Unreal Nature

February 26, 2013

The Best We Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:34 am

… Doing the best one can with what one has is a recipe, not, as may at first be thought, for smug mediocrity but for constant advance into new territory, since those who persist in doing the best they can with what they have will get better, will find new nuances of relationship, and new skills with which to articulate them.

Final post from Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening by Christopher Small (1998):

… As a first-year zoology student in university, I learned to dissect dead animals of various kinds. We were told before our first lab session that we were to bring sketch pads and pencils in addition to our scalpels, forceps and scissors; and when we had finished our dissections, the lab assistant told us that we were to draw the dissections we had just done. When several of the students protested that they could not draw, the reply came back, implacably, “Draw it.” “Can’t I bring a camera and just photograph it?” “Draw it.” So we set to and somehow managed to produce drawings that represented, with various degrees of clarity and accuracy, the relationships of the sundered animal tissues we had on the tables before us.

As we went on, from worms to insects to starfish and finally to rats and rabbits (undergraduate zoology in those days was almost entirely comparative anatomy), I found I got better at drawing, and I even began to enjoy and to be a little proud of that part of my work. But I began to realize also that the aim of the drawing was not to produce artistic masterpieces; it was simply a way of learning to look and to see relationships. Its value lay not so much in the finished drawing (if I did treasure one or two particularly good efforts, it was more as a reminder of a job well done) as in the act of looking and drawing, as a technique in the complex and difficult task of learning to understand not only the relationships of the internal organs of each species I was studying but also the second-order relationships between analogous and homologous organs in the various species, classes and phyla, and even some third-order relationships between second-order relationships.

… Similarly in musicking; our exploration, affirmation and celebration of relationships does not end with those of a single performance, but can expand to the relationships between one performance and another …

… Speaking and musicking, as we have seen, resemble one another in many ways, but they differ also, in even more important ways, especially in the power that musicking gives to articulate human relationships, in all their multilayered and multiordered complexity and quicksilver changeability, in ways that words cannot do.

But if everyone is born capable of musicking, how is it that so many people in Western industrial societies believe themselves to be incapable of the simplest musical act? If they are so, and it seems that many genuinely are, it must be either because the appropriate means for developing the latent musicality have been absent at those crucial times of their lives when the nervous system is still in the process of completing its formation (those who are deprived of speech opportunities at that crucial time also never fully develop their speech capacities) or more often, I believe, because they have been actively taught to be unmusical.

… If the number of young people of student age who have passed through my classes is any indication, there must be millions of people in Western industrial societies who have accepted the judgment passed upon them and classed themselves as unmusical and even as sometimes called “tone-deaf.” Where that odious term came from I do not know, and what it can really mean I am not sure. I can only assume that it means something like “unable to distinguish one pitch from another,” but if that is so it must be a very rare and socially crippling affliction, since anyone unable to distinguish pitches would be unable to speak or to understand speech. The ability to speak and to understand speech depends in fact on a very sophisticated pitch discrimination, not only in order to recognize the formants that distinguish one vowel sound from another but also, and just as important, to recognize the very complex forms of  vocal information and inflection that are used in the most ordinary conversations, which we have seen to be an essential element in the articulation of relationships.

… If the function of musicking is to explore, affirm, and celebrate the concepts of ideal relationships of those taking part, then the best performance must be one that empowers all the participants to do this most comprehensively, subtly and clearly, at whatever level of technical accomplishment the performers have attained. Such subtlety, comprehensiveness and clarity do not depend on virtuosity but reflect, rather, the participants’ (that is, both performers and listeners) doing the best they can with what they have.

In this sense the word best applies not only to technical skill but also to all the other relationships of the performance, which is carried out with all the loving care and attention to detail that the performers can bring to it. Doing the best one can with what one has is a recipe, not, as may at first be thought, for smug mediocrity but for constant advance into new territory, since those who persist in doing the best they can with what they have will get better, will find new nuances of relationship, and new skills with which to articulate them.

… From our examination of the ceremony of a symphony concert we have seen that not all musical performances expand or alter our concept of the pattern which connects. Most performances, in fact, merely confirm our feelings about the pattern and of our place in it; it is, of course, most comfortable that way. The audiences that attend the average symphony concert are not seeking any such expansion, are not looking for new experiences that will expand their concept of the relationships of their world. Rather, they are seeking confirmation of a habitual pattern of relationships.

We need not, however, despise performances that merely serve to confirm those habitual patterns. They are needed if we are to reassure ourselves that this is how the world really is and that this is our place in it, that our values, our idea of the pattern which connects, are real and valid. But we also need performances that expand our concepts of relationships, that present relationships in new and unfamiliar light, bring us to see our place in the world from a slightly different point of view.

My most recent previous post from Small’s book is here.

-Julie

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