Music to these ears

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It is normal for people to think of science and art as pursuits occupying polar extremes, left brain versus right brain, mechanical versus unpredictable, or something along those lines. But I think the plodding unimaginative scientist captures the same space as the dull, self-plagia­rising artist. It follows too that the work from a scientist that can inspire a shift in our thinking is equivalent to a masterpiece by a compelling sculptor or original writer.

Creativity is the key. And creativity is a strange blend of qualities—so often dismissed as talent, but better thought of as a cocktail of traits: curiosity, wit, thoughtfulness, playfulness, informed scepticism regarding accepted wis­dom, and an ability to apprehend deeper truths that lie at the bottom of layers of packaging and conditioning.

Before the information age, seemingly opposing inter­ests, science and art, were occasionally seen in the same individuals—Aristotle and Leonardo-style polymaths—who synthesised breadth with depth and eloquently demon­strated that creativity is creativity whatever the application. Today’s creatives, working at the disparate frontiers of ar­cane fields are often out of the public view, but they share another perculiarity. When their work is published, they are often misunderstood and even vilified for spouting uncom­fortable ideas or deconstructing comfortable ones.

Which brings me in circuitous fashion to where I’m go­ing in this (seemingly directionless) directorial. During my sixth form school year, a biology teacher, Mr Emil Meln­ichenko, exposed me to music by the polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, and showed me a fragment of one of Penderecki’s wildly notated scores. I have named Emil in this piece for a reason. He was not an off-the-shelf sort of a science teacher (or these days, librarian). Aside from his excellence as an artist and a musician, he is an internation­ally top-ranked chess composer, a winner of many titles and tournament prizes.

Chess composition? Never heard of it? Hardly surpris­ing—this is a discipline without a profile in New Zealand. It is a well-established artform though, with a large and devoted following, mostly in Eastern and Continental Eu­rope, but in Asia and the Americas too. Chess composers create board positions that are played out following chess convention, merging a grand master’s deep knowledge of chess principles with an artist’s flair. Such studies—com­posed usually at the endgame—are a form of kinetic art that can even reveal themes: perhaps a meditation on the movements of a web-spinning spider, a re-enactment of an obscure military engagement, or the realisation of an architectural principle from the Ming Dynasty. Composi­tions are rated for beauty, economy and originality, and the good ones are truly spellbinding. I invite you to google his name for more information.

So getting back to Penderecki. An unworldly lad, there I was hearing this strange, hitherto unsuspected music of a living composer, and right there I had an epiphany. Until that moment, I thought that I had been apply­ing the same sort of yardstick to music that I routinely apply across the arts, and indeed across the whole spectrum of creativity. But I hadn’t. Sure, my favourites: Zappa, King Crimson, Hendrix and Miles Davis, were rock/jazz artists with greater substance than most, but that is not the point. We routinely judge art on artistic merit, incorporat­ing ideas like originality, depth, boldness of experiment, finesse; yet even though we call musicians “artists”, we mostly judge their work by extremely different criteria.

Music for the vast majority of us is a thing of taste and familiarity, which has nothing much to do with art. So what if our favourite bands seldom go beyond a limited range of chord changes, beats and licks, or recycle lyrics in word-order variations on common themes. Who cares if an identical set of recycled jazz chords overlaid with a predictable attack of chromatic fingering is used by Joe Pass as with Pat Methany? We like it and that’s enough!

Perhaps. Perhaps not. If you call it art, shouldn’t you treat it like art? Matsuo Basho, the great Japanese haiku poet, put this thought succinctly:

Rhyming imitators—musk melons whacked in halves

In this issue we are running a story on New Zealand music and the artists who create it. This issue is also accompanied by a double cd, illustrating the depth and stylistic range of their work. Dave Dobbin and Split Enz don’t get a mention here. Nesian Mystic, Scribe and Bic Runga aren’t included either. Kiwi rockers and crooners can be seen on TV, heard on the radio, and found in other publications. We are featuring contemporary composers.

Some readers will protest at our generosity (and that of NZ composers who have not levied a fee for this exploita­tion of their work) on the grounds that such a story and its sonic illustration is outside NZ Geographic’s proscribed subject matter. Not so! We have made the claim since our inception that we are the Journal of New Zealand, with an interest in the people and the culture of these isles.

New Zealand was the last major landmass to receive humans and we are a young country. Elsewhere, nations judge themselves by their artistic legacies. Germans con­sider Beethoven and Bach to be more important to their sense of identity than Boris Becker or Franz Beckenbauer.

For future generations of New Zealanders, a few of the obscure composers in this feature will be far better known and fondly remembered than today’s crop of TV celebrities and sporting heroes. Imagine that?

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