Creative forgetting

The volume of expression available to us today makes artistic relevance increasingly difficult to gain. This is true for a variety of reasons: Reliance on historicism immediately places contemporary expression in a subservient position. Persistent fallacies calcify particular interpretive stances. Multiplication of stylistic trends precludes a mainstream reference. Notions of democracy attempt to prevent one idea from rising above the background noise. The social context of ritual is being dissolved by technology. Moreover, quite simply, the volume of material one must learn & master in order to take a truly high-level view of today's music scene is beyond daunting. Such an observation leads to a critical question: Why even try? Why learn all of this music? Why not create what one creates, whether it is the same or different or in any other relation to what has gone before? Why not be completely oblivious to history as an artist?

Such a series of related questions touches immediately upon my declining literacy theme, and in that sense, abdicatory answers are partly inevitable. This is essentially what occurs in popular music. Following that example, such a stance seems to lead naturally to a reduction in complexity, an anarchic mimicking (even unintentionally) of other ideas, and an uncontoured musical landscape yielding to political priorities. Is such a conclusion necessarily warranted for art music? In fact, there have been contrasting examples. While there have been many composers who define "second class" by virtue of their relative lack of sophistication & vision, there have been others who were hailed as "outsider geniuses" by virtue of not being bound by institutionalized musical conventions. In our own time, Scelsi has been one such composer, and his music is not so much simpler as it is completely different in its locus of activity. Historically, such an influential figure as Obrecht is sometimes viewed as an outsider to the musical establishment, and of course someone who went on to pioneer new systematic techniques in the exploitation of large-scale musical form. Sometimes, the outsiders outclassed the insiders.

Relying on a lack of training or initiation is a decision which is almost impossible to contemplate, at least for someone already in a position to make that assessment. Those who do so are largely innocent of such things, a state we can take to reflect a lack of musical vice, or even the basic knowledge of musical collections and the ability to assess one's own originality. The entire phenomenon can be termed a coincidence, and indeed that might be the nature of worthwhile expression in general. While learning about something makes it readily possible to express something relevant about that particular thing, it does little to transcend its context and produce a broader relevance. Such an expression, whether of didactic character or of the nature of creativity within certain theoretical & traditional constraints, is necessarily less significant than expressions which originally framed its context. It is a secondary image of that context. Of course, a person oblivious to context feels no such constraints, but is also wildly unlikely to create anything of distinct relevance. In some sense, "outsider geniuses" are the exception which prove the rule, and moreover, insiders have been known to be just as radical. Knowledge lets one know what is new, so at least one's effort is directed according to one's aims.

Why should creating something new be a goal, however? It is a distortion of relevance, clearly, and so one must return to the basic notion of expression as the result of an urge to express. One can deconstruct expression, but even determining the context of one's own expression is not the same as having something to say in the first place. No outsider/insider dichotomy can address that particular dynamic. In some sense, the ideas & feelings in need of expression are stable, and have already been expressed. What we do need is continued reinterpretation, and in short, reevaluation of context. Postmodern thought is very much about context, to the point that a precisely delineated context might be seen as profound expression in itself. Indeed, this idea fits neatly into cosmological schemes, evoking a kind of transcendence on its own. In that sense, an insider chooses his own context, while a successful outsider lets a context be formed around him. Even this dichotomy is not necessarily true, but it provides one reference for the expansive possibilities of outsider creation. More than that, the outsider may simply be closer to his audience, and consequently more able to communicate directly. Today's battles over academic composition illustrate this situation, almost yielding an imperative not to know too much.

I have cast this entire discussion around the idea of "forgetting," rather than ignorance. Just as specialization is natural, forgetting is natural, especially forgetting facts & ideas one rarely uses. There is something to be said for learning everything (to the extent possible), taking a view, and then slowly (or quickly) forgetting much of the rest. One is almost forced to choose what to forget. Scelsi may have done exactly that. This suggestion, however, indicates that it may have become impossible to be more broadly relevant, that one must choose one's milieu and forego transcending it — in short, that there is no more universal human condition. Thinking of innocence, we can also ask of purity: Is it possible to have a modern education, and express oneself purely? Is that, ultimately, the definition of talent? As the world contracts, is there even such a thing as pure, non-fused tradition? These are wonderful questions, but tangential to expression per se as an urge. What of forgetting more generally? Is it possible that the creativity of the early music movement arose partly from the knowledge that we had lost (forgotten) so much about this music? Was it about that (welcome) silence? We must further accept that the public does not generally want to know. It prefers Orff to real medieval music, and a postmodern myth to real historical vocal technique, but it wants to be told that they are "authentic."

Creative forgetting is risky business, to be sure, but is also a notion which becomes increasingly relevant for a variety of reasons. Not least of these is the growing impact of computers & web archives. How they affect our ability to forget, to gain some relief from information, remains to be seen. The mind — or the culture — which does not forget becomes akin to the insomniac's, suggesting the potential truth that forgetting might not be crucial merely to creating, but crucial as creation. Returning to an opening question, why not be oblivious to history? Because history will be there conditioning our ideas, controlling us anyway — unless we can truly forget it. Stepping outside of one's context is no small feat.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb