Music Revisited


by Jerome Grapel…….

(One of the great thinkers of the 20th century is the immortal Czech writer Milan Kundera. I was recently thumbing through his signature novel, a masterpiece called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, when I came upon a few passages I had underlined when reading it for the first time. I suppose I had done so because they so validated my own world view. When a consecrated genius like Kundera explains himself in a mirror-like fashion to oneself, it becomes an uplifting experience. At the end of this essay, which was written 15 years ago in Spain, I will present the reader with the aforementioned excerpts I had underlined).

(6/00, Spain)

For a person with an ebullient mind in a constant state of carbonated action, the luxury of being able to take two months of one’s life and devote it to whatever it is that moves you, without schedules to meet, jobs to do or obligations to fulfill, generally translates into a period of carefree observation. Being that an injury has kept me from participating in one of the more time consuming rituals of my life — tennis — I’ve had even more time to scrutinize life’s farce during my annual stay by the Roman Sea.

Such leisure time has consistently brought me into contact with the mutilated art form we call music. Music has become such an integral part of contemporary life that anyone in the habit of expressing their opinions (guilty!) would eventually have to touch upon the subject (see essay “Music”, and others). This essay is meant more to expand and clarify than to introduce totally new material. As the years have gone by, I’ve begun to realize that many of my original assumptions are still valid, this essay standing to corroborate some previous thoughts.

One of the things that has truly prejudiced music as an art form is its extreme accessibility. Our technology has brought music into every fold and wrinkle of our existence, so much so that its presence — be it at work, at home, in the car, at the beach, in the restaurant, at the doctor, in the elevator, on the plane, etc. — has almost become an unconscious part of the environment, like trees, cars, sunshine and electric wires. It’s almost to the point where one does not have to actually seek music, but rather, consciously try to escape it.

But the other art forms are accessible too, aren’t they?

Yes, all the various art forms with which people amuse themselves have become very accessible, but none are as passively assimilated into our existence as music. (The word “amuse” is important here. We should be “enriching” ourselves with art more than amusing ourselves.) One cannot make use of the written word without some degree of concentration. Even cinema or television demand a bit more focus than the purely audio experience of music. This combination of extreme accessibility and the passive nature of music’s inclusion in our lives, has degraded its use to such an extent — perhaps even brutalized it — that the nature of its mission has changed. More often than not, it is no longer the uplifting, passionate experience it was meant to be, but more a sedative or placebo that, at best, unconsciously gnaws into our lives. Rather than the gourmet, main course experience it once was, it has become the decorative parsley, uneaten and ignored, even though it is present.

To illustrate this point, I give you the following anecdote:

During my annual two month stay by the Roman Sea, I spend a good deal of time on a certain shaded “terraza” overlooking a lovely Mediterranean landscape already described in this mass of dubious philosophical patter (see essay “O.J.”). This terraza is an appendage of a bar-restaurant and it is not unusual for someone to spend the whole day at this locale, alternating between the small beach in front of it and the use of its services.

As the history of mankind has made its way into the present, it has become the general supposition that consumers of the vacation product appreciate a constant backdrop of musical intervention. (One now buys a vacation in much the same way one buys a tube of toothpaste.) The entrepreneurs responsible for this locale, not being ones to ignore their pecuniary well being, have dutifully provided this intervention with a discrete system of speakers through which their musical collection can be universally heard. Unfortunately, in one of the colossal technological blunders of the post-industrial economy, once a disc is placed in the apparatus that provides the music, it will continue to play until someone actually decides to remove it. I have personally been witness to days in which the same tape has … entertained? idiotized? hypnotized? tortured? … the same vacationing consumers for as much as 7 hours. It wasn’t until it had circulated for something like 10 times, that a humanoid, for reasons still beyond the grasp of modern science, decided to put an end to this Ming Dynasty of music.

What I have just described is not an isolated case. I have observed this phenomenon on numerous occasions and have never seen any bronzing consumer of sun and fun either solicit or complain about this repetitive musical backdrop. The music (or perhaps it would be more correct to say the “noise”) had been unconsciously assimilated into the natural environment, like the sun or wind, as if it had always been there.

It’s relevant to state that this is not an attack on the quality of the music. This is not a question of taste, style, or predilection. Perhaps the point of this essay is to show how irrelevant all that has now become; just so long as it is there, grinding away anonymously in the background … who cares what it is?

One can only imagine the disappointment Mozart or Beethoven would feel — or even Lennon or Dylan — if they could show up on the terraza and see how the art form they had invested so much time and energy in had become little more than a bodily function inserted so routinely and thoughtlessly into one’s life.

Excerpt from Kundera’s novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”:

(A man and woman are dining in a restaurant where some loud, rhythmic music is coming through the sound system. The woman seems annoyed.)

“Don’t you like music?” asks Franz.

“No”, says Sabina, and then she adds, “Maybe if I lived in a different time …” She thought back to when Johann Sebastian Bach lived, when music was like a rose that grew on an enormous snowy plain of silence.

This noise disguised as music has chased her since her infancy. She remembers when she studied painting in the Academy. The music was piped in through loudspeakers from early in the morning until 9 at night. Even though it was light and happy, it made her want to cry. It was impossible to escape, even in the bathroom or under the bedcovers, it was everywhere.

At the time she thought this musical barbarism only existed in the Communist world. When she went into exile, she found out this transformation of music into noise is a planetary process, one in which humanity is entering into an historical phase of complete ugliness. Its first manifestations have been an omnipresent acoustical ugliness: cars, motorcycles, electric guitars, drills, loudspeakers, sirens. The omnipresence of visual ugliness would soon arrive as well.

To order you copy of “Because You Never Asked” by Jerome Grapel click here.

Because You Never Asked

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