Art and Societal Constraints

I was moderately upset today when the classical music station where I live played only two movements of a Beethoven String Quartet.  The String Quartet is meant to be heard as a whole, not in pieces.  All four movements relate to one another and make a musical whole.  We live in an impatient world, with short attention spans, craving for instant gratification, short cuts in the movies we watch, sound bites, Twitter snippets–everything packaged in tiny packets that take up less and less time.  And our short attention span reflects these tiny packets of data.

How many people have an hour and a half to listen to the whole B-Minor Mass of Bach?  45 minutes to listen to a Beethoven symphony?  Does my classical radio station need to chop up whole pieces to package music in small bites because of today’s short attention span?

Maybe.  Our world is different than the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine a world with no TV.  No radio.  No internet.  No cell-phones.  No electricity.  Can you imagine such a world?  That’s the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine what time, and pass-times would be like then!  I imagine that people in such a world would have a lot of time to kill.  How long could the nobility just chat, who had no job they had to go to to fill up their day?  I imagine they would welcome a 50-minute string quartet they could listen to in someone’s chamber.  On Sundays, everyone had to go to church.  Then what?  No football games to watch.  Why not hang around the church and hear a musical mass for another hour.  Why not a cantata?  Why not a 20-minute prelude and fugue before the preacher?  They had the time.

The fact is, people in the 18th and 19th-century did have an hour and a half to listen to Bach’s B-Minor Mass.  They wanted a 50 minute symphony.  But we need to carve out time specially if we want to listen to a whole string quartet.  I’ve only heard the whole B-Minor Mass once, and it was a live performance.  As it happened, it was on a Sunday afternoon, too.  It was really rewarding.

The social forces today are different than those of Beethoven.  We can wile away time mindlessly glued to the TV, as I often do.  But I do, on occasion, set aside an hour or two in order to live with sublime art.  Art that was generated by a society that time to kill.  Art from a society much different than ours.  This blog could be considered deconstruction, if you like.

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Worship and the Limits of Reason

I have had few instances when music has really affected me in a worshipful way, and taken over my consciousness.   I don’t mean the times when I listen to Beethoven’s 9th, and I am moved to tears.  Or when I respectfully listen to Bach’s B-minor Mass, and am moved.  No.  Recently I have experienced Handel’s Messiah and choked back the tears through the whole concert, when I wasn’t smiling with happiness.  And just a few nights ago, I attended part of a worship service at a Sikh Gudwara and found the experience overwhelming.

By virtue of my membership in an interfaith organization, I am able to travel to different places of worship and learn about their religion and experience, sometimes, their rituals (and eat their food).  Upon entering the worship space of the Gudwara, we went to the front and did obeisance.  That meant I knelt down and bowed my forehead to the ground.  The power of that gesture was astounding.  I got right back up, but afterward felt I wanted to have remained bowed down longer.  Then I sat down on the floor, and listened to the trio playing Indian ragas.  We were invited to pray to whatever God we worshipped.  I started off with my customary thinking, but very shortly was overwhelmed by a feeling of forgiveness and religious ecstasy.  I drank in the repeated musical motifs of the ragas as if I were chanting.  And my mind emptied as my soul allowed the worshipful experience to happen in it.  I even had an inner vision of Christ on the cross, although my tradition celebrates the risen Christ.

My own faith is about as rationalistic as faith can get.  But my experience of the Gudwara and also other places like a Ukrainian Orthodox Church have suggested to me that rationalism can only go so far.  The power of good ritual can last even after the ritual is over.  I can still mentally go back to the Gudwara experience as its sublime remains in my consciousness, soul, and heart.  And I can remember my startled feelings when I stepped out of the Ukrainian Church, with all its icons, into the ordinary world.  How drab and lifeless everything looked.  My Protestant faith taught me that religion resides in the mind; and it taught me to be suspicious of external rituals.  But I don’t think it got it all right in that.  There is immense power in ritual.  And there are limits to reason.