Saturday, 27 April 2019

Tradition, Redundancy and Losing the Way

This week there was a rare opportunity to hear Michael Tippett's piano concerto in Manchester (it's rare anywhere) with Steven Osborne playing (who was a fellow student with me at Manchester University in the late 80s). I hadn't heard the Tippett for years - it's incredibly radiant and warm music. Another composer, John McCabe, said something fascinating about him: "I find Tippett's music tends to make me feel better" (see I agree, and Tippett was very conscious that he was attempting to do something physiological with sound (he got this from Vincent D'Indy - see This, in his mind, was deeply connected to social concerns and emancipation, as well as to depth psychology. Jung and T.S. Eliot were profound influences.

Both these issues have been on my mind. On the day of the concert I had had a job interview (the first for a long time), which although I didn't get the job, prompted a fascinating discussion about individuation, both from a Jungian perspective and from that of Simondon. But during the concert I was thinking about the ritual of playing music, and returning to music from many years ago, and thinking about Eliot's famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", which I had first got to know at Manchester with Tippett's biographer.

The whole arts world is a kind of ritual, seeming to preserve an elite social order. When that order is challenged - for example, by an 850 year old cathedral burning down - the human reaction seems irrational - but its elite nature is clear for all to see. The irony is that great art - and Tippett was a visionary artist - is made in the spirit of challenging the social order (he was also a Marxist). His piano concerto is a superb case-in-point: unlike any other concerto, it is anti-heroic. Few pianists would take it on because it doesn't put them in the spotlight. Audiences are disoriented because their expectations are frustrated by a fiendishly difficult piano part which causes the soloist to work very hard, but which remains veiled behind a collective radiant wall of sound. For most of it, they are an accompaniment, or a catalyst. Tippett was making a statement: one that is echoed in Eliot's essay -
The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.
Steven Osborne and Andrew Davies take this on because they understand this and believe in it. But there are contradictions (even in upholding them as "champions"!) Even in the wonderful performance in Manchester, I wondered if the point was lost on most of the audience. How do we get the point across about accompaniment or catalysis in a world which fetishises the individual achievement? Another way of asking this is to say "How do we see relations and the conversation as more important than the individual?" This was really what I talked about in my interview. And I have reflected on it more as I have thought that most of what I have done - in academia and in music - was catalysis.

But there are deeper questions about ritualised tradition. If one were to compress the years since the composition of Beethoven's 5th symphony, and examine the many millions of performances, then the ritualised repetition whereby people gather together and re-perform a set of instructions looks full of redundancy. Is redundancy the basis of tradition?

Redundancy is the basis of so much communication, from the crying of a baby, to the squawks of crows or music itself. Teaching depends on the redundancy of saying the same thing many different ways. Like playing Beethoven 5 in different ways (but rarely that different - apart from this... What is it? What's going on?

My speculation is that the world is a confusing place. All living things struggle to bring coherence to it - and they do this through conversation. We are thrown into conversation from birth. Through conversation, living things negotiate the differences between the different distinctions they make. Although we see those agreed distinctions - like words in a language - as "information", the really important thing is the redundancy that sits in the background of the process that makes it. Its the redundancy that brings coherence - just as the redundancy of Beethoven's motifs gives form to his symphony.

To accompany, to catalyse, we have to see the redundancy that needs to be added to bring coherence. I think this is really what teachers do. Its actually the opposite of "information". What Eliot describes as "surrendering to the work to be done" is the process of identifying the redundancy that needs to be created. In Gregory Bateson's terms, it is identifying the "Pattern that connects". The ritual of teaching and the ritual of performance of tradition are all about the coherence of our civilisation. There's something profoundly necessary about it, and yet within it are dangers which can produce incoherence.

To lose one's way is to lose sight of the process of creating redundancy, of catalysing ongoing conversations. This can happen if we codify the products of a previous age to the point that we believe that merely repeating these "products" - the information - will maintain civilisation. It will instead do the opposite. That's why Tippett's message - and his example - is important. It's not the figure; it's the ground - the earth - our shared context.

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