In a comment on my last post, Steve (he doesn’t give any
last name) writes:
Maybe you’d like to riff on this a bit:
[D]o we really return to experience the music we value in
the hope an expectation of hearing something new each time? On the
contrary, I believe we return because we hear nearly the same thing each time.?
(Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero, 1995, p.164)
I hadn’t known the Burnham book, and I’m grateful to Steve
for telling me about it. Thanks to Google Books, I was able to look up the
context of this passage, and I’ll quote it at length a little later.
But my reaction? I think it’s silly. Especially when I read
the fuller text! There’s an old pop-spiritual adage, “You can’t step in
the same river twice,” and even though this sounds by now like a shallow
cliché, I think it’s right. (I’m sure there are many people who’ve made the
same point in more depth. One of them is C. S. Lewis, who has a charming take
on it in Perelandra, the second volume of his Christian science fiction
We can’t have the same experience twice. Each time we try to
repeat an experience we had before, we add our memories and our expectations.
And the fact of repetition gets added to the experience. We know we’re
repeating it. Often — certainly in classical music — there’s a great comfort
that comes from this. Especially when you’ve got an entire subculture, as we do
in classical music, in which the central act is repetition, performing the same
masterworks over and over. Everyone knows that this is what’s going on, and a
subliminal sense of this becomes as compelling (at least in my view) — as much
a central part of the experience — as whatever we get from the music itself.
One sign of this was something I remember a critic writing
years ago, about how he went to the New York City Opera to “bask” in Le
nozze di Figaro. He feels that way because he’s heard the piece so often,
and knows how much he loves it. He knows what to expect. He wants to repeat a
feeling that can only exist because he’s repeating it.
In everyday life, this is harmless. If I’m flipping channels
and I come across Independence Day, I always watch a few minutes of it,
basking in my favorite parts — Will Smith yelling “alien asshole!”
and, later, flying the alien spaceship and saying, “I gotta get me one of
these.” Or the moment that got such a big laugh in the movie theater when
I first saw the film, the bit where the US president says the Roswell UFO crash
is a myth, and the creepy national security advisor clears his throat, and says
(I’m paraphrasing), “Well, as a matter of fact, Mr. President…”
I love these moments more each time I see them, but I don’t
think there’s anything wrong with that. I spend very few minutes each year
basking in them, and I still see new movies. The problem comes when an entire
art form consists mainly of basking. Now, I know I’m exaggerating — I know
that new works are in fact performed, and that lesser known old music is done
as well. But I think my exaggeration tells more truth than the many pious
statements about “our great art form” that I’ve heard recently from
people in the orchestra world. (Sorry, everyone. But I really think we need to
look at this.)
Besides, even unfamiliar music can make us bask. You can
hear a Haydn symphony you don’t know, and bask in it because you’ve basked in
other Haydn symphonies. You can hear a Zemlinsky piece, and even if you’ve
never heard Zemlinsky before, you can bask in it because you’ve heard Strauss,
Mahler, and Gurrelieder. The classical music business, as we know it
today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we
want, but we shouldn’t confuse this with art.
Compare movies, where we do plenty of basking (me and Independence
Day), but we also see new films — and, most important, these new films can
hit us where we live, because they mesh with the world we live in.
Here’s a fuller Stephen Burnham quote, for those interested.
Why do we keep listening to our favorite musics? This is a
very simple question that has never been answered adequately by the process
model of the musical experience. Do we really return to experience the music we
value in the hope and expectation of hearing something new each time? On the
contrary, I believe we return because we hear nearly the same thing each time,
because the music becomes for us a magical presence we are eager to experience
again. That we are enabled to enjoy an experience repeatedly precisely because
it remains basically the same may seem a paradoxical argument, and
anti-intellectual in the extreme. But the musical experience is no ordinary
experience; I would go so far to suggest that it is closer to the sense of
uncanny presence felt by Hoffmann than it is to the tracking of a coherent
process, however compelling that process may be.
Of what does this presence consist? Sustained engagement is
obviously an important part of such a listening experience, registering as a
sense of involvement that persists, in the case of the heroic style, even when
we start to hear Beethoven’s voice assume a narrator’s distance from the
musical process. As noted in chapter 2, being engaged by the present moment
translates into being faced with a presence. This is the source of the music’s
authority: the presence in Beethoven’s music is simultaneously the uncanny
effect of an actual presence and the engaging effect of being acutely alive to
the present moment–at bottom these are the same. Music performs this merger of
subjective presence and objective presence like nothing else. Thus our
expectation of keeping cumulative track of the musical process and then
reporting on it is epiphenomenal to the idea of our involvement in the present
moment. This is not to deny that any present moment in music takes much of its
meaning from what happened earlier and from a sense of what will happen next.
But the primary experience is one of presence.
This is why we can listen to the music we value so often: it
always brings us to the same place, always invokes the same uncanny presence.
Thus it functions like the unveiling of a Grail whose magic is never
attenuated, no matter how much one analyzes its details. The musical experience
seems to become timeless, because it involves a repeatable sense of place, of
presence. In other words, the thrill of listening to music may be more a matter
of simply being in the world of the piece, being in the presence of the piece.
This is comparable to the pleasure of watching a favorite movie repeatedly. It
is certainly true that we might pick up new details of the unfolding of the
plot with each viewing, but what really keeps us there is the world the movie
creates: we like being there.