Monday, March 11, 2013

What Are We Missing?

A couple of years ago Linda Holmes had an interesting essay on NPR titled "The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything." Well, sure. Right at this very moment I am missing all manner of concerts, recitals, performances, shindigs and hootenannies. Here is the core of Linda's argument:
You used to have a limited number of reasonably practical choices presented to you, based on what bookstores carried, what your local newspaper reviewed, or what you heard on the radio, or what was taught in college by a particular English department. There was a huge amount of selection that took place above the consumer level. (And here, I don't mean "consumer" in the crass sense of consumerism, but in the sense of one who devours, as you do a book or a film you love.)
Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you're well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.
Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It's the sorting of what's worth your time and what's not worth your time. It's saying, "I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it." It's saying, "I read the last Jonathan Franzen book and fell asleep six times, so I'm not going to read this one."
Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn't have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, "I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I'm supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn't get to."
She doesn't like the idea of culling and prefers the idea of surrender. Frankly, the distinction appears incoherent to me. It is as if she has absorbed the idea that "canons" are bad, but why exactly is unclear. I don't want to blurt out that 90% of everything is crap, a principle credited to L. Sprague de Camp, but it is certainly the case that not everything is equally worth our attention. For some reason she wants to avoid this simple idea. Long, long ago I came to the realization that if there were eight films playing at the multiplex and I saw one that was really terrific, I would be happier seeing it a couple more times than going to see all the others.

It's the same in music. Do I need to listen to the complete oeuvre of Blue Cheer, one of the early heavy metal bands from the 60s?

Mercifully, no. Do I really need to be familiar with Australian new age relaxation music?

Thank goodness, no! But why not? The plain truth is that there is nothing in Blue Cheer that is not better conceived and executed in many other bands. And the same for the Aussie new age stuff. This is really very generic. The opposite of generic is something that is brilliantly imagined and put together. Something that really captivates and remains fresh for a very long time. Something that is individual, unique.

Even eliminating, or 'culling' all the dreary stuff still leaves us with an enormous amount to listen to. But we can stop torturing ourselves that we are missing "almost everything." Most of "everything" you would be better off missing! I was talking to a player in a fine string quartet a while back and she admitted to me that she would be perfectly happy playing nothing but Beethoven quartets. Well, yeah! There is no other composer for string quartet who quite dominates the form the way Beethoven does. And conversely, if you are not familiar with the Beethoven string quartets, you really know very little about the string quartet repertoire.

Here is the Budapest String Quartet playing the late quartet in E flat, by Beethoven, op 127:

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