Saturday, March 10, 2012

Luxury and Austerity

The violinist Joshua Bell was just robbed a couple of days ago as a thief impersonated him and was able to get access to his room, getting away with a laptop, cash and a $38,000 watch. Here's the story. My sympathies go out to him. But that expensive watch gave me a bit of pause. Coincidentally, I had to wait around in an office yesterday for an hour and picked up a travel magazine. I haven't looked at a glossy magazine in, well, years. It felt like entering some sort of alien world where everything is topsy turvy. Everything is surface: luxurious rooms, furniture, villas in exotic destinations. 'Design' is paramount. And what is 'design'? Luxurious and perhaps ingenious surfaces. Here is a sample of luxury travel. This is the shower of one of those villas:

Putting these two things together, I suddenly recalled an album I owned years ago of Gustav Leonhardt playing Buxtehude on pedal harpsichord. The cover was a, to me, wonderful photo of Leonhardt playing in what I presumed was his studio. Everything was white and, except for shelves and shelves of books and scores--and the harpsichord, of course--the room was completely empty. The perfect music studio. The 'surface', that is, the presence of material objects, was absolutely minimal. But the air was filled with music. Here is the closest similar photo I could find:

Now I'm going to speculate here; I think that our lives tend to fill up with things: $30,000 a week villas in Mustique, $38,000 watches and all sorts of lesser clutter. All this crowds out those less material joys like music. There are different kinds of austerity and luxury. That photo above, for example, looks pretty austere until you imagine (or actually hear) the music that is filling the air.

But we can extend this further: aesthetic austerity can produce great works of musical art. Haydn was famous for making very little musical material go a very long way. Here is the opening movement of a string quartet that uses very little more than the interval of a falling fifth for material:

Another famous example is his 'London' Symphony:

Ironically, the more disparate ideas you toss into a composition the more likely it is to turn into an indigestible smorgasbord. Perhaps that's true of life as well?

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