Friday, October 4, 2019

Somebody else's refrigerator

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, the second of two children to survive infancy. His musical talent was recognized early; soon he was touring Europe with his parents and sister. His first compositions came when he...

Are you snoring yet?

Let's try this again.

Salieri stared dully at the dagger in his right hand; then, with a cry, he thrust it into his chest and slumped forward...

I don't have this blog hooked up to any medical equipment, but if you are like most of us, your pulse quickened a bit as you read the second example. You probably wanted to keep reading it, even if I couldn't be bothered to make it sound a little less like a dime store novel.

It's not as if the first example doesn't get some readers. It's full of important information. Kind of. But the problem that remains goes to relevance. What does it matter to me (selfish being that I am) what year somebody else was born, even if he was Mozart? I see examples of this principle in action all of the time.

For instance, I learned a long time ago that most of my listeners never set foot on this website. Sites that offer searches for various composers or pieces of music will find stuff from all over the web. Then they "hotlink" to the recordings and play them from their own platform. In some cases they don't acknowledge where they got the recordings, but in others they offer a chance to visit the source. Most people don't take them up on it. They don't care where it came from, they just want the pretty sounds. A recording of Mozart is a recording of Mozart no matter where it comes from. Sometimes even the Mozart part doesn't matter, so long as it is pretty.

That explains why branding is so difficult. But there is another force at work. Information is not very exciting to most of us. It doesn't elevate the blood pressure, sharpen the senses, threaten our survival or promise quick reward. Besides, there is information and there is information.

As I type this, my wife is relating a story to a third party about something we learned yesterday while vacationing in Portland. Most of the narrative details involve the emotional reactions of the persons involved in a conflict that led to the creation of an Oregonian landmark. There are plain facts, but most of these are not a part of my wife's narrative. The story is woven out of human behavior. It is still factually correct, it is still history, but it is the kind of history that eschews names and dates in favor of feelings and desires. These are the things that swirl below the surface of each of us, and are common to everyone. Things we can relate to. Writing an opera by age 9 or a symphony at 4 or whatever is just like reading the accomplishments of somebody else's child on somebody else's refrigerator. The only thing we can remember afterward is being jealous.

When I taught a class on the movie Amadeus last year I observed that the dramatist had made a brilliant decision to see the play and then the movie through the eyes of Salieri, and his dark, brooding feelings. Had Schaffer done what most movies about composers do, which is to record the accomplishments of the composer, in chronological order, desperately trying to make up for the biographical nature of the film by making the love life as crashing as possible, Amadeus wouldn't have been half so interesting. Instead, he chooses for his protagonist someone to whom we can relate. Not because we've ever thought seriously about murdering someone (necessarily), but because Salieri's beef with God is that he doesn't think he got a fair deal. He was going to be chaste, industrious, and faithful, and God was supposed to make him the greatest composer ever. God cheated on the deal by making a loutish childish buffoon a better composer than Salieri. If you work hard you are supposed to succeed. This plainly isn't fair. Is there anybody who doesn't feel like life didn't deliver on everything they thought they had coming?

1756 is just a year. But feeling aggrieved is a basic drive. It dominates the entire inner world of huge portions of our citizenry. Even the relatively well-adjusted can't quite wriggle from its grasp.  Watching in rapt horror to see what Salieri will do next is what moves the film forward, not Mozart's next concert. It is a brilliant conceit. It is so good that Peter Schaffer can't help making it a part of the movie itself.

Mozart is trying to sell the concept of his next opera to the Emperor. Tired of operas with high-flown themes of gods and nobles, he sticks up for the common person. He says, "Who wouldn't rather hear from his hair dresser than Hercules?"

It's not just the alliteration that lands the line. It's the pitch itself. Salieri will never be Hercules.

But he makes a hell of a hair dresser.
go to to read/hear more this and every Friday.

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