Medieval Sampling Techniques, Silos, and Creativity

I have a bachelor’s degree in classical music – a discipline that has been struggling for the last century to define its place and figure out how to remain relevant. You might expect that classical musicians would be falling over themselves to forge creative connections with other musical genres, in an effort to infuse freshness and vitality into their work – and there are some artists who are. But my experience in music school was that the majority of the students wanted absolutely nothing to do with musical traditions other than the good old classical canon.

For instance: One day, I was enjoying a lecture by a wonderful professor who was explaining a fascinating detail about medieval chants. While these days, we’re accustomed to hearing a song’s tune as the uppermost part, back then the tenor line of a chant held the tune, while the other voices layered other melodies and rhythms over top. When a chant became really popular – hitting the Top Forty of its day – enterprising composers would take one of those decorative upper voices and turn it into the tenor line of a new composition. Attentive listeners would be rewarded with a nice inside joke, and the composer got the benefit of riding the coattails of a #1 hit.

To put it another way: They took a snippet from somebody else’s song and worked it into a new one, by adding new harmonies, counter-melodies, and rhythms.

Those of you who haven’t spent your lives ensconced in music history books may recognize this technique. Nowadays, we call it sampling.

As a lifelong fan of hip hop and electronic music, I was quick to throw my hand up in class and share this insight with the class – but my opinion was met with scoffs of derision. “It’s nothing like sampling.”

Well, excuse me, but it’s exactly like sampling. You classical music nerds just don’t happen to think hip hop or dance music are legitimate art forms, and therefore you don’t consider them worthy of attention or analysis.

I often think back to that moment. It taught me some important things about how we humans process information.

For starters, we are so, so afraid of (and dismissive of) anything we label “other.” Hip hop isn’t as serious/complex/artistic as classical music. Video games aren’t as educational/social/intellectual as board games. Domestic work isn’t as difficult or important as work outside the home. And so on, and so on.

If it’s not in our comfort zone, we tend not to see it as relevant to the stuff that’s inside our comfort zone. We wear blinders. We see difference first, and commonality second. And the differences feel so big, so insurmountable, that the commonalities can seem remote.

I know I’ve had similar responses to comparisons I found unsettling. It’s human nature to elevate the things we care most about, and put them on pedestals, while discounting the importance of the stuff that doesn’t speak to us. The trick is to stay open to hearing the voices of those who point out our blind spots and invite us to see from a new perspective.

There’s another paradox here. We like to believe that we are inventing new things all the time – new problems, new solutions, new perspectives – and we’re terrible at recognizing their precedents. “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know,” wrote Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary. Hip hop couldn’t possibly be building on traditions as old as medieval chants, could it? Designers of mobile web apps couldn’t possibly learn from the Tao Te Ching, could they? Sure, these are new twists on old problems, but our tendency is to isolate ourselves within our own micro-disciplines and ignore the hard-earned solutions that others have designed.

The paradox is this: We also fear new models, when they threaten our old, beloved ones. My colleagues at music school weren’t just dismissive of hip hop and electronic music because they were unfamiliar; they dismissed them because they were also new. Classical musicians are not alone in fearing new models. At any given point in history, there are vocations undergoing a similar crisis. When the printing press came along, all the scribes had to figure out what they were going to do next. These days, I know people in book publishing, journalism, academia, and real estate – to name just a few professions – who are profoundly anxious about what their futures hold. (And for good reason – their landscapes are undergoing tectonic shifts.)

The silos go both ways. The keepers of the old traditions fear being supplanted by new ones, and the pioneers of innovation reject everything that came before, lest it dull the sheen of novelty.

We have a lot to learn from my insular classmates. Ask yourself:

  • What is the new model that scares or offends me?
  • What is the old tradition that’s available for me to learn from?
  • What am I labeling “other” rather than inviting in?
  • How can I dismantle my silo to infuse more creative vitality into my work?

1 Comment

  1. Great post!

    I think the othering is based in an ancient evolutionary instinct of creatures either swallowing or spitting out potential food items in their environment. The word “taste” holds this sense well. We are constantly tasting things in our environment, like our ancestors going back to single celled microbes, and then either taking them into our own being or rejecting them. I think its an important and essential challenge for all us humans to try to come to terms with our most basic and unconscious instincts, our evolutionary inheritance, which are the hidden influencers of so much of our thoughts and behavior.

    Reply

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