Monday, November 9, 2015

Boethius and the Relevance of Musical Understanding - my response

Instead of a full on blog, I am submitting this month a response I made to another Blog with whom I disagree on Boethius' division of 3 kinds of musician.
"Hi Todd,
I dig your web page. A few comments on this particular post I am compelled to address..
You begin with a decent introduction, however you miss some crucial elements in the history of Greek Philosophical Thought, of which Boethius is heir, and improperly conflate 2,500 years of terms (e.g. equating modern classical musicians with the musicians experiences of Boethius time) and in the process flip-flopped some of the terms as received in the early 21st century. 
Let me begin with the history of textual transmission. After Boethius, De Institiutione Musica Is a Latin translation (with some original points) of the Greek Nichomachus of Gerasa's "Handbook of Harmonics" (books 1-4) and Ptolemy's "Harmonia" (book 5). As with most texts) these were not handed down to each generation in its entirety. Only a handful of complete mansucripts contain all five books existed. Most often however Monestaries contained only anecdotes (i.e. florelegia) with a few lucky monasteries containing Book I. Nonetheless this work was the primary "textbook" for Musical study from about the 9th century thought the 17th, (even though the trasnmission of his work was always debated and typically ignored by composers especially from the 12th century on -- and its instruction largely forgotten with the rise of experimental science (Beginning with the efforts of Vincenzo Galilei and the Florentine Camerata in the 16th) - This lead to our modern concept of music (Melody with Bass/Chords) upon which all popular music and the the bulk of Classical music from 1600-now is based today. As well as the rise of the Virtuoso instrumentalist. Its a very different concept of music in which we live than what Boethius describes.
Secondly we must understand that Boethius aim is not instruction for the practical musician. His aim is Philosophical - part of that long tradition established by Plato with the goal of creating ethical "Philosopher Kings.: As such: the underlying principle in Classical thought is the concept of Harmonia..The philosophers did not seek discord -- and education is not an adversarial system. Though there are many examples, such displays of common adversarial contests (typically fought over pride, money, power) are typically derided by the educators. We retain the word Harmonia rather than balance precisely because of its ties with Greek Philosophical Thought. For the Greeks recognized that Music was the central discipline which so readily revealed the connections between the soul and universe. Acting in accord (again another musical term) with the nature of the Cosmos is the foundation of Ethics.
So with this in mind, if we are to take the path and ascribe to our modern age, Boethius description of the 3 musicians. Those who play by instinct the first group are really the buskers, the self-taught street musicians, garage band guitar heroes, who have not actually widened their knowledge base through study of theory, ear training new strands of music, but are self serving and only play the kind of music they want. In the composer realm, we'd put the typical Classical Musician, or open minded rocker who is not afraid to learn theory. And despite your remark to the contrary, MOST Classical Musicians improvise, its kind of a requirement at such a high level of playing, they might improvise in a different manner, but most of the cats I've played with from the world class Minnesota Orchestra know love all music and they certainly know how to jam in all styles.
The 3rd type of musician is a Philosopher. They have studied not only music and performance, but the rest of the sciences as well as rhetoric, logic, ethics, etc. As such they do not cloud their mind with schemes for personal gain (power, wealth, prestige, honor) but direct their minds and efforts understand the workings of the Cosmos (i.e. Good Order) and society as a whole - which is why the Liberal Arts education has been a necessary component of education since Plato founded the Academy 2,500 years ago. They do not act without careful examination. Think Socrates maxim, "The Un-examined Life is not worth living"
This does not mean you cannot make a living as a musician, but music does not begin with the limited and false motivator of "MONEY" or "being a famous star." -- These are the lures of the "Sophists" which lead to the quick and easy temptation to defraud and exploit others for personal gain. In the whole of Boethius works, he asks us to reject that the sake of civil society.
Christian McGuire

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