Day 260: Traditional Music and Authenticity Redux

Last night, in a preconcert talk with Caravan, my improvisational trio, someone asked the question: "What is the hardest part of being a musician?"

My answer: Dealing with self-doubt.

This is not specific to musicians, of course. The writer Sylvia Plath one said, "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

Self doubt limits you, keeps you closer to the trunk and less far out on the limb, interferes with your ability to create freely because you're judging everything as it happens, and impedes your focus on the music. That little voice in your head sometimes speaks louder than the music you're playing. (By the way, the opposite is just as damaging. If that little voice is saying "Look at how great I am!" the audience will hear it, too, and they will vote.)

The world music trio presents a variety of opportunities for self-doubt. What we do is play music from numerous cultures and improvise on them. The problem is that each of these musics represents a discipline unto itself. A serious musician in any of the styles we play--Irish traditional, Brazilian baiao, African drumming, Middle Eastern, Indian devotional music, Turkish dance--spends a lifetime mastering his or her craft. It would be insulting to any of those traditional musicians to project that any one of our pieces is "authentic" to that particular tradition. What we do instead is borrow one or two organizing principles for each piece, then make music--improvised music guided by these organizing principles but informed by all of our collective musical influences.

For example, we opened last night with an Indian devotional piece. What was Indian about it was two things: the sound of the Sruti box, a drone machine that imitates the drone of the traditional tambura, and the organizational structure: starting on long, low notes and meditating on sound, gradually rising in pitch and intensity, then coming back down and returning to what you might think of as the "om." From the Indian side, we borrowed three things: the scale mode and tonality of the piece, the instrument (Sruti box), and the structure. But the ornamentation and the melodic ideas? All our own, informed by classical, Irish, jazz, Brazilian, and everything else all three of us have listened to all our lives. Our instrumentation: clarinet, soprano sax, classical guitar, and dumbek. Not Indian instruments. And the spirit of the piece and its inspiration: neither Indian nor anything else. Just human.

I have asked in rehearsal, in playing all of these styles, are we just "faking it?" Salil Sachdev, the drummer, related a story from a bass player he met at an improvisational conference he attended in Australia. Someone asked her about her influences. Her answer was, "You play what you are."

And perhaps that is a wiser view of authenticity: Play what you are. If you are playing in a traditional context, within a traditional style--for example, an Irish session--then one must follow certain rules: ornamentation, repertoire, instrumentation. But if one is in a free context that allows exploration, then the honest musical thing to do is to be honest and musical. Authenticity then is a question of being, not of adherence to musical genus and species.

There are several definitions of authentic. When we apply the idea to a thing, then authentic means that something is made just like the original; it is neither false nor an imitation. But we can also apply this to a human being, we mean that they are real, honest, genuine, not false, and steadfast. In good faith and sincere in intention.

And that's it: If one is sincere in intention, then there is no room for self-doubt.

That's where genre boundaries fade and music is made.