On musical virtuosity

The idea of the musical ‘virtuoso’ has often been attributed to individuals who display mastery in their respective instruments, often with reference to their technical skills in matters of melody, harmony, rythym. Virtuosity has become the hallmark of musical genius, the pinnacle of every musical modernity, may it be in classical music, jazz, and to some fetishistic extent, pop music.

Yet as the virtuoso’s claim of dominance over his/her instrument of choice is not the prime element in determining his/her importance in the industry of the musical arts, so is the concept of ‘genius,’ the hero of the modern, a fragile, if not altogether defeated, concept in music. While modern virtuosos/prodigies such as Mozart and Art Tatum have undoubtedly contributed to the development of music in their respective fields, contemporary virtuosos are generally ostracized in the post-modern musical market. Words such as ‘lo-fi,’ ‘garage,’ and quite interestingly, ‘humanized’ are currently in vogue, with much credit to the anti-virtuoistic and democratizing revolutions of punk and similar movements. Musical minimalism from the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the ‘film-score generation’ of musicians have rejected the formal excesses of musical modernity. This perfectly makes sense, since Arnold Schoenberg’s mantra of ’emancipation of the dissonance’ single-handedly dissolved centuries of classical tradition based on Bach’s well-tempered organization of tones, and even more popular genres such as rock and jazz have messed with free-jazz inspired atonality. If the logical conclusion of all musical experimentation is everything is possible, then what is left to be explored?

Interestingly, trends in critical theory have also dismantled the notion of ‘mastery’ in all arts, replacing the centuries-old concept with the idea of ‘rituals’: musical practice and pedagogy have already organized even the very abstract idea of musical expression (that is why we have these so-called ‘jazz cliches,’ idioms and devices that seek to convey a particular musical idea). With music departing from a mere expression of a extemporaneous idea into a intermixing of idioms and pre-learned devices, it cannot be untrue that musical composition and performance is ‘ritualized,’ meaning the musical object has become a mere constructed object, similar to a building that cannot actualize its buildingness if built on sand. Due to this, virtuosity has become fetishized, a meaningless act carrying the prospect of profit. Rock stars like Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and the very concept of the G3 rock supergroup capitalizes on this fetishization, producing listeners who think that any guitar player who doesn’t sweep-pick and tap is boring and unskilled. Search Youtube for the keyword “sweep-picking lesson” and you will literally thousands of lessons instructing you how to play like Malmsteen, some even selling books and materials specifically for the matter. Search Google with the keyword “how to play jazz” and you will see a lot of jazz musicians who are willing to tell you the ‘secrets’ of jazz, each promising you to sound like a legitimate jazz cat after watching the lesson. You know what happens when we spill secrets, like in the famous tv series revealing the secret behind a magician’s tricks. It spoils the fun.

It is fortunate that Philippine indigenous music was grounded on a very different musical psychology, one that doesn’t share Western music’s division between performer and audience.Indigenous music in the Philippines have a strong cultural character, meaning that a musical performance is more than a display of musical skill but a cultural act, a collective performance that gives primacy to the meaning of performance rather than the level of mastery of the individual performers. While drone music, repeatitive music, aleatoric music and other permutations of the minimalist strand have only emerged in the post-tonal stage of Western music, indigenous Filipinos have long been engaged in these types of sonic organization, all without the usual artist vs The Institution drama.

Filipino virtuosos in classical and pop music have been recognized throughout the country’s musical history, yet despite the high levels of virtuosity that these particular musicians displayed, less than few of them have garnered international recognition. This spells much the political, if not altogether economic and cultural, aspect of virtuosity: the virtuoso is Westerner’s wet dream, and those outside the circle of global musical production will only be recognized if they are truly great or they play 10 different musical instruments at a time, and are blind and poor, as the Philipppines should be. Virtuosity is inhererently a political issue, and if Filipino musicians really wanted to create something new that will distinguish them from the others, throwing virtuosity to the trash would be a start.


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