When I was in college studying music theory and composition, I had a great professor who pushed us to think deeply about aesthetics. He exposed me to many composers and approaches to music to broaden my perspective about what music is and what makes music good. I struggled for three years to figure out my own beliefs about aesthetics and to make a convincing and logical argument for my beliefs. It was a painful process, often getting my ideas shredded in discussions, but it made me a better musician and a better person. Those ideas I developed about artistry, beauty, quality and expression as a musician have deeply influenced my thoughts about dancing.
I remember early on being confronted with the music of John Cage. Cage was very zen about his music, wanting to be open to any sound and “writing” a lot of music using principles of chance. His most famous work is “4’33”,” a giant four minute and thirty three second rest. The idea is that the ambient noises fill the silence, and become the music of the piece. I struggled with the notion that every sound was music. I grew up thinking of music as the organization of sounds. Now music was being defined simply as sounds to which someone listened deeply.
My ears opened up, and I started listening intentionally to my world. The flip side was that my sense of value, meaning and purpose in music was pretty trashed. I heard so much, but now it all sounded meaningless. In the world of dance, I often hear people advocating for this kind of openness in dancing; let it all in, all movement is dance, its their own personal expression, there is no right or wrong. In those words, I hear that freedom of expression that John Cage brought to music, and that openness to limitless, unrestrained potentials.
Later, we studied the atonal and serial music of composers like Alan Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. These composers were hyper-rational, and saw their music as a natural extension of the work of Wagner. Wagner keeps the music meandering, infrequently resolving the harmony. Berg and Schoenberg made an art into avoiding any sense of resolution in the harmony. It doesn’t always make for the most pleasant listening experience (although its great if you need sci-fi/horror film music that makes people uneasy). I struggled with this music, too.
Here was another extreme, every decision meticulously planned out, systematic and prescribed. The music seemed so unlistenable, and I wondered where the audience was for something like this. My colleagues, rather successfully at the time, argued that it didn’t matter how the audience responded as long as the artist maintained their own integrity. It was supposed to be valuable for its meticulous, detail oriented thoughtfulness. Liking it wasn’t necessarily the point, although some people did, which brought up questions of personal taste.
I liked the idea of value stemming from the intense depth of thought put into something. That was something that I felt like I could hold onto in our pluralistic, everything goes world. But it lacked in passion, emotional content. I had trouble connecting with this music, as did many young musicians around me. I engaged with it as best I could, tried to appreciate it, find something to connect with and enjoy. I hear echoes of the “lindy hop should be done this way to this music or it isn’t lindy hop” arguments; systematic and structured, with a clear sense of right about it and easily identifiable values. But in this approach, there are costs to the kind of personal expression that Cage’s approach afforded.
Nothing seemed to work for me. I couldn’t whole heartedly embrace Cage, and I couldn’t connect with the world of the Berg and Schoenberg. I needed a paradigm shift, and I found just that when I started studying music from African culures. All of the conversations I had been having with my colleagues were rooted in the worth of the music, the value of the sounds. In most African cultures, the primary value in music is placed on the experience and not on the music. The best singer isn’t necessarily the one with the best voice, but the one who can create the best experience. When my aesthetic arguments expanded from talking about the art to talking about relationships, everything made much more sense.
So often we try to place the burden for beauty on the object, the music, the dance. “The rose is beautiful,” we might say. But how can an object be something that is a construct of human thought like beauty? So we say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but that negates the importance of the object. I’ve come to a place where beauty lies in the space between, in the relationships we build. And what we invest in those relationships influences the payoff from those relationships.
We see this at dances all the time. Some dancers have invested years learning about the dance, continually working to better themselves, master movements, learn the history, study the music. They have a mastery to be able to express themselves with a depth and articulateness where the music becomes visible, at once connected to the past and invested in the future. We also see people on the dance floor for the very first time, enraptured by what they see, feel and hear. You can see their joy and sense of discovery. And then there are the people that come out dancing a few times a year, certainly enjoy their time while they are there, but it isn’t really an integral part of their life.
Which one is more valuable and worthwhile? You wouldn’t say that the married couple who has been together for 50 years has a more valuable relationship than the young couple who are on their honeymoon. You’d celebrate both of them for what they are. Likewise, the dancer who has dedicated years to their passion and the new dancer in love with their discovery share a common journey. But we might draw a distinction between a relationship with a passing acquaintance and a lifelong love. I know I value my relationship with my wife much more than the relationship with my bank teller. Similarly, we can draw a distinction between the deep relationship of the passionate dancer and the casual relationship of the occasional dancer. It all depends on the kind of relationship we build, and therein lies the beauty.