2007-04-04

Punk Rock, Science, and Zoot Suits

When I was fourteen my identity pretty much focused on my abilities as a dirt biker; music wasn't much of a factor in my life. My older brother, on the other hand, was a hard core punk rocker. I remember visiting him in the early days of the Vancouver punk rock scene. The parties were something else. Those punk rockers were a wild looking group of people, with spiked mohawks, chains, and lots of leather. The funny thing was, after I got to know them, I realised they were just regular people. They had the same concerns as anyone else, well, except for having to worry about their hair poking friends in the eye. The music did take a little getting used to. In time I realised the music was more than just a song, it was a statements of philosophy; it was the ideals of punk rock in musical form. These songs exemplified the ideas that you don’t have to follow the normal patterns and that you don't have to know what you're doing; just get out there and do it. By not learning, and even actively rejecting, the established norms, punk rockers experimented with musical forms. Most of what they came up with was junk; no one but a punk rocker would ever choose to listen to it. Some of the music, on the other hand, was good in a “mainstream” music kind of way. The current “alternative” music scene grew from punk rock roots.

Classical music, on the other hand, is completely different from punk rock; it is the study of form. Students start by learning the fundamentals of music, the scales, and slowly work their way up learning from the masters that came before them. Eventually, these students become masters and know everything there is to know about the special musical area they have followed a path to. Each new master then begins to experiment with variations, trying to expand the form beyond what the past masters had achieved. Thus classical music grows as each successive master adds a little something new; each extends the form a little bit farther.

Academic knowledge is much the same as classical music. Each scholar learns from the masters that came before and, after learning everything in a particular area of study, the scholar masters the field and then works to extend the knowledge. Students will specialise with each branch they take until they have mastered a very specific field of study. These new masters, having learned everything there is to know about the behaviour of neutrinos in high energy accelerators or the works of a particular eighteenth century British author, for example, will then begin research to expand the knowledge in that area. In this way, the body of knowledge in a particular area of study grows with each master.

Punk ideals can also work in the pursuit of knowledge. When academics only learn from the work of others, who came before them, then other possible paths may be hidden. By actively choosing to not learn, or even rejecting, what others have done and experimenting on their own, individuals may come up with knowledge that others have overlooked. Sure, most of what these individuals come up with will be junk, or will have been done before, but there is always the chance that they will come up with something new. When individuals reject established knowledge then they create a path for new or innovative thinking. Just like the “alternative” mainstream music scene, a few individuals, willing to explore ideas in an unconventional way, can open up a whole new area of knowledge.

There is room in this world for classical music and punk rock. There is room for stodgy academics to master obscure fields of study and room for flaky individuals to reject established knowledge in favour of their own experiments. All are valid pursuits; all benefit society. Each form suits particular individuals. Some people excel at learning from past masters; others must go their own way. To some, the study of music forms the foundation of their lives. To others, the pursuit of knowledge is central. To each their own and in their own time. People change too; the flaky experimenter may grow to follow more formal academic pursuits or the stodgy academic may come to reject established knowledge. Visiting my brother in Vancouver a while back, we went to another party. I recognised quite a few of the same people I knew from the punk rock parties of the past. Gone were the spiked mohawks, chains, and leather, in favour of zoot suits and wing-tip shoes. There were no electric guitars, synthesizers, or screaming amplifiers, just pianos, saxophones, and double-basses beating out the rhythms of swing-jazz. At first I was a little shocked and asked my brother about it. He laughed and said “After decades in the music scene they’ve become experienced professionals.” I had to agree as they were excellent musicians. I had a good time that night; they’re still a great bunch of people.

1 comment:

Dory said...

Thanks for writing this.