If we consider all musics in the world from the most ancient to the most modern, from folkloric song to popular song, from the avant-garde to the most classically traditional, may we ask ourselves if there is something like a vast ecological system in which there is a balance between these musics, that is, does each and every music have an important niche in the total musical eco-system such that the survival of one music is vital to the survival of all musics?
In contrast to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” model, where the “strongest” musics will prevail and the weakest will perish, with no apparent negative consequence for Music as a whole, an eco-musical system approach emphasizes musical inter-dependence, that is, it makes the claim that, even if the weakest music disappears (weak in the sense of having the smallest public), this disappearance will have a strong negative impact on all the musics that survive. How can we be sure if this eco-musical system model is the right one for music?
History is often very cruel to musics that are not so well composed, that are mediocre in their invention, in their originality. Of all the composers who lived in the time of Bach, for example, only a very few are still played. Many manuscripts have disappeared or are simply ignored. What can we say about musical eco-systems over long periods of time ? Is it for the greater good of Music that only the strongest, most original musics survive while the the others disappear? The answer is not so clear as our musical myths would have us believe.
Until Mendelssohn made strong efforts to revive interest in the music of J.S. Bach, his music was in danger of disappearing. According to the taste of the 19th century, it was C.P.E. Bach who was the great composer, not his father. So, if we return to the “survival of the fittest” model, the fact that C.P.E. Bach’s music seemed more attractive to the musical public of the 19th century was not as a consequence of his father’s music being “weaker”, but more that the new “classical” style that the younger Bach represented so well was more to the taste of early 19th century music lovers than the older baroque style that had lost its appeal and which seemed to those people, old fashioned, outdated. As a consequence, J.S. Bach’s music suffered a transitory extinction, risked to disappear without a trace.
The reappearance and remaining of J.S. Bach as an important figure in music history occurred only after almost a hundred years after his death, when his family name passed into the Symbolic Order as the “great composer” of his time. At this point, the myth of Bach was born as great genius, a necessary myth for this composer to remain for centuries to come the Name for musical greatness.
On the contrary to Nomination as a symbolic process that leads to musical immortality for an individual creator, the musical eco-system is a model for the survival of Musical Richness in the present and future. The survival of certain marginal musics in danger of extinction will be emphasized as necessary as opposed to the survival of an individual creator’s Name. If we have the goal of the survival of musical diversity as a Name for musical Richness, then we need as many interesting and diverse musics to survive as possible as each one has its place, its unique niche in the total musical eco-system, just as all plants and all animals, no matter how few in number, do in the biological eco-system. Each music, no matter how small and rare its niche, will make a crucial contribution to musical Richness in our model.
Now, we come to a key signifier, “richness”, which is a very loaded word, having many significations in today’s hyper-materialistic world. A “rich music” is often considered to be the one that commands the most public, the most “likes”, the most sales, the most money, the most power…all quantifiable ways to calculate richness. Why should we reject this model of musical richness as opposed to the eco-model of musical richness, the one that denies the unimportance, the weakness of musics that are not quantifiably appreciated?
The reason is the following: the history of music in the 20th and 21st centuries tells us that the ethnic musics of Africa and Asia, largely unknown and mostly underestimated in their worth according to 19th century tastes, have become crucial in the 20th and 21st centuries to the development of many popular musics such as rock-n-roll, blues, jazz…as well as a vital source of inspiration to many forms of contemporary classical music because these non-Western musics, largely unknown to Europe and North America before the 20th century, opened whole new worlds of tuning, timbre and rhythm to western musicians.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the musical eco-systems of the world started to interpenetrate each other, cross-fertilize each other, greatly to the benefit of Western music in Europe and North America, but sometimes to the detriment of the folkloric and traditional musics of Europe, the Americas and Asia.
Today, many young people in Europe and Japan, for example, are not so interested to learn to play traditional instruments, to learn traditional ways of singing. American pop music has become so dominant in its influence that it risks making the indigenous traditional musics of Europe, the Americas and and Asia disappear.
The model of the musical eco-system insists on the survival of all musics, whether those musics seems to have small, shrinking publics, or appear to be only known to “old” people. Just as is the case with biological eco-systems, it is often the case that the disappearance of even the smallest, seemingly insignificant plant or animal can have a devastating effect on the whole eco-system. This is due to the chaotic nature of complex non-linear systems. A small change in the system’s balance can provoke very large effects in the whole system.
In the domain of music, it is impossible to predict in advance which indigenous, folkloric, or traditional musics will, in the future, inspire whole new approaches to the most modern popular or contemporary musics. We can not calculate in advance the effects of certain musics disappearing on the whole musical eco-system.
Similarly, the unnatural promotion or making too influential of one certain music due to extraordinary financial means invested in advertising it can menace the survival of other musics that have much less means at their disposal. By overvaluing certain musics and undervaluing certain others, we create an ecological imbalance in our musical eco-system.
Ideally, the public would have an equal awareness and access to all musics, at least, in principle. Some musics are not just undervalued because they lack positive publicity, some will disappear without most people knowing that they ever existed.
If we accept a musical eco-system as our model for Music today, we can recognize the importance of protecting all the most seemingly obscure, unknown musics from mass extinction. Musical interdependence of all musics in the present, and the necessity to maintain musical Richness and Diversity in the future requires us to protect all existing musics from disappearing because all musics that exist in the present, no matter how seemingly small in public, have an importance for the music of the future that is incalculable.
The necessity of collaboration, sharing, and generosity between musicians, no matter what musical niche that they inhabit, is a key factor in keeping the musical eco-system healthy and balanced. All musicians have an ethical obligation to help their fellow musicians from all over the world as much as they can, in whatever way it is possible for them, for the sake of Music.
The return for such an effort is always one of learning about musics that one is ignorant of, thus, enriching our own musical experience, knowledge and creative potential. Knowing about as many different musics that exist all over the world, being open to what they have to teach us, can only stimulate our own musical ideas, give us new perspectives for what music is, and what it can be in the future for all of us.
(by GERARD PAPE)
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