One of my holiday books–a birthday present from my sister-in-law and her husband–is Keith Richards’ memoir Life. I understand I’m a little late to the party. I really did need to read Pete Townshend’s memoir first. But now I’m there, thanks to family and surviving another trip around the sun.
As many others have reported and experienced, it’s a terrific book. Those who are skeptical about Keith’s powers of recall after a life of storied dissipation have obviously neither seen him organize the ultimate Chuck Berry concert in Hail Hail Rock ‘n Roll! nor thought very deeply about the Rolling Stones. The man is whip-smart, generous of spirit, albeit sometimes dangerous of mood–and obviously, attractively so. He’s also tremendously insightful. So in the midst of all the stories of glory days and decades on parade, thrilling as they are, there are also extraordinary moments that reveal a spiritual intensity, and devotion to music, not unlike Pete T.’s own. Keith is quite open and compellingly articulate about his own search for the music of the spheres.
And along the way, I found a passage that reminded me, very strongly, of much of what I value about large parts of the open-education movement, those parts in which the activists are large and generous of heart. The passage celebrates records.
I’ve learned everything I know off of records. Being able to replay something immediately without all that terrible stricture of written music, the prison of those bars, those five lines. Being able to hear recorded music freed up loads of musicians that couldn’t necessarily afford to learn to read or write music, like me. Before 1900, you’ve got Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, the cancan. With recording, it was emancipation for the people. As long as you or somebody around you could afford a machine, suddenly you could hear music made by people, not set-up rigs and symphony orchestras. You could actually listen to what people were saying, almost off the cuff. Some of it can be a load of rubbish, but some of it was really good. It was the emancipation of music. Otherwise you’d have had to go to a concert hall, and how many people could afford that? It surely can’t be any coincidence that jazz and blues started to take over the world the minute recording started, within a few years, just like that. The blues is universal, which is why it’s still around. Just the expression and the feel of it came in because of recording. It was like opening the audio curtains,. And available, and cheap. It’s not just locked into one community here and one community there and the twain shall never meet. And of course that breeds another totally different kind of musician, in a generation. I don’t need this paper. I’m going to play it straight from the ear, straight from here, straight from the heart to the fingers. Nobody has to turn the pages.
Now of course there’s a great deal to criticize, modify, and otherwise nuance in this panegyric. And as a rock and jazz musician (barely, in most cases, but still) who can also read music and loves classical music as well as all the electrified (and otherwise popular) idioms, I do wish Keef were not so eager to trash the results of trained musicianship.
But still…. Listen to the melody of his words, and for “machine” think “networked computer,” and for “what people were saying, almost off the cuff,” think “blogging,” and for “how many people could afford that?” don’t contradict Keith with free concerts in the park so much as remember the nearly unavoidable class distinctions enforced by the experience of formal symphonic performances, and remember too that Keith was working-class and council-house through and through. Feel the liberation he’s feeling, and evoking. He’s honest enough to admit, readily, that not every note of recorded popular music is golden. But the care and thoughtfulness with which he evokes the experience of his own emancipation as a musician, and his deep gratitude for having this creative path, this mode of knowing and expression, opened to him–these, yes, are the deep and moving confessions of a person whose talent would not have found its glorious expression before this stage of technological development.
“And of course that breeds another totally different kind of musician, in a generation. I don’t need this paper.”
We are now at an interesting moment–yes, partly because of MOOCs and partly because of what web-builders and OER advocates and other educational activists have been doing for many years. And that moment could go in any number of good or bad directions. And “some of of it can be a load of rubbish,” and is. Yet I wonder if this interesting moment is like that moment in which recorded music began to breed another totally different kind of musician. I wonder if we have begun to see the beginning of a critical mass of varied open educational opportunities and experiences, and if we will breed another totally different kind of student, in a generation–or perhaps less. A student who doesn’t need this paper. A student for whom learning goes straight from the heart to the fingers, and back again. The formality of the experience isn’t necessarily bad. Keith’s story reveals his own hyperfocused, obsessive, diligent practice of his art. He is a scholar. But the scholarship was mediated differently, and his compositions too, and these would have been lost without the turn in the technology. This turn enabled deeply committed work to emerge. Musical notation can and does too, of course. That itself is a technology, like writing. Keith misses that. But he gets the need and the liberation, and the technology’s role in feeding both. He learned his music. And while music in its origins was learned without pages, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that Keith wouldn’t have made the connection with a culture half a globe away, the connection that opened himself to himself, and to us. For him, the records were open educational resources, and conveyed an openness of spirit within the medium that could not otherwise be conveyed, or shared.
Not always, and no guarantees. But perhaps often enough, if we think with at least some of the spirit Keith shares with us here, and keep searching for the music of the spheres, wherever and however it may be sounding.