Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Art of Living Well

Sometimes I put up a post and worry that it will only appeal to a limited number of readers. Other times I put up something and worry that it is not sufficiently about music. This is going to be one of the latter. But hey, why worry! The great thing about blogs, and why they have more flavor than the mass media, is that everything isn't put through some kind of screen. I love the blogosphere because you never quite know what you are going to run across: a private rant that might offer a perspective you never thought of before, arcane technical details you never dreamed of, personal reminiscences or fresh analysis.

About ten years ago I cancelled my cable TV. I just couldn't stand the idea of spending one more minute listening to station announcements, commercials and hashed and re-hashed numbskull commentary. The blogosphere is a hundred times more interesting than television.

So what's the topic for today? Loosely, how to live well and, if I am lucky, I will tie this into music somehow.

I've talked before about how money is merely an instrumental good. What this means is that, while money is certainly a good and an essential one, it is not a good or end in itself. Money can buy you good things or bad things. It can be spent well or poorly. This is what it means to be an instrumental good. The interesting thing is that you can live well despite not having as much money as you would like.

Let me give you an example. I tend to eat out quite a bit through laziness and lack of time to shop. There are some good restaurants who reliably turn out a good meal, but one week I just got unlucky. My usual haunts were just not up to snuff and I went almost a week without having what I would call a good meal. So I went to the grocery and bought the ingredients for coq au vin, a French dish that is quite easy to make. The secret is to use a decent bottle of pinot noir. Here is a pretty good recipe, but you really don't even have to marinate the chicken. Just fry up some bacon in a big heavy pot, brown the chicken, take it out, sauté the vegetables, put the chicken back, pour the wine over and simmer for 45 minutes. I like to just throw in quartered mushrooms and simmer another fifteen minutes. That's pretty much it. Serve with little boiled potatoes. There really isn't anything difficult about it. But you rarely get good coq au vin in a restaurant because it takes too long.

So, one rule of living well is to know how to cook a few good recipes. Cooking doesn't demand a lot of complex skills. If you can chop an onion, you can cook. What it does require is a nose, some knowledge and taste--taste in the sense of "bon gout". What François Couperin said was required to play the harpsichord well. Knowing how to phrase, how to deliver elegant ornaments, how to roll a chord and how to choose the right tempo. In cooking it is knowing when something is just done and not overdone (very important when cooking fish), knowing how hot to have your frying pan, knowing how much salt to add. I said "nose" above, because you can tell a lot by smelling the food as it is cooking. The "taste" part comes in partly from, yes, tasting the food as you cook, but even more in knowing what to cook. Knowing that you can throw together a decent coq au vin.

Partly it is having the right ingredients and the right tools. You have to have a good sharp chef's knife. A cast-iron frying pan well-seasoned is good. I just bought a Belgian waffle iron. But really, you don't need to spend much money to have what you need. The most important thing is knowledge of what you could cook and how to do it and also good taste. Bon gout.

Here is where I can cross over into music aesthetics, because it is really the same thing. Being able to recognize a decent meal and a good piece of music are not so terribly different. You can live well in terms of food with knowledge and taste and the same is true of music. To push the metaphor to where I want it--right over the top!--listening to the kind of stuff that is blared out at you every day from the mass media is like always eating at MacDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Taco Bell! Salt and fat, salt and fat, salt and fat! And carbs, let's not forget carbs.

You can develop both knowledge and taste and learn how to eat much better by cooking for yourself and being more discriminating about where you eat. Again, it's not a question of money. It is not expensive to cook a good meal at home and there are excellent modestly-priced restaurants just about everywhere. The same with music: a bit of knowledge and taste can lead you to music that is far more satisfying than what is blasted out at you.

Ah yes, that is the real goal of this blog! I know that a lot of very knowledgeable people read this blog, but it is really aimed at those who want to know more and develop their taste.

Knowledge and taste are intimately connected. You need to know some music before you can develop a taste for it. You need to develop enthusiasms and dislikes. Have opinions! But recognize that all opinions are no more than that. Allow your opinions to develop and change as your knowledge and taste grows.

Learning how to have satisfying musical experiences also doesn't need to cost much. It used to be that you needed a pretty decent stereo and a record collection. But now? A computer, even a laptop, with some reasonably good speakers is all you need. YouTube contains more music than you could ever listen to in a dozen lifetimes. If you have a desktop iMac, the built-in speakers are pretty good. Otherwise, you can buy external ones starting at $12! If you want really good quality, Bose speakers start at around $100. Compared to what a good component stereo used to cost, that's cheap.

And if you want to learn about music, just go to the Internet. There are a lot of good articles in Wikipedia including ones on every composer you can think of. If you get very interested in a particular composer, you are going to have to buy some books as what is on the Internet is limited. But it is a good place to start. And it is absolutely free.

I think I have made my point. Living well does not require a lot of money. In fact, I am pretty sure a lot of rich people lead pretty miserable lives. Living well means eating good meals and that means knowing where to find a good meal or how to make it yourself. It also means being able to appreciate art, including music. Otherwise, you live your live at the mercy of hucksters, frauds and commercial interests. Fast food franchises fulfill an important role, but you should not mistake the food they offer for real quality. Commercial popular music also fulfills an important role, but again, you should not mistake that kind of music for real quality.

Let's end with a great piece of music. This is the second movement of the Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki:

I highly recommend the Wikipedia article on this symphony that I linked above.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times catches up to The Music Salon:,0,3517116.story

No comments: