Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Against Background Music

Why is there background music? Music should be serious. It can stir the soul, sharpen the mind, provoke the imagination, engage the will. Or: it can sicken the soul, dull the mind, or impede or pollute the imagination. It brings joy, pain--and boredom.

Music is nothing to play with, then; but play with it we do--all the time; it is inescapable, or nearly so. In days or yore, background music in public was limited to elevators; hence, the phrase "elevator music." This mean bland, colorless sounds to perhaps sooth the catastrophic or impatient. One could tolerate this, especially if one was infrequently in elevators.
Now, however, music--uninvited and often quite blaring--is everywhere. This ought not be for at least two reasons.
First, silence helps us recompose our souls and focus our thoughts on some one thing. Music always take up part of our precious--and very limited--consciousness, thus taking something away from other concerns: reading, praying, conversing. If I am trying to curb my fears and rehearse my speech in a doctor's office, I need silence, not distraction or irritation. Yes, I have heard Kenny G these environs.
Second, with the expansion of musical styles available for public broadcast, the odds of one enjoying the invited music are quite low--in my case, the chances of this eventually occurred are vanishingly small, given my esoteric (jazz, of course) tastes. If one has worked to develop one's musically sensibilities, bad music can be acutely painful. It becomes a rude intrusion into one's sensorium.
Of course, many people compensate by engaging in sonic warfare. You isolate and insulate yourself by your own music system: noise-cancelling headphone or ear buds. This will fend off the musical intruders, but it will also make you an island amidst the living. Common space and conversation is attenuated, if not obliterated.
On a recent flight from Atlanta to Denver, I suffered through horrible background music, and insufferably comedic flight attendant, and cramped seating. I turned to talk to the women next to me only to find that the ear buds were in, so the conversation was out.
What can we do about this plague? Not much, I suppose. However, in environments that we control, we can prize silence and good music. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard can be our guides. Nietzsche wrote that life without music would be a mistake; and the melancholic great Dane said ..."create silence."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ellington Band in Anchorage

A Duke Ellington tribute band will be in appearing in Anchorage, Alaska, this week end. From what I read, it looks very good. It is my home town, but I cannot attend, unless someone wants to sponsor me!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Duke's Unique Gift for the Queen

I read in Harvey Cohen's meticulously-researched volume, Duke Ellington's America, that the American Duke met the English Queen in 1958 while he was on tour in the United Kingdom. As was his wont with women, Mr. Ellington was quite captivated by her elegance and regal charms. The queen, however, could not attend any of the band's performances.

Instead of being bitter, angry, or merely disappointed, Ellington wrote a suite for her, "The Queen's Suite," and recorded it with his legendary ensemble. But something was quite different from other compositions and recordings. Duke made but one pressing of the piece and had it sent to Her Majesty. Ellington performed an achingly-beautiful solo piano section of the suite, "The Single Petal of a Rose," on occasion (as he did in London in mid 1960s), but nothing else. The full suite was only released after his death. Then the gift was made available for all to experience.

This event helps mark a remarkable, although very flawed, man, whose sentiments could themselves be quite regal.

What moral or lesson might you draw from this touching vignette?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Comparisons Three

Kenny G is to jazz
What Thomas Kinkade is to painting and
What Barack Obama is to governance.