To focus on harmony as a repository of significance and creativity is a cliché of white western thought. It might seem that hip- hop, with its lack of harmonic development, is a minority interest of the marginal. However this article suggests it the most listened to genre in the world.
This disparity for me suggests many things: the power of whiteness to represent itself as central when its own values are marginal, the way what we see as creative is limited by who we are and the difficulty of making aesthetic judgements about music when so much of what we believe is limited by who we are. In understanding aesthetic experiences we manage to find pre-existing critical tools to justify our pleasures. The music of our culture often seems completely transparent. It speaks directly.
I include my own teaching in this blindness – how often have I told my students to consider adding more interesting harmonic interest to their composition when I might have focused on rhythmic complexity or the development of subtle melodic and rhythmic variation? It seems to me music education is struggling to recognise the complexities of the aesthetics of hip-hop
When Martin Robinson began his discussion of creativity in this article the genre of punk and prog rock may seem a natural almost insignificant choice of styles in which to frame his discussion. However it is common for punk to be used as a signifier of creative rebellion. Hip-hop is rarely used in this way – despite it being arguably a genre that has unleashed a wider range of creativity and creative music. However hip-hop often seems opaque – there is a lack of engagement and appreciation of its musical riches.
Equally clichéd is the representing of musical development as one genre rejecting and rebelling what had gone before, often without considering its dialectical relationship with its social and cultural context. We are often treated to histories of classical music that discuss each musical period as some kind of development or refusal of its predecessor. However we might appreciate classical music more if we considered it its relationship to the people who created it and their social and cultural contexts.
In my view Martin’s appreciation of musical creativity is limited by his worry that:
“What of those who know next to nothing, can they be truly creative with only three chords at their disposal? I would say they can be, they might be able to make a blistering song or two but their oeuvre might be somewhat limited after a time. Even the Ramones used more than three chords.
But Genesis were always dreadful.”
This view is limiting because of the dialectical tension it is proposing between knowing nothing and being Genesis.
The students I teach are often limited in their ability musically. Even so they know something. I teach some complex needs students whose cognitive and physical abilities are often at a level that challenges me to rethink what it means to be musical and what it means to learn. However they know something, they have a desire to express something of their own significance, they are still willing to explore and recreate. Some of these students are unable to repeat back two claps, speak, or even differentiate between high and low. However they know something, they want to express something of themselves. We need a view of creativity that is grounded in an appreciation of our prior knowledge of all young people as thinking, feeing people with a right to their own being. I would argue creativity is mundane; a human trait that cannot wait for the permission of education.
In my view Martin is too cautious and worried about the knowledge builders who seek to control what it is we may know. The continuous and almost relentless need to define appropriate knowledge without continuing a discussion of whose knowledge is something which needs challenging. To fit students neatly into the existing knowledge and hierarchies of the world is an education not worthy of its name- particularly when the differences between rich and poor are becoming greater and more entrenched.
No one passively exists. To be human requires the active changing of and response to our cultural world. We choose the music we identify with; we choose how we interact with the musical materials we are given.
To consider the Ramones for a moment – whilst it is true that they managed to compose songs using more than 3 chords – I doubt that any musical criticism trying to convey the significance of the Ramones would linger too longer on their use of power chords over 6 positions on the guitar. I also take issue over this: in using three chords ‘their oeuvre might be somewhat limited after a time.” I wonder what Blues musicians might have felt about 3 chords being a limit to their creative expression? Or what does it me for me as a musician whose favourite band only ever used a few chords and arguably wrote the same song over 4 or 5 albums?
It also seems to me that Martin could make more of the oppositional material he shares. The chords he produces are A E and G. I think it’s worth pointing out that very few of students I teach will have the technical ability to play even these “limiting” chords. This inability to play three simple chords does not stop creative engagement.
Still why teach A E and G? The natural classical educator might want to teach A E and D at least then they would be playing in the key of A major rather than somehow stubbornly remaining at a tangent to any major key. It is fascinating to wonder that the chords chosen are in themselves a rejection of the dominant – tonic hierarchy of classical music.
Finally what to make of the proposition that free schools are punk schools? I find this unlikely. Most free schools work well within the dominant framework that exists to regulate schools, many take as their inspiration people such as Hirsh, Willingham and Lemov – none of which are hardly anti-establishment figures.
No – free schools if anything are the ultimate in free market recklessness – fragmenting educational provision for the rights of the individual, irrespective of the collective good. As such they are the ultimate prog rock statement.
And even the Sex Pistols sold their soul.