At some point in the last few centuries, some of us got this idea in our heads that music should be worshipped. We started by worshipping musicians, especially composers like Handel, the first composer to be famous for being famous (he has remained famous because he’s great, by the way). Then, because music notation improved, we began to worship pieces like Beethoven’s late String Quartets.
As the recording industry developed, we even started worshipping performances: legendary captured events like Robert Johnson’s first blues recordings, Duke Ellington’s performance at the Newport Festival, and then manufactured performances done with the help of the studio, from “Stairway to Heaven” to Glenn Gould’s wonderful Frankenstein-monster recordings. A cappella choral, popular, “ethnic” music that used to be seen as “not serious” began to be worshipped too. Is all of this okay?
In one sense, sure it is. I’m as guilty as everyone else of idolizing my favorite composers, my favorite compositions, my favorite performances. This movement towards worship wasn’t all bad.
It gave us music that was thoughtful, complex, that expressed more ideas than simply “joy,” “anger,” and “sorrow.” Music became more than a background, more than a reason to dance or a chance to add your noise to the bigger noise. It changed the way people thought and spoke about the world.
But some of us mistook the worship for the music. Somehow some of us got it in our heads that if we couldn’t worship it, it’s value was significantly less. Something like children’s music couldn’t be “great” unless it was music “about children,” like “The Children’s Corner” or “Kinderszenen.”
One of the best things about making music with children is that when you do it right, everyone’s happy, engaged, present, participating. No one is worshipping anything, and everyone is still having a genuine musical experience. Is that even possible with difficult classical works, or out jazz performances, or any other kind of “serious” music?
I wouldn’t want to suggest that taking music that is meant for intellectual contemplation, like a Beethoven string quartet, should be transformed into a participatory spectacle just for the sake of making it more like a kid’s concert. There are different types of music for different audiences. Those differences should be allowed, acknowledged, respected.
And yet, to my mind, there must be something of the children’s music concert in every performance, no matter how serious. The performer, the composer, the presenter, should at least have it in their heads that they are inviting the audience to “play with them,” if only in their imaginations. The audience should leave having felt as though they shared something with the performer that wasn’t there before, a silent singalong.
If we only use music to worship (the performer, the artist, the piece) then it’s nothing more than a substitute for religion, and it will bear all the pitfalls of religion. On the other hand, if our respect for the music and musicians comes because we have been respected, engaged, asked to participate at least in our thoughts, then music becomes something far more important. It becomes a way to bring us together instead of divide us.
News From a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books
This Friday, my band, the Front Porch Session Players, will reunite with our long-lost leader Brad Kaegi for our Album Release Party at Eventide Brewery in Grant Park, 7 PM on Friday, November 9. If you are within 5000 miles, we want to see you there!
I've also been included in an article about critical thinking, which you can find on my Press tab.
Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Author, educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net