Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

Musical Ruts

Discover what "complacency" can mean in music

In this video, Stephanie discusses the concept of "complacency" in music and how it is manifested. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Released on February 7, 2018

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello, again, to you all. I'm Stephanie with VSM. And today, I want to look at complacency as an attitude as regard to music.

Now, before we begin, the topic itself was inspired by a podcast I heard from the site "Hurry Slowly," whereby the site's host, Jocelyn Glei, spoke with Tyler Cowen, author of the book, "The Complacent Class." Not having read the book, I've only been able to sketchily glean its contents. Nonetheless, its main premise is, Americans, and so I kind of interpret this as being the West generally, are much less willing to take risks than previously for a whole manner of different reasons. And if you're interested, I've put the link to the podcast below here:

Tyler Cowen - The Quiet Dangers of Complacency

Now, if we apply this idea of complacency to music, well, this leads to some interesting considerations. Let's look firstly at the art of performance and see how complacency is manifested. So, picture this scene. You're at a party and there's a piano, and someone will inevitably break the musical ice with the obligatory Chopsticks tune, you know, with the two fingers on the piano. And then, you'll get the more expert performers coming along and doing the standard "Alla Turca" by Mozart, as opposed to an Einaudi number, or, God help us all, Beethoven's "Fur Elise."

Please don't get me wrong. This is all absolutely fine, and if it means that these people keep on playing, then that's great. But, have you noticed that all these people have the same repertoire that they then wheel out on every occasion? This is musical complacency, a set repertoire, an overall satisfaction in the performance, good or bad that may be, and maybe a lack of curiosity to work on something different.

Now, is this because they don't have time to learn new stuff, or have problems with memory? Are they frightened of the challenge that facing new repertoire presents, taking a musical risk? Maybe it's more banal in that they simply don't know where to turn to for new musical input, or maybe they're satisfied in their musical rut and grab the chance at showing off some kind, any kind, of musical ability.

Now, of course, there are many different examples to this, and in many different contexts. To give a few more, my husband is an excellent, if untrained, musician, and he's perfectly content to keep rolling out Beatles number ad nauseum. Another example is an ex-student of mine, absolutely fabulous in blues improvisation, a total natural, but he just could not play anything else. You know, musical myopia?

Now, if you look at listening, the same picture starts to emerge. How many of us go to a store or the library and buy or take out something we don't already know, and without sampling too? Or, what about concerts? You know, personally, I can't remember the last time I went to a concert where I didn't know at least some of the repertoire presented, the venue, or indeed the performers. Now, I admit, with so much of my listening done through recording CDs and the radio, I tend to grab the chance when a live opportunity emerges of one of the pieces I know. Nonetheless, am I so conditioned by my tastes and education that I'm not prepared to walk out on a musical limb?

Well, this might have something to do with age. I mean, look at the gray hair here. As you get older, you form your tastes and aesthetic criteria, and for some us, maybe this becomes so fixed that we end up wearing a musical straitjacket. So, maybe I've simply become more rigid in my listening and need to be more aware of my self-imposed constraints. Maybe, too, I've become snobby and I'm unwilling to support performers who, through not playing in certain venues, don't make the grade. And, by the way, I'm not ultimately sure that this is the case.

RE composition, I'm not going to say much, as my experience has been largely limited to arrangements of already known works. The one original work I did write, which was a musical consisting of 10 songs and an overture, reflected, I confess, the complacent norm of using already known styles: Gilbert and Sullivan, Frank Sinatra, Strauss waltzes, you know, jazz swing. Now, whether this is complacency in my writing in the interests of both myself and potential audiences out there, or simply, and I admit it, my inability to be original, well, this is a difficult thing to answer, and I suspect the truth is a mix of the above.

Regardless, all these musical ruts are hardly life-threatening. Essentially, there's nothing wrong with them. But, through them, don't we become just a tad boring? We confirm what we know, are gratified by said knowledge, and rest on our contented laurels, safe from any questioning. Questioning, after all, comes as a result of being exposed to the unfamiliar, does it not? And if questioning allows us, in some way, to grow, to change, to transform, then maybe we should let go of this complacency and take some risks, randomly go to a concert, close our eyes and choose the first CD that comes into our hand in the library or the shop, deliberately go to the concert of a musician we've never heard of.

In performance and in composition, of course, breaking out is a little bit more difficult on account of the limits imposed by instrumental or compositional technique, capacity to read music, or in the use of programs on computer, and also limitations in ear work. Nonetheless, in establishing ability, it's easy enough to then add some randomness to the selecting process and see where this takes you.

Now, what's the advantages? New musical worlds, self-discovery, exploration, experimentation, and dare I say it, courage. Whilst these advantages are clear, there are risks. You might not understand the music you produce. You might dislike it. You'll feel alienated or misdirected. Now, these are all negative emotions, very much tied up with the idea of music having to please, and so then, we are redirected back to our straitjacket of taste complacency. Now, that would be ironic. But, ultimately, if music is just to please, then it is firstly reduced, in my opinion, and ultimately stops being an art. Art is, after all, the manifestation of life, so there should be moments that are rough, ugly, brutal, disturbing.

Going, then, back to the author, Tyler, self-transformation is seemingly the opposite of complacency, and it's something very much desired in the 21st century. To have it, though, you've got to lose the control factor and take risks. So, this year, what will you do to cut those shackles of musical complacency?

Get writing, and see you soon. Bye.
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