Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tradition is a Metaphor...

"Tradition is a guide and not a jailer."
- W. Somerset Maugham

A traditional musician I know (Jim Perkins, of Finvarra's Wren) has this quotation as his email signature; it identifies a burning issue for those who undertake to learn a tradition and to inflect it by carrying it forward into the present moment, and of course into the future. It's something to think about for composers as well: how much of what we take as given do we let imprison us? This question applies not only to those assumptions that seem to be actively imposed on us by authoritative sources, but also to the places in our minds in which we bend to common custom without reflection. We can be true to the singularities of our particular historical moment and also honor our cultural origins without overtuning them, or being imprisoned by them.

It made me think: What if tradition is a companion, so we don’t have to be all alone, and so that we can stand with our ancestors as we face the future? Can we come to see tradition also as the ground we stand on? We may choose to lie down on it in order to be in as close contact with it as possible, or we may try to leap off of it, but everything we do is launched from that soil, and we always come back down to it in the end.

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