Visit to a Barber
The other day I had an 'enforced' chance to sit quietly and listen to some music. For the past half-year or so, my days have been very full, as running our new business doesn't leave me with much 'quiet time', and when you add in the fact that I get nearly no time at all at my own workbench these days, music has pretty much dropped off my radar.
But being forced - twice in the past ten days - to sit still in one place for about nine hours straight (you can easily guess what I must have been doing) gave me a chance to put my nice headphones on, fire up a favourite playlist on my ancient iPod, and get reacquainted with some old friends.
In a situation like this where other people are sitting close by, you can't play music that is particularly loud or boisterous, so I chose a selection of what might be described as 'relaxing classics'. There was a bit of Albinoni, some Puccini, and then - the playlist was on random shuffle - I was pleased to hear the arrival of an old favourite, the Adagio by Samuel Barber.
This piece isn't actually all that 'old' of course, having been composed in the 20th century, but Barber was able to do something that not every classical composer could do - certainly very few of his 20th century compatriots - and that was to produce an iconic piece of music, one that all fans of the genre recognize as being something out of the ordinary, one that somehow stands apart from anything else created in a similar time and place.
When I was a young classical music student, I was surrounded by ugly and 'fractured' contemporary music, and it seemed to me that the genre had pretty much been 'used up'; there seemed to be nothing more to be said, and the dearth of 'beautiful' modern music had been a major factor in my leaving the field.
But as I listened to the Barber piece the other evening I was struck by a curious thought. What if Samuel Barber had never existed? Such a thing is easy to imagine - perhaps his father had never met his mother, for example. The 'Adagio for Strings' would never have been put down on paper, never been played by a string quartet, never have reached our ears, and seemingly would not exist.
But that particular combination of notes, harmonies, and rhythms would of course still be there in the realm of 'things just waiting to be noted down ...', if you see what I mean. It was 'there', ready to be composed; we have proof of that in its present existence.
So that of course leads to an obvious question - what other wonderful iconic music is just sitting there, waiting to be noted down? My thesis that music has been 'used up' is perhaps fallacious; what has presumably been used up is the particular set of social circumstances that brought a man like Barber through a certain type of upbringing and training, provided a platform for him in which to work, and - not incidentally - provided an audience receptive to his ideas.
Today's culture provides a very different set of circumstances, and the 'Barbers' of today are reaching out into that realm of possibilities and pulling down notes and phrases that form a quite different type of result. I suppose this is how it has always been, and how it always will be. You might make the argument that every culture gets the music (and other arts, of course) that it deserves.
That's all very well, and quite logical, but aren't artists supposed to lead, not follow? Perhaps that is where our age differs from previous times. These days it's far more common to hear it the other way around - to hear that 'art reflects society'. That is a huge sadness for me, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity. I will of course never create anything like an 'Adagio for Strings', but in our era full of ugly, fractured, and meaningless 'art' the world is positively hungry for beautiful, interesting, and meaningful things.
And that ... I can do.
Story #491, May 24, 2015
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