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January 9, 2004

TT: In one ear

One of the peculiarities of being a critic of all the arts is that your relative interest in different art forms inevitably fluctuates over time, sometimes quite sharply. It occurred to me the other day, for instance, that I hadn't turned on the stereo in my living room for several weeks, and as I reflected on that hitherto-unnoticed fact, I realized that I hadn't been to the opera, or to a classical concert, for at least that long. Nor have I been listening to music files on my computer as I write--a near-habitual practice for me. Instead, I've been looking at and thinking about paintings and plays, and I'm about to spend the next couple of months immersed in the ballets of George Balanchine. Music, by contrast, has lost its savor: I'm always happy to listen whenever it crosses my path, but I don't feel any special need to seek it out.

Does this trouble me? Not really. I've lived long enough to know that the rhythms of an aesthetic life run in cycles. Sooner or later, probably sooner, I'll hear a piece by a previously underappreciated composer, or a CD by a new singer whose voice tickles me in all the right places, and suddenly music will resume its place in the spotlight, while another art form retires temporarily to the wings. Most likely my love of music is simply lying fallow, regaining its strength. Back in the Seventies and Eighties, I reviewed classical music and jazz for the Kansas City Star. It was great fun, but it was also a burden, not because of the bad concerts but because of the merely adequate ones--of which there were far more than too many. Once I moved on to the next part of my life, I went for two whole years without going to a concert. It was necessary: I had to clear my ears. And when they were back in working order, I resolved never again to let myself get burned out, on music or anything else. Since then, I've made a point of writing about a steadily widening variety of artistic experiences. Whenever my interest in one art form starts to flag, I simply concentrate on another. That's what's happening now.

And yet...I've spent the better part of my life up to my ears (so to speak) in music of all kinds. After literature, music was my first art form, and it remains the one I know most intimately. I "speak" it as naturally as I speak English. I write a lengthy essay about musical matters nearly every month for Commentary. That's why it feels strange to find the spring no longer flowing. It's as if I've become alienated from myself, in much the same way that the victim of a stroke might feel he was no longer himself. I'm not all here.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, the English novelist, told a friend late in life that she could no longer read Jane Austen with pleasure, not because her admiration for Austen had lessened but because she'd read her novels so many times that she had them virtually by heart, and hence could no longer be surprised by them. When I read that, I wondered: is it really possible to exhaust a masterpiece? Much less an entire art form? I can't imagine being unable to hear anything new in Falstaff or the Mozart G Minor Symphony, though I suppose it could happen. And as for a person who came to feel that music or painting or poetry had nothing more to say to him, he'd be in dire straits indeed. Such a terrible prospect puts me in mind of one of Dr. Johnson's most famous utterances: "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." The arts are like that. To be tired of them is to be tired of life.

Needless to say, I'm not tired of life--far from it--and even though I do seem to be tired of music, I know the time will come when I fall in love with it all over again. Until then, I'll keep in mind Carolyn Leigh's beautiful lyric to one of my favorite songs, "I Walk a Little Faster":

Pretending that we'll meet
Each time I turn a corner,
I walk a little faster.
Pretending life is sweet
‘Cause love's around the corner,
I walk a little faster.

Can't begin to see my future shine as yet,
No sign as yet
You're mine as yet.
Rushing toward a face I can't define as yet,
Keep bumping into walls,
Taking lots of falls.

But even though I meet
At each and every corner
With nothing but disaster,
I set my chin a little higher,
Hope a little longer,
Build a little stronger
Castle in the air,
And thinking you'll be there,
I walk a little faster.

Posted January 9, 2004 12:43 PM

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