May 21st 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY It's a queer theory, with 51 closets to come out of (Part One of two parts)

CANBERRA OBSERVED Labor may find it's not easy to avoid being green

EDITORIAL Double-dissolution trigger may have misfired

ENVIRONMENT Cut tax breaks to wonky green groups: committee

HUMAN RIGHTS Honorary fellow means to dishonourable end

POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY Remembering "populate or perish": Arthur Calwell

EUTHANASIA Belgium: where the devil is refining the details

RESEARCH The scientific objectivity of gender difference (Part Two of two)

MUSIC The muse, leisure and the importance of play

CINEMA Technology and war's cost: Eye in the Sky

BOOK REVIEW Preserving essential social values

BOOK REVIEW Putting postmodernism in its grave



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The muse, leisure and the importance of play

by David James

News Weekly, May 21, 2016

To master a musical instrument requires intense effort, many hours of practice and study. So it is not surprising that it is forgotten that musicians “play” an instrument. The whole thing, at least to musicians, seems like darned hard work.

But play it is. The best musicians, indeed the best artists, often seem to toy with their art form, and it is that playing that is at the centre of their profundity. Plato is said to have commented that he would learn more from watching a person play for a few hours than from a year of conversation. We do something similar when watching musicians.

Music is these days characterised, rather dubiously, as an industry, but its history is mainly as a community activity. Such is the origin of jazz and blues, which were part of the Afro-American community’s activities in the earlier part of the 20th century. Most folk music is part of community life, very much bound up with leisure rather than commerce.

When music is playing this communal role, it is typically in periods of leisure. In the 21st century, when so much depends on work and its rewards – a materialist era of “total work” when most of our activities are subject to the monetary system – it is readily forgotten that culture for centuries depended on the creative use of leisure.

The Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance worlds viewed leisure as important and work as unimportant. Aristotle commented in the Nichomachean Ethics: “We work in order to have leisure.” The words for “work” in Greek and Latin were negatives of leisure (a-scolia, neg-otium). Leisure was what was mattered to being human; work did not. Idleness was seen as the inability to use leisure well, not a failure to work.

It is an attitude hard to imagine now, when work is treated as the only index of value and the amount of money that artists earn is considered a reliable proxy of their value. It is at its most egregious when the hosts of talent shows proffer advice about success. “If you are totally committed you can make it, etc etc.” The emphasis is on the effort, the work, the financial reward. Completely beside the point, in other words. Reality talent shows have nothing to do with art; they are entirely about exploitation. If art is to have value it has to transcend commerce.

When considering jazz’s position it is worth remembering how significant festivity, fun, creativity and contemplation have been to the formation of Western culture.

Some jazz musicians, responding to the era of “total work”, can emphasise how much effort they have put in to their craft. But it is the effortless that matters. Few audiences revel in the fact that what they are hearing has required hard work to produce. But they do joy in the seemingly effortless revelation of musicality. It is not for nothing that we say that musicians “play”. What we are witnessing is not high-level work, but high-level leisure.

The effective use of leisure is why musicians talk about not thinking when the improvisation is going well (their comments are reminiscent of the distinction between ratio, the acquiring of skills through hard work, and intellectus, the passive, receptive state of mind in which inspiration comes from outside). The effort – practising scales, studying harmony, perfecting tone – comes before the performance. In the performance itself, there is often little conscious thought.

Just as leisure used to be seen as an opportunity to make people whole, to take them beyond being mere tools of utilitarian production, so the ability to be receptive, to do no work, is the key to effective improvisation.

Many musicians, and especially jazz musicians, when asked what they are thinking about when they are playing, reply that when the performance is working they think about nothing. It is only when the playing is not going well that the effort of thinking is required.

What they probably are describing is not a lack of thinking but the absence of self-awareness. They are not thinking about themselves, and so are not aware of their own thoughts.

Indeed, there is evidence that musicians think a great deal. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine in Baltimore tracked brain activity as two jazz musicians played pieces from memory and then engaged in responsive improvisation. They found that areas of the brain associated with syntax and language were very active. However, the parts of the brain that interpret the meaning of language, semantics, were completely deactivated. Music is a language without definitional meaning, in other words.

So, why do musicians say they are not thinking? Because they are playing. And when we play we are not aware of ourselves. We are somewhere else.

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.

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