What’s With Our Canon?

IMG_0143When I was first getting to know the man who would eventually become my father-in-law, I thought he was quite strange. His actions were unique and particular, and preservation (hoarding in my eyes back then) was one of his top priorities. For example: When Max the cat died, Steve placed the corpse in a plastic container along with photographs and a homemade DVD containing a digital memorial service. He then sealed the container and created a cement mold that would enclose it. By the time the entire process was finished, there was a cat-sized sarcophagus sitting in the back yard under a tree. After asking him what this was all for, Steve insisted it was important for future archeologists to clearly understand what had taken place. For quite awhile I thought this just to be a strange quirk of Steve’s, but then something hit me. Steve has been creating his own kind of “canon” in the most accurate way he can.
Let me try to explain why this strange cat story I just told you can be transitioned into a musical conversation. People interact with canon everyday, including musicians. The things we do on a day-to-day basis are molded by the canon that has been created ever since music’s inception. This idea in itself raises an important issue: Are we as careful as we can be when creating our canon?
Leonora Saavedra’s 2001 dissertation explains that Robert Stevenson’s Music in Mexico remains the only single volume book ever published on the history of Mexican music. Why should a country like Mexico, who’s history is as rich and eventful as many other’s, have such a neglectfully documented musical canon? Because of this, musicologists and students are paying the price. Research and study of Mexican music is difficult due to lack of scholarly sources, and finding those sources takes a great deal of time.
Another subject in question is the issue of canonic accuracy. Philip V. Bohlman’s essay Musics and Canons explores the topic of canons from multiple focus points, but one argument he raises that intrigued me was the possibility that canons may be false to a certain extent. All we often have to rely on is what people who are long gone documented about a certain topic. What if the information is blatantly incorrect or stretched to an extent to make it artificially more interesting? The only way to fact check something like this is to observe primary sources, which we often don’t have.
I believe my cat-mummifying father-in-law is up to something. We could make life so much easier for future scholars by being more cautious with how we create our canon. The more information we leave behind, the better, and if we can strive to make that information reflect on our time with pinpoint accuracy, we’re golden. There’s a saying that a person’s legacy is all they have to be remembered by. Let’s think deeper as we lay that legacy down.

-Nathan Black



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