenging to place music in this situation. For instance, in early times, the African talking drum was used to transmit messages, but was also danced to, combining music and communication together. Even in early musical forms like this, which had few, if any, preconceptions surrounding it, likely had rules and understanding applied to it from its inception, albeit highly complex. James Gleick, in his book, The Information, writes about early African drumming’s messaging utility, while transcending more traditional forms of communication:
The drummers could not build on an intermediate code – they could not abstract through a layer of symbols – because the African languages, like all but a few dozen of the six thousand languages spoken in the modern world, lacked an alphabet. The drums metamorphosed speech.
In this way, the talking drum clearly was a form of innovation. Since then, people have been building upon this foundation of rhythmic communication, adding different melodies, time signatures, instrumentation, and more, each of these variations adding new symbols of communication or emotional resonance. Yet while these are innovation points, the more of them that occur, the more plentiful preconceptions become. And this is where musicians today might get stuck. The challenge to create something new and interesting while balancing that innovation with resonant familiarity can result in a lot of material that serves neither its creator nor its audience.
What was it like to make music when there weren’t so many preconceptions? Before systems like rock and roll, classical music, jazz and blues existed. Was the public more open to variations then because music as a thing wasn’t so carved in stone? Then again, how challenging would it be to work in a medium with few guidelines? The fascination with this freedom might stem from the reality of our current knowledge. If we didn’t have this knowledge, what could actually be produced beyond what has been? In some ways, preconceptions can help us navigate through what is, what we know, and toward what we want, in ways that their lack of existence couldn’t.
Listening to any ‘new’ music, our brains attempt to contextualize it. As much as this process might seem distracting and shortcoming, it allows us to think about and understand history. In some ways, sorting out where something comes from and how well it’s newly represented can be a large part of what attracts us and connects us to music. As we think about these historical approaches and variations while reveling in our enjoyment, the experience becomes story and entertainment, perhaps similar to the message and dance aspect of the early talking drum music: An idea and a celebration.
If we can no longer be in a time where the forms of poetry or music can be explored without preconception, maybe the relationship between message and celebration is worth our focus alone. It seems mostly pointless to be challenged by innovation, just as it is to spend all one’s effort on recreating the past. We all have history and its influences within us. How they come out should simply filter through our own personalities. As David Byrne, in his book How Music Works, states, “When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.”
* This piece originally appeared at The Repeater