What’s Classical?

June 11, 2009

In Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (”The Silence”), two sisters stop at an unknown country, home to a strange language that has little in common with Occidental schooling. In their hotel room, the older sister (who is a translator by profession) fails in all her attempts to strike up conversation with a staff member; her inability to communicate sparks off a bout of undignified charade.

But what else could surmount the barrier between them? Culture, language, food – they’re all cleaved neatly with no room to forge familiarity. Later, however, the same sister strains her ears when she catches a melody played by the Hotel. She knows; for the first time in this country, she’s spotted an oasis of comprehension.
Bach?”she asks.
Bach!!” pounces the bellhop, himself relieved to find something in common with the strange foreigner. “Johann Sebastian Bach”, he announces with decidedly festive overtones. She knows Bach, she can’t be that foreign.
Even Bergman couldn’t conceive of a state grotesque enough to admit  an ignorance of Bach.

But we’ve all heard him. What was once an aristocratic privilege seems to have seeped into most corners of our diurnal routines – the elevator, the phone operator, and, of course, the tinkle that serves to underline the air-hostess as she prepares us for take-off (The polyphonic ubiquity of classical sonatas in cell-phones and flash animations are still wounds that throb from the 90s.)As early as 1920, George Squier made a business proposal out of this idea – he called it Muzak. Elevator music was born; and the average employee had listened to all Beethoven’s symphonies in six business trips.

Isn’t that a reason to celebrate? Like the color purple, starched collars, and finishing schools, music is no longer the preserve of a pompous gentry. The next great pianist could be Syrian, and his piano Sri Lankan. Surely, there are worse side-effects to modernity.
Except that there probably aren’t. It is hard to ignore that Gauss, Fermat, De Moivré, and many other giants building up the foundation of modern mathematics were connoisseurs – they recognized and savored the rigor and pattern that the carefully trained musician unleashed in a burst of creative passion. The notes that carved a coda were meditations for these great men; that they were able to meditate in this fashion followed from the pursuit of hard reason they subjected their minds to.
If Bach is remembered today (and not hundreds of his contemporaries), it is because of the tiny number of like-minded people who have turned up century after century. They were hardly aristocratic – except in the quality of their thoughts. There was no doubt a musical equivalent of Steven Seagal loitering among his peers; who caused greater comfort to theatre managers. But he isn’t remembered today, and neither are his listeners.


Keeping up with the Joneses

February 16, 2009


What is it about a fully grown life form that makes self-aggrandizement a rewarding pursuit?

False bravado and credible signals are both part of the mechanism where a jackal gets to mark its territory. It’s understandable to see it as hardwired into survival. Overt display of (attractive) physical characteristic- peacocks, is de rigueur in the mating game. Aquatic creatures, birds, animals, and human beings are all equated into this common denominator.

But which other animal gets turned on by flattery? Desperately looks for social acceptance?  Finds it far easier to claim false credit than accept the possibility of randomness in a purported achievement?

What is it about this collection of atoms that generates a collective high on receipt of any signal that another similar collection of similar atoms is ‘inferior’ – in one loose definition of ‘inferior’ or the other? What survival advantage does it entail? It surely brings about jealousy, rage, and other sub-optimal conditions in extending any lease on the blue planet.

If all of us have it (in some degree or the other), it must be a genetic legacy. As it turns out, all of us do have it – from Atticus Finch to Attila the Hun – some of us ‘succeed’ in curbing a basal emotion for  ‘better’ alternatives, and some don’t. A big chunk of major literature (over thousands of years, no less) is built up on it. Iago fed on it, Indiana Jones battled against it.

So why did it develop in the first place?  Is it something to do with the fact that our social groups evolved beyond basic needs towards a sophisticated marking of peer perspective as a utility measure? That’s the best I can come up with. 

I got pampered as an undergraduate getting music for almost free (as I do now). It doesn’t matter that Napster no longer rolls Music companies into Gordian knots (or does it?). There’s YouTube and metacafe, which seem to have burrowed a hole right under Tommy Mottola‘s bravado (On second thoughts, maybe he’s not that concerned. Perhaps not everyone matches up to the desis in being cheap).

It was music to all our ears when it played hard-to-get. There was so much more in chasing after it, and acquiring that piece of tape (Oh yes, we bought tapes back then). That tape, of course, was the keystone to a strange and sonorous world that was ours. Like Rome, it wasn’t built in a day. We discovered new voices that escaped the idiot box (and the idiots populating it).  There were sudden epiphanies that redeemed the hundred rupees a few thousand times over. We felt up little jingles that nested inside somewhere, sowed them over wastelands that were begging to drink them in.

And boy, did we reap what we sowed.

Now of course, we fret if it takes more than five seconds to find what we want – it’s either buried in an a small (but tagged!) universe, or up there on the great Video mother ship. The desire to listen isn’t as much an urge as an itch – we scratch it out as soon as it starts to bloom. And as happens with all scratches, we just end up whipping those cells that had an appetite. Those ones that asked for more. What Twisted minds we’ve developed.

PS: There are anomalies. Tony Peluso does this (at the end), and nothing can get me from playing him repeatedly on a tired laptop. But Tony Peluso did not twitter, and neither did he volunteer to enter  Big Brother. He lived when Led Zeppelin could afford to name their albums I,II,III,and IV.

Fifteen minutes wasn’t much in those days.