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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The M4 Principle

This is a little note about the M4 Principle: the Miraculous Meaningfulness of Musical 'Mediocracy'.

I was in Sarajevo last week, as I have been every year those past few years to deliver guest lectures to master and PhD students. I was, to be honest, not looking forward to go, because I have been too busy lately to enjoy travel and I did not want to leave my family. But of course, once I was there I was happy to be back, meeting my Sarajevan colleagues who have become very dear to me over the years, working with those nice students, and wandering around this beautiful city, scarred by history and teeming with life. The smokey smell of Cevabcici-fires. The beautiful mosques, the guilty mountains. Bosnian coffee.
While teaching the master students, one of them asked if there was a possible way around what she described as the standard format of visiting a concert: going to a concert to listen to the possible mistakes other performing musicians make in order to discuss the mistakes and judge the performer afterwards. I think I have written about this before connected to Sarajevo; but I do not think this is a Sarajevan phenomenon. It is the derailing of the ears by artistic professionalization that happens to anyone entering a professional music education; being able to take part in this type of judging talk is the token of having gone through the rites de passage of the professional music world, just as being able to talk about disgusting food one ate during fieldwork is a token of anthropological professionalism.

(I must confess that recently, when I visited a formal classical music concert, I actually found myself preparing quite consciously two of such 'judging criticisms' I could use if by any chance I would meet conservatoire colleagues and would have to engage in the ritual of answering questions about my judgments of the artistic quality of the music. I prepared them well; when indeed I met colleagues and ventilated my critical remarks, they were considered very seriously, and I noticed that I felt happy because, after all, I wás one of them. 'Doing-being-one-of-them', my ethnomethodological colleagues probably would say; and my inner experience showed me that 'doing-being-something' is not theatre, but the ordinary business of everyday life - as ethnomethodologists claim it is.)

So I told the master students a little anecdote. I was playing a concert with my band in a little church in Friesland lately. The audience number about matched the number of musicians playing, but that did not stand in the way at all of a well spent afternoon. In one of the songs I play on the fiddle an Irish reel called 'Drowsy Maggie' (my favorite rendering is Dave Swarbrick's, by the way). Usually somewhere I miss a couple of notes; I am not proud of it, it simply happens. And so it did this time.

After the gig, a guy from the audience stepped up to me and said he had really enjoyed me playing Drowsy Maggie - he recognized it from numerous performances he had heard through his life, he liked the reel, and apparently this one added to his reservoir of Drowsy Maggies.

No word about wrong notes played, and no excuse about wrong notes needed. Just a happy man, relating to a happy fiddler. Both going home having had a short but meaningful meeting on a Sunday afternoon.

The Miraculous Meaningfulness of Musical 'Mediocracy'. An idea easily destroyed by getting an education, and an idea that may then take time and effort to resurrect. I speak from experience, I can tell, and I recognize the experience again and again in students' lives; and occasionally, a student becomes aware of the mechanism enough to become able to ask explicit questions about it.

I wish I would have had that awareness at her age. Would have saved me a troublesome little journey. Greetings to you, Sarajevan-student-whose-name-I-forgot; thanks for the question, and I wish you a life led by an awareness of the M4-principle!

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