Art Has No Limitations

I remember how disappointed I was when I heard the last symphony of Beethoven’s 9 total.  I was 18 years old then.  One by one, I had discovered each symphony that I’d never heard before.  I would so look forward to hearing another symphony of his that I hadn’t heard yet.  I don’t remember what order I heard them in, but I still remember how sad I was that there were no more Beethoven symphonies to discover.

Then, a few years later I listened to the third symphony again.  For some reason, now I heard things in it I’d never heard before.  Then I heard the sixth symphony played live when I was in Ohio.  Again, I noticed sounds I hadn’t heard before.  When I told this to the conductor at the reception after the performance, he raised his eyebrows as if I were suggesting the orchestra played some wrong notes, which I wasn’t.

Then there is the ninth symphony.  For the longest time, I never understood the first movement.  I have struggled, trying to find a melody.  Melodies are so plain in the other works.  So even though I’d heard the first movement many times, I didn’t get it.  Then I heard a Cleveland Symphony Orchestra performance conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi.  His interpretation finally made sense to me.  Now, I had a glimpse of what Beethoven was doing in it.  I was hearing it for the first time, in a way.

I read a critic from Beethoven’s own time period, Carl Maria von Weber, who complained about the sustained “e” in the first movement, “Always that miserable e,” Weber writes and suggested that Beethoven must have grown deaf to the “e” and was now ripe for the madhouse.  That gave me a new way into the 7th symphony.  I listened intently and heard that sustained “e” I’d never noticed before.  It was like hearing the 7th for the first time.  And as I wrestled, trying to think up with horn lines for my own compositions, I listened intently to Beethoven’s orchestrations–yet another way to hear his symphonies afresh.

Beethoven wrote that the true artist could have no pride.  While he might be admired by a world-wide audience, he realizes that art has no limitations and awaits the time when the greater genius will shine forth like a blazing star.  Art has no limitations.  Great art holds so much that one can return to works of great art again and again and hear, see, read and experience it as if for the first time.  While my ear has listened to all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies, my soul hasn’t heard all that is in them.  I can keep coming back, and discover Beethoven’s 9 symphonies for the first time.

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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.”

Language Games and Interfaith

I had a striking experience with acupuncture yesterday.  Not only did the tranquility of my treatment relax my stiff muscles, it helped me with concentration, alertness, and mood–it put a spring in my step.  It accomplished all this as I lay on a table with a few needles in me, listening to meditative music with ocean waves.  My body healed itself.  Or as the Chinese doctor said, acupuncture restored the flow of ch’i in me.  The philosophy behind this treatment was to still my mind first, then my muscles would relax.

This got me to thinking.  Lying on the cot, stilling my mind and muscles, listening to quiet music made me think about life outside the doctor’s office.  The stillness, the absence of stimulation, all quieting my mind, relaxing my muscles.  Then there is the hectic pace, the over stimulation of our society, the noise.  If it is therapeutic to be in a still, quiet environment, is it still possible to live an ordinary life in society?  I saw that I would need to adjust my lifestyle, of course, and not let stress and stressors into my mind.  I thought about the tranquil Chinese music they played when I practiced T’ai Ch’i at another Chinese studio.  It would be as hard for me to listen to Chinese music, if I weren’t doing T’ai Ch’i due to its simplicity and meditative quality.  T’ai Ch’i, the acupuncture office, Chinese music are all products of a culture that values quietness, I think.

I thought about interfaith relations.  I am deeply committed to interfaith ideals and multicultural societies.  But what if being deeply immersed in a culture that values stillness and quiet is incompatible with other cultures that are more boisterous, aggressive, and confrontational?  I ask, can one be open to intercultural ideals while being committed, oneself, to a deep tradition and culture?  This is what Lyotard calls, “the heterogeneity of language games.”  What if music is more than aesthetic?  What if music embodies a cultural philosophy and ethics, like the Chinese music I heard at the T’ai Ch’i studio?  I like classical music, jazz, blues, and rock.  But these are aesthetic judgments.  These forms do not embody a western ethics or culture.  Beethoven composed in Vienna, but his music has world appeal.  But the Chinese music I heard reflects the ethics of stillness, meditative quiet, and tranquility of Chinese culture, I think.  It is akin to Palestrina’s choral music, which one could say does embody a Christian ethics.

Is it possible to live within the norms of a deeply held culture, and also hold multicultural ideals?  That would be quite a feat.  I once heard a Christian minister speak art an interfaith gathering.  She was so sensitive to interfaith values, and so anxious not to offend anyone, that she didn’t even pronounce the name, “Jesus.”  That is interfaith at its worst.  That is multiculturalism eroding one’s own norms and values.  Interfaith means different faiths living in mutual respect.  But can I live with the tranquil Chinese music and all that it represents, and also enjoy Z.Z. Top?  Or does one preclude the other?  One thing I do know, life is richer for me living in the multicultural city in which I live.  Without multiculturalism, a white man like myself wouldn’t have been able to experience Chinese healing.

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.