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.


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.

I remember strutting with a puffed chest into the music store. I’d have waited for that moment for typically a month, and would first feast myself on the treasures up for public viewing . I’d drive anyone who made the mistake of accompanying me completely bonkers, but then, the first hour wasn’t meant even to choose, let alone buy.

And boy, did I hold on to my treasure after that. I’d play everything once, after lingering on to what got me hooked in the first place. Then I’d go again, discover something that lit up a new cranial corner. And more, even more till I’d chewed that album into my mental stream of consciousness. Each time something played, an audio field crystallized and let each note fit snugly into an assigned place. I’d associate guitar licks with visits made and solo vocals with new entrants into the family. The Cranberries were no longer just an Irish band; they were packages of tightly bundled emotions triggered through the two ampere socket.

I ‘d often feel the same anticipation(and dewdrop freshness) wafting over me after some months( or years) when I’d happen to stub into a piece of that experience. At a friend’s place, flipping television channels, or just honking up the irritating jaywalker(what is the car next to me playing?). It was a juggle-fest; listening memories leaped back-and-forth from the left brain to the right. Action to reaction, intent to intuition. Until that point where I stopped listening and began feeling.

Sigh. That was when I used to pay for my music. With money, that is.

Now, of course, I don’t have to fret about experiencing that haunting (and teasing) riff I caught somewhere. I don’t need to sweat and grumble at the Neanderthals next door passing off as music store owners (Does that profession sound Kafkaesquely oxymoronic now?).

I blow the Google bugle. Unless , of course, I find it on youtube.

And I never listen to it again. Or associate it with my cousin’s new puppy. Or drive it into a classmate’s unwilling hippocampus.