We have rejected the traditional standards of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as purely subjective: what is beautiful to you might be unappealing to me, your truth might be different from my truth, etc.—and there is no way to judge between them. But if there is nothing aesthetically objective by which to judge a created thing, we are left to judge it by its creativity alone. And this is what we accept as the point of art today. Judged only in this light, it is impossible to distinguish a complex, highly structured, masterly crafted Bach fugue from a stunt like John Cage’s 4’33. And if you point out that even you could have written the score for Cage’s four and half minutes of silence—as if to differentiate the stunt from the skill with which Bach composed his fugues—a quick answer will remind you sharply that creativity was the point: “But you didn’t.”Mr Balio's essay (the Pope Center ran it in three parts, by all means, go, read, understand) is an extended reflection of exactly how denial of coherent beliefs of any kind leads to incoherence.
Creativity becomes a great equalizer wielded in this way. A childlike scribble can be as important as one of da Vinci’s sketches, a pickled shark as monumental as Michelangelo’s David. And when you walk through our museums of modern art, you can see how convinced of the idea we are. It’s little wonder that creativity, like social justice and disruptive innovation, has become a holy grail for those who have taken up the reformation of our music schools.
The more straightforward explanation for John Cage being able to pull off something like 4'33 where no non-musician could seriously get away with it is likely that Mr Cage understood enough about the structure of actually existing music to establish a reputation for stretching the limits whilst putting notes to paper first. That's Mr Balio's message to the trendy defenders of incoherence, who seek to develop interpreters who don't know the structure of actually existing music.
What the revolutionaries and reformers, in their zeal, also seem to forget is that the vast majority of musicians – that majority they profess to have always in mind—even in Bach’s, Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, Liszt’s, or Schumann’s time, were interpretive performers. Though they’d like to imagine it otherwise, we can safely say that virtually none of us are born with creative powers even remotely equal to those of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. In fact, we’d be lucky to have one such genius in our midst during the course of an age. And I think that even today, most of the students who enter our conservatories do so, not because they believe they are in line to be the next Mozart, but because they love performing the music that has found its way into our canon – and the time and energy they’ve invested in learning to be worthy of playing it attests to that fact. It’s part of the great miracle of classical music that the preponderance of musicians who have come and gone throughout the long course of its history were interpretive performers inspired to play “repertory created in, and for, another time and place”—overlooking for the moment the sophistry already mentioned, and taking that phrase to mean instead “music composed before one’s lifetime”—because if they weren’t, we’d know little or nothing about the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart today. Perhaps that’s fine with the Modernists, but I think the rest of us would object loudly.Yes, Beethoven was an interpretive performer. But without his father compelling him to practice, practice, and without Albrechtsberger drilling him on counterpoint (I spend an instructive half hour just at that exhibit in Bonn's Beethoven Haus last fall) And his Third and Fifth Symphonies, inter alia, are so compelling in part because their innovative structure begins with something as simple as an E-flat-major chord. It takes mastery of the fundamentals. As sailing's Melges brothers learned, time on the tiller, time on the tiller. So mote it be with music, or economics, or building a reliable model railroad.
It seems to be a triumphal bit of amnesia that confidently injects the modern reformer’s rhetoric with that “false and vulgar opinion” that “the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency” is somehow a detriment to the development of a student’s creative genius. But it’s an argument that is as popular as it is unexamined.
But it is hard to convince us of this because we really want to believe that technical proficiency—which concerns itself ultimately with Beauty, Truth, and Goodness—is a dictatorial grey area eclipsed by the shining genius of innate creativity. And after all, if four and a half minutes of silence can stand next to one of Bach’s fugues as a work of creativity, why do we need to bother with technical proficiency? Of course, when faced with this absurdity, we realize that there is something that precedes creativity, just as we know that there is a way for creativity to reach beyond technicality.Yes, successful basketball coach Vivian Stringer, the daughter of a jazzman, enjoyed improvising but found arpeggios boring. You can read about it in her book. You'll also read about how her teams work on the fundamentals of basketball. There's a connection. Disciplined talent wins. Without the proper technique, no creativity.
Or just go to the circus. The most talented tumblers are in the clown acts. Anybody can sit at a keyboard for four minutes and change, but executing a flip on a trampoline badly gets you in the hospital.