The future of orchestras
The unexamined life

Recontextualization and new experiences

I've been thinking about recontextualization lately--how removing something from its usual context and putting it into another can reveal a whole lot about that thing. A couple of musical examples:

For a while, I had a hard time understanding why so many of my friends loved Frank Zappa. I listened and tried, but just couldn't get into it--his melodic sense is so frenetic, his sense of structure seemed kind of random, the general aesthetic of his sound kind of bothered me--mainly because it's so different. But then I heard an album of a Renaissance/early Baroque period instrument consort playing Zappa--and it was fascinating.

It was interesting on a lot of levels, but for me, it really laid bare Zappa's writing. By translating his music into a completely different sound world, a new idiom, it was actually revealed more clearly to me. I was able to pay attention to the composition itself without all of the idiosyncrasies of style and performance that Zappa and his musicians brought to the original recordings--and I loved it. So I've since gone back and re-listened to several of those Zappa albums that used to grate, and now I really like them. Go figure--hearing his music on 17th century instruments helped me hear it on 20th century instruments better.

Another musical example would be the album I recommended earlier, Alarm Will Sound's "Acoustica". They play Aphex Twin's electronic music in an all acoustic ensemble. It's pretty excellent--I'm already sold on electronic music, so didn't have a similar experience as I did discovering Zappa. But I think others might.

One of the things about new experiences that can make them especially difficult is that they are, well, new, and strange, and that makes us uncomfortable. With music, it can be an aesthetic (the quality of the sounds themselves) that makes a listener uncomfortable, it can be content (too dense, doesn't make sense; too sparse, is boring; etc.); my point is that it's how that new experience is different from what's in our comfort zone that can make us uneasy.

(Some of you don't have a problem with this, and may be completely fearless when it comes to trying something new, meeting new people, moving into new situations, etc.; you're lucky!)

And I find that, sometimes, moving ideas into a more familiar context can make them less strange, and easier to experience and enjoy. That, in turn, can build a bridge between what you know and are comfortable with, and something completely foreign. Which is a good thing.

I find this is true in life, too: I've recontextualized myself in a big way twice so far, once when I moved from my hometown to go to graduate school, and then when I moved all the way out to California for my job. And let me tell you, being in entirely new places, around all new people--none of whom knew anything about me--in different cultures (yes, America has different cultures), taught me a great deal about myself.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? Learned something new about something (or someone) familiar, by being in a new situation, activity, or place? Discovered some creative work in a familiar setting, that led you to discover new things?



Definitely. I heard the old jazz standard "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans" played by the Oscar Peterson Trio with Niels Pedersen playing the melody on bass, and it completely reversed my opinion of the song. In the trio context, and with those specific players, I found the song a lot more engaging.

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