"The Merest Set of Blocks"

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:
  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)
In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:
  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)

Retro LEGO add
Fat Brain Toys
Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham
One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!


  1. Even though I was sent home from piano lessons because I hadn't learned to read the notes I continued to love the piano. I loved using it to make a wonderful rain storm with thunder and everything!! It was a great way to put sound to stories in my head! Keep up the good work, Matthew. Love, Mom

    1. I'm sure there are more people than you might think who have been kicked out of the "club" of "official" music-making. I think it's so liberating to realize that music can be meaningful even when it does not have an "adult name." Artistic constraint is not the answer. :)


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