Monday, July 21, 2008

On Beauty in Music

Two weeks ago, when Jesse Helms passed away, I was astounded by one of the three issues constantly mentioned in obituaries:

1. He was a old-school, hard-line conservative
2. He was a Southern gentleman who, although dubbed "Dr. No" in the Senate, always had good manners

(and then the one that astounded me)

3. He fought, in the words of the New York Times obit, "against civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art."

That's right, to his dying day he was remembered for opposing federal funding for the arts because some of the money went to artists he didn't like. And what didn't he like? Anything that wasn't, in his definition, beautiful, including the marvelous Calder mobile "Mountains and Clouds" that sits in the Hart Senate Building's atrium.

I spend most of my days trying to convince people that art, specifically music, does not have to be beautiful, that it can usefully serve other purposes. Some of the most affecting art I know is not beautiful classically or popularly. It achieves its power by causing us to listen closely in new and unexpected ways to the world around us. Then, when it has gotten us to stop and listen, it brings us into empathy (harmony, if you don't mind the unintentional pun) with a view we've never considered. With conventionally beautiful art, I find that we allow our ears to, in Charles Ives's memorable phrase, sit back in an easy chair. We don't expand ourselves in any way, but reinforce prejudices we've had since we were teenagers.

The result of this view has been, to my mind, a segregating of music off from life. There are a variety of ways we do this - we let other people do our music, missing the vital role it can play in healing us and creating family and community; we constantly surround ourselves with music like a warm fuzzy blanket that we then leave in the background, let it subtly affect us but rarely engaging with it directly; we rarely discover what music actually has to say about the human condition. I was teaching about Meredith Monk this morning and found these strong relevant words from her about the state of art and music in the United States:

"Here, art has become a commodity rather than a way of life. It is thought of as a diversion rather than an essential need. … What we need to do in America now is to fight for our right to jump off the cliff; to create a climate that affirms the ability to take risks; to demand recognition, from the top, that art is a vital and pungent force in our lives. Art, even the most irreverent, is a vivid response to the time in which one lives. … It is possible to learn from each other, affirm each other, dissolve boundaries both between the art form and between cultural communities. Art should be a reflection of our rapidly changing world and our concern for the future of the planet."

Take a chance and take a listen. You never know what you'll hear.

No comments: