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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Other Things that Take Effort

When you work hard, you’re tired.  Sometimes all you can do is vege in front of the tube, maybe pass out, and go to bed.  But you’re not always that worn out.  Often, we stay up for a while and wile away the time.  How we wile away time matters.

One day-off I was sitting in an easy chair, feeling lazy.  I hadn’t worked that day and had, basically, the whole day ahead of me.  I felt too lazy to listen to Beethoven on my iPod, or jazz, and settled for classic rock.  I don’t mean to disparage classic rock at all.  It’s good.  But it doesn’t require much effort to listen to.  It doesn’t sound right, but Beethoven or Bach seem to require listener effort.  At least concentration, which takes effort.  Even Beethoven’s 6th required more effort than I had in me that day.

But I criticize myself for my laziness.  Vegeing in front of  TV, or letting classic rock pass time is a cheat of the soul.  Now we can’t and shouldn’t only listen to Beethoven or read Shakespeare or David Hume.  But I need to rise to Beethoven’s intonation in some moments.  My life is blessed when I do listen to him.  Or when I am able to read Shakespeare.  Hume isn’t hard, he just requires a lot of time.  And the point is, I need to make time for them all.

Erik Erikson writes about a late stage of development called “Generativity versus Stagnation.”  It’s a stage in life when we are concerned with passing on wisdom to the next generation.  It seems to be hitting me.  Symphony halls can’t make a go of classics, so they are playing “pops” and other light music to keep their doors open.  In my hometown, it’s hard to find concerts that I want to go to, meaning Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Copeland, et. al.  I talked with a biology student who was forced to read Shakespeare.  She complained to me why they wouldn’t let her read something more contemporary.  Jazz venues are closing.  Two undergraduate girls at a prestigious university couldn’t tell me who came first, Moses or Jesus.  While my personal problem is getting my lazy butt up to giving Beethoven the listening he deserves, my fear for society is that all these things are being sloughed off by indifference, apathy, ignorance.

I’m not just complaining about passing on my generation’s likes to the next.  I believe that the individuals I mention, and others of a like kind, have a precious gift to humanity.  Losing them is like losing a part of the human soul.  But then again, contemporary philosophy teaches that there isn’t a soul, never was one.  I’m not at the point of despair yet.  Maybe closer to alarm.  And that includes alarm at myself, too.  I hate to think I’m sinking into a laziness that doesn’t have the energy to put on a Beethoven symphony.  Even the death march in his his 3rd.

Strange Conversation in a Music Store

“Man, did I get wasted last night!”

“I was listening to a sensitive performance of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony on the radio.  It really moved me.”

“I was doing V.O. shots.  And reds.  Man, did I get wasted.”

“I’ve been practicing Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue when there aren’t any customers.  I can play the Toccata though, but I’m only beginning the Fugue.”

“I was beyond high.  I was WAS-TED!”

“The keyboard is the most graphic representation of music of any instrument.  All the tonal relationships are there in the keys, visibly.”

His interlocutor shook his head, “Say what?!  So do you want to go into the stock room and get high?”

“Doesn’t it make you paranoid to deal with the public when you’re high?”

“No.  Because you know you’re high and they know you’re high and you sell them organs.”

“OK.”

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.