Beware the Power of the Dead Past

Some time ago I wrote about the problems of “Renaissances” and the use of the past.  In Toynbee’s book, (reviewed in that post) he stated that if we are not careful when we recall the ‘ghosts’ of the past, we may get more than we bargained for.  This ghost, once recalled, can come to exercise a fascination that leads to domination.  With the correct spiritual attitude the past can buoy and strenghten us, like Antaeus rebounding with strength after contact with the Earth.  If our relation to the past is particularly close — a relationship of family or personal affinity — chances are it will burden us when we recall its ghost, and we will find ourselves like Atlas, trapped by its weight.  No one stands immune to this predicament.

This seeming law of human experience confronted me again as I read the blog of Ethan Iverson, pianist for the jazz trio “The Bad Plus.”  Iverson and his band mates have done much to revitalize jazz for the modern era, freeing it from stale allegiance to previous forms.  All three have done much to advocate for more recognition of newer and more innovative jazz artists.  They made their name by creatively reinterpreting classics of the 20th century cannon, from Abba to Nirvana to Stravinsky.  I used The Bad Plus to illustrate how the past can work for us, rather than against, when we apply Toynbee’s theory to music.  Insight into their powers can be seen in their cover of “Iron Man,” perhaps even heavier than the original. . .

But even Iverson, when it comes to Thelonius Monk (one of his favorite artists, and thus, a  powerful and potentially dangerous ‘ghost’ for him) can’t help but assume the position of Atlas.  A reinterpretation of Monk’s music from one of his students elicited this response on his blog (my apologies to those, who like me, don’t understand some of the musical terminology),

The excellent pianist David Rysphan came by last week, and wrote about it on his blog. I had met David but it had been a few years and in another country. He was a familiar face, though, so after he played a solid version of “I Mean You” I asked him, “Haven’t you been here before? Don’t you know better than to play Monk in my class?”

I am a hardline conservative when it comes to Monk’s music. My standard yowl of pain is, “Would you change the notes to a Mozart sonata? So why do you change the harmony to a Monk song?”

David, bless his heart, was playing G minor in bar five under the melody. I hasten to add, this is also how Kenny Barron and McCoy Tyner and a host of worthy others play it as well! But it’s 2012: in my opinion it is time to start treating Monk’s texts with fidelity (emphasis mine).

Alas, another creative mind bites the dust when confronted with a particularly important and personal ghost.  He obviously (and thankfully) does not have that same attitude to the other artists The Bad Plus has covered.

I think that many classical educators face some of the same challenges and temptations.  We look to the past for guidance, and rightly so.  Our disenchantment with the present state of education makes the past all the more attractive to us.  But this past upon which we place so much hope will be nothing but dead weight  if we fail to treat the past as prologue–living and active in our midst.  For the past to give us life for today we must interject our own life into it.  Without this, our attempts at educational change will have a short, truncated life of its own as we collapse under a burden we cannot bear.