Friday, May 18, 2018

Goldfish Variations

Thinking, I've heard, is the art of connecting things.

If you want to be able to hear, to really listen to, classical music, it helps if you can make those connections. When the main tune comes back, or when it is altered, or when the subject of a fugue keeps coming around in different voices and guises, noticing those things helps us to acknowledge the structure, the musical argument, notice where we are in the story and guess what might happen next.

Bach is said to have articulated, upon hearing  a fugue subject, all the things that could be done with it, and then poked his son in the ribs gleefully upon having his suspicions confirmed. He must have been a pain in the backside to have as a father. (he was an active listener)

But the proverbial goldfish, with about 3 seconds of short-term memory, swims around its bowl, seeing the same rock over and over, thinking "what a lovely rock. I've never seen it before."

It isn't that a goldfish couldn't be soothed by Mozart's lovely noises, washing over the ear which it doesn't have, or that you or I could not put on some lovely string music in the background and be comforted by the sounds. But without some real understanding it is likely to bore if we try to give it our attention. This is, ultimately, classical music's problem. It isn't just virtuoso music. It needs a virtuoso listener.

This is a difficult thing on its own merits, but there is also a force pulling in the opposite direction.  Recognition of larger patterns, understanding the behavior of groups of notes--or people--isn't the coin of the realm. The ways of standard communication in this world are shock, and awe. If you are wise in the ways of clickbait you know what I'm writing about.

For instance, you might wonder why it is, if you are like myself, and are unsurprised by the current political situation in America, why the standard story among most media outlets is that nobody saw this coming. But the answer to that is that nobody is motivated to see it coming. Inevitability is boring. But if you are continually surprised by developments it gives you a chance to run another story next week in which you express your amazement at these surprising new developments, and take your audience along for the exciting ride.

In other words, the standard way to manipulate people is through strong emotional discharge. As in "you'll never believe number 5!" or "I was completely blown away by the surprise ending!" or "you'll be amazed" and thus want to watch the new series on television; never, "I saw it coming and you will, too, because you've seen plots like this before and if you are a skilled watcher you'll know what is going to happen next. Good for you. Now you can settle in and appreciate how the writer gets there." That would be reserved for a course in television appreciation, a course taught by an adjunct professor, not a person wanting to make money off of the attentions of as many people as possible--people who like to exercise their emotions, and their emotions don't appreciate being only a little surprised. They want to be maxed out. Nostradamus would not get a job at CNN. Or pretty much anywhere online.

Looking for large patterns, seeing things whole, and not being surprised by the local elements, is empowering. It fosters independence. And it is not something that people grasping for power and noteriety want to encourage among the rest of us. So Mozart will never become all that popular, unless the people selling him can convince you that your baby will become a genius by imbibing classical music in the crib. A few hundred points on the SAT? That's for suckers. It's genius or bust. Look how many ginsu knives I can get for 20 bucks. And they cut anything!

In his time, and since, Mozart, Beethoven, and all the people whose busts used to adorn music teacher's pianos, were accused of being too dry and intellectual. Even the ones we think of as having written music that has a high emotive content. Too complicated, folks complained. Even the educated ones. Even the ones who should have known better. These composers demanded a lot of their audiences. And, oddly, their music usually involves more emotional plot twists than their lessor known contemporaries. But they also force the mind to play a role. And that kind of ruins it for a lot of people.

It takes time to forge connections, and it is an uphill battle, against the properties of your own mind, against all the manipulative advertising of society, against the natural love of the brain for something it consistently refused to see coming. Our adrenal glands love being shocked and amazed, surprised by the same old eternal new. Even when its the same rock we've been circling for years.

If you were wondering why the symphony isn't making the charts that often, there is one reason. As transformative as the arts are, they can't match the continual thrill of feeling your existence threatened by loud explosions and bad guys at the movies, or the glee of seeing somebody wipe out on a skateboard in an internet video.

--Unless you're bored with that by now and want another way to cope with existence. Maybe it's not so outwardly exciting. Perhaps. But then, I don't know about you, my adrenal glands could use a rest. And just maybe, we'll discover something deeper and more brilliant among the inevitable but never quite knowable familiarity of the great works of art.

That's all for this week. Stay tuned for the next thrilling twist!

don't forget to check out this week's edition of for more articles and recordings.

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