Musics, Imagination, Morality, Leadership

September 1, 1998

There is much talk these days, in literary and artistic critical theory, about "difference" and "the Other." We worry about the ways in which Western culture has set up monolithic, hegemonic value structures and has marginalized whatever does not fit its models.

In the bad old days of Western colonialism (not altogether past, unfortunately) this marginalization of the Other fostered a myth of musical evolution; non-Western musics were studied by "comparative musicology," often with the assumption that "primitive" cultures would reveal the prehistory of our "advanced" culture. Classicizing elitism placed the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concert music tradition on a glass mountain, elevating a musical canon to separate it from the popular music of the "unwashed masses."

New critical thinking challenges this marginalization. Comparative musicology has been replaced by ethnomusicology, in which musics are situated in their own cultures rather than set against Western music. Scholars question the musical canon, both because its music represents oppression by an elite class of dead white European males and because canonization itself is hegemonic. These challenges are certainly all to the good.

One product of the politics of "difference" and "the Other" is an insistence that we can never truly enter others' minds. In a literal sense, this is true. Our cultural, musical minds are our own, and as such they are limiting. The claim that we can comprehend what it is to be another is patronizing and dangerous. Westerners can never comprehend non-Western, whites can never comprehend Native American or African American, men can never comprehend women's experience.

A consequence of this principle—though a fallacious one—is fatalistic acceptance of the barriers to human understanding. It is but a small step from the idea that we cannot comprehend one another to the belief that we cannot reach across the barriers. This is a dangerous cop-out.

By participating in music in any way, including listening, dancing, and so on, we join others in a shared imaginative world. We cannot play or sing music without engaging our imaginations with those of other musicians.

We bring our differences to the music, and we integrate music into our own selfness in unique ways. What we integrate into ourselves and give to our listeners, however, truly is part of each one's musical imagination.

Whether we say so explicitly or—more fashionably—do not, we take this integration of imaginations for granted in our musical activities. When we sing and play in ensembles we link our musical imaginations. When we study historical performance practice, we gain by sharing more closely a distant musician's experience of musical performance. When we study musical cultures distant from ours in geography or history, we bring to life the musical imaginings of others in our imaginations. When we share theoretical analysis and teach music to our students, we reach out to the musical imaginations of others. When we compose, we challenge others to engage their imaginations with ours.

As musicians, therefore, we have a special experience of shared imagination. This carries with it a moral obligation to use imagination to make connections, to create community with others. If we do not meet this responsibility, that is, if we wallow in solipsism that stresses our obvious inability to achieve absolute identification and therefore discourages the effort, we impoverish ourselves and foster a dangerous isolation from others. The stance we must reject here is the idea that only one's own experience really matters, so that one can justify letting the music be what one wants it to be, rather than undertaking the obligation (opportunity!) to encounter the mind of another in it. What is surely wrong is the way in which some listeners and some critics simply treat a work of music as their own toy to play with in a self-indulgent manner, using the excuse that we can't really know each others' minds anyway.

Which does not mean that we should turn our backs on pluralism and diversity in favor of establishing one shared imagination—a homogenized musical culture—through music in higher education. Nor should diversity allow each of us the right to isolated self-hood in a valueless culture. Diversity should invite us to expand our imaginations and engage each other's experiences.

As musicians, we have much to offer to our communities, our nation, and the world. The more we make music an active, vital part of the lives of our families, campuses, and society, the more the imaginative engagement among people will be, and the healthier and richer our life together. By making and teaching music, we make the world better. (Though we get here very differently, we arrive at a sense of music's value for personal and social good not unlike that of Boethius when he wrote of musica humana.)

Making our own music does not fulfill our responsibility. We must cultivate opportunities for sharing musical imaginations. That means dealing with the real world of musical experience, not withdrawing. We must not avoid vernacular musics—world musics and popular music. If we denigrate or reject other musics, we tolerate the culture of division. Not all music is equally good, but our communities will never raise the quality and mine the depths of musical experience, unless we engage all our society with our musical imaginativity, open to all sorts of music and effectively sharing the music we love. In addition, we must articulate the moral value of what we do. We must make the special humanizing nature of music—the best medium for imaginative sharing of experience—understood in our circles. We can do nothing more important than hold high the importance of music in education at all levels. Nothing is more vital than that we persuade our students, fellow faculty, and fellow citizens of the importance of active involvement with many musics throughout our colleges and our communities.

Finally, our responsibility extends to the moral use of imagination beyond musical experience to foster community, understanding, and empathy in every sphere. Musicians can do this better than anyone. If we hide in our studios and on our campuses, and even within our music-making, we are not giving the world our greatest gift: the ability to model the use of imagination to relate more intimately to the experiences of others. As Plato argued 2400 years ago, music is a crucial element in the culture of strong civic leaders. If musicians do not take leadership roles in civic life, our society will be the weaker for it.

2097 Last modified on November 19, 2013
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