What you need to know
I hear the phrase “you need to know this” quite often, usually referring to works or composers labelled as significant for their contribution to the development of music history. Usually, the meaning of it is “You have a hole in your knowledge and you need to patch it, now!” Usually, the phrase is not a conclusion that one comes to from their own personal exploration, but an instruction from someone else. It’s superficial and theoretical as opposed to coming from an internal need: it’s not information you were looking for, nor is it relevant, and it doesn’t change you after internalizing it; it’s the equivalent of covering that gap in your knowledge with scotch tape, leaving the hole visible for anyone to see. What you really need to know to move forward as an artist, is not this.
I think the main reason why this phrase is uttered so much has to do with the big knowledge crisis of the twenty-first century: you notice this when you see people running around, desperately trying to absorb all there is to know for fear of being labelled ignorant; really though, the crisis doesn’t matter, because people were making great music before all this information existed. Before portable devices, the internet, computers, telephones, radios, and recordings, information spread primarily through books, newspapers, snail mail, and word of mouth; this limited the flow of information considerably (relative to today) and would only allow for the greatest works – that is, works of substantial substance – to spread quickly. Yet, despite everyone living under a rock (relative to today), great music was made – perhaps works that impacted the course of music more so than those of the twentieth century and beyond.
The creators of these works were the masters of music – the household names of today – and even though they were all very knowledgeable about the masters before them (some seemingly about everything in general), I doubt that knowledge was their aim. It’s funny how Prokofiev thought Chopin was boring before hearing the études, or how Keith Jarrett said once about Art Tatum in an interview “Too many notes too often.” But this must be sacrilege! Why, how can these masters of their idiom put down Chopin and Art Tatum, who could both be considered (probably more so) masters of their own idioms? Must not the former worship, praise, and only speak reverently of the latter? especially considering the substantial substance and impact of the predecessors’ output? The essence of the answer lies in how Prokofiev, being in pursuit of the dramatic, became obsessed with Wagner at one point, or how Keith Jarrett, stumbling upon an Ahmad Jamal record, was changed completely; neither seeked out their catalyst because it was on some “critical names” list, but because the music took a hold of them upon listening – they found what moved them and dug into it, deeply, while pretty much ignoring the bland.
This is not meant to be a justification for ignorance (one cannot be creative in a vacuum), but rather a defense of inspired learning, because somewhere along the line, the latter became oppressed by people looking for ways to make themselves seem more important than they are, and thus, she needs to be protected if we ever want to nurture people into becoming masters of their idiom with the same magnitude of those that preceeded us, who, almost single-handedly, defined (or caused a change in the direction of) our traditions.
I recall being at an Esprit Orchestra concert in Koerner Hall when Murray Schafer was talking about his Patria cycle, and how the work required the audience to go on a pilgrimage for days in order to get to a performance space in a remote area of the country; knowing how the North American city audience might react to this, he added (not without contempt) that “it’s not the kind of trip where you just hop on a cab and show up”. As I rolled my eyes with many in the audience, he continued on to draw a parallel with Bach traveling for days on foot to listen to and learn from the great organist Dieterich Buxtehude, in that this kind of experience cleanses you as you journey towards the art and leaves an enormous impression on your mind that transforms you.
Looking back, perhaps it sounded ambitious in the context of the twenty-first century, but if you think about it, it actually makes perfect sense: if you are in pursuit of making great art, would you rather have many minor experiences with a large array of ideas, or a few substantially potent experiences with significant ideas that actually change you?
How would the world change if we all devoted ourselves to inspired learning rather than pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge? if we surrounded ourselves with only what challenges and changes us rather than what someone else thinks we need to know?