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.


A twelve year old (economically disadvantaged) Tanzanian Kid, with some self-control, and a desire to break out of poverty can do these with an internet connection today, after he has equipped himself with basics of English language.

  1. Just sit back and explore the wonderful access that MIT provides. He doesn’t need to walk around his village trying to figure out what he wants to do; if he’s got time to spare in the late evening, he just needs to point his browser at MIT’s open source website, and start exploring architecture, engineering, health sciences, humanities, management ,science, and a variety of cross-disciplinary topics. If he’s interested, there’s a treasure trove of information inviting him out there.
  2. Complement what’s being taught at High School; there are a bunch of short-term courses available at OpenLearn, and if he walks into his class with the perspective he gains from here – there’s so much more he can build into himself.

Actually there’s so much more. StingyScholar keeps track of what is actually up on the web that’s available free of cost for the motivated learner.

How did I bump into this? They wrote a great review for MotionMountain.How did I bump into Motion Mountain?  Ha – that’s actually a good one.

I found it on Scribd. That’s (one more!) great portal for a document collection – I was actually searching to see if they’d have Herman Hesse’s (I think last) book – The Glass Bead game. (As it turns out, they do have one which isn’t downloadable. If you’re motivated enough, you can read it online in a ppt kind of format. I did not find it in the bookstore I generally visited – I asked twice for it. I just went from the book to another book to George Polya and Terence Tao, and stumbled serendipitously across what has just been the major part of this blog).

I don’t think we’re all that us-versus-them congenitally. The web erasing those boundaries – it is really a silent revolution(  well, not so silent if you listen to Music companies, Book Publishers, and Movie Production Units- not the best thing to happen to them,perhaps).

What’s happened is that there is so much more reason to grow into whatour experiences mould us into; and not the ghosts of our ancestors’ travels. I say ghosts, because Desis like me are typically taught to revere the past – with objectivity that could fit into a (Swadesi MRF) tyre tread.

Are we all on the way to becoming world citizens, then?

I doubt it. We’re still, well, humans. By and large, we tend to be quite selfish, and quite good at transferring that mindset onto the planet. We need to, right; being blessed with large cranial sizes and effective hippocampa (or is it hippocampuses?).

But our environments and societies will cease to be as significant as they were in determining our predilections. There’s a melting pot of left, right, and centre waiting to feast on potentially, every dinner table on the planet.

PS: That wonderful photograph I filched from here. Do check out more there; some of it is copyrighted